“Your paintings look like tattoo designs. I’ve seen similar designs on Ink Master,” I told a painter who was hanging his artwork for an exhibition at Unobvious Lab, a co-working space and art gallery in Lisbon, right in front of the National Museum of Ancient Art. “I’m actually a tattoo artist,” he said, introducing himself as Danilo Rocco from Brazil.
“You’re the first tattoo artist I’ve met in person,” I added, telling him that I don’t have any tattoos but find the world of tattooing very fascinating.
Tattoos indeed pique my curiosity and interest.
Time and again I’ve found myself staring at beautifully sophisticated or elegantly simple tattoos and admiring the artistry that goes into creating such masterpieces. From time to time, I’ve also caught myself rolling my eyes at people with what I consider “bad” tattoo choices or full-body tattoos.
And while I appreciate the beauty of well-done inks, I don’t “get” tattoo enthusiasts. I know this is due in part to my inadequate understanding of this art and limited interaction with people who are passionate about tattoos.
That’s why I asked Danilo–who I think is a creative, modest, and professional tattoo artist with a strong sense of integrity–if he’d like to share his knowledge and experience in an interview, and he kindly agreed.
A few days later, after he’d taken down his unique and bold paintings, we sat down and talked about his art, his favorite tattoo and tattoo artists, tattoo regrets, first tattoo tips, facts and misconceptions about tattoos, the most tattooed man in the world, his advice for aspiring tattoo artists, why he refuses to tattoo couples’ names, celebrity tattoo artist Dr. Woo, Thomas Edison’s electric pen, and his recent foray into painting.
Our conversation about tattooing gave me new insights into how this art is much more than just an art and how it can boost people’s self-confidence and body image and help with healing after a loss and coping with depression and anxiety.
I now have more respect and understanding for this art and tattoo artists, as well as for those who see tattoos as a way to express themselves, celebrate their bodies and individuality, honor loved ones, or heal their souls and move forward in life. Enjoy!
1- How did you become a tattoo artist, Danilo?
I studied graphic design at college in my early 20s and was very interested in monochrome drawings. One of my best friends told me at the time that my designs looked a lot like tattoos. I’d never thought of becoming a tattoo artist, but he asked me to try.
He then talked to four other friends and said, “Let’s pool money together to buy all the equipment.” And then a funny thing happened. He was supposed to start a private Facebook group for this purpose, but accidentally made it public.
So some people, including childhood friends and people from the city where I was born, supported us financially. The next day my friend called me and said we got more money than we wanted. That was such a pleasant surprise. We bought a tattoo machine, and that was the beginning.
2- When was it?
I started in 2014 and spent the first year experimenting. Then around 2015 I started doing it more professionally.
3- What do you like most about tattooing?
I like the fact that tattooing has a long history. It’s been practiced all over the world, especially in Japan, for thousands of years.
Also, what I like about tattooing is that I have the opportunity to meet and learn from different people, including very creative people who always inspire me with new ideas and designs. Human interaction is actually my favorite part about this job. Sometimes it’s tough, but I love it.
4- Do you remember the first tattoo you did for someone?
Yes, of course. It was a little bottle with a wave in it. I did it for a friend in Brazil who’s still one of my best friends. It wasn’t done very professionally because I was still an amateur, but it was a very special day.
5- What was the first tattoo you got?
It was around 2014 when I got the word “family” in Italian tattooed on my chest in a kitchen by a friend who also wanted to be a tattoo artist.
6- How did it feel to get a tattoo for the first time?
The design isn’t “perfect”, but it was a special moment and an experience that I’ll always remember. I don’t think I have another tattoo that means as much to me as this one.
7- Is there such a thing as a “perfect” tattoo?
I’m a “perfectionist” myself, but I think it’s almost impossible to create a tattoo that’s 100% perfect. Tattoo artists are more like “artisans” who create something unique with their hands, and imperfection will always be a part of an artisan’s work. And that’s beautiful because it reflects the human touch involved in the process.
8- What will your next tattoo be?
I don’t have a specific design in mind yet, but I think it’ll be inspired by my favorite European tattoo artists.
9- Do you prefer black or colored tattoos? And why?
100% black tattoos. Black tattoos look more natural, blend in with the body better, and work on almost all skin types and tones. But of course, this is a personal preference. The other point is that black ink comes from nature. In some areas of Brazil, for example, it’s made from ash.
10- Your favorite tattoo style?
I don’t have a name for my style because it’s a combination of different styles, but I can describe it as black tattooing with solid, legible, and clean designs. I especially like designs that blend in with the anatomy of the body.
11- Your favorite tattoo artists?
Don Ed Hardy, Inaki Aires, Mendoza Futuro, and Takuma Kitagawa. I can list at least 15 more!
12-What do you think makes your work as a tattoo artist different?
I believe that I can make tattoos look authentic.
13- What should people consider before getting their first tattoo?
I’d say it’s better to choose a small, simple tattoo for the first time, especially to get a feel of the pain. For some people tattoos are painful, while others feel less pain. This is very personal.
Also, it’s good to choose a tattoo that means something to you, not something that’s trendy now and won’t be cool in five years. This reduces the likelihood that you’ll regret it, which is especially important for your first tattoo.
14- Have you ever regretted a tattoo yourself?
No, I actually haven’t. There are a few tattoos that aren’t my favorites, but I don’t regret any of them. And you can always do a cover-up or a blastover.
15- What’s the difference between a cover-up and a blastover?
A cover-up tattoo is a design that’s tattooed over an existing tattoo so that the old tattoo is no longer visible.
A blastover tattoo doesn’t completely cover an existing tattoo. With a blastover, you can still see parts of the old tattoo under the new design. A blastover preserves the story behind the old tattoo and lets it interact with the new tattoo.
16- Your message to those who have tattoo regrets?
That’s a tough question. I’d say they can cover it up with something new or have it removed with a laser. Or they can try to look at it from a new perspective.
17- The best spot for a first tattoo?
That’s very personal. But I’d say arms or legs because it’s less painful to get a tattoo there. Also, it’s good to choose a place where you won’t see the tattoo all the time, like the back of your arm. This way you’ll feel more comfortable getting tattooed.
18- What’s the tattooing process like? What do you talk about with your clients before their appointment?
Most of the time, people write to me on Instagram or WhatsApp. I ask them three main questions: What design idea do you have in mind? Where do you want it to be placed? And what size do you want it to be?
Sometimes they also send me visual references, and I give them my opinion on where it would fit better, how we can improve the design, and things like that. I give my clients two designs to choose from when they come in.
19- What time of day do you like to tattoo the most?
In the morning.
20- Why in the morning?
In the morning I can fully concentrate and give it my all. I always feel like I have to be fully present while tattooing because the tattoo will be on the client’s body almost forever.
21- What has been your longest tattoo session?
It lasted about eight to nine hours with a few short breaks in between. That was at the beginning of my journey as a tattoo artist.
22- Do you think you’d do it again?
I don’t think I’d do it again, but it was a good opportunity at the time to practice tattooing something big. It was a snake with scales all over my friend’s arm that required so much attention to detail.
23- Do you recommend that people bring a buddy to their tattoo appointment?
No. I always recommend that my clients come alone unless they’re very young.
24- Why don’t you recommend it?
The reason is that in most cases the client knows exactly what they want, and someone else’s opinion, who’s not an expert, about the design, size, or placement can be distracting and negatively impact the process.
Also, the person getting a tattoo is already tense, and the presence of a third person can make them even more nervous. And for the person accompanying the client, it’s usually just a long wait, as some sessions last for hours.
25- What if people bring someone who’s “cool”?
It’s fine if you bring someone you’re sure is “cool” and won’t interfere with the process. For example, one of my clients came with her grandmother and the session went very well.
26- What role does trust play in tattooing?
It’s very important. If you trust me and give me enough freedom, I can get the best possible result.
27- Are there any particular clients you don’t tattoo?
I don’t tattoo pregnant or breastfeeding women. And I don’t tattoo couples’ names because there’s a risk you’ll regret it later. I don’t want to be involved in that.
I also don’t tattoo someone’s hands, face, or neck if they don’t have any other tattoos. I don’t see the point of having a tattoo in such visible places if you don’t have any other tattoos.
I also refuse to tattoo anyone under the age of 18. I did it a few times a long time ago, but those were special cases where, for example, the design was pretty simple and small or they came with their parents.
28- Do you ever judge your clients’ tattoo choices?
Sometimes I’m asked to do tattoos that I know aren’t the best choice. In such cases, I try to find a way to tell them in a respectful way that it can be improved and give them my feedback.
29- What are the biggest misconceptions about tattoos?
Things have changed a lot in the last few years and people are more informed about tattoos thanks to social media and tattoo shows on TV. But there are still people who look down on tattooed people, especially in certain countries. The reality is that tattoos are a form of art and an expression of creativity.
30- As we just discussed, some people, myself included, tend to judge people with tattoos. What do you have to say about that?
Judging people because of their decision to get tattoos is the same as judging them based on the color of their skin, their sexuality, their gender, etc. That’s why it’s good to be open-minded, try not to judge, and show understanding. I’ve tattooed so many professional, respectable clients, including doctors and lawyers.
31- What separates a good tattoo artist from a great tattoo artist?
Constantly learning, practicing, and improving your work. You also need to learn how to deal with people professionally, respect your clients, and create an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome. Also, a great artist gives 100% of themselves in what they do.
32- What have you learned the most from tattooing?
Patience. Creativity. Respect. The need to learn how to improve your work and deal with people. And finding the balance between what I want as a tattoo artist and what the client wants.
33- A special moment in your career?
All the moments early in my career when my best friends and even some strangers saw the potential in me and helped me grow. These people trusted me, taught me the basics of tattooing, and instilled respect for the art of tattooing in me.
34- Any advice for aspiring tattoo artists?
Practice every day. If you don’t practice, it’s easy to forget what you know, and your hand will shake the next time you do a tattoo after not practicing for a while.
35- Do you think tattoo removal will become easier in the future?
Yes. I think the day will come, probably in 20 years or so, when something like a cream will be invented for this purpose.
36- It’s said that black tattoos are the easiest to remove. Is that true?
Yes, it’s true.
37- Why is that?
Experts say that black tattoos are the easiest to remove because the laser can target the black pigment more precisely.
38- Did you know that the first tattoo machine was inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen?
39- How do you think tattooing has evolved in recent years?
Tattooing has become more accessible and affordable thanks to technology, and the perception of tattoos has changed for the better.
40- Did you know that “tattoo” is one of the most misspelled words in the English language?
Really? I didn’t know that.
41- What’s a tattoo vending machine?
As far as I know, it’s a vending machine that works like this: Customers pay an amount (around $50 or $100) and get a token. Then they put it in the machine, spin it, and get a random design that will be permanently tattooed on their skin.
42- Dr. Woo?
Realistic designs. Mainstream.
43- Bang Bang Tattoo?
Mainstream. Commercial. Realistic designs.
44- Lucky Diamond Rich, the most tattooed man in the world?
45- Can tattoo artists tattoo themselves?
Yes. But it’s not very easy.
46- Have you ever tattooed yourself?
Yes, I’ve tattooed myself! It’s a common practice among tattoo artists, especially early in their careers.
47- Is tattoo ink toxic to the body?
Not all ink is made of all-natural ingredients, but there’s still much to be discovered and researched on this topic. Some studies show that a tattoo can boost your body’s immune system. What’s clear is that different bodies react differently to tattoos. You should choose what you think is best for you.
48- Your favorite tattoo?
The tattoo on my forearm.
49- Why is it so special to you?
A good friend from Japan did it for me. He’s one of the best people I’ve met in my life. So it’s an honor. The design doesn’t symbolize anything, but I like the fact that it’s integrated into the anatomy of my body.
50- The most important soft skills every tattoo artist should have?
Communication skills and respectful interaction.
51- The soft skill that has helped you the most in your career as an artist?
The soft skill that has helped me the most in my career is my ability to interact well with people.
52- Are there robot tattoo machines?
Yes, there are. But it’s unlikely that they’ll completely replace human tattoo artists. It’s just not the same.
53- It’s said that tattoos can be therapeutic for depression and anxiety, especially after a loss. Do you think that’s true?
I know from personal experience that it’s true. When you get a tattoo, the first thing you have to do is take care of it and nourish yourself properly so your skin can heal. That basically means you take care of yourself more. Also, when people can handle the pain of getting a tattoo, they feel like they can handle almost anything else.
And there are people who are searching for an identity or want to celebrate something in life. Tattoos help a lot with that. Another important point is that tattoos can improve self-confidence and body image.
I’ve heard from many people that they didn’t like their legs, for example, but started to like them after they got nice tattoos. Or that some people didn’t want to take off their shirt because they didn’t feel comfortable in their skin, but that changed after they got a tattoo.
54- What’s the best way to take care of tattoos?
Keep the tattoo completely covered with plastic wrap for 48 hours to protect it while it heals. You should change the plastic wrap throughout the day. Don’t expose the tattoo to the sun or water for at least two weeks. So no beach, no swimming pool. I also recommend applying an antiseptic cream to the tattoos. It’s a good idea to ask your tattoo artist how to best take care of your tattoos.
55- I sometimes wonder why people go for permanent tattoos and not temporary ones? I mean stickers. Do you have an opinion on that?
I think a permanent tattoo feels very different.
56- What’s your dream as an artist?
I just want to make more people happy with what I do.
57- Three characteristics of a good tattoo?
Clean. Legible. Balanced.
58- What’s a vegan-friendly tattoo?
Vegan tattoos don’t have animal products involved in any part of the tattooing experience.
59- Do vegan tattoos fade faster?
It depends on the quality of the ink.
60- An interesting fact about tattoos that many people don’t know?
That there’s a long history behind them. In 2019, for example, the “world’s oldest” complete tattoo kit was discovered. It’s 2,700 years old, and its tools are made from human bones.
61- Ink Master?
Tattoo TV shows have changed the perception of tattoos for the better, and you can get inspired by the designs you see. However, many tattoo artists don’t like such competitions, mainly because it’s not right to rush a tattoo or do a tattoo under pressure. And sometimes there’s a lot of drama in such TV shows. I like Miami Ink better and prefer collaboration to competition.
62- A piece of art you’ve always wanted to create but haven’t yet?
63- What will it look like?
I don’t know yet what it’ll look like. It’ll take shape in the process.
64- How have your travels influenced your career as an artist?
Knowing more about other cultures and interacting with people, especially artists, from other countries has inspired me and made me a more understanding person. It’s also taught me so many new things.
65- If you could describe your art in one word, what would it be?
66- Why did you decide to start painting?
I always wanted to explore painting because I mainly do black tattoos and only work with colors during graphic design projects.
Painting allows me to work with colors and is a new medium for me to express myself and experiment with new ideas. Painting helps me become a better tattoo artist and vice versa. Switching between the two helps me a lot creatively.
68- The best thing about being an artist?
Freedom and self-expression.
69- The challenge?
70- Any parting thoughts, Danilo?
I’d like to encourage people to leave their comfort zone. I was in a stable situation in Brazil but decided to move to Portugal. It was a turning point in my career, mainly because I had the opportunity to display my work at the painting exhibition at Unobvious Lab, where I met many new people.
That gave me the confidence to experiment with new ideas. This is a new step. I feel like I’m starting a new journey, and I’m excited to see where it takes me next.
Author bio: Elham P.Mohammadi is a journalist and the founder of ElhamX Media.