Most tattoo aficionados are probably familiar with the SPIKE TV series “Ink Master”. For those who aren’t in the inky know: it’s a US TV show (first aired in 2012; currently running its ninth season) where they have a selection of tattoo artists competing for the title of ‘Ink Master’ and (of course) a cash prize. Every episode one of the contestants is voted off by three judges: Oliver Peck, Chris Nuñez (former Miami Ink member) and for all you ladies out there, panty-dropper extraordinaire Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction’s guitarist).
This year, the first ever edition of ‘Ink Master: Meesters van de Lage Landen’ took place in Belgium and Holland with a cash prize of 20.000€. And who blew all of the competition out of the water? That’s right: a ‘not-so-tall’ chick with epic needle skills from good ol’ Flanders… Everybody, meet DJOELS.
JANDERLUST FACT TIME: ‘lage landen’ is the Dutch denominator used to describe the combined turf of Belgium and the Netherlands. It roughly translates to ‘low lands’.
AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS…
True: 25-year old DJOELS (her real name is Julie… Jules… DJOELS. You get it.) may not be the biggest person you’ll ever meet, but she probably will be the most high-energy and positive one. Upon entering her shop DJOELS INK (located in Deinze, Belgium), I’m immediately amazed by the sheer talent dripping off of her artwork that’s lining the walls. It’s an easy conversation starter: we get into her art (in the broadest definition of the word) and how her story started.
DJOELS: “I did my first tattoo when I was nineteen, but my interest and love for tattoos started way back. When I was seven, my parents split up and my mom and I were in a difficult place at the time. However, there was also a silver lining: a friend of our family took me under his wing, and little me noticed that he had tattoos. It made them a part of my daily life instead of something strange.”
She cleans up the Elvis-themed tattoo she’s currently working on and continues: “I also have been drawing since I was really young. I attended art school for one year when I was fifteen but that’s it. I taught myself by working at it day in and day out. And it’s the same with tattoos: it’s all I do and want to do. It’s my life.”
“I’m so fortunate and grateful that my mom has always supported me in what I do with my art. She’s always sharing pictures on Facebook and with Ink Master when I was away from home, she was so supportive. Actually, my favorite tattoo that I have is a photo-realistic portrait of my mom when she herself was two. She taught me: if you believe and work hard, everything’s possible. I know it’s about as cliché as it gets, but for me, that’s still my mantra.”
“The actual professional start for me was an apprenticeship; that’s how a lot of tattoo artists gain their first experience. Just helping out in a shop and learning the tricks of the trade before even holding a tattoo machine. The good thing was that I immediately started practicing on human skin instead of on pigskin or something similar.
True story: I once tattooed my own skin for four hours straight after a bad break-up. I tried to clean it up a bit some years later but I couldn’t even take it for more than an hour. (laughs)”
As I’m trying to reposition my 6’ 2” on the low tattoo chair as gracefully as possible, I notice a ‘divide’ between her paintings on the wall and her tattoo style.
DJOELS explains: “You’re right: my paintings are full-color, a mix of realistic and hints of watercolor; my tattoos are almost all black and grey realism, even though I’d love to get more into color realism. My murals are more abstract. With tattoos, composition is crucial. And with paintings for example, flow is key. Plus I get to slather big sloshes of paint all over a canvas, which is a lot of fun as well (laughs). The funny thing is, I find it really difficult to sell my paintings because I just get so attached to each of them. With murals, of course, you know they’ll be gone someday, but it’s such a great feeling when you drive by a huge wall with your art on it. In your head you’re all like ‘Hell yeah, I did that!’. I recently did a really cool large piece on the outside of a stage at Pukkelpop festival” (Pukkelpop is a 3-day music festival in Belgium, attracting 180.000+ visitors each year)
GIRL POWER: ‘DIE KLEINE BELG’
JANDERLUST FACT TIME: ‘kleine Belg’ is a common expression in Dutch (which is also spoken in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium) meaning ‘little Belgian’, referring to our underdog mentality. It’s a sarcastic way of saying we’re a small country but are still able to do some serious butt-kicking. And since DJOELS isn’t that tall, the humor suits her perfectly. By the way, she even has some shirts for sale that read: ‘DIE KLEINE BELG – INK MASTER’.
During our talk, DJOELS keeps hammering away at the black and grey sleeve. Her multi-tasking skills are pretty unreal: managing two apprentices, talking to a convention rep that rolled in during the interview and keeping her client relaxed and happy. (And here I am, not even able to write this piece with the TV on in the background). In the way she talks about art and the tattoo scene, one thing’s clear: DJOELS is here and she’s here to stay. It’s a well-known fact in Belgium that people from the western part of the country are tenacious workers, so that rumour certainly seems to check out. We get to talking about the inked elephant in the room: her winning the Ink Master 2017, where her work ethic shone through once more.
Djoels: “I knew Ink Master from the US series, but I have to admit I wasn’t a fanatic or anything. When I heard about ‘Ink Master der Lage Landen’, I was skeptical at first but my mom and friends all said I simply had to do it. So I did. Ink Master was a crazy experience, a real ‘mind fuck’ at times. The final challenge was a Battle Royale back piece of 8 hours straight, no breaks. It’s SO tiring but you have that desire to succeed, and also a responsibility toward your canvas to do the best you can. Getting that recognition and that trophy was the best. feeling. ever.”
JANDERLUST FACT TIME: a ‘Battle Royale’ is an epic battle scene between multiple animals, with snake, eagle and tiger being the more common ones.
By now I’m hovering over DJOELS and her client for some action pictures, trying not to disrupt the vibe too much. I ask her about the other contestants and how it feels to be a woman in the predominantly male tattoo world.
Djoels: “Well, I don’t see myself as a ‘female tattoo artist with something to prove’. I’m a ‘tattoo artist with something to prove’. Full stop. But there is truth to it: at conventions and even while shooting Ink Master you have guys going “Look at that little girl, what’s she doing here?”. But then I bang out this bad ass piece, and then, only then, do you get the respect that you deserve. It’s a bit sad but I’ve always had this ‘go get’em’ attitude. For example, if I had come in second place at Ink Master, I’d be really disappointed. It’s the first place for losers, no offence! (laughs). Just to be clear: I do have to say that most guys on the show really took care of me and we all became very close as the show went on. (…) When it comes to picking things up from the other artists, I learned the most from Jay Freestyle: his composition is great, he’s smooth and extremely motivated. I respect that.”
“The impact of Ink Master on my day-to-day is palpable: clients come from farther away to get tattooed by me and I’m booked solid almost a year ahead. It’s not like there’s a line around the block, but business is definitely good! (laughs)”
TATTOO CONVENTIONS & TRAVEL
Well, this wouldn’t be a tattoo AND travel blog if we didn’t touch upon the travel-part.
DJOELS: “I haven’t traveled a lot, but I’ve done many guest spots in Belgium and the Netherlands. My favorite convention thusfar is Ink Mania in Hasselt (Belgium). I had a spot in the jury there and was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism since it was only the first year it was organized. (…) In the future, I’d love to free up some of my schedule to see the world: my mom’s crazy about Thailand, and I really want to see the pyramids in South America. By the way, Jan: what’s your favorite country?”
Me: “Well, that would have to be…” *starts listing about every country in Asia*
And to wrap this up, here’s DJOELS’ advice for aspiring tattoo artists:
“It all boils down to your art skills. Draw, draw and then…draw some more!
Just never lose faith and keep working hard at your passion!”
DJOELS INK is located at Gaversesteenweg 16 – 9800 Deinze
Contact her through Facebook (at the moment of writing, books are closed til March 2018)
DJOELS INK is sponsored by TATTOOLS
More info on djoelsink.be