Jeroen Franken is a tattooer whose many global adventures have heavily influenced his tattooing career. Since first learning in the depths of the jungle in Borneo, Franken has since owned several private studios and currently owns and works at Seven Seas Atelier with his wife Kim Anh. He continues to adorn bodies in heavy blackwork–abstract patterning developed throughout his exposure to an array of cultures and tattoo masters over the years.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Jeroen Franken. I was born in 1970 in the city of Terneuzen in the most south-eastern part of the Netherlands. I was ‘pulled out of the clay’ as the local saying goes.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
Being born in the main city of the province, my first five or six years were spent in the suburbs, before my parents bought a small plot of land with a house in a little place called Three Roads (Driewegen). The name stems from three dikes converging right on that spot and subsequently there are three roads. There are about 45 houses and a little over 120 people living there. When we lived there the place still had a blacksmith and a carpenter. There was lots of farmland around, so every Spring we got to see food grow and farmers working all hours of the day and night. During harvest times we usually ended up helping the farmers as lots of work was still done by hand. My parents were striving to be mostly self-sufficient, so we had a big vegetable garden, livestock for their produce and wool, and fruit trees. We also built our own house after tearing down the old one. So, lots of work and play when growing up.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Currently I work at Seven Seas Atelier. This is a private home-based studio that I own together with my wife, Kim Anh. Before this, I had a private studio in Eindhoven for five years, after co-owning a private studio in the city of Tilburg with my colleague Darko for five years.
Through the years I have traveled the world and worked in many studios abroad as well as in the Netherlands, with an array of people from tattooers, to carvers, to artists.
How long have you been tattooing?
The first time I pricked ink into skin was February 1996, in the jungle of Borneo.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
The indelible nature of the medium always amazed me since a young age; and to this day and age it still does. In my teens, I was drawing on mine and my friend’s shoes, t-shirts, and jackets. Besides skulls, the shapes were always of the abstract kind. Then I picked up a Savage Tattoo magazine in the early 90’s and saw some tattoos from Leo Zulueta. That opened up a door for me big time. Inspired by his tattoos, I started drawing similar shapes.
At the time I was a student, so in addition to my work for school I was drawing till the early hours. After wondering how things would look on skin, I started drawing on my own legs, which got me thinking about the conjunction of shape and anatomy.
After a couple of months, I was wondering what it was that I was drawing–I started to look at cultures that had abstracted patterns tattooed. Soon after, I felt I had to travel to see and experience these cultures. I started saving up and combined my first designated tattoo-travel with my schooling. During this time, I also met Henk Schiffmacher, who had a good library; he swamped me with books, knowing that I wanted to travel to Borneo.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
My first learning experience of actual tattooing was in the jungle of Borneo. This guy named Mari Adi asked me if he could see my sketchbook. Handing the book over to him, I saw him going back to the same drawing over and over. It was a hand holding a banner that came out of a flower. “Can you draw this on my arm for me?” he asked. I drew it up on his arm and next thing you know he asks me to tattoo it for him. Feeling extremely honored to be asked but not knowing how, I told him I couldn’t. After asking numerous times, Mari Adi walked off to the end of the Ruai and some of his friends followed, only to return soon after. I followed them to see what was going on, and saw them making a rotary from a Walkman. In about an hour or so there it was, a tattoo machine up and running; with sewing needles hanging out of several cm’s of a bic pen tube.
So, Mari Adi asked me again and again I declined. Instead, one of his friends started to tattoo him. Watching him race up and down the same line several times, to create an intertwining mess of lines, I thought–maybe I should give it a go. Pretty much the only thing I knew was that you have to stretch the skin and draw a line in one go. As soon as I had the machine in my hand all the guys lined up to get tattooed. After telling them I would only do their own style on them, they all left except one. He wanted a full back piece.
Coming back home, I was given a chance to tattoo out of a shop owned by Floor in Breda. He gave me a tattoo machine which had been laying in water for some time–the wires were broken, frame rusted etc. That evening I took it all apart, sanded the frame, unwrapped the coils, and took three windings off so I could re-solder them. He copied a wiring diagram for me from Huck Spaulding’s Tattooing A to Z. The following day I was at the studio well ahead of opening, curious to hook it up to a power pack. At the end that day he gave me a seat to work at his shop.
In the coming winter, he had to let me go, as the shops clientele would usually diminish. After a winter tattooing some people in my humble one room apartment, and some detours, I landed a professional apprenticeship at the original Hanky Pankys in September 1997. I started under the watchful eye of Captain Caveman. Henk would occasionally come in and bust out a tattoo or two–he’d sketch just three lines, start to tattoo, and an hour later there would be a half sleeve all done. It was amazing to see.
One canal over from the shop there was the tattoo museum, owned and curated by Henk Schiffmacher. Ronny Ackers was guesting there once and started this clipper on Tycho, who was also apprenticing at that time. Ronny didn’t even draw anything, he just started straight with the needle. Others that came through were of the same caliber; Paulo Sulu’ape, Gordon Toi Hatfield, Inia Taylor–all people that were willing to share and educate. It was a magical time.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I surely was institutionalized studying graphic design for five years at St. Joost Academy in the city of Breda in the Netherlands. I actually graduated from that schooling with a thesis and project on the tattoos of the Iban from Borneo after having specifically travelled there for the matter.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
Traveling, watching, listening, reading, drawing, tattooing, painting and thinking–in no particular order. I’d describe my style as sometimes more lines than other times, with bits or bigger bits filled in black. The whole world and beyond influences me.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
No, I never had a true apprentice. I did try to help out two friends during the years. In the end, one can only guide another, but ultimately, they will have to help themselves. If the right person comes along I would consider engaging in an apprenticeship. Discipline, humbleness, observation, and listening are key factors for this I believe. But honestly, I have no real interest for an apprentice.
What do you look for in a shop?
The right work ethic on a multitude of levels. Since these levels seem to differ greatly from studio to studio, I prefer to leave it at this.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Since I was six I have been riding mopeds that were later replaced by motorbikes. These days I ride enduro in nature. I also race liter bikes on the racetrack and ride the NK Supersport 1000 championship. When you ride you clear your head and open your mind to a different world. It also helps with maintaining focus, agility, and overall fitness–which helps counteract the static posture of tattooing all day. To stay fit for these sports I also do an array of exercise.
What inspires you generally?
In essence it would be nature, those things god created.
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 sure an integral part of my living. At a young age, we started traveling with my parents. In my teens, my parents moved for my Dad’s work to the Middle East. I loved it there, the desert is such an amazing place, full of life. It was in these years that abstracted patterns started to intrigue me more than realism. I think it was the desert that helped me in this sense; the vast aridness, the magnitude of loneliness, the extreme balance of life and death. It was as if there was no color when blinded by the sun, but at the same time full of color when darkness would descend.
I used to travel a lot in the first years of my tattoo career. I kept going back to places such as New Zealand, Borneo, and Malaysia. Places like the Marquesas Islands, Easter Islands, Sulawesi, and Samoa are also branded in my memory. I’ll never forget being in Fiji, drinking rum with two locals, enjoying stories on the beach, and ending up drinking kava at their dad’s house with all the elders.
These days I like to travel to botanical gardens with my wife–pretty much going back to the ‘roots’ of many shapes in regards to the language of design.
Probably the most interesting experience I had abroad was in Borneo on the Sekerang river. A captain, caveman, and me, were walking to a longhouse to attend the funeral of a Tai Rumah (chief). I picked up this little piece of wood to connect a pouch to my belt so I didn’t have to carry it in my hands. As we arrived at the longhouse the tuak (rice wine) and langkau (firewater) were already flowing copiously.
Throughout the night the manang (shaman) would guide the deceased to the right place in the afterlife by chanting the way. While he was chanting away, all men had to drink, eat, and gamble. At the end of the chant, the coffin was carried up a slippery mountain. Only people of a high rank can be buried at the top of the mountain. Before the coffin was lowered into the dugout, all present had to jump in and get back out again, so that death could see the grave was not intended for them. Soon after we left for home, walking back to the river to take the local prow back to Rumah Entalau.
Arriving just before sunset, Penghulu Legan, the chief of chiefs, was preparing a miring (a basket to be hung at the door to ward off evil spirits) for us together with his son Liman. I asked them if they could use the little piece of wood I used to attach my pouch to my belt for the miring. Both Legan and Liman stood back in silence, in shock. I was asked if I took it from the holy mountain, as we were told to not take anything from it. I said no, I hadn’t.
Soon after we had gone to bed, someone came to wake us up, sounding quite panicky. We were told we had to pack our bags and move to higher ground. As we made it to higher ground we noticed a liveliness unseen at these hours. We were met by people carrying all sorts and as we drew closer towards the river, we saw the river was flooding, badly.
After a couple of hours saving what items and possessions we could we were told it was getting too dangerous. Captain Caveman had wanted to save a struggling dog, and nearly went under the water in the process as the floorboards had all washed away. We knew it was time to head to higher ground. Later that week we were adopted by Legan, the chief of chiefs, into his family.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
The same as yesterday and the same for tomorrow. I’m just happy to have been here somewhere in the middle of it all.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
It’s doing just fine as is so I hope it continues as is. The nice thing about the size it has grown into is that now you have even more talented people involved, that otherwise might not have chosen this medium as a gateway.
As for the future, there are so many factors to consider. There is the old world with its traditions and the new world with its contemporary works and experiments. Traditions can show us what works, despite not being seen as experimental. If these worlds can meet, in my eye that would be best. But then again, its’s always been like this too.