Tiago de Oliveira is tattooist and co-owner of Heavy Handers Tattoo in Porto, Portugal. De Oliveira’s figural work experiments with different idioms of traditional tattooing, updating a rich iconography with subtle tendencies towards realism.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Tiago de Oliveira. I was born in Porto back in 1988.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I was born and raised in Porto in what we call an “ilha” downtown. An ilha is the name given to a small compound of houses built in the backyard of the big houses in Porto, where the servants used to live back in the day. Rent was dirt cheap and my family didn’t have a lot of money, but I still remember it as an amazing childhood. All the houses had to share a bathroom, located on a shed in the middle of the patio. It was pretty bad showering in the winter time. My grandma still lives there; she’s the only one left over there but she’s not planning on leaving. While I was growing up, my grandad was a huge influence. He was always giving me colored pencils and paper to pass the time while my parents were at work. He was very fond on birds and that’s all that he drew.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I currently work and co-own Heavy Handers Tattoo in Porto along with my girlfriend, Aurora M.P, and my friends Richeler and Seco. We opened the studio in 2015, after we all tattooed at some street shops in town.
How long have you been tattooing?
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I had never thought about tattooing as a career while I was studying—I had the innocent dream of becoming a painter. I needed money at the time and tattooing seemed like a way to put my drawings into a different medium and make some cash. I ordered a kit from China—I don’t recommend this to anyone!—and started tattooing all of my friends in my bedroom. I would make any type of small tattoo: lettering, black and grey, and so on.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
After working for a bit at home, I had an apprenticeship (kind of) with one of the old school tattooers in Porto. It lasted for almost half a year and I basically just watched the owner tattoo. The studio shut down, so I went back to tattooing at home. After a while, I joined some friends that had a small space for a shop and we opened Nervo Tattoo. I worked there for a couple of years before leaving the studio. From there, I ended up in the basement of a friend’s skate shop for a few months. On a rainy day, the basement flooded and we needed to quickly find a solution. That’s how we opened Heavy Handers—where I’m based at the moment—with the goal of creating a welcoming and stress-free tattoo space.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I received an undergraduate degree in painting at the Fine Arts University, and I have always been drawn towards oil and Renaissance paintings. I like taking a pretty realistic approach towards my painting technique, and I feel pretty comfortable doing portraits.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
Drawing and painting definitely influenced my beginnings in tattooing. They made me understand how to create a good composition and how to choose a good color palette. Specifically, when I started making black and grey portraits, having all that background with oil painting helped me feeling more comfortable in my practice.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
When I first started, I made mostly commercial work. I did a bit of new school and neotraditional afterwards, and this lasted for quite a few years. When I met my girlfriend— she’s an encyclopedia of traditional and Japanese tattooing—she made me take a turn for the better and I started playing around with all these traditional references, trying to make them my own. I have gone through a lot of styles within traditional, and the one I’m working with at the moment is the one I feel more comfortable within. My influences can be found in Renaissance painters, vintage postcards, and antique lithographs.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I don’t have any plans to have apprentices as I think I still have a lot to learn myself. I don’t mind giving tips to people, but I don’t think I was made to take somebody under my wing. I never had a proper apprenticeship so I really don’t know how to guide somebody in the trade.
What do you look for in a shop?
I just look for a chill place where my clients and guests can feel comfortable and welcomed. A shop where we can play shitty music and where everybody feels productive.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Mainly skateboarding, movies, painting, and traveling. I have really bad insomnia, so I have plenty of time after work to make all these things.
What inspires you generally?
People that I work with and also people that I meet on the way. When I travel for guest spots or just for the sake of it, I always come back more motivated and inspired.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling is very important to me. I love working abroad so I can spend time with other tattooers and learn from them. I travel a lot to Belgium, where I work at Heart of Oak in Antwerp. I want to guest in Italy and the US soon and I will definitely return to True Love Tattoo in Madrid—one of the most inspiring studios that I have ever been to. I also recently went to Japan. It’s an incredibly inspiring country and I have very fond memories from my first trip. One of the most overwhelming experiences over there was climbing the Inari temple at sunset and getting lost on the way down. I also love Italy; the first time I visited Rome it was extremely inspiring due to the kind of references that I use for my work. I had the chance to see all these works of art from my textbooks in real life, and it was definitely a humbling experience.
"I joined some friends that had a small space for a shop and we opened Nervo Tattoo. I worked there for a couple of years before leaving the studio. From there, I ended up in the basement of a friend’s skate shop for a few months. On a rainy day, the basement flooded and we needed to quickly find a solution. That’s how we opened Heavy Handers—where I’m based at the moment—with the goal of creating a welcoming and stress-free tattoo space."
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think that the main challenge of tattooing today is the fact that it has turned into a fashionable thing, and that’s watering the trade down. This means that tattooers have a lot more work, but unfortunately you can also see that people don’t value the trade as much; they just want you to make the work fast and quiet and don’t value the experience. There’s also a lot of unhealthy competition and ego clashes, which doesn’t help at all.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Ideally, everybody would be more concerned about creating good work and trying to leave a legacy for the future—I know this sounds corny. I don’t know if social media are the way to go, but unfortunately they play an important role in society today and it seems that the more followers you get, the more value you have. Everything revolves around this fact nowadays, and all I hope is that people will take their eyes off their screens and start trying to make the best work that they can.
You can find more of Tiago de Oliveira's work on Instagram (@dongekotattooer).