Jacob Dahlstrup Jensen tells all
Q: When did you first realise you were artistic? What was your first piece of artwork?
I recently found an old drawing I did in 1989. It portrays a small figure with a wild gesture on the deck of a boat. The funky little man stands between to chimneys spitting out thick black smoke, above which the obligatory sun shines as there was no tomorrow.
I was only four years old when I did this so it’s a pretty childish drawing, but according to my mother this was my first ship drawing. In my world this makes it my first artwork, but it’s not for sale!
I had my first public exhibition in 2004, so I guess it was around that time my work could be considered as art if you choose to define it that way. I was painting surreal and quite bizarre figures and portraits back then. I sold a lot of this stuff cheap or gave it away to friends.
Q: What did you do before you did your degree in Glasgow?
Before I came to Glasgow I was living in Arhus (Jutland). I had finished my pre-university studies and spent a lot of long nights drawing and painting after I got off work. I was working as a painter, redecorating and teaching art on a youth folk-high school at which I had been a student years earlier. I guess it was at that point I started to think about going in the direction of art school.
Q: What made you come over to here to study? Why did you go back to Copenhagen?
When I decided to apply for art-school I applied for The Royal Academy in Copenhagen, butI missed the deadlines by a single day for some silly application fee and was refused to apply, although I had my full portfolio ready. Then I applied for The Glasgow School of Art instead andwas invited for an interview at the school. It was a fantastic experience to live in Glasgow, it’s a rough place in many ways, but it has its own charm and you learn to love it.
I graduated a year earlier than my class, skipping the Honours Degree. I felt that three years at art school was more than enough for me to find my direction. Art school is a great place for experiments but it can also be a great place for comfort and I’m not a big fan of that so I decided to call it quits while I was still into the game. I moved to Copenhagen because it’s a really nice city to live in and a lot of my old friends live here now.
Q: What is your favourite medium to work with?
I’ve been working with a lot different techniques the past few years and I often get completely carried away with some unusual tool or selection of media, but I always come back to my pencils. You can do so many things with just a simple stick of graphite. I usually stick with a 2B or harder for sketching and light shading and a 4B or 6B for darker shades.
The paper I work with is usually heavy grade, 200grms or above. Drawing is quite essential to my practice, but I like to experiment with mark making and link the tools to the context. I’ve been using a handheld blowtorch as a drawing tool on canvas to recreate photographs portraying the victims of the American napalm bomb raids during the Vietnam War and now I’m using the needles of tattoo machines to create fine textured lines on paper.
Q: Why the fascination with the sea, pirates and all things nautical?
I did my bachelor thesis on the visual language of Russian prison tattoos which led to my research into early soviet identification systems used in concentration camps during the first and second world wars. I became fascinated by stories and the dreams of freedom and hope these crude tattoos represented.
This got me into looking at the other old timers of the western tattoo culture and sailor tattoos in general. My work does evolve around the maritime universe and the many nautical symbols, but for me it’s more like a wonderland I sample from, rearrange and reconceptualise. There’s a great deal of romantic connotations linked to my work like the universal longing for the sublime and poetic stories life and death. It has created an inspirational platform from which I can work freely as an artist.
Q: How did the paper tattoos come about? What tools do you use to create each piece?
I was initially looking for a way to create highlights on dark shaded pencil drawings by scrapinginto the top layers of the paper structure with a scalpel. This didn’t quite create the effect that I was looking for so I gave it a shot with my tattoo machine instead. It worked out better than I expected and eventually opened up a new side to my work. It took a lot of experimenting with paper types and adjusting the tattoo machine before it created the lines I wanted.
Q: How long do they take to make? What is the process?
I always start out with some doodling and trying to sketch out ideas on paper. Sometimes I work digitally in the early stages of the compositions as it’s a lot easier to see what elements work and what doesn’t. When I have my final outline I trace this onto the paper or just work freehand through the paper with the tattoo machine. It’s a really nice way to work with the paper material as it’s a lot more physical process than working with pencil. Depending on the size and level of detail, tattooing the paper takes somewhere between one and five hours. The initial process of sketching and developing the idea can take anything from a blink of an eye to several months.
Q: How is your ambition to be hired as a tattooist’s apprentice coming along? Any offers?
I am quite ambitious with getting into tattooing. I am slowly starting to build up a portfolio with some tattoo flash. When I return from my residency this February I will start going around to some tattoo shops and try my luck. However it’s not easy to find good apprenticeships in these post-Miami Ink days. Too many more or less talented prospective tattoo artists and not enough good artists take in apprentices. It’s all about networking and meeting the right people at the right time.
Q: Why do you want to make the transition from paper to skin and ink?
The connection between drawing and tattooing is quite obvious to me. I’m very interested in the history of tattooing and the serious craftsmanship involved. I see it as a new skill I wish to master, but also something that could take my work in a new direction.
Q: Have you tattooed any of your work onto other people?
I’ve tattooed a couple of my close friends. Mostly simple black outlines and some grey shading work. I did a really neat little pipe on my friend’s arm. She likes it a lot and that makes me happy. I’ve had a lot of requests from people wanting me to tattoo “something crazy” on them, but I know my limits and I don’t want to mess things up before I learn the right way.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the 100-hour drawing of Memento Mori?
I wanted to do a large scale drawing, like a challenge to test my patience while engaging with a subject that I liked. At the time I had done some fairly intense flower studies inspired by a book on the “Flora of Iraq”, and I wanted to blend in a little kitschy camouflaged “Memento Mori”. It was a ridiculous project. I finished it after 38 intensive days of drawing. Then I rolled it up and didn’t look at it again until recently when I shipped it to the London Art Fair which opens next week. I’m looking forward to see hanging on a wall, framed up in a white gallery space. Scary.
Q: What made you come up with the idea for the banana boats?
I bought a model boat in a souvenir shop in Barcelona and used it as a prop in my studio. Eventually it suffered under my destructive curiosity of pulling things apart. One day I had brought a banana to my studio and was just playing around with the ship to kill some time and somehow the Bananaboat was born. I had it standing in my studio window for a while but since it was during winter and I had no heating in my studio it lasted for quite a while. I presented the work to one of my tutors as a bit of a joke, but to my great surprise he took it quite seriously and thought it was a strong piece of art. Later on it was a part of the reason why I was invited to exhibit at the London Art Fair, where it’s going to be presented among some of my drawings.
Q: Do they not rot eventually? How long does each piece last?
Yup they do. There’s nothing to be done conserving the banana but it’s part of the work I think. It lasts about a week or so, then the masts starts to sink into the hull and the nature of the organic material takes over.
Q: What sort of reactions do you tend to get regarding your work?
I’ve recently had quite an overwhelming positive response to my work through the internet. I published a short video as a teaser to my new paper-tattoo work and it received 27,000 hits within a month. Occasionally I get a personal email with positive feedback or potential buyers who have seen my work on a blog somewhere. Both my 100-hour skull drawing, the Banana boat and now the paper tattoos have circulated on many blogs and online magazines and have therefore directed some serious traffic to my website. Of course it’s really nice when someone appreciates your work, that’s defiantly a strong driving force to keep one motivated.
Here’s a little taster of what’s been getting the art world excited at the moment: