Shot! Touka Voodoo

They say every picture tells a story, well none tell their’s better than a good portrait. And no portraits are better than those of people with an interesting face. It’s why I am constantly drawn to shooting portraits.

But not just anyone gets me standing in front of them camera in hand. They have to have something about them, something about them that’s out of the ordinary.

More often than not, my live music images tend to be close-ups of musician’s faces. It’s the same when I’m shooting someone famous. In fact, it’s the same with pretty much everyone I photograph.

I often tell people if you want your images to be more interesting go stand in front of something more interesting. Usually that’s easier said than done, as genuinely interesting things are usually elusive and require seeking out.

Of course, if you’re in the right place at the right time, your chances of coming across something interesting is heightened. A tattoo convention is just one of those places where you’d expect to find interesting looking people, which is why I’ve been a regular visitor to the Brighton Tattoo Convention. Each year, as I become more selective over who I shoot, the bar of ‘what’s interesting’ is bumped up just a little higher.

Events like these draw big crowds and, as you’d expect, virtually everyone attending is adorned in ink. I like to think that I’ve developed a practiced eye for spotting someone out of the ordinary. And as soon as I laid mine on Touka Voodoo, I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

Over the years I’ve met and photographed many unusual looking people, but none have been quite so weird and wonderful as Touka, or with such an interesting story. Indeed, it was only when we got chatting that I began to realise quite how interesting Touka really was. On the surface it was all about the tattoos, but the reality was much more than skin deep.

Touka was born in Iran in 1972. 45 years ago, as the late Lou Reed famously sung “he was a she” and sometime later the family left Iran for Sweden, a country which has had a huge influence on Touka’s life.

Today, Touka is a tattoo artist based in Stockholm and, when asked about gender, responds “I’m not one or the other, I’m both!” Having had gender modification surgery, Touka is now a self-described “hybrid human” Despite being a transgender androgyne, in order to make it easy for me to talk about Touka, I’ll refer to him in the male tense.

Now anyone who has a full face tattoo is going to stand out. After all, inking your entire face is the last great taboo, there’s no hiding place under clothing. And you’re going to be judged, immediately, by everyone who sees you, as being something very different. And for Touka, being different has been the story of his life. His parents couldn’t agree what to call him and he remained nameless for a month until a friend came to visit with a book called A Toucan in a Cage by Nima Yushij. It was a story about freedom and it gave Touka his name.

In 1986, when Touka was 14, he and his mother relocated to Sweden where he’d go on to study textile design. At the end of the 90’s Touka moved again, this time to London where he quickly became involved in the world of tattooing. Back then he was a self-proclaimed “radical ‘femme’ lesbian” had long hair, wore high heels and worked as an exotic dancer!

At first he was tattooed by other artists, but soon he began self-tattooing. By 2009, he had started inking his face and was working at London’s famed Divine Canvas tattoo studio. A few years later, following a mastectomy, he was living as a “super-manly man”, complete with a beard and a girlfriend.

Today, Touka’s body has been modified to be neither male nor female and he’s back in Stockholm where he has recently opened his own tattoo studio, Stockholm Alternative.

But as interesting as his backstory was, it was his face that fascinated me. Fortunately, like so many who attend tattoo conventions, Touka was happy to be photographed and was even prepared to leave his booth so I could shoot him against a plain background.

Whilst having a full face of tattoos is not unique, most of those that I’ve seen just look a mess. Touka’s however is remarkable because his style is very unusual. Often with tattoos, the design is definite: a shape, a word, a recognisable character. With Touka, it’s much more organic, much more freeform. And because of that, much more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of tattoos in many different styles, but nothing quite like his.

But even though his entire face is covered in ink, it’s his eyes that make the portraits so special and leave such an indelible impression.

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. At events like the Tattoo Convention, you have very little time with your subjects: the artists are there to work and the visitors are either being tattooed or watching others get inked. That means you’ve got to work fast and work within the constraints of a busy show floor filled with people. I was fortunate Touka was great to shoot and that I found a plain dark background against which to shoot him. I decided to go black and white only because it’s a look I’m particularly enjoying right now, but they look equally good in colour. I’m really pleased with these portraits, although I wonder whether I’ll ever get to shoot anyone else who is quite as interesting to look at as Touka! Shot in Brighton on 13 May 2017.

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Gary Marlowe

Gary Marlowe

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people