Interview with Sercan Okten

  Hello Sercan Okten! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Please start by telling us something about yourself and your background. What got you interested in tattoo art? Hi Skinartists, thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. My name is Sercan Okten and I started my tattooing journey in 2006 while I was studying tourism and hotel management in college. Despite my non-related education, I've always had a fascination for visual arts from a young age. I started with photography and then drawing and graphic design, and then I got interested in tattooing in high school after getting my first tattoo. My friends and I at the time wanted to get many tattoos; however, we couldn't afford them so I decided to build one and try to do it myself. So, it kinda started as a DIY project and became the most important aspect of my life. After tattooing for many years in Turkey, I moved to the UK in 2015, and I'm currently working in my studio called "One of None" in southwest London, which is my biggest DIY project so far.

Q: Who helped you in the beginning, or are you a self-taught artist? Was it hard to learn the basics?
A: I'm a self-taught artist, and yes, it was tough in the beginning. My first and only introduction to how to tattoo was, "This is where you put the needle, this is how much it should stick out, and this is how the machine should sound." and that was it! I had to figure out the rest so yes, it took me a long time to learn how to tattoo. In the beginning, my biggest help was having good and brave friends who were willing to get tattooed by me haha

- What type of tattoos you use to do as a beginner?
This is probably not something I would recommend to a beginner now, but I used to do all kinds of tattoos, from large tribals to football badges, dot-work mandalas to Jenny Clarke flashes and more.. I wasn't giving too much thought to "How will I do this tattoo?" and I wasn't afraid of failure. I was constantly trying new things and trying to figure out what I was better at. I realised that I was mostly enjoying black and grey realism and lettering, but in the beginning, especially the first six or seven years, I didn't have the urge to focus my work on a certain style so I was tattooing whatever style the client wanted. Which gave me experience with different styles and techniques and really helped me with the fundamentals of tattooing.

Q: How long took you to figure out your creative direction?
A: I have been solely focusing on black and grey realism for the past ten years. However, the creative direction is something that constantly changes and evolves for me. I really enjoy the process of creating something different every time, and that is what makes tattooing fun for me. Currently I'm not worried about how the next tattoo will look on my portfolio or about constraining my work into a certain black and grey sub-category. I'm enjoying trying different things with my work and seeing it evolve.

Q: Why tattoo realism, what do you like the most about this style?
A: From a young age, I've always been impressed by ultra-realistic Renaissance paintings, how the light works and creates depth and looks almost like the figures are coming out of the canvas was something that captivated me. Realism is also something everyone can resonate with and understand, which is excellent for grabbing the viewer's attention. Using something realistic as an anchor allows me to interpret and create something interesting. Because to me, there's nothing interesting about copying an almost exact replica of an image onto the skin, which can be extremely impressive but equally boring to look at.

- Will you stick to black and gray, or maybe you will try experimenting with color tattooing?
I really enjoy having a basic black and grey setup. However, there are limitations to classic black and grey. Especially when designing large concepts with different elements, colours can really enhance the overall design and help with definition and balance. Lately I'm approaching my designs with basic design principles in mind. Every element needs to work harmoniously and serve a purpose. If something is not improving the design, I would get rid of it, and If something is hard to read when monochrome, then I would add colour to it. So to answer the question, I would like to use the colours to benefit the design and final outcome. Otherwise, I'm happy with doing black and grey all day for the time being.

Q: I absolutely love the portraits. They are very detailed and the shading is just simply perfect. Creatively, I don't think realism gives much space but still a lot can be done to achieve that unique look we all want. I think this style is worth exploring. There are some tattoos you did that have some interesting details as a decorative elements. Your thoughts on this?
A: Thank you so much, and yes, you're right! Realism doesn't give much space creatively, and I think it's essential to find the balance in stylisation vs true to the reference look as well as adding some decorative elements to help with the flow of the body if needed. I think it all comes down to the character of someone's work, how they think it will look better, and how different decorative elements can improve the overall tattoo, as well as giving them a specific, unique look whilst adding character to their work. This can also be achieved by making simple technical decisions such as using small liners vs magnums or different stroke machines with various speeds to create textures purposely.

Q: One is the "Love is a loosing game" tattoo. Oh I love that tattoo. Who was the main designer here, you or your client?
A: Thank you! My client asked for a "woman wearing sunglasses, holding money, playing cards and writing 'Love is a losing game' somewhere" on her leg and I made the design for her and tattooed it without any changes, so it was a collaborative design, I would say, and we were both happy with the outcome. Thanks Wiola!

Q: The big tattoos are always the ones that attract the most attention, We are all like "Wow... What a masterpiece." I guess every experienced artist wants/prefers to do big projects like full legs, back pieces and sleeves. These types of tattoos require a lot of time and patience but when it's all done it's worth it, right? Any favorite project?
A: They're definitely fun to work on, I must say. It's a long process and it requires commitment from both sides, and that's the most crucial part for the best outcome, in my opinion. The longer the project goes on, I mean the time between the sessions, the less exciting it becomes for me. Our perspective and vision grow as we evolve as artists. And a project I started six or seven years ago may not align with my current approach to tattooing. It almost feels like you're purposely going backwards just to finish something you've started at a different time in your career. Not to mention the having to match the tones of the tattoo. I would recommend that whoever is looking to start a big project make sure to be ready and committed to finishing it in the suggested timeframe by the artist, as I have acquired quite a few "non-going" projects over the years. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the Asian-inspired Buddha and Geisha piece on my long-term client, Ben.

Q: How long does it take to finish a full sleeve or a back piece? The longest session and oh well, how the client handled the pain?
A: They both usually take around six sessions or approximately 25-30 total hours on average, depending on the complexity, skin type and size, of course. Every person is different and requires a tailored approach, especially for large projects, and that is why I always recommend having a consultation with my clients in the studio so we can see the actual area before the designing process and also learn about them a bit because I also think every tattoo should also suit their collector.

Q: How important is to have a good energy during the sessions, especially the long ones? I've heard, sometimes, people open up about some personal stuff and what their tattoo means to them etc. Any funny experiences with your clients?
A: I think it's extremely important to have good energy from both sides, but most importantly, artists' attitudes and approaches are what set the energy of the sessions. It's our responsibility to make sure the clients are comfortable sitting long hours in our environment and feeling relaxed, whilst enduring tattoo pain. The setting, layout, light, and vibes really contribute to making the whole process much more pleasant. And yes people do open up about their personal stuff sometimes but I'm not going to break the "Tattooer-Client Privilege" here or anywhere for that matter haha

Q: How much their trust means to you? Let's not forget you are "marking" them for life.
A: It really means a lot to me and I'm still surprised ever so often when I think about it. I'm trying my best to make the "marking" worth their trust. But I must say it puts a lot of pressure when you overthink, or the client is trying to be overly involved in the process, which shows a lack of trust if you think about it; then I struggle to create something that pushes boundaries. I also think artists need to trust their work first in order to gain client's trust. If we're not sure about our work, we shouldn't expect our clients to be sure about us.

Q: I love the digital art too. You are so creative. Do you prepare a digital artwork of the tattoo before the session or it can be done spontaneously with the client? I think it would be nice to see like a catalog with all of your cool designs in one place. Just an idea.
A: Thank you very much! Yes, I do prepare a digital concept before the session; in fact, most clients don't know this but I prepare multiple ones and show the best one on the day. I also make some quick adjustments or changes spontaneously if I need to. I usually put some of my pre-made designs on my Instagram highlights but never thought of making a dedicated catalogue, but it could be a good idea!

Q: You own "One of None Tattoo Studio" in London. When did you open the studio? How many artists are currently working there? Are you open for guest spot artists?
A: Yes, we fully started to operate in our studio in August 2022, so it's pretty new. We currently have seven resident artists and regular guest artists working together. Each artist specialises in their own style and I really enjoy the variety as we all learn different things from each other. It also helps the clients to have the best-suited artist for their ideas, so it's been good so far.

Q: Is it a challenge to be a full time artist and owner of a studio at the same time?
A: Oh well, it is definitely challenging to do both good at the same time! I think being a studio owner gives you the opportunity to create your ideal work environment, which, in my opinion, is one of the most contributing factors to an artist's growth. I think in a peaceful, well-lit, well-organised, artist-prioritised studio, artists can be in a better mindset and, therefore, can create better tattoos and grow as individuals. This was the case for me, so having a studio was important for creating my ideal space. However, it also comes with certain limitations and responsibilities, as many know. I'm still learning how to make it all function better, and I believe good time management and decision-making skills are essential when you want both to run well.

Q: What are your plans regarding your work and the studio?
A: I plan on travelling, going for more guest spots, and expanding my horizons a bit. I think tattooing is best for travelling and working in different environments, leading to learning more about various approaches to the craft to improve my work, myself and the studio.

Q: Do you still have the same enthusiasm and enjoy your work? What do you like the most about being a tattoo artist?
A: Well.. I still really enjoy tattooing and I can say that I have more enthusiasm lately than I had in my mid-career, and I think the mindset is the most important factor in the enjoyment you get from work. When you start to change the way you think and how you approach it, it all becomes more enjoyable. My favourite thing about being a tattoo artist is that I get to meet and talk with people with different backgrounds, different professions and different mentalities. You can learn a lot from people who normally wouldn't cross your path if you weren't tattooing them, as I could be tattooing a musician on a Monday and a CEO on Tuesday, and I find that really fascinating.

Q: A few words for those who want to try getting into professional tattooing?
A: I think the most important thing is having patience. Take it slow and absorb the whole process, from learning about the equipment to different styles and approaches. Fundamentals are extremely important. Really learn the craft before attempting to find your own style. You must be a "Tattooer" before you're a "Tattoo Artist", and the craft should always come before the art in whatever medium you're working on. Times are different, I get it; we live in an era where everything is widely accessible, and people can learn things very quickly, or they think they've learnt it just by watching some videos and attending a few seminars. Thanks to social media, where everyone is eager to impress, doing many tattoos that have no longevity, solid technique, or putting actual thought behind them. Please avoid being one of those. Be ready for commitment: Put your drawings together, prepare a portfolio and try to get an apprenticeship in a sound studio with good artists and educate yourself. Keep on trying to get a little better each time by staying a bit out of your comfort zone and remember, if you can improve your work by 1% for each tattoo you do, you'll be twice as good on every 100th tattoo!