Collaboration tattoos can be incredibly daunting for both the client and the artists. The peril for the client is obvious—getting tattooed by one person hurts enough. Now double it. The challenges for the artists are far more nuanced. On top of the pain above to the client, artists must consider how well their styles go together, how they plan to map out the tattooing so they don’t get in each other’s way, and much more. It’s far more complex than you may imagine.
Eden Calif, a tattoo artist based in Tel Aviv, Israel, decided that for her very first tattoo convention—a rite of passage that can be incredibly daunting—she’d attempt to collaborate with her friend Nikita Tukhtarov. After two grueling days of effort, all that hard work paid off as the pair won Best of Show at the Israel Tattoo Convention. We spoke to both artists about how art influenced them from a young age, their preference for black and grey, the award-winning collaboration, and much more.
Can you introduce yourselves and tell us when you became interested in art?
Eden, Calif: There was always a delightful aroma of cooking in my friends’ homes. In my house, there was a scent of turpentine. That’s how it is when you grow up in the home of artists. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawing, painting, sculpting, and playing music. It was a creative and free childhood.
My name is Eden Calif. I’m 24 years old and from Tel Aviv, Israel. I’m a tattoo artist and the owner of Exodus Tattoo Studio for the past year alongside my partner and significant other. My mother is an artist and a painting teacher. Whenever she found the opportunity, she taught me various painting techniques about light and shadow, depth, perspective, the greatest artists in history, and more. I used to resist; I would refuse to listen to her and ask her to stop talking about art all day. She never gave up on me and always praised me while I was drawing. Along the way, she gave me tips and then quickly left before I lost my patience. That’s how I grew up, in a house full of chaos, canvases drying in every corner, colors in the kitchen, brushes in the sink, pencils on the floor, and glitters in the yard. Without thinking about it too much, art became an inseparable part of me.
Nikita Tukhtarov: My name is Nikita. I started my creative journey in 2017. I work in a style close to neo-Japanese but with twists and flair. Now, I exclusively work in black and grey. I’ve been interested in art since childhood. I always enjoyed drawing on paper, but it didn’t go beyond drawing at home in my free time. I didn’t graduate from any art schools or courses. I try to learn everything either on my own or from artists I meet along the way.
What made you want to become a tattoo artist?
Eden: I grew up in a city that didn’t appreciate and honor art. I didn’t have friends who were artists, and I felt like an outcast in the local scene. After years of doodling at the back of the classroom’s desks, at the age of 15, a kid from the grade above me turned to me and asked me to sketch a tattoo design for him. I’ll never forget that moment. It sounds silly to me today, but I couldn’t believe someone would want my drawing on them forever back then. Soon after, more guys asked, and more and more. I couldn’t keep up with the pace. Out of sheer excitement, I bought a tattoo machine online and started exploring this world alone.
Nikita: I’ve always liked tattoos. Even in school, I imagined what I would get as a teenager. But now I’m glad my fantasies didn’t come true [laughs]. The main factor in deciding to become a tattoo artist was my love for drawing, which I believe is the most important. But drawing only on canvas or paper seemed very dull to me. So, I decided to try tattooing, and I enjoyed it.
How did you start tattooing?
Eden: After a year of “playing” at home with the machine I bought and making all the possible mistakes, I received a phone call from an experienced tattoo artist who offered to teach me how to tattoo in exchange for working and doing sketches for her. Of course, I agreed. In no time, I worked at her studio every day, all day. The “deal” was quite exploitative. She insisted on teaching me how to tattoo, but in all the time I worked under her, I did everything except tattooing. I endured yelling, humiliation, and biting my lips to hold back tears. I was given bizarre tasks unrelated to tattooing. I felt like I wasn’t progressing and I was wasting my time. After a few months, I realized I was even hungrier to learn how to tattoo than when I started. I sought a new studio that would accept me as an apprentice and teach me how to tattoo. It wasn’t easy to find that place, but I didn’t give up at any stage. I moved through several studios, learning different things in each location. It was a frustrating period. I never had a mentor who believed in me and gave me all the tools. I had to gather them slowly over the years. I’m thrilled that today, in my studio, I can provide young artists with a different starting point.
Nikita: I had a few sessions with a tattoo artist friend, where they taught me how to set up my workspace and the rules of asepsis and antiseptics, and I even did a tattoo under my mentor’s supervision. After that, I started tattooing independently and gradually learned new techniques for working with skin. My first team played an essential role in my development. They were skilled artists who helped me continue to enhance my skills.
What’s the tattoo scene like in Israel?
Eden: Tattoos in Israel are relatively new in the landscape. If we go back 30 years, people with tattoos were associated with criminals, immigrants, and rebels. Only in the past decade have we seen the field gradually enter the realm of fashion. Israel is a Jewish country with religious influence that directly affects the tattoo scene. The most popular styles in recent years have been fine-line and mini-realism, and this is not a coincidence. The tattooed audience is at a point where they want to get a new tattoo, but at the same time, they don’t want to be looked at in a way that’s too different or judgmental. Families don’t always take it well, respected workplaces don’t view it as favorable, and street glances are not always kind. So, most people prefer small and discreet tattoos or ones hidden under clothing.
Today, the boundaries are still being pushed, and it’s no longer considered extreme to be tattooed. Exodus Studio, which we opened in Tel Aviv, aims to legitimize and introduce all dark genres, significant and groundbreaking works, to the Israeli eye. It’s revolutionary, and it’s working!
Alongside all this, the number of studios and tattoo artists is growing, and artists from all over the world are coming to visit. Customer awareness and appreciation for original art are also increasing, but there’s a long way to go.
It’s exciting for me to see this change in front of me. Being in the peak of a period of change and development is very interesting, with its advantages and disadvantages, like everything, but it’s part of the charm.
Nikita: As a guest of the country, the Israeli tattoo scene looks like this: many determined and creative artists aren’t afraid to experiment and try something new. Such an atmosphere significantly contributes to development, and I like that.
How did you find your current style?
Eden: Naturally, I’ve always been drawn to drawing faces, animals, and nature, combining a subtle emotion with darkness and gloom. I used to sketch with pencils, which was my most comfortable medium. Before I started tattooing, I drew in a style close to illustrating art, combining it with watercolors, and primarily focused on female portraits.
My current style still incorporates those same elements but in a slightly different variation. As I delved deeper into tattooing, I understood that the drawings I loved might not always be suitable to be tattooed practically. Some changes and adjustments need to be made when tattooing on a living body rather than paper. As I was exposed to more tattoo artists, my taste and style evolved toward something slightly different, with new inspiration and insights that made my old style more innovative. There’s a lot of consideration for body flow; designs were initially conceived to breathe and remain clean, with high contrast. This ensures the longevity of the tattoo over the years.
Nikita: My style results from a lot of trial and error. I believe that you can only develop a style that stands out from others through this path. I tried traditional tattoos, non-traditional ones, Japanese, realism, and even worked with color for quite some time. Since artists understand mainly through their eyes, one of the most critical factors in finding your style and taste is how much time you spend viewing and analyzing everything that can inspire you.
What motivates you to keep creating?
Eden: To avoid getting tired of a specific motif, it’s essential to diversify and challenge ourselves occasionally. To do things that we’re not accustomed to. Elements that excite me every single time are faces. Every time I reach the facial features—the eyes, the nose, the lips—it’s as if I’m in another dimension. Everything else about the tattoo becomes highly technical, but when I reach those parts, my heartbeat rises, and I’m genuinely “creating” the artwork’s existence in those moments.
Nikita: Occasionally, I get tired of everything I do, so I don’t think there’s a single motive. At the moment, I’m inspired by motifs from Asian culture, but everything can change rapidly, and I might start enjoying something else. For example, at the end of 2018, I stopped doing black-and-grey and focused all my attention on colored tattoos. This lasted for about two years, and since 2020, I’ve been working only with black pigment.
Do you ever see yourself working with color?
Eden: I integrate what I draw. Black-and-grey, sometimes blending techniques that resemble watercolors at critical points in the design. I don’t work in color, so I don’t think I’ll add color until I become proficient in it. Perhaps I’ll start experimenting with something and find it exciting, or maybe it’s not my cup of tea. It’s okay not to excel at everything.
In the aesthetic realm, I wouldn’t want colorful tattoos on my body. I believe that black tattoos are meant to stand the test of time and are more versatile with various outfits. So, I wouldn’t suggest someone I’m tattooing get a colored tattoo if I am not at peace with it.
Nikita: I worked with color for some time and didn’t plan to return to that experience. Simplicity inspires me more, and color significantly complicates the perception of designs and tattoos.
Where do you envision your art going in the future? Do you work in any other mediums?
Eden: I’m still beginning my journey as a tattoo artist, and therefore, I hope my future will mainly involve tattoos. I work very hard to learn and improve all the time. I genuinely enjoy this path.
Besides tattoos, I also draw and believe that occasionally immersing myself in drawing alone can be therapeutic and enjoyable. In the artistic realm, in the coming year, I plan to establish several exhibitions in my country, both independently and in collaboration with other artists.
On the professional side, in the coming year, our studio, Exodus, is expanding significantly and will become a central artistic space for artists from all over the world. I’m very excited about what’s ahead.
Nikita: Honestly, it’s tough to predict, but at the moment, I’m considering further simplifying my style. We’ll see where all of this leads in the future.
Tell us about the creation of the award-winning piece from the Israel Tattoo Convention. What inspired this creation?
Eden: It was the first convention I participated in. I didn’t know where I was heading or what it would look like. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work alongside one of the most talented individuals I know, Nikita, AKA @nrrote.
The creation was a collaboration between him and me. We sat down and brainstormed what kind of design we could create, combining our different styles yet still looking cohesive and complete. A plan that we could finish within a few days under pressure, noise, and tension. A design large enough for both of us to work on simultaneously—each on a different side of the tattoo.
Ultimately, we constructed a detailed sketch incorporating a portrait and a mask. A fusion of soft and hard, the clean and the intricate, the good and the bad—it was our most natural choice. We used our strongest muscles because we had two goals: to enjoy and to win.
The journey wasn’t easy, considering our tattoo model posed the main challenge during the work. He couldn’t stay still during the tattooing process. He shouted, moved, jumped, and required numerous long breaks. We realized we were in trouble in the middle of the project and probably wouldn’t finish the tattoo on time. It was a frustrating moment for us, and we almost gave up.
Fortunately, no one in our studio was ready to quit. One team member took the model aside and practiced breathing exercises with him. Another held his hand during the tattoo, another fanned him to provide air, and yet another engaged him in conversation to distract his mind during the tattoo. It was pretty comical, but it worked!
We went through a rollercoaster of two days that’s hard to explain in words. We ended up winning first place, and I couldn’t believe it.
It was an empowering and enlightening experience, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to get to know Nikita. And meeting new artists and creating beautiful things together is always a joyful thing together. I believe that strength lies in unity, and I hope to find more moments like this.
Nikita: This was my first international convention and quite spontaneous. Eden and I decided to create a design for the tradition relatively shortly before it started. It was a collaboration. Essentially, the size and quality of the tattoo are most important at the festival. Collaboration works well for this, as it’s unusual, and working together makes things much faster. You need a bit of skill for this, but you quickly get used to it.
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