July 18, 2019

Words by Joh (@21x29.7) | Edited by Devin Wangert

Joh, who tattoos under the moniker 21x29.7, is a Parisian tattooist who works out of his own private studio. His tattoos take iconic forms, such as the smiley face, and estrange them from their usual significations using compositional and technical strategies. Tattooing now for five years, Joh is creating a body of work that balances massified images with elements of abstraction.

What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Joh. I’m 28 and I was born in Cergy (a suburb of Paris).

Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in Paris’ suburbs. My father is white and my mother is black, so I was surrounded by a mix of cultures since I was born.

Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Since I started tattooing, I’ve been working in my own private studio.

How long have you been tattooing?
I made my first tattoo on myself five years ago, but I feel like I’ve been professionally tattooing for two years now.

What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I’ve always wanted to be a drawer—it was my passion. Tattooing was the only way to sell my drawings and make a living with my passion. So I taught myself how to tattoo during my time at art school.

Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I did not have a formal apprenticeship. When I first started, I moved between painting and tattooing for three years. When I graduated from my school, I wanted to do tattooing more seriously so I stopped painting and immersed myself in tattooing.

Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I studied art for five years in the south of France, concentrating on abstract painting.

Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
I’ve learnt a lot of things during these five years. I’ve come to understand that results and success only come with effort and hard work. I also realize how important it is to work with young artists—to talk with them both to open my mind and create work emulation. The hard critiques from my professors were crucial for me, too.

How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I was interested by the modern classic tattoo—snakes, scorpions, skulls, and so on—but quickly I wanted to do more things with hidden messages. So I started working on the smiley. It’s funny how you can express different things with just a smile. A smile is a smile, something that cheers one up. But if you put it in a context (like a smile in a lollipop), that can be freaky. So the smiley is a big part of my work but I’m still in love with things more classic and realistic, and that influences my work too.

Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I like this question about taking an apprentice. I get emails from young people wishing to do their apprenticeship with me. For somebody who learned everything by himself, it’s complicated for me to take an apprentice. I think I’m still young in this game and I don’t see myself with an apprentice. I’m still open to the idea because I’m somebody who loves sharing, but I think I’m not ready.

What do you look for in a shop?
As a guest in a shop, I look for something simple: good music, good furniture, everything around me that I need to make a good tattoo. In that sense, it’s always more difficult to work outside of your own place. It’s also important that the people working inside the shop are polite.

As a shop owner, I’m looking for something new, something where your customers can feel good and want to come back because of that feeling. I’m looking to create a warm and family-like place, because when you make a team you create a family, and family is the most important thing.

"A smile is a smile, something that cheers one up. But if you put it in a context (like a smile in a lollipop), that can be freaky. So the smiley is a big part of my work but I’m still in love with things more classic and realistic, and that influences my work too."

Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Rap and the NBA are the two things that I’m following the most alongside tattooing.

What inspires you generally?
My inspirations come from everywhere. I can walk in the city and have an idea for a design, or I’m talking with friends and an idea comes. Even with my customers, they give me inspiration—I like to work on something for people and after that I can use a fragment of the idea to make my own things.

Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
I recently started traveling to tattoo. My first trip was to Sang Bleu London one year ago. Since then, I’ve been to Bandit Studio in New York City twice, and many other cities in France. I think it’s beautiful how our work as tattooists can gives us so many good experiences and surround us with love. I’ve met beautiful people, and I can say now that they are friends of mine.

What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think we’ve already been through one of the main challenges of tattooing—democratizing it. We no longer see tattooing as something worn only by gangsters or prisoners. This shift is just the beginning, and as tattoo artists we are all responsible for it. I’m happy to be part of it.

Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Concretely speaking, with social media and an increase in home-made tattoos, we will see more good artists tattooing at home and learning by themselves. The influence of tattoo artists is going to become more extensive and felt in different fields, whether they’re working with brands or creating their own brands. That’s just because we are creators and we have all the tools for that.

You can find more of Joh's work on Instagram (@21x29.7).