Don’t Call Simone Klimmeck an Instagram Tattoo Artist

We talked to the hyped tattoo artist and illustrator about tattoos that outlive you, the pros and cons of Instagram and why tattooing pretty flowers is boring.

All photos courtesy of Simone Klimmeck

These days, you can throw a rock and hit someone sporting tattoos of geometric triangles, elaborate roses or stick ‘n poke pizzas. Since our generation practically lives on Instagram, it only makes sense that the tattoos we get would be influenced by, well, the trendy designs we see on our phones (cue the endless stream of minimalist triangles.) So for an emerging tattoo artist, marketing yourself on social media makes sense: if you gain a decent following, you don’t have to rely on interning at a high-profile tattoo shop or gaining recognition via tattoo conventions to get a client base. That said, being hyped on Insta doesn’t mean that’ll be the case in six months, once the trend you’ve mastered dies out. It takes legit talent, uniqueness and perseverance to live on and build a name as a young tattoo artist—which is precisely why Simone Klimmeck is blowing up fast, IRL and on Insta.

The young German illustrator and tattoo artist actually tried her hand at a bunch of stuff before getting into tattooing. An illustrator at heart who grew up in a family of artists, she studied to be a fashion designer—but once she graduated, realized she wasn’t all that into it. About three years ago, she was frustrated at the lack of illustration work she was getting and the way her own tattoo artists treated her; so when a friend gave her a tattoo gun, she started experimenting. What began as “small, punkish tattoos” she’d do on her friends organically turned into a passion for tattooing and an instantly recognizable and impressive style. Her Instagram showcases tattoos that combine surrealist imagery, dadaist whimsy, graphical lines and almost painterly shading. It’s clear that she knows her shit as an artist, and definitely knows how to translate it onto the human body. Whether she’s creating mystical and detailed octopuses, strange human/animal hybrids or intricate and moody portraits of melancholic faces, she does it all with the same effort and skill—which is why she’s so demanded that she’s about to open her own studio this summer.

Before that happens, we thought we’d have a chat with Simone about her visual inspiration, her relationship to customers and the pros and cons of being trendy on Instagram.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Simone. When did you know that you wanted to be a tattoo artist?

Simone Klimmeck: That’s a tricky question because it’s not like I woke up one morning and realised I wanted to be one, or had wanted to tattoo since I was a little kid. The realisation was driven by a combination. First, I was feeling restless as an illustrator: it was tough starting out, because it could totally happen that you wouldn’t have a job for three months. I was like, “Shit! I need a real job!” I had studied fashion design, but I knew I didn’t want to do that.

Second, I was really frustrated by the people who tattooed me. I had some experiences where I felt like, “ok, these people might know their handcraft, but they really don’t know how to draw.” I was totally that horrible customer who would correct tattoo artists on tiny things; I have such a particular image in my mind of what I want, and it’s a shame I can’t do it on my own body. At some point, this tattoo artist was like, “You have such weird ideas. Why don’t you do it yourself?” So I asked myself, “yeah, why not?”

How did you get started?

About three years ago, I thought it would be fun to do some small, punkish things on my friends and I. I thought it would be a lot easier than it actually was! I had a friend who sort of knew how to set up a machine; he would show me the way around it a bit, and I would tattoo my friends. I would be so nervous I was sweating! Even if people said they didn’t care what it looked like, I felt like they expected it to be really good because they knew I was a good artist. It was frustrating.

At that point, I didn’t view it as a career: it was just for fun. But then I already had this machine and felt like, “damn, I’m already doing it, so now I REALLY want to do it!” That’s when I graduated from university, and it was a changing point. Even though I was working as an illustrator, I realised I really wanted to tattoo… and at the end of 2015, I started tattooing ‘properly’.’

What are some of the key things you’ve learned about tattooing since that time?

There’s a lot you have to find out for yourself; it’s pretty hard to describe. Every skin you tattoo is different, every needle, every machine… you figure it out by trial and error and then evaluate the things that went wrong.

It was important, however, to try out my machine to tattoo myself. I didn’t feel any pressure: I just had to be cool with myself, and I didn’t feel any pain because I was so full of adrenaline and concentration. Also, it’s about getting used to tattooing someone for the first time. You do it, realise it goes ok, it gives you confidence, you do the same thing five or ten times, and your confidence grows by that amount. Your lines get better. It’s a constant process.

How did your education in fashion influence your approach to tattooing?

It’s less about the fashion education and more about the fact that I’ve been drawing all my life, basically. I mean, my parents met at a life drawing class! They both loved drawing and are really good at it; I grew up taking painting trips to Tuscany, and having my Dad pose in his underwear on the kitchen table so that my siblings and I could create anatomical sketches.

As for fashion… I think in general, it’s always interesting when someone has a background outside of tattooing before starting. You can always tell they have a different approach, which makes it more interesting. It would have been different if at eighteen, I immediately went to a tattoo shop and became an intern. I would miss all these experiences and influential things from my studies and my time in Stockholm, working for Acne Studios as a women’s wear design intern.

How has your tattoo style developed over the years you’ve been tattooing?

It’s funny, ‘cause in the very beginning I wanted to tattoo really realistic stuff. I saw what I do with my illustrations as a goal for my tattoos. But it’s not easy, you can’t start with that. You have to learn how to do lines first. So I was forced to draw different stuff; I’ve never drawn stuff like this before. And I enjoyed it so much that I moved away a bit from the idea of doing realistic tattoos. What I have in mind is creating a collage look in my tattoos. I like to combine some really detailed or realistic parts with very simple, graphic and minimalist aspects.

I don’t know what I’m going to tattoo in one year from now, though, or in two years. For example, I just realised that I really love doing birds! I have no idea why. It’s not like I have a thing for birds as animals. I have this book with old illustrations of books, and I think they’re so beautiful. It’s pretty random!

It seems like a lot of your fans are online. How has social media influenced you as a tattoo artist?

I consider myself a tattoo artist from the second generation, which I define as being a tattoo artist for whom the internet plays a huge role. Ten or fifteen years ago, you would rely so much more on a tattoo studio and its reputation, or walk-in clients; people wouldn’t know about you otherwise. But with Instagram in particular, there’s a new generation of tattoo artists who can work basically anywhere and it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be supported by a big studio because your customers are on the internet. I mean, I have people come to see me from Indonesia, Canada, Sweden! They probably combine it with a Berlin trip, but still. These people would never know about me without Instagram, which is a super cool thing. It makes me independent.

Style-wise a lot changed, too. It seems like a lot more is possible, or people take their inspiration from wider places. All of a sudden, you see people doing Egon Schiele pieces or just dot to line minimalism. These approaches are very different compared to twenty years ago, and the internet plays a big role in this. You won’t see these wild kids on Instagram with their weird styles at tattoo conventions.

Obviously there are a lot of positives to the ease of exposure online—but are there any negatives?

Well, I can’t say that I don’t enjoy self-staging, or self-dramatization. I enjoy having an internet persona. But I try to make it less about myself and more about my work. I don’t want to have more selfies than tattoos or illustrations; it’s just not what I would feel comfortable with. I’m a bit of a narcissist, but I keep it in a healthy dose.

I told myself the other day, “wow, it’s been so many days since my last selfie!” But it’s because I don’t have time for narcissism right now. If I was a songwriter, that would be my album title. “No time for narcissism.” (chuckles)

In general, though, it’s probably a little negative that almost every tattoo looks good in a fresh picture. You rarely get to see it when it’s healed, when you can tell if the lines are good or not, etc. And I prefer to meet my customer beforehand, to tell if the energy is good between us. The internet makes that quite hard, of course; you’re taking a risk on the relationship. It’s a bit of a luck thing.

Is it important for you to connect with your customer?

I just feel like I have a huge responsibility. I try to make sure that the whole experience is a good one, because it’s crazy to think that the majority of my tattoos will be on someone’s skin for the rest of their lives. It’s even crazier to think that some people I tattoo will outlive me—that my pieces will live longer than I do. I feel that some tattoo artists care more about getting a really good photo for Instagram and kind of forget that the person they’re tattooing will have the tattoo for their whole life.

I never would want any of my customers to feel rushed or something. Of course sometimes it’s annoying if you have to do a stencil for the fifth time, but in those cases, I need to get my shit together because it’s not about me. If it’s gonna take an hour longer at the end of the day, that’s ok. I should not forget how blessed I am to have this job, how cool it is and how this person trusts me so much!

Are there particular art movements that you’re inspired by? I feel like I recognise a lot of Art Nouveau symbolism in some of your work.

No, there’s not really an art era I return to. I love old photos; like, really old photos of children or men. So that’s probably why my work has this vintage flair sometimes. And then I also like combining it with minimalist, naive lines to break things up.

By now, I could probably tell you what Instagram will love, but that’s not always what I love. It feels like everything that’s really abstract, minimalist and naive and feels a bit dadaist is really hyped right now on Insta. I love doing that, but I don’t want to just do that because I know it’ll work. If I would only do what Instagram liked, I’d only do pretty flowers and minimalist stuff. But I feel like I want to have my own fingerprint, and that never works if you just follow the hype.

People most often talk about you as a tattoo artist, but you’re also an illustrator. Do you consider yourself more of an illustrator, tattoo artist, or equally both?

I actually consider myself more of an illustrator. That’s what made me get into tattooing. In my opinion, tattooing requires the ability to draw. It’s only a different handcraft that comes out of your drawing with tattooing, but to me, it’s no different from illustration. There’s always a customer on the other side who has a certain image in their mind that we have to work out so we’re both happy—whether it’s an art director in a magazine or someone who wants a rose on their arm. Drawing is the main part for me.

Thanks a lot, Simone.