H.B. Nielsen makes monochromatic tattoos that borrow a touch of realism from his creative use of stippling. While one can see inspiration as diverse as 19th century naval imagery and contemporary scientific illustration cohere in his work, Nielsen does not claim the last word on that coherence: “I think I’m all over the place style-wise. I like too many different things and I keep finding new things I get excited about. I draw a lot from traditional American and European tattooing, from fine-line black and gray work, and from folk art, fine art, books, and so on.” His style first developed through practice and “emulation,” situating him both on the delivering and receiving ends of tattooing. “Initially, I just emulated tattooers that I admired. Now, (I hope) it’s something more than that. I consciously try not to look too much at the work of others online—to varying levels of success.” At the same time, Nielsen “took to heart” some important advice given to him: “if you want to tattoo, get tattooed a lot.”
Nielsen was born in 1987 in Gothenburg, Sweden. He grew up in a small coastal town outside of that city. “For as long as I can remember I’ve loved tattoos. I started getting tattooed at 17.” He worked towards and achieved a BA in writing and literature and had ambitions to begin an MFA in poetry. During this period, he began a job and took out extra student loans to keep pace with the increasing speed at which he was getting tattooed. “Despite that, becoming a tattooer never crossed my mind.” That began, he notes, “when I was working door to door selling frozen fish—an odd job where one of my colleagues was someone I kind of knew as a kid. He was trying to learn to tattoo and he ended up giving me one in his apartment. It came out less than amazing, but some kind of lightbulb came on in my head: that was something I could be doing!” After that apartment session, “it was tunnel vision with drawing, painting, and tattooing.” “In short,” Nielsen concludes, “completely the opposite of how you’re supposed to do it.”
Now producing professional tattoos for over seven years, Nielsen has never had an official apprenticeship. In terms of his training, he cites his luck in meeting tattooers, all of whom he considers mentors, early on—“they were kind and helped me a lot when they could have just told me to get out.” Among those tattooers are Joshua Allen, who Nielsen met at Brass City Tattoo in Waterbury, Connecticut. “He was a huge help to me in the beginning; he let me hang around the shop for a whole month. In that time, he told me a lot about machines, how a shop works, and how to draw for tattooing.” Allen is now owner of Bloomfield Tattoo Gallery. One of Nielsen’s first professional jobs was working alongside Frank Rosenkilde at Belair Tattoo in Copenhagen. “Frank taught me everything from making needles to the finer points of Scandinavian tattoo history.” Nielsen also cites Kalle Södergren of Gothenburg’s All Gold Tattoo as an important role model.
In addition to holding residencies at many tattoo studios worldwide, Nielsen is a prolific traveler. “As soon as I was decent enough that shops would have me for guest spots, I started traveling. I’ve gotten to meet and get to know so many great tattooers whose work has informed my own. It’s cool seeing how different people tattoo and draw, especially when they do work that’s not like mine. I remember going to AKA Berlin for the first time, and seeing how Valentin Hirsch stipple shaded a tattoo, and having that ‘ahaa’ feeling. I also remember returning to Sweden and seeing Vinnie Sahlén do a realistic tattoo entirely with a mag.” He continues, “I’m still trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to wrap my head around how it’s done.” Over the last year, Nielsen traveled across the US and tattooed in each city he went to. He details the trip impressionistically, noting that, “spending days and days in a car alone seems to amplify all of your emotions and everything around you. America is vast and gorgeous. Its people and tattooers welcoming and hospitable beyond my imagination.”
Nielsen’s sources of inspiration are numerous. He signals Joseph Bryce, his friend and owner of the Conservancy For Transient Art—out of which the two worked at one point—as another such example after traveling: “Bryce and I have spent a lot of time in museums, browsing bookstores for reference material—we’re equally nerdy and have talked and talked about tattoos and shared different ideas.” He appreciates all media and disciplines to the degree that they “make you feel like the world is a magical place, or make you want to say big things and carry out grand gestures (like getting a tattoo).” Nielsen is currently focused on finding a balance between a “conservative” impulse that has come with his maturation as a tattooer—“the longer I tattoo, the more concerned I am with making something that’s timeless rather than wild”—and avoiding the risks of getting too comfortable, or putting himself “in a box.” He is also attempting to sustain a more empathic relationship with his clients as he designs and executes each tattoo: “I’m trying to remind myself that it’s really more about the person wearing the tattoo than it is about me.”