C. Olaf Hognell

Tattoo/Leather/Multi-Media Artist

“I’ve always liked making art my whole life for a variety of different reasons, in a variety of different mediums.”

Art As Air was drawn to C. Olaf Högnell as a tattoo artist specializing in Norse and Celtic knot-work and designs of his own making, while channelling old-school creativity dating back centuries. We began to peel back the layers and soon found there were many more dimensions, including fine leather art and pen and ink. Having come from a line of craftsmen, “Chuk” as he is called, is perpetuating craft and techniques that could easily become a thing of the past. But for now, they live on in this unique artisan.

“I’ve always been drawing; pen & ink have been my primaries, which got me into tattooing. I’ve been tattooing for about 17 years now. Probably 15 of those years I’ve also been doing leather work, making armour, and my uncle taught me that, so I’ve got some old-world creativity going on with that. A little bit of wood carving…I jump into things. I make knives sometimes, everything but the steelwork, which is cool because I get to collaborate with a variety of different blacksmiths. We brainstorm on things together. They’ll do the steelwork, hand the piece over to me and I’ll do the finish work; the wood, the leather, things like that.

I like doing traditional Scandinavian-inspired, Viking feeling art work that’s related to Norse culture and mythology. The old stories of Odin and Thor and all the gods and Icelandic sagas…that type of imagery started with my grandmother and my Scandinavian heritage which was a strong influence in my life. There’s been a very large resurgence of that in the past 10 or 15 years with people getting in touch with their roots and wanting to express that via tattoos and other mediums. That’s done well for me. People look to me for that kind of art work because I understand it. You can go to any tattoo artist, say hey I want this and show them a picture, and can they do it? Sure. But are they going to understand it? Are they going to understand what certain symbols mean and how certain runes are read? Not necessarily, so they’re coming to me for that specific reason because I understand that. Also because I can create things from scratch. It’s one thing to take a thousand year old design and just reprint it. It’s another thing to take the mood and the feeling of that design, make it your own and adapt it to something, still keeping that old world feel, and have something new going on with it, so it’s yours specifically.

All of the tattoo shading is made up of literally little dots, and this kind of work can be done with traditional tattoo lines or done with hand poked lines where you’re making these lines with dots. It’s kind of a pseudo traditional way to tattoo without machines. There’s a handful of really talented guys who do this, most of them out of Denmark. They’re colleagues of mine. We share ideas, but there’s really nobody here in the US who does this, so I get a variety of clients who come around that can’t necessarily travel. Art has always been a part of people’s lives and cultures. Different cultures can be defined by the types of art work that come out of those cultures. Whether its actual physical art work, like paintings or carvings or clothing styles, it all falls into the category of art work. So whatever that draw is for you, whether it’s a Scandinavian or Asian piece, whatever draws you to that culture, it doesn’t have to be your culture, just one you appreciate. I do plenty of Scandinavian art on non- Scandinavian people, because they just appreciate that type of work.

The tattooing industry is rapidly growing. As far as how much of an impact I’m making on that, I don’t know, I just enjoy doing it. Leatherworking is a little different. That, to a degree is a dying art. There’s not a lot of people that do that, and there’s even fewer people that do it well. I look all over Etsy and things like that and I see people doing leather, and there’s a couple of really talented guys out there, and there’s a lot of garbage. But it’s very hard to find somebody to teach you the really proper old-school way of doing that. I learned from my Uncle Benny, who was a well-known leather artist in Sweden. He took me under his wing when I was younger. He recognized the art in me and he said ‘you can do tattoo so well, so I know you can do this leather.’ So he pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, and I enjoyed doing it and learned more and more and more. This is a little different so I’ve taken my own path with it, but I always revert back to him, still asking questions like ‘how do I do this, and how do I do that’ because he’s absolutely the master at it.

Once a year, every June, I do this Viking festival in Iceland, and for six weeks before that I dramatically cut back on my tattooing and really focus on that leather work. I’ll be there all hours at night just hammering away at it, making stuff; trying to open new ideas and trying to keep a lot of my standard material alive too. It’s a good way to keep your mind fresh to change that medium up every once in a while and do different things.

If everything you did was exactly the same and it was easy, you’re not really going to grow from that. You might be really good at that, but you’re not going to grow. When you have these challenges, that’s what s going to make you grow. I appreciate that sometimes. OK, that might have been a little bit of a pain in my ass at first and a little bit confusing and frustrating, but now I can say that I’m a better artist because of it.

Tattooing is different. It’s unlike any other art form in that your canvas is alive. That canvas is going to change and you have to compensate for things. Whereas if you’re marking a pen on paper or a brush on canvas, it’s going to stay that way, unless you light it on fire or drive over it with your car. If you put ink in skin, you have to then turn that art work over to your client and trust them to take care of it, which sometimes works out wonderfully and sometimes not. You’re dealing with people having different skin chemistries. Some people will go out into the sun and destroy all of your work you put your heart and soul into, some people will take care of the piece really well. There are just so many factors that are unpredictable.

I can enjoy every day of my life and do it, and I think that is more valuable than anything else. I’m probably never going to be a millionaire doing this, but my quality of life is better because I enjoy what I’m doing. I can take my job and go anywhere I want to in the world. As long as there’s somebody in the world who appreciates what I’m doing, I can do it there.