Simone Klimmeck on Tattooing and Talking Beauty With “Alien Princess” Grace Neutral

We asked the German tattooist about her recent London residency with Grace Neutral—tattoo artist, documentary host and breaker of beauty standards.

Video: Timothy George Kelly
Song: ShitKid – “Sugar Town”

Back in the day, landing a residency at a hyped tattoo shop was pretty much a vital stepping stone for emerging tattooists. Working side by side with a revered tattoo artist would not only help you develop your skills: it would position you as an extension of their professionalism, spread your name to their customer base and perhaps get your foot in the door of a tattoo convention. But over the past decade or so, the tattoo landscape has dramatically transformed. Today, millennials choose their tattoo artists by scrolling through Instagram. Travel is cheaper, so they can hop on a flight to see whichever artist they want, and artists can do the same. As a result, the old-school tattoo tradition is being matched by a new generation of tattooists who don’t adhere to archaic career trajectories of styles—one of whom is German tattooist Simone Klimmeck.

As we’ve written about before, Klimmeck has speedily established herself as one of Germany’s most hyped tattoo talents thanks to her versatile style, knack for self-marketing and relentless work ethic. So for someone like her, doing a tattoo residency isn’t about building her career: it’s about getting better at what she does beside someone whose global contribution goes beyond tattoos. Considering that criteria, it’s no wonder that Simone had her eye set on British tattoo artist Grace Neutral for her next tattoo residency.

Grace Neutral has spent the past few years breaking restrictive beauty standards worldwide. She divides her time between working as a prolific stick ‘n poke tattooist and hosting documentaries: in Viceland’s Needles & Pins film series, she explores everything from the resurgence of Maori tattoo culture to South Korea’s underground tattoo scene. She’s featured in multiple i-D documentaries about beauty, investigating Korea’s billion dollar beauty industry or questioning the pressure Brazilians feel to get plastic surgery on their butts at ages as young as fifteen. Oh, and she’s one of the most unique looking people in the public sphere: the “alien princess”, as multiple media sources call her, has body modifications including pointed ears, a split tongue, purple eyes—and yes, tons and tons of tattoos.

Last week, Simone and Grace spent a few days together working side by side at East London’s Lacemakers Sweatshop, the renowned studio of tattoo legend Delphine Noiztoy. Naturally, we decided to ask Simone about what happened when their two creative heads met to work, talk beauty standards and even do face tattoos.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Simone. So you just spent the week tattooing side by side with Grace Neutral. Why did you want to work with her?

Simone Klimmeck: I don’t want to sound too much like a fan girl, but I saw her i-D documentaries about beauty standards around the world and became fascinated by her. She had this angelic voice and just seemed like a super humble, nice and sweet person while at the same time having this captivating look and doing amazing work.

Also, she was one of the first women I saw in the tattoo industry who didn’t look like a typical biker gang chick. She has a very special beauty. I could relate to her, in a way: not that I feel similar to her, but that I can’t relate to other women who seem typical of the tattoo industry.

Grace Neutral is one of our generation’s leading figures breaking taboos around beauty standards and exploring them across cultures. How did spending time with her influence your take on beauty?

We didn’t talk about that so much, actually: we spoke more of private or philosophical stuff, like veganism or love or boys (chuckles). But there was a moment when the videographer asked us, “You both decided to look quite unusual. Why?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t think I look unusual. Everything is very relative,” and Grace agreed.

It was funny because I can see how most people would think that she looks quite different, but that also just points out how relative everything is. Like, if you are surrounded by people who are covered in tattoos and body modifications with dyed hair or shaved heads, this becomes your normal. You don’t stand out so much in that environment so you don’t feel like you’re unusual.

It sounds like spending time with Grace reinforced the idea that there’s no weird or normal way to look; it’s about your perspective.

Exactly. I think you can say that about everything in life: you always feel like you are the average. There are people who look even crazier or more extreme, and there are people who don’t stand out as much. For example, I feel like I’m pretty normal. Of course I’m aware that the majority of people aren’t tattooed as much as I am, but I also know there will always be people who are far more extreme than me.

You previously told me that tattooing has a lot to do with the connection between the tattoo artist and the customer. What’s a particularly memorable connection that you experienced?

I had one customer who almost overwhelmed me with the amount of positive energy coming from her. She had some scars on her arms, which looked like they came from self-harm. She told me they were a part of her past, and that she was happy to finally begin a new chapter and put something beautiful on them. Also, she requested a motif I really love doing: a crow skull and claws. You know, it was so emotional for her and that makes me feel so… touched. It was very special that she chose me to put a positive thing on her body to cover a negative past. I felt like, “Wow, this is my job. How lucky am I?”

Talking to her was very intense and enriching. We didn’t discuss the scars directly, but we talked about life and empathy. We also talked about crows; I accidentally killed a crow with my car once, and that still haunts me! Timing can be so random: if I had gone a few miles slower or faster I wouldn’t have encountered that bird. Then again, the universe is pretty random, so you shouldn’t take it personally when there’s bad timing.

Was there a moment that you found particularly challenging or stressful?

When you’re on a guest spot you kind of have to take what’s there because you want to be busy, but I had really cool customers. There weren’t any ideas that I wasn’t into. The only thing that was a bit challenging was tattooing this one girl’s first tattoo. This is always a bit special, because people are a bit more tense when they haven’t been tattooed before; they don’t know what to expect. She wanted to have her first tattoo on her chest, but Grace and I both agreed it was not the right spot; it just wouldn’t have looked good. We recommended to move it to her shoulder and in the end, she agreed.

That’s the only thing that’s challenging: you don’t want to talk anyone into anything, but you also want them to trust your expertise and experience.

You worked side by side with Grace for a few days. How did having another tattoo artist with you influence your creative approach?

Well, you’re so focused when you tattoo that you forget everything that surrounds you. You’re deep in this flow. However, working with these people in particular was a good thing. At first it was intimidating when Grace would come by and look over my shoulder, but by day two, it was casual and supportive. That encouragement pushes you.

And having a great atmosphere helps, too. If in between appointments you can have lunch together, dance around and just joke about stuff like we did, it’s good energy. Every night we did stuff like drink beers, get pizza and hang out at the riverside. It was far more than just a normal guest spot.

It can be the total opposite, too. If I had been tattooing in a shop where nobody would talk to me, I think that would have made me pretty anxious.

I also saw on Instagram that Grace gave you a face tattoo. What’s that all about?!

(chuckles) Don’t freak out, it’s just a dot. I asked Grace if I could get a tattoo as kind of a souvenir, but she was a bit tired that day so asked if we could do a tiny thing. She jokingly suggested a face tattoo, but I said yes. She didn’t want to rush me into something especially on the face and I was like, “well, let’s do a dot—I’m sure I won’t regret it.”

Getting a face tattoo sounds like it would be super painful. I mean, your face is basically all bone.

Grace does stick ’n poke, which is so much more delicate than tattooing with a machine. I would be more frightened with a vibrating machine close to my eye than this wooden stick, and she was really sensitive with it. It was a bit like, “that’s it for the pain? Ok!” I’ve tattooed people on the face before with my machine and I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of it. But Grace also makes you relax really fast. It’s not scary or anything; it’s more like this intimate, intense moment where you’re really close.

Besides getting your face tattooed, what was a particularly intimate moment you had with the other tattoo artists?

It was really touching to have Delphine and Grace tell me about what it was like to be a female tattoo artist ten years ago. How it would be so, so hard to make your way not by giving guys favors, but by reaching a certain level that would make all the alpha males in the industry respect you. Delphine emphasised that it’s 2017, so we girls need to stick together and support each other. She felt like the leading mamma and warrior!

Also, the typical tattoo studio would be run by men while a pretty girl works the reception. In contrast, this studio is run by this superwoman, Delphine, who just gave birth to a girl nine days ago and is already back at work tattooing! On the flip side, the apprentice was a 23-year-old guy and was just the cutest boy on earth. He would clean our working sections all the time, bring us coffee; it felt like the reverse of what it usually is!

So this time, the boys were doing the grunt work while the girls were doing the tattooing.

Yeah!

Any parting words?

Overall, this residency feels like the beginning of something; I think we’ll definitely hang out again and work together again, and that’s amazing.

Thanks, Simone.