Years ago, the art of tattoos brought together Anna and Anatole. Today, Anatole is a Lead Artist at the renowned Bang Bang tattoo parlor. On the surface, the two lead a progressive lifestyle, seemingly detached from their conservative Eastern European heritage. However, their shared roots have served as common ground for building a modern life together in New York City.
Tell us about your background.
Anna: I was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. It was 1991, and we had just become an independent country. But we had a lot of Soviet influence. At that time, Georgia was always in trouble with Russia. Russia wanted to own Georgia, but we are so different. We had our own language and culture even though we had to learn Russian.
When did you come to the states?
Anna: I came when I was two years old.
Was it easy for your family to come to the states?
Anna: No. My relatives had to come separately. We weren’t allowed to leave as a family so we all had to come using different last names. My mom took her maiden name, I have my grandfather’s last name, and my father took his mother’s maiden name. It’s still very difficult. Even today, my aunt is trying to visit the states, but Georgia won’t allow her to gain a tourist visa.
Anatole, tell us about your background.
Anatole (Tole): My family is from East Ukraine. I came to New York when I was ten years old. We already had family here so they invited us over.
Was the transition difficult?
Tole: Yes. When I was younger I had seen movies of New York and they always depicted Manhattan. When I first came here, I moved to Queens where it was quiet. I was wondering where all the skyscrapers were. Then my family moved to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
Did you move to an area that was predominantly Eastern European?
Tole: No, we didn’t move to Brighton Beach or anything. We didn’t like it. It felt like they hadn’t really moved to a new area. They came from a different country but they were still speaking their native language. What’s the point of even moving? The area of Bensonhurst where I moved to was predominantly Italian.
Anna: My parents liked Brighton Beach, and Georgians were a minority in that area.
Tell us about how you two met.
Tole: I started tattooing in high school. I really wanted to learn how to tattoo and to be an apprentice in a shop. I heard about a really great neighborhood tattoo shop in Brooklyn on Avenue U. That’s where I met Joey, Anna’s cousin. He took me under his wing as the shop apprentice and Anna used to come around.
Anna: I was too young to get tattoos at the time but I would still come around.
Tole, were you always good at art. Is that how you got into tattoos?
Tole: Not really.
How did you know that you would be good with a needle? It’s much more permanent than a pencil sketch.
Tole: I was always practicing. I wouldn’t say that I was always good. I got better. That’s the purpose of art classes; to learn. If you have a talent, and you want to get it out there, you can learn.
That’s an inspiring point to make. For your fans and the people who admire your work, it’s gives them the idea that they don’t have to be amazing right now to get to where you are.
Tole: Yes. That’s why there are schools. Each person looks at things through their own vision. If you learn the skills, and learn how to use a brush or pencil, then you can get your vision out there.
So Anna, you were coming around the tattoo shop, and you spotted him?
Anna: When he started working there, my cousin tried to set me up. But I wasn’t really interested. I thought he was too skinny. Every time I would come to the shop, Anatole wouldn’t say a word to me. He wouldn’t talk to me. At the time he had a nickname, “Tony”. He was at an old school Italian shop, and they couldn’t really pronounce Anatole, so they called him Tony. One day I said, “hey Tony, when are you going to tattoo me?” And he responded, “tomorrow.”
I had never spoken to him before. He would always just ignore me. You know when someone ignores you, you think why!? You accept the challenge. I started to think he was cute. I thought, I’m going to get this motherfucker to talk to me. So I started pressing his buttons, asking him when he was going to tattoo me.
How many tattoos did you have at this point?
Anna: One or two.
What did Anatole choose to tattoo on you?
Anna: The roses on my shoulder. I hated roses, they were so cliche at the time. I said to him, “Tony, you’re going to tattoo me.” And he said “yeah, I’m going to do roses.” And suddenly I was like, “OK!”
He started booking my appointments when my cousin wasn’t there. I didn’t notice but my cousin asked, “why are you only scheduling her on days that I’m not here, Tony?”
Tole: Coincidence 😉
Anna: He was smarter than I thought he was at the time. I was starting to like him. I knew I really liked him when one day I stopped by and he was tattooing a girl’s butt! I was devastated. We weren’t even dating. When I saw it, I felt a fire in my face and chest. And he was like, “you watching this?!”
This went on for six years. I would get tattoos from him and want to grab his face, but he was so nonchalant. All those years went by and I would ask him for more tattoos.
So Anna, your whole body is covered in Anatole’s tattoos because you didn’t have the courage to say “I like you” to him?
Tole: I wanted to see how far we could go. 😉
This sounds crazy, but also romantic.
Anna: I am crazy. I knew that I liked him but I thought he didn’t like me.
Coming from Eastern Europe, what’s your family’s view on tattoos?
Anna: They don’t approve. My mom cried when she found out and I was kicked out of my house for a little while.
Is it because your mom is religious?
No, just Georgian. I listened to rock music and that was the worst thing that could happen to her life. I was a big Marilyn Manson fan. Once I got the tattoo, it made it worse.
What about you, Anatole?
Tole: My dad bought me my first tattoo kit. I don’t think he knew what I was getting myself into. Then I started coming home with new tattoos everyday. My mom continues to say “ no more, no more” or she’s asks “why are you doing that to yourself?”
Anatole, how long have you been working at Bang Bang?
Tole: Three Years.
Today Bang Bang is one of the most renowned tattoo shops in the world, but who is Bang?
Keith McCurdy; his nickname is Bang Bang. Keith was a really good tattoo artist working on West 6th Street where all the shops are located. He is very talented and he has a lot of celebrity clients. But he’s also the type of person that never let the attention get to his head.
How did working at Bang Bang change your career?
Tole: For me, it’s working with the artists that work there. There was a lot of hype on the shop because of the celebrity clientele. But Bang put together quite a team. There’s talent, but the team also consists of good people.
At Bang Bang, I noticed that everyone is from a different country.
Tole: It’s like a melting pot. We have the best artists from those countries. We have some local artists too. Bang Bang himself is from Delaware.
What is the experience like to get tattooed by “Anatole, Lead Artist at Bang Bang”?
Tole: I like to get intimate with them. I have one client a day to take my time with each person. We order food together, and we relax. When I tattoo them I don’t like to talk that much because you lose focus a lot by doing that. Once you’re with someone all day, you order food, you relax, you go for a cup of coffee. You don’t take too many breaks, but you’re with someone a full day.
Do your clients come in to spend time under your needle or to also spend time with you?
Tole: I think it’s just because of my style. There’s no hype. Some people don’t know what I look like. Others don’t know how to pronounce my name. They see the work and they want that work. I’m the face behind that work. Sometimes people think Anna is Anatole.
Anna: Some people think it’s me because he posts pictures of me on his Instagram and they’ll comment, “I love her work”.
Tole: For those who seek, shall find. For the ones that see my work, they come to me. They want to get tattooed by me. And I’m taking care of the clientele I have right now.
What’s it like to come into work and spend the entire day with a different person?
Tole: That’s what I love about it. It’s not like a cubicle where you sit and stare at the same people the whole time. You’re with different people who have a story to tell.
What’s your story?
Anna: He doesn’t talk much.
Tole: I like to listen.
What does an average session look like for you?
Tole: Seven or eight hours for the full day.
How do your clients endure the pain for a full day?
Anna: Hundreds of years ago, tattooing was used for therapy. When you put trauma on your body, the endorphins you release create a similar feeling to being high. It starts in the moments before you get tattooed; you’re on cloud nine. While you’re getting tattooed you’re in this where’s-my-mind, where’s-my-body place. That’s why they say you can never have one. It’s so addictive.
Tole: In a way, you want to feel that pain again.
Anna: But you don’t, because it hurts so bad.
Have you ever cried from pain while getting a tattoo?
Anna: You don’t want to let these guys see you cry when you’re in the shop!
As someone who’s never been tattooed, tell me what it feels like?
Tole: It’s up to you how it feels. It’s all in your head. It’s not the physical pain that would make you cry or pass out.
Anna: Where your head’s at matters for the whole experience. One time, Cara Delevingne came in while I was getting my elbow tattooed. I was dying. I was feeling it in my arms and my muscles and I could feel the pain shooting everywhere. She walks in and I’m like cool, no pain.
What’s your favorite tattoo. Is it on you, or one that you have given to someone else?
Tole: Every tattoo is different. Sometimes the smallest one can have more meaning than a whole back piece.
What’s the most surprising thing that someone could learn about the world of giving and creating tattoos?
Anna: When people regret them. That really blows my mind. Everyone has a shitty tattoo.
Anna: Oh god, its so shitty.
Is it a tramp stamp?
Anna: It’s worse. It’s a snake and it looks like a full throttle penis. Yes, it looks like a dick on my back. I’m walking around with a dick on my back! And I’m not like, fuck my life, this sucks, I can’t wait to get it removed. When I saw the stencil, I thought it looked like a snake, and I gave the green light.
Anatole, do you have a tattoo you regret?
Anna: Anatole has a tattoo of a girl that looks like a tranny. It looks like a man with makeup. But we love his tranny. We love her.
Tole: Tattoos are like a personal diary. You remember the time, where you were, and why you got it. Your tastes are going to change with time. You’re not always going to love that tattoo you got five years ago. That’s why people say they regret tattoos. But I don’t believe you should ever regret a tattoo unless it’s something really really stupid.
Anna: Regretting a tattoo is like regretting yourself. It’s like regretting being who you were.
Tole: It’s all apart of the past.
Tell us about some of your more meaningful tattoos.
Anna: Mine is of a white rabbit. Georgia fell into a war in 2008. I had tickets to visit that year but I wasn’t able to go because we got bombed. My grandma died that year, and I had just missed her. Everyone else was already in Georgia like my mother and brother. I got the white rabbit for her because she always called me “Zyk” which means rabbit. The rabbit symbolizes “you’re late, for a very important date”. That’s the deepest tattoo that I have.
Tole: Mine is of Mother Mary and Jesus. Oscar is responsible for that one. I always loved religious art. Especially the orthodox religious art. Whether it’s Orthodox or Catholic, each religion has so much art. Artists like Michelangelo painted in churches and I really wanted to capture the art of religion. To me, it also symbolizes Anna and our son. Between a mother and a child there is such a strong bond.
When it comes to faith, are your religious backgrounds ok with tattoos?
Tole: The older generation, no matter what background, looks at tattoos the same way. It reminds them of prison or the military. The newer generation isn’t like that.
Anna: For Georgians, you only get tattoos in prisons.
Tole: The new generation, especially us as parents, is going to change all of that.
Anna: My family is traditional. They were relieved when they found out Anatole was Ukrainian because our cultures are similar.
International cultures and religions have so many different perspectives on tattoos. Tell us about the cultures that embrace it.
Tole: Yakuza is like the Japanese mafia. They tattoo themselves all over their bodies, but in a way that you would never notice. Even when they go to a sauna, they have robes that cut off exactly where the tattoos stop on their arms. They hid it because it’s like an underground brotherhood.
Anna: Their tattoos are a lot more like storytellers. Japanese and Chinese cultures have a lot of folklores, and they express themselves with that imagery. They don’t use religious imagery. They wouldn’t use a buddha in their tattoos. But they would use different gods, like the thunder god.
Why is it common for to see imagery from the bible in tattoos? Is it meaningful because the imagery appears in the most beautiful churches in the world?
Tole: It could just be because your boy has it. In an old Italian neighborhood in South Brooklyn, you’ll see everyone with praying hands or rosary bead tattoos. They could always say it means something to them like a symbol for their grandma even though that’s not always the case. Just because you get something, doesn’t have to mean that it has symbolism. Sometimes, it’s just for the art of it.
Anna: Sometimes when I get my hair done, I’ll go to a salon and ask the hairdresser, “what do you specialize in? What do you do best? Do that for me.” For tattoos, hair, nails, I just want people to do what they’re feeling the best at. I started with Anatole. I asked him, “what do you want to do, or what do you want to try?” There’s no better way to learn, until you try.
Let’s discuss tattoos and fashion. Do the two worlds collide?
Tole: Tattoos are like a fashion statement. People see tattoos on other people and then want to get them.
Is there a brand behind tattoo artists?
Anna: People come to tattoo artists for the work. When you see three dots on someone, you know that it’s a JonBoy tattoo. He established himself as a tiny, minimalist artist. People also get tattooed by some artists to collect that artist’s piece. For example, if I went to Mark Mahoney, I would let him do whatever he wants, wherever he wants.
Tole: Mark Mahoney is one of my idols. He’s a west coast, super old-school tattoo artist. He’s one of the first pioneers of the black and grey style that I love.
Black and grey tattoos, like David Beckham?
He did those tattoos! He did Johnny Depp, Lana Del Ray, Jared Leto…
He’s one of the best?
Anna: He’s alright. It’s not that his work is amazing, it’s just that he started that style. Don’t get me wrong. If I got a tattoo with Mark Mahoney, I would let him tattoo anything he wanted.
Tole: This goes back to the tranny tattoo on my leg. It’s not about what it is, it’s about who gave it to me: Tony Polito. He’s one of the first and oldest Brooklyn tattoo artists.
How did your tattoo from Tony Polito turn out to look like a transgender woman?
Tole: Because he’s old, his vision goes bad. He did the best he could, and I love it no matter what. It looks like a tranny but it’s about who did it and you respect him. It’s like I have a piece of history on my leg.
What do you think about the fact that some clients view you in that regard?
Tole: You know what, I forget that. I am also on the side where I like to get tattooed by some artists. Sometimes I forget that some clients go out of their way to come to us at Bang. They pay top dollar for us. I like to tell myself to give them that experience. Not just like the streetshop experience where you come in, get tattooed, and get out.
How has living in New York City helped define your personal identity and career?
Anna: We know where we come from. We know it’s not pretty. We came to this place, and we really have to take advantage of it. South Brooklyn hasn’t really changed since I was a kid. You can say you’re proud to live in Bay Ridge, or in New York in general. We know our son will meet so many diverse people in his life while growing up in New York. We know that New York will make him better.
Tole: One grandma will teach him Georgian, the other Grandma will teach him Russian. And I also have a buddy who will teach him Spanish!
Anna, have you ever tattooed someone?
Anna: I’ve tattooed him! In Georgian letters, I put my nickname Nucki on his hand. My Georgian name is Anucki. Everyone calls me Anucki in my family, no one calls me Anna.
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