Ink On Ink: Robert Borbas

When it comes to working with single colour ink–and that would of course be our old friend, the black–there are few in the world who can make it sing and dance like Robert Borbas. Sion Smith navigates the forests of Hungary with a trusty old lamp…

There’s something about Hungary–and a select few other eastern European countries–that makes people see things differently. My guess is that it’s in the folklore. In the next country along (to the right) you’ll fine the source of Bram Stoker’s masterwork, it’s not so far out of range that the collected tales of those Grimm brothers couldn’t gather material either but it’s not without its own very specific set of tales either - they’re just not so well known. To illustrate a little:

in Hungarian myth, the world is divided into three spheres: the first is the Upper World (Felső világ), the home of the gods; the second is the Middle World (Középső világ) or world we know, and finally the Underworld (Alsó világ). In the centre of the world stands a tall tree: the World Tree / Tree of Life (Világfa/Életfa). Its foliage is the Upper World, and the Turul bird dwells on top of it, the Middle World is located at its trunk and the Underworld is around its roots.

When you grow up around material like this, it means something. 

Enter Robert Borbas–a man who has been tattooing for a scant four years–who is more than well versed in his heritage, that’s for sure. Whether he knows it or not. 

The one time animation director who made cartoons for children, soon made his mark as an illustrator for a clique of metal bands (including the mighty Metallica) and eventually found himself with a tattoo machine in his hand working under the massive talent of Zsolt Sarkozy at Dark Art Tattoo - the rest, as they say, is history, so how does a man make the jump from an art form that has possibly the slowest process to create something to what is effectively, one of the most immediate?

“My story with animation was super intense but super short. I was studying at the Contemporary University of Arts in Budapest. I spent three years there and during the last year, I had already started to work for local bands. I was a student and I have two younger brothers who were still studying as well, so I decided to help my parents out… at least in this respect. I tried to make a little money to cover my own daily expenses and slowly, I quit making animations after I got my diploma.

"I still love cartoons–animated shorts especially when its mixed media–but in the meantime, I felt I could express more with my ‘stills’ than making 2000 frames for three months when the result is half as good as one of my more detailed illustrations!

“I was working on several shorts actually–animated advertisements but I have to admit, it’s pretty much not my cup of tea.”

Despite the work as an illustrator rolling in and Borbas holding things together back home, sometime around 2012, all of this work simply disappears from his online portfolio–or rather, it stops: dead in its tracks. An educated guess on my behalf suggests a lot of work went on behind the scenes here to make it happen quite so seamlessly.

“Ha! It was a lot of work. People were confused when I started to post my first pieces. Some of them even asked if I designed the tattoo and somebody else had tattooed it.

“But after a couple of months–when my illustrations started to ‘disappear’–all the new followers came to visit my social media pages just because of the tattoos. I didn’t really plan this and I actually still do a lot of illustrations. I’m just not super active posting them up. I don’t want to overloads my pages with different types of content. I try to focus on showcasing my tattoo work and push forwards with that as much as possible. Illustration is still my love but it became more like a ‘free time’ kind of thing.

“Next year I’m planning to take off at least five to six days a month to spend them doing personal paintings, illustrations and band merchandise. I would like to make at least one or two prints in every two to three months: silk screened, hand numbered and signed. I certainly don’t want stop any kind of creative activity! 

“So besides tattooing, I am still quite active as an illustrator.”

I recall reading online somewhere that amongst Borbas’ influences were Albrecht Dürer and Alphonse Mucha. Dürer I can take on board easily, but Mucha? A subtle one perhaps?

“Well, Mucha was a Czech painter, poster-maker and as far as I am concerned, a genius. His attention to the elegant details yet bittersweet messages behind his works are just perfect. Mucha is more like a poetic inspiration for me. Sometimes I will incorporate art nouveu-ish elements in my work. I even did some ‘reproductions’ of Mucha works, but I consider him more like an idol whose life was nothing but a masterpiece in general!”

At which point, I confess that the way–and the subject matter Borbas plays with–is everything I love about tattooing. Keeping with the subject on being influenced, I throw into the arena that my favourite artist of all time is Gustave Dore and I actually see a lot of influence between Borbas and he, and certainly a lot more than the others we have mentioned. Somehow, he was able to tell dark tales without ever being ‘messy’ about it. All of his work is very simple, unbelievably clean and yet, the stories he tries to tell, spill out of his work every single time–and that’s pretty much the effect Borbas has on me. Whether or not Dore is a direct influence, I wonder if it’s the intention with his work to make the tattoo tell a story (as well as be a fine tattoo) long after the tattoo walks away?

“Dore is another hero for me, absolutely. I love every single piece of work he made. Storytelling is hard to do even with words, so sometimes to come up with the right composition, right elements, line weight or effects is hard for me.

“Once I have everything in the right place, coming up with the actual sketch is super fast, but the real thing happens once it’s applied underneath the skin!

“Every tattoo belongs to its owner, and changes with the customer. For example, my own tattoos become more and more precious as time passes and that’s my aim with my work. It’s about showcasing someone’s spirit and incorporating elements from my imagination, but the tattoo should work as eye candy too.”

Going back to my statement at the beginning about how eastern Europeans appear to think differently, I bring it up here because it definitely comes from the heart rather than being embraced on purpose. It’s as though artists who hail from those Eastern countries, who are brought up with truly wild nature, have a lot greater understanding of how to work with darkness than maybe those who come from the west. Maybe it stems from the way they are brought up as kids and from what they are taught…

“I love this question and I’m super happy to answer it.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘miserable’, but middle eastern European countries and the people living inside of them are generally way more pessimistic about life in general. I always try to examine everything from a positive perspective but as you mentioned, this dark, ‘bittersweet’ thing is definitely in our blood.

“The whole educational system is different as well compared to the western cultures. For example, art education, especially fine art in schools and universities is super strong. The influence from western cultures in the past 20 to 30 years… talking about pop-art, music etc is super huge and this mixture ended up in a modern and innovative form–it doesn’t matter if we call it tattooing or painting. 

“It’s also worth noting that because the level is so high out there, we are kind of forced to push ourselves and progress as much as we can.”

Which is a good point at which to ask if he still finds the time to discover new work to be excited about in the world - new artists who bring new ways of thinking to the world… and if so, just who are they? 

“Artists like John D. Baizley who is an excellent illustrator and a mind-blowingly good musician as well are the kind of artists who make the world a more exciting place.

“Jacob Bannon, Aaron Horkey, Dan Mumford, Josh Belanger and so many more are out there creating mind-blowing stuff day by day… so for me, checking out their work is always an extra impetus that pushes me to work harder.”

There’s a tattoo that Borbas created a little while ago which I think is one of the finest things I have ever seen. Out of interest - would this be a case of the client giving full creative freedom or is that the client having very exact instructions? It’s absolutely one of the most beautiful tattoos I’ve ever seen and I could ‘read’ it forever. For those of you who don’t happen to be in the room right now–which is all of you–I’m talking about this image below:

“First of all thanks a lot for the kind words, but it’s cool that you mention this piece because it’s still in my top five favourite pieces I’ve done and I wouldn’t change a single line on it. I’m not saying it’s perfect, sure it’s not but it’s the piece which reflects me perfectly. It lives on a long-time good customer of mine. He gave me the basic idea that the tattoo had to be based on a scene from the TV series, Hannibal.”

“At first, I was worried about how I could make it a cool piece and not an offensive and gross thing on a chest. I hesitated over whether to use this amount of skin tone as negative space and honestly, until the last line, it didn’t look like how I imagined it in myhead. But, when I had finished the shading around the woman it just came alive.

“Since then, I’ve used the extremely clean, negative spaces again, but nothing like this. I’m going to make the stomach part of this as well and I already have some concepts in my head as to how we can connect it together with this one: making it one complex piece which is visually good but also has a super strong meaning.”

Is there always this much freedom with clients?

“A lot of people tell me: “Do whatever you want”, which is an extremely huge honour, but it could also end up in a big misunderstanding. So what I prefer is, having at least two to three keywords and a pointer to a couple of my previous pieces of work which the customer is really into as a reference point, and also some keywords of things he/she does not like.

“That’s the best way of working with me. Sometimes people ask for weird things, but I always try to convince them to change it a little to make a great tattoo in the end.

“I also refuse and reject any kind of racist or sexist related work. I hate Nazi douchebags! Other than that, I’m really open minded to any ideas and I can add my own twist to them.”

So what next? Concentrate on making the studio everything it can be?

“Yes, for now I need to focus on Rooklet Ink as much as possible. I want to build a name for it. I would love to make it an appreciated, high qualitystudio with a good reputation and with the people I work with, I know it’s possible. They are nothing but joy and inspiration for me.”

On which note, I don’t think we need any more words to describe what you see in front of you here. Now I just need to find my way back home again…


If you're in the market, you can find Robert right about here.

Originally published in Skin Deep Issue 262, which you can find right about here.