A Talk with Gyan about His Tattoos That Look Like Etchings

A tattoo by Gyan of a Victorian bird character sipping tea

Gyan, a 31-year-old from Seoul, studied graphic design in college and later worked in a studio producing posters, books, and videos. He worked as a freelance illustrator before becoming a tattoo artist a few years ago. His love for drawing and imagery led him to believe he could translate well to tattooing, and he gets inspiration from bygone eras rather than modern ones. Everything, from chiseled sculptures to regal crowns, is executed in monochrome or subdued colors, often shaded in stippling technique, which lends these objects a three-dimensional appearance. Gyan’s artistic style is relatively consistent as a newcomer to the tattoo industry. Nonetheless, his immersion in the arts and design has enabled him to become capable swiftly. In the interview, he describes his aesthetic goals in greater detail, which makes it worthwhile to read.

Above: A tattoo by Gyan of a Victorian bird character sipping tea.
Frequently, nature, particularly flora and fauna, is inked - dotwork leaf tattoo
Frequently, nature, particularly flora and fauna, is inked.

How did your graphic design, poster art, and video studies prepare you or serve as a foundation for your tattoo work?

Because I’ve focused a lot on visual composition, I can establish a stable layout when creating designs and placing them on the skin. This is particularly helpful when dealing with clients with various tattoos who may have concerns about placement [and compositional balance]. In the same context, working on the skin helps me regulate the overall tone and detailing. Furthermore, mixing inks or arranging various colors enables me to anticipate the “atmosphere” that will be created. Therefore, I can create colors and tones that complement the design and the client’s skin.

The intricate dotwork on this spiked conch shell is flawless -- tattoo
The intricate dotwork on this spiked conch shell is flawless.

Are there any illustrators who have had an impact on you?

I particularly admire JC Leyendecker. His ability to capture form and shading with straight lines is incredibly appealing. His artwork combines lovely and playful themes and vintage aesthetics, creating a distinctive atmosphere.

stingray tattoo in black and white inks
The movement of the stingrays gives the impression of underwater motion.

Your tattoo shading technique is distinctive, including black stippling and white highlights. Could you describe your approach and aesthetic?

Initially, I used a slow and meticulous approach to build up tones smoothly, aiming for a soft and refined texture. However, I have been experimenting with various techniques lately. For example, I’m using varying line weights to depict shading, with thicker lines for the darker areas and thinner and lighter lines for the brighter areas, like a pencil drawing on paper, and also to achieve a look reminiscent of etching techniques found in printmaking. It’s more appealing to bring out the essence of tattoos, which can be uniquely expressed through drawing rather than replicating reality.

crown tattoo in black and blue
A crown and poetic phrase that is open to interpretation.

Explain your interest in the Greco-Roman, Medieval, and Victorian periods.

I am inspired by the elements of those eras and the beautiful craftsmanship, architecture, clothing, and artworks of those times. For example, the artistic designs seen in Medieval Cathedral stained glass windows, archaeological pieces, and mythological themes from ancient Greece and Rome are excellent sources of inspiration.

popping the cherry tattoo
Popping the cherry may or may not be associated with losing one’s virginity.

What are your favorite creation themes?

Marine life and birds, anything from nature; when I come across captivating images or photos in various media, I desire to draw them. It’s more fun to draw a flexible and free-flowing shape or line than a standardized shape like an artificial object.

classic swallow tattoo in black and white inks
Black and white pigments depict the traditional tattoo swallows.

Indeed, birds are a recurring subject in your portfolio.

Birds are fascinating because their appeal varies depending on the angle and pose. The graceful curves and patterns of their wings create exciting contrasts in shading. Additionally, overlapping multiple birds allows for complex and enjoyable outline work, tailoring the shapes to fit different body parts.

metal ring tattoo in 3d on arm
The dimensionality of this metal ring is evident.

What are your interests outside of work?

I enjoy watching movies, particularly fantasy films like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. I find pleasure in viewing unique costumes and props that are rarely seen in real life. I get inspiration from that.

A homage to a Greco-Roman sculpture. wing in stone tattoo
A homage to a Greco-Roman sculpture.

Give an example of a costume and prop that you liked.

The historical military uniforms and aircraft in “1917” or “Dunkirk,” the mechanics in “The Matrix,” and settings like inversion (time manipulation) in movies such as “Tenet” (while the latter two are not costumes or props related).

tattooer gyan in studio
Gyan prepares his tattoo machine and fine-line needle.

Why do you favor fantasy over reality?

Fantasy movies often break free from real-world constraints, making the impossible possible, introducing intriguing concepts, and drawing from various cultures and traditions.

Photos © Gyan