Tattooing full-time for two years now, tattoo artist Ann Gilberg focuses on the hand poke technique and is known for her unique style of fusing black and white ink. “It’s one of the areas of tattooing I like most: trying out various techniques [and] constantly questioning myself what else I can do with it,” she says of her playing with ink.
However, Gilberg started using a tattoo machine a few months ago to cater her bigger and more detailed flash designs that would otherwise consume so much time if done via hand poke instead. And when she does smaller designs, they’re often colored but also incorporate white ink. This openness to playful combinations increases the number of designs she can do exponentially—and the experimentation is key in helping her find her signature flourishes. “For me, finding my own style is highly important, which also made me decide on not doing custom work anymore and instead focus on my own input and ideas as an artist exclusively—and which hopefully some people will find something they can connect to,” she says.
For someone who draws a lot, Gilberg says she remains somehow unsure of her style and feels it’s not done yet. She noted how it is ever-changing, and her response this week may be different from her response next week. Though at the moment, she says she’s really “into jellyfish designs.” She shares how she aims to do more monochrome designs in color other than white.
But getting to this point as an artist hasn’t been a straightforward line. “Between various odd jobs, I worked in bars for a total of seven years, spent two and a half years as a prop master in the Stuttgart theater Altes Schauspielhaus in Germany, and worked as an event technician and stagehand,” she says. Today, the Cologne-raised artist lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where she also runs her own private studio. She started doing guest spots this year, and will also move to another location where she’ll share a private studio with other colleagues. She’s also traveled to London and Italy to ink people, and will be in Hamburg and Berlin this coming November.
Gilberg recollects that it’s when she spent time behind the bar that she got introduced to the art of tattooing. “One of my acquaintances taught me how to do a tattoo using needle and thread,” she says, and her interest sparked. “When I got home, I drunkenly looked for a needle and some thread and did my first ever hand-poke tattoo on myself. Maybe this was not the smartest moment in my life, but it led to what I do now.” It was an origami crane she hand-poked on her wrist. “It didn’t really hurt. After I managed to do the first poke, it was all good,” she recalls.
Throughout her career, she’s experienced using black and colored ink and has played with multiple styles and designs. She still does, and admits she finds it more fun to use white and colored ink than sticking to just black. For Gilberg, her artistic profession is “defined by phases.” She says she was first skeptical about working with white ink because she rarely saw white ink tattoos on others. “I only used white ink as highlights and always found that even as highlights, white ink looked so beautiful to me,” she says. “Step by step I learned that it worked and that it simply was a matter of the right motive for white ink to make it look good.”
Giving the jellyfish as an example, Gilberg adds that it’s good to be done on white ink because it’s close to their natural color, and the softness of their shape works really well with white. It’s just about matching the designs with white ink because not designs work well with it. “But still, I don’t think there is a recipe for good white design,” she says. So in essence, it’s just a matter of motive.
But although white ink tattoos are aesthetically pleasing, she’s quick to mention that the glows-under-UV-light designs never stay pure white, and that they will transition towards a creamier tone: “The darker your skin, the more yellowish [white ink] gets.” And as she gets more experienced—and her following continues to grow—so does her portfolio of white ink designs and her proficiency with them.
As Gilberg gets more experienced—and her following continues to grow—so does her portfolio of white ink designs and her proficiency with them. However, developing her style as an artist is a life-long journey. “I do not consider my personal style to be ‘done’ yet. There’s still much more ground to cover,” she says. “I continually advance my own understanding of what my style is and where I want to take it from there.”
And while most people see her as a successful tattooist, Gilberg shares a fear many tattoo artists know: the potential of making a mistake. “One thing that surprised me was probably how hard it was for me to get used to the fear of messing up a tattoo,” she says. And it’s rooted in her natural fear of disappointing people, something she’s been working on since childhood. She understands well that with a permanent tattoo if you make a mistake you can’t undo it. So with every line, every poke, every tattoo she does, Gilberg says she keeps it in mind that not all of her tattoos will be perfect. And this has become her driving force to do her best every single poke. ” have a really strange relationship with my perfectionism. I often dream that one day, I will be so good at tattooing that I can’t make mistakes anymore. But I know that’s not possible, for me or any other tattoo artist.”
The 29-year-old has come to terms with the fact that tattoos are never meant to be perfect. It’s a unique piece of art on human skin that cannot be predicted—at least not 100 percent—how it will turn out. “It will age with us, change over time and one day rot with us in the grave,” she says.
Similar to many other creatives who work not only for the money but to better grow as a person and an artist, Gilberg shares that the best part of her job is self-determination. “I love what I do because I’m able to work creatively and in an autonomous manner, which is something that’s highly important in my life,” she says. “It taught me to be more open towards strangers and give trust to people I don’t know.”
Because while tattooing has evolved, from indigenous, cultural art to today’s modern creative business, at the end of the day, it is that mutual trust between two people that makes good ink. Trust your clients that they’ll value your work on their skin. And they will trust you enough to let their skin be your canvas. And if you do your best on every poke, every line, word of mouth will do the rest.
If you liked our artist profile featuring Ann Gilberg, check out our post on Laura Martinez.