Iranian-born Berliner Mo Ganji once made close to a six-figure salary working in retail management for a global clothing chain. He left it all to draw lines on skin. Or more precisely, one line. A Mo Ganji tattoo can be simple or complex, but the image is created in one stroke, without lifting pen from paper. The result: animals, mountain ranges, and faces formed in a stark, architectural black outline, and a business that attracts clients from around the world. After coming upon his work on the Internet, we reached out to Ganji to talk.

Q. Are you Iranian? German?

I’m basically German with Persian roots. I was born in 1983 in Tehran and we moved to Germany in 1985. My parents were refugees. My dad wanted to raise his kids in an open-minded country where there’s freedom of speech. I’m very German, to be honest, but I’m Iranian in my parents and the food that I eat.

Q: Tattooing isn’t a very Iranian career choice. What led you to it?

I never studied art. I come from retail. When I turned 30 I’d traveled most of the world, I’d been to over 40 countries, I’d
seen a lot. And I think the older you get, the more questions you have. As an immigrant you have the pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer, your mom saying, “You have to do something because we came here for you.” So you achieve the life standard that everyone is seeking – a good place, a car, a career – and you say, “This is good, I make a lot of money, but it’s not really satisfying. This is not me.”

[Related: Why making art is the new meditation]

I’m lucky. I had so much money, I could afford to take a year off and do tattooing every day, learning from Valentin Hirsch, a good friend who is a tattoo artist. When I first started everyone was laughing and questioning, and I was like, “No, I’m going to do this.” People nowadays are more afraid of their own freedom than they are of war. Because freedom means you’re responsible for yourself. People work a 9 to 5 job because it’s safe. My mom – it’s an Iranian thing – she wants me to be successful. I’m like, “Mom, I want to be happy. I don’t care if I get five dollars or five hundred dollars.”

Q. What’s the idea of the single line?

Everything here comes from the same energy. If I die, I become a tree, and the bird eats the tree and it becomes me. Everyone is one. One continuous energy that just goes and goes and goes.

Q. Do you design the tattoos on paper?

Yes. I do the entire picture without looking, then I look at what’s on the paper and refine it. I think they look ten times
better on skin than on paper, because the body is alive, and the moment you have it under your skin, it comes alive. It has
an energy, a dynamic.

Q. You really don’t look at the image while you’re drawing?

I don’t. After 400 pictures, your eye-hand coordination becomes better and better and better.

Q. So do you support yourself with tattooing?

I make enough to live off.

Q. Who are your clients?

Eighty percent come from outside Germany. I have people from around Europe, New Zealand, the U.S. They request it through email, I make the sketch, send it to them, and 98 percent of the time they’re happy with it.

Q. Do you have tattoos?

I don’t have tattoos at all. I don’t see myself running around with a picture on my body. It’s not that I don’t like tattoos, I just haven’t found anything that I want on me for a lifetime. But I have a lot of scars. I played American football, and
when I look at the scars they look like a line or some kind of abstract picture. It’s like traveling in time, you remember exactly where you were and when. When I tattoo, I try to keep them so abstract and simple. The old cultures, the Native Americans or the island people, they put abstract things like dots or lines on their bodies.

Q. What does your mom think?

Now she’s proud, she’s very happy. And I’m happy. I’m so happy right now.

 

 

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