Kirk Nilsen, a Tattooist Inspired by the Ancient World

Kirk Nilsen, an American tattoo artist, is devoted to his work. 

Kirk Nilsen’s early works were motivated by customer demands for Mehndi designs, while he avoided drawing inspiration from cultures other than his own. Nilsen has been influenced by historical European buildings, medieval art, folk art, and textile art since he began tattooing in 2007. His mandalas tattoos are more symbolic and intricate, emulating specific examples of Greco-Roman structures, ceramic tiles, and filigree. He wants to design his customers’ bodies to look like majestic architectural columns. If Nilsen had lived in antiquity, he would have created works for knights’ armor, carved city walls, and made tapestries. His private studio, “Crown & Anchor,” is located in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and the ancient world inspires the name and the majority of the blackwork he creates.

Above: Kirk Nilsen, an American tattoo artist, is devoted to his work. 
Occasionally, his intricate geometric tattoos mimic cathedral windows and old architectural embellishments.
Occasionally, his intricate geometric tattoos mimic cathedral windows and old architectural embellishments.

Before becoming a tattoo artist, what occupations did you hold?

I had a lot of odd jobs right out of high school; working at arts-and-crafts supply stores, Target (which I am banned from working at for life, haha), and designing side art projects for band tour posters and album art. I worked at a bagel store while apprenticing at the Aflac insurance company.

Nilsen's blend of stippling and line techniques is seen up close.
Nilsen’s blend of stippling and line techniques is seen up close.

Why did you choose a career as a tattoo artist?

Art! I have loved drawing and designing since I was a child. I used to draw baseball and football trading cards in first grade and sell them to kids at school. I also love architecture and interior design — my tattooing is that. I am just carving architectural works onto the human form. There was always the “cool” factor of tattoos. I had them; my friends had them, and we all wanted more. I started tattooing for fun (self-taught at home) and quickly realized as a medium, I prefer tattooing over painting on a canvas.

On the chest of his client is one of Nilsen's most intricate tattoos.
On the chest of his client is one of Nilsen’s most intricate tattoos.

In 2007, you had your first tattoo before beginning your apprenticeship. Who did you train under?

Scott Winters, one of the oldest men in my area, was my mentor. Winters apprenticed in San Francisco while in the Navy in the 1960s by another Bay Area legend (who’s name I don’t recall). We left on bad terms, but I am always grateful for him giving me the opportunity. He was a rough biker kind of guy, but that’s what tattooing was for a long time, and I still enjoyed my time there. One of the best things he ever did was force me to do all the Celtic knot work and tribal and detailed linework designs that no one wanted to do. It was my punishment for being the new guy, but that helped mold me into who I am today. And the first few months, I traced every single line on graph paper. Winters’ idea was always, no matter how bad your shading or coloring was, as long as the line work is solid, it won’t ever look bad.

This exquisite tattoo sleeve transforms shapes into patterns.
This exquisite tattoo sleeve transforms shapes into patterns.

Why did you choose the crown and anchor as the motif for your private studio’s name and logo?

I was watching a History Channel documentary, and there was a part where they said British sailors were playing a game of “Crown & Anchor,” and that just stuck. In hindsight, I’m not super stoked on the name; but it’s been here for ten years now and well established, and I HATE dealing with paperwork, so changing it would be too much of a hassle.

The logo is also just a motif of my style, simplified into a medieval-styled heraldic war banner. I have it hanging outside the shop. I wanted it to represent my art style in its most basic form, and since we no longer go around conquering tribes and becoming local warlords, I still have a natural hyper-aggressive approach to my work. When I draw, tattoo, and conduct business, I am in a war. It reminds me that I am my little emperor or my little art space and never to falter, slow down and think I have won. The banners are up; the war is still raging. I keep working harder, keep progressing, and keep getting better. Do not allow someone else to take over.

The artist's dotwork method is examined closely.
The artist’s dotwork method is examined closely.

Are you interested in living in a castle?

Absolutely! I love castles and old-world aesthetics in general. My shop is a modern Spanish-styled medieval showroom. As I said before, I would love to be some old-world emperor in a high-rise castle overlooking the world. I have honestly looked at old properties of castles for sale to live and tattoo in. My studio has a 10ft high archway, 15 ft high ceilings I had put in, and I have been looking for a 14/15th-century medieval castle door to put inside the archway. I was looking for the right design.

For this tattoo art piece, Nilsen had complete creative freedom.
For this tattoo art piece, Nilsen had total creative freedom.

You are the grandchild of Norwegian and Portuguese immigrants. Please describe your heritage in further detail. Why did your grandparents come to America? Where in Portugal did they originate?

So I think they all came thinking the streets were made of gold, haha. But yes, mostly looking for green pastures, a better wealthier life. They came from the Azores, which I have no idea why they would leave; that place is incredible! And I have only been to Lisbon, unfortunately. They also had a long English line from John Wadham [was a Justice of the Common Pleas from 1389 to 1398, during King Richard’s reign]. As a result, I am related to John Adams [the second US president], Winston Churchill [Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945], Diana [Princess of Wales], and others. There are also a few recent finds from the revolutionary war.

The artist in his New Jersey private shop.
The artist in his New Jersey private shop.

Therefore, you are a descendant of John Wadham and the American revolutionary Caleb Carman (founder of New Jersey). How did you arrive at this conclusion? What does it mean to you to have aristocratic and historically influential relatives?

Back to the genealogy, I accidentally went ahead. So my grandparents kept insanely good records and even traveled back to their home countries to get everything. My grandmother made an immense family tree with everything — IRS records, Ellis island, land deeds, birth certificates, gravestones, intense research and piles of paperwork, etc. She had told us the direct lineages to certain things she knew of, and then I could find other records online from long-held databases of prominent families. It was pretty cool finding that out and knowing that they did do some things I thought were probably not the smartest but “noble” at the time — such as giving up massive plots of land to the state of New Jersey.

It also makes me wonder if some gene is passed down that explains why I am so hyper-invested and aggressive in all of my endeavors. Since I was young, I’ve felt that I should excel at something and that mediocrity and settling are unacceptable. A constant need for adventure, travel, and progression. I never think I am good enough at anything or doing good in life. No matter where I am at in anything, I feel there is something always greater off in the distance to attain. I can’t even have hobbies; they turn into an obsession that I have to conquer, and I will always compare the things I do to the greatest in the world, and I will never stop learning and trying until I can surpass the most excellent times ten. It has yet to happen, so my life will constantly be work and struggle until I die.

A glimpse of Nilsen’s studio inside, “Crown & Anchor.”
A glimpse of Nilsen’s studio inside, “Crown & Anchor.”

In addition, your Instagram account is filled with beautiful natural photographs. Is this connected to your passion for travel, or do you also shoot images with a camera?

I love traveling and adventuring! I hate that I live in a time when everything is known and discovered. I would love to have sailed the world to find unknown areas when there was still mystery and myth. I also love photos of nature. I take so many pictures; there is such a polarity in my thought process. I either want to live in a cave in the woods, living off the land in small tribal communities just hunting and gathering and living at one with nature, or rebuild the world into a gorgeous, ancient Roman-style villa, marble streets, and columns and gold statues everywhere.

Photos © Kirk Nilsen