Henry Hablak is a Philadelphia-based tattooist who creates figural work inspired by various historical, religious, and mythological referents. Hablak began his career on the precipice of tattooing’s digitalization and subsequent massification—early enough to cognize how much contemporary tattooing has changed from what it was in the ‘90s; prescient enough to produce work today that offers a unique sensibility within a saturated industry. Hablak currently works out of a private studio, Magic Eye Tattoo.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Henry Hablak. I was born in Slovakia—what was then Czechoslovakia—in 1983.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
My parents told the Czech communist government that we were going to vacation in Austria when I was two years old. They went to the American embassy there for asylum and we immigrated to the United States the next year. First we moved to Philadelphia, then to New Jersey suburbs right outside of Philly. My parents worked hard, but we were basically lower middle-class for most of my life. They got divorced when I was pretty young and I hopped around between them, depending on who gave me less supervision. Growing up was kind of weird because we were immigrants, so I didn’t understand a lot of normal shit my friends probably took for granted. I was also bullied a lot because I was always weird and different. In hindsight, I’m glad I had a different perspective growing up, but back then I’m sure I just wanted to be like everyone else and understand the culture around me a little better.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Currently I’m working at a private studio in Philadelphia, Magic Eye Tattoo. I used to travel and tattoo on the road full-time for years. I’ve been all over the country and to regions of Europe. I lived in Atlanta for a while and tattooed at Liberty Tattoo—that’s one of the realest shops left out there; it’s like tattooing in the ‘90s at that place. I doubt many people tattooing these days even knows what that means anymore. I also worked at Olde City Tattoo in Philly—those were the guys I looked up to when I started tattooing. I was always amazed by everything on the walls and every tattoo which came out of that place.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’ll be tattooing for 12 years next February. It doesn’t seem that long, but I’ve been doing this longer than anything else.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I had the itch to learn in my early 20s after I started getting tattooed. I got my first one at 18, but it didn’t click then. I used to live with my buddy who had a half sleeve; I thought that thing was the coolest shit in the world. In Philly, I would go to Philadelphia Eddie’s Tattoo. That place is a tattoo museum. I fell in love with the craft just sitting in there and getting tattooed, staring at the flash and realizing eventually that people could actually do this for a living. It still took a few years after that before I decided to learn, just getting tattooed. My buddy Charlie, who had been tattooing me at Philadelphia Eddie’s, was nice enough to eventually explain the basics. Back then there was no information anywhere, and Charlie taught me how to even go about learning.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
When I learned how to tattoo there were no apprenticeships in Philly. You had to go outside the city. Tattooing was a bit more self-regulated here, even until recently. I don’t know what happened—like I said, different times. I used to take the bus to Camden to apprentice at this place called Spanky’s. If you know anything about Camden, you know that shit is rough. I paid my dues there for a few years and then tattooed at a couple other places in New Jersey for the first three to four years.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I never really studied art. I took a few drawing classes and went to film school for a year but realized early on that most college in this country is just a form of debt slavery. Look at the current generation of kids getting out of school with $100 000 in loans and no jobs out there. What are they supposed to do? Oh yeah, I’ve seen the ads: just become tattooers!
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
I drew my whole life. Once I started my apprenticeship, I developed a kind of understanding about what good tattoos and—more importantly—bad tattoos looked like. From there it was just hard work and practice.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
No social life? I don’t know! I can be pretty introverted. I read a lot; I’m always trying to learn new things. And I have always been drawn to the strange and the unusual. I think that’s what drew me to the occult. I like learning the meanings of things. As an artist, everything around you is basically symbols. I wanted to learn the meanings of all these symbols, and to do that you need to study religion, history, and mythology—which is basically lost history that we no longer understand. I take all that stuff and I try to put it back into my art. There are so many tattooers out there today. Everything looks the same. I’m just trying to put a little of my own voice and meaning into what I’m doing. Honestly, though, I think it’s beyond me—I’m just a conduit for certain symbols at certain times.
"I wanted to learn the meanings of all these symbols [that I was exposed to], and to do that you need to study religion, history, and mythology—which is basically lost history that we no longer understand. I take all that stuff and I try to put it back into my art. There are so many tattooers out there today. Everything looks the same. I’m just trying to put a little of my own voice and meaning into what I’m doing. Honestly, though, I think it’s beyond me—I’m just a conduit for certain symbols at certain times."
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
No apprentices. It’s a joke, some of the people that are teaching others to tattoo. No responsibility or sense of legacy. If you teach someone you should want them to surpass you; that’s what a true master wants. But no, these people that churn out three apprentices every few years who then have apprentices of their own—the blind leading the blind. If my kid wanted to someday maybe, but she better be prepared to work and cry.
What do you look for in a shop?
People that know how to tattoo? Mostly I just go work with friends now.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
I paint a lot. I have a wife and two kids, so I like to spend time with them as well. I wish I had more hobbies sometimes, but I’m working on that.
What inspires you generally?
Lately, I’m intrigued by the possibility of a lost precursor civilization. My studies of ancient art have all lead me to this conclusion. It sounds like a crazy idea to most but the older the art and stories get, the more striking the similarities become. You always need people thinking outside the box to challenge convention—that’s how good art gets made.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I love books. I have a book coming out this year with Atonement Books of all the paintings I did in 2018. I’ve been doing a lot of zines lately as well—should have one coming out this year with a bunch of different tattooers. I also made an A-Z children’s book -inspired zine about alchemy last year that I’m pretty stoked on. I’m doing a second printing of that at the moment.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
I used to travel non-stop. It was more fun when I was younger. With a family you just want to be home more often, but I do take a few trips to tattoo each year. These trips will probably be a bit more frequent as the kids get older.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think staying relevant is the hardest part nowadays. With the Internet, anyone anywhere can copy anything one does without any of the work and research that one put into it. It cheapens and devalues everything. I see people regurgitating the same stuff over and over again which other people have put a lot of hard work and thought behind—it’s sad. At the same time, some of the best work ever is being put out at the moment.
Also, these companies like Instagram give us a voice but we are also at their whims. We are on a razor’s edge at the moment, and I’m curious to see which way tattooing is going to go. Evolving so fast but on the edge of collapse: fun times.