What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
I’m Cokney. I was born in France in 1985.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
My parents were working in theater: my father as an actor and my mom on stage, techniques, and lighting. Due to the activity of my parents, I traveled a lot in my childhood—sometimes for months. Our base was Paris most of the time.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Most of the time I work in Paris at Hand In Glove Tattoo Shop. I also do guest spots in different shops, like a lot of tattooers now. Before I became a resident at Hand in Glove (in 2011), I was traveling around Europe to tattoo because I wasn’t interested in tattooing at any of the Paris shops. I was going to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Marseille, and the Balkans a lot. I also worked in the NYC tattoo scene (which I came to from graffiti art).
How long have you been tattooing?
I think it’s 11 or 12 years now.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and in what style did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I start tattooing pretty young because I was a skinhead, and everyone around me was full of tattoos. I have to say, I had no clue how to become a tattoo artist, but because, in the crew, I was the one who drew, people around me pushed me to do it. One older guy had some tattoo equipment and let me try. It was fun, and I immediately had a long list of young skinhead clientele without money to buy professional tattoos. I didn't get any formal instruction, but I did get some help from FABA, an old rocker from Paris. I didn't have a style, but due to my clientele it was mostly spider webs, roses, daggers, brass knuckles, lettering, and some (leftist) political tattoos.
Describe the circumstances under which you learned how to tattoo.
I learned almost everything alone. It was impossible, with my personality, to go through an apprenticeship. I can’t follow any orders. I made clean tattoos relatively quick, but alone it took me ages to learn more about tattooing—things like packing good color, packing greywash, needle specifications, technical differences between machines, etc. But the worst was my understanding of tattoo culture: apart from skinhead tattoo culture, I knew nothing and nobody. Of course I knew Tin-Tin and Filip Leu, but it was far too ‘next level’ for me. I was really bad at using the Internet and against social media due to my anarchist engagements. So it was hard for me to open my mind, drawing, and style to new things. The big change happened when I moved to NYC. I got the chance to be in contact with the variety of tattoo practices that coexist in the United States.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I studied metal handcraft. We had some drawing classes as part of that, but my taste developed more from the graffiti or the punk flyers that I used to design.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I don't think I have a style. I like almost everything in tattooing. I learned to draw in a similar way to how I learned to tattoo; for years I did every kind of design, so I got influenced by a lot of different styles and fashions in tattooing. Some people began tattooing with strong drawn designs, which they’d then reproduce on people’s skin without it making any difference that it was now on a body rather than on paper. I began the opposite way, learning drawing and composition by working directly on the skin. My way of drawing is definitely more influenced by Japanese styles than by others. These influences are not found so much in the subject matter as in my style of lines and compositions—using flat perspective, for example. I realize now that I’m more focused on organic subjects, like animals, flowers, skulls, monsters, biomech, and everything that allows me more freedom in my lines. I like to tattoo in color and in black and grey. Throughout the years, I’ve just focused on creating strong work—not work that only looks good the day it is applied but ends up looking wicked in a few years.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
We have an apprentice at the shop. This is a big subject for me. We face a time in tattooing where it’s really easy to become a tattoo artist and promote your work by yourself. What is the place of an apprentice in this situation? What does it mean to pursue an apprenticeship—with all of the sacrifices it entails—when there are kids tattooing everywhere, working and having fun? Mostly for that reason, and because of how our society has evolved, most apprentices want results too fast; they end up thinking more about being with good artists and having a good time, without working hard on developing a foundation for their practices. I like to share and to teach others, but I’m more interested in making a good tattooer and a nice person, rather than a great artist who ends up being a complete asshole. Everyone wants to be a rockstar in the tattoo world.
What do you look for in a shop?
Now everyone wants to open his own shop, or open a private shop. There's too much individualism. I’m more interested in tattoo shops that serve as a place where tattoo artists can meet, share, and work together. I’m always so stoked to see shops like Kings Avenue, for example, where every artist is good enough and experienced enough to have his own shop, but they still prefer to work together, share, and invite new people to come into the shop. I think it’s what a tattoo shop is ideally—something that inspires clients and other artists.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
I do a lot of climbing, alpinisme, cycling, and motorcycling. I also work on art projects that are not linked with tattooing.
Could you say more about your other art practices? Describe some of your recent work.
I’ve had two big criminal cases from graffiti. After my first major case, I made an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo about the police file. I wanted to show how it could be an artwork itself. It was also a good optic for me to show an institutional history of graffiti, and to show what graffiti looked like in an institutional context.
The second case was mostly due to this first case and the exhibition that followed: the cops were mad that I showed the police file at a big museum and later made a book about it. Politically, they didn’t like it that I had the exhibition so they manufactured evidence—saying I painted this or that train—to create a second case and intensify the allegations from the first case. They did that to block me. Because justice is so slow in France and the police often build convoluted cases, usually one wins these cases, but it takes a long time for them to go to trial and during that time you’re kinda’ fucked. So currently I have to stay in France, where I’ve been on probation for three years because of this second case. Faced with a situation where I am no longer able graffiti without violating my probation and jeopardizing the defense of my second case, I decided to explore different ways of living, different lifestyles. I wanted to find other things that gave me an adrenaline rush and made me feel like I was part of a mission—things I’d found in graffiti. I got really interested in mountain climbing.
I like mountain climbing because it is a totally different lifestyle with many of the same elements I find in graffiti—exploration, adrenaline, being part of a mission. More, in both you’re exploring places you’re not welcome. If you’re not welcome in a train yard then you’re definitely not welcome on high mountains. It’s not a chill place to be for a long time!
The exhibition is about building a link between two different worlds: the underground world of train painting and the high world of high mountains. I asked myself, “how you can link these two different worlds that look like opposites?” In the end, the humans exploring these places or playing games in them can connect them. I wanted to explore how I could talk about mountains with graffiti and graffiti with mountains. I use a lot of different media because the gallery is quite big. One room is about the arrest. It has a big watercolor of a police dog. I put this next to photographs of security guards that I shot with a telephoto lens—so there’s this watercolor painting of a dog with this spy photo of security guards put together. With this I put some photocopies of my criminal record, images taken from a CCTV camera that show me running into a train yard. I also showed these images when I did the opening of my book at Sang Bleu London. It also had an opening in Paris. That was in 2015.
Where can we find your work online? What are your usernames on social media?
I closed my website for the moment, so for now I can only be found on Instagram (@cokney).
I also have another account by my real name (@fabriceyencko), where I share more about my artistic projects, photography, and lifestyle.
Is traveling important to your work as a tattooist? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling has always been important because I started tattooing like that, but I didn't travel because of tattooing. It’s strange because I slowed down on traveling for work when I started working at Hand In Glove six years ago. During that time, Instagram arrived and helped a lot of tattooers secure guest spots and clients when they travel, pushing people to travel even more. Traveling before Instagram was different: you’d arrive in a new shop and it’d be something special; people wanted to help, share, and spend time together. I feel that now, since so many tattooers travel, when you arrive in a shop you are one of a multitude of guests. Even when we have guests at the shop, it’s hard to give the same attention to everyone because we have new guests almost every week. That why now I like going to places I already know. In a few months, I’m gonna’ move from Paris to begin traveling again, now that my legal problem are (almost) over. I will also be in Zurich a lot.
You've mentioned that you think too much individualization can be detrimental to the development of tattoo culture. This is an interesting and counterintuitive comment given the degree to which assertions of individuality are celebrated (and almost demanded) in the arts industries. What, in your view, is the place individualization in the tattoo community?
With social media it’s really easy to put your work out. I like it for those reasons. Everybody does their own promotion. One of the consequences of this is that you don’t need to be connected to other people in order to learn, or to get customers, etc. You can do most of this by yourself—by posting nice photos with the right hashtags, or whatever. I feel that the practice becomes more narcissistic—something that’s not only limited to tattooing. You want your work to become famous, have whatever amount of followers. People care more about this than pushing tattoo culture in general, something that was formerly done with other people or in groups.
I really see how easy it has become to learn tattooing and get customers through the Internet. You don’t need to meet potential customers in real life before tattooing them, like in a bar or in a shop. You aren’t able to learn firsthand from other tattooers in a shop environment. You can work and make money solely through Instagram. You can get machines, needles, and techniques from the Internet. So I think that now tattooing will tend towards a lot of little, isolated individuals.
You can see an alternative to what I’m talking about when a bunch of established tattooers open a shop together. Or you can see this in art practices existing prior to social media: before a group of artists worked together because they had the same mentality or the same idea about what art should be. Likewise, tattooers opened a shop together because they had converging ideas about tattooing. Now people work by themselves and solely push their own work.
I have conversations with people now who say, “why am I going to work in a tattoo shop only to give 30% of my profits to the shop just for a massage bed?” For me, if you give the 40% (or whatever %) it’s not for the bed; it’s for everything that’s around—the people you meet and spend your time with, for example. Of course, it’s also for supplies and customers, but what’s more important is to be a part of something.
I think of big tattoo shops like Rock of Ages where every single person in the shop has been tattooing for a minimum of 15 years—and yet they all still work together. They don’t want to each open a shop themselves and be alone in their little worlds. Every one of them could be the owner of a shop but they don’t want that, because they know that together they form a group that has more power and creativity than any one alone. And they can keep learning from each other: “Oh, maybe we can do a sketchbook of the tattoo shop. Oh, you did that this way? Maybe I’ll try that.”
I think the positive elements of social media are reflected in the work itself. People want to explore different ways of doing things, ways of tattooing, ways of drawing. Because everyone wants to be special and have his own style, everyone tries to do something different from the guy next to him. I’m exaggerating, but sometimes it feels like that. I think it makes people work and it motivates them to constantly do things differently, so that they remain outside of the group. The positive aspect of this is that people don’t remain on the same level; they constantly experiment with different stuff.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think I could write you 10 pages on this question alone—we can do a book about it if you want!
My girlfriend, who’s more pragmatic, tells me: "let everyone do what they want to." Me, I just hope some people will keep pushing tattoo culture through big tattoo shops, magazines, books, and exhibitions. I hope the individualism I discussed earlier won’t take over tattoo culture. I wish young tattooers would have more respect for older people who are important influences even if one is not working in the same style or with the same methods. We all came to tattooing because of someone before us. I wish older people would be more accepting of the new generation of tattooers, understanding that tattooing will evolve anyway, in one way or another.
Cokney's new exhibition, LES CONQUÉRANTS DE L'INUTILE, opens on December 2nd, 2017 at Galerie Rabouan Moussion in Paris, France.