Gianna Maria Galli
Tattoo artist Gianna Maria Galli is about as New York as you can get. Raised in Brooklyn and influenced by a lineage of strong Sicilian women, Gianna didn’t stop looking for her true passion until she found it. At age 27, she started a new career as a tattoo artist that combined her love of illustration, art history, and the city itself.
You’re a born-and-bred New Yorker?
Yes, I’m from Brooklyn. I grew up in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst.
What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?
That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really know anything else, you know? I was pretty happy growing up here. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood, so I didn’t deal with any of the real perils of Brooklyn in the '80s until I started going places by myself in high school. Brooklyn is full of really tight communities, so there was a sense of that growing up. Your community is an extended family. My friends and I kind of ran the streets, and just came back at dark for dinner.
Did you inherit your love of art from your family?
My dad is an oral surgeon, but my mom is an amazing artist. She does everything; she is one of those people that can say, "Oh, why don't I try this?" and she just picks things up. She’s been doing ceramics for the past 25 years. There are a lot of musicians and illustrators in my family. My mother's cousin is one of the leading botanical illustrators in the country. I was always really encouraged to make art.
Did you know you wanted to be an artist from a young age?
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a Disney animator. Then, I realized that you drew the same thing over and over again and it wasn’t so appealing anymore. I’ve been painting ever since I could hold a brush, so I knew that I would work in the arts in some way. And that drawing and illustrating would be a big part of my life. I fell in love with tattoos when I was 12 or 13, when my older brother brought a tattoo magazine home, and soon after he got his first tattoo. When I was in university, I started working part-time in tattoo shops, working at the desk, organizing, helping the artists, and then piercing. I’m a late bloomer as a tattoo artist—I was 27 when I actually started working on people. I just had my 10-year anniversary!
What did you study at university?
I went to the School of Visual Arts to study fine art and illustration, Tattooing had just become legal two years prior and i started working as front & back of house in a local shop in 1998 & then started piercing.
What? It was illegal to get a tattoo?
It was illegal to tattoo people before 1996. The shops were all underground, essentially.
What did you do before you finally started tattooing?
I had a few different jobs. I had a clothing line for a little over five years, but I gave that up about two years ago. I worked in vintage clothing stores. The last job I had before I took the leap to tattooing was merchandising. I was working for quite a big brand, and was offered the job of head merchandiser. It was a big step, but it just made me realize that it wasn’t what I wanted. Throughout all that time, I was often working in tattoo shops as a piercer. You know how it is in New York—you often need two jobs to get by. You always have to be hustling!
Where did you learn to pierce?
During my first year of art school, I started working at the counter of a tattoo shop, which is what usually happens when you’re starting out. I hit it off with the piercer who worked there, and a month later I was piercing people! There were so many people coming in each day, so I learned from the piercer really quickly. So, over the years, I was always doing that on the side. Looking back, I think that kind of sidetracked me from tattooing. It worked out in a way, though, because Once I decided to go for tattooing, I reached out to everyone I knew and got people to mentor me. A few big artists I knew gave me some great advice, and helped me get started. I kept at it, and my work kept improving and here we are!
But how did you first learn to tattoo?
It’s one of those things that you can really only learn by doing. Like most tattoo artists, the first couple of tattoos I did were on myself. You can also practice on fruit skins, or silicone skins that are made for practice but i never did that. I was lucky, because I had friends who were willing to let me practice on them.
How do you get over the nervousness of tattooing someone when you’re starting out?
I'm a super-perfectionist type of a person, so I had a lot of self-induced anxiety when I was starting out. In my head, I would be like, “Don’t fuck this up!” I think that made me cautious in the right ways, if that makes sense. Bad tattoos happen all the time, especially when people are inexperienced or overly ambitious with their designs. All the years of watching people get tattoos was really helpful, also. Fortunately, I don't think there's anybody walking around that's too angry with me!
Do you still do piercings?
No, I haven’t pierced in 10 years. That's just how I started. Now I’m full-time tattooing, which I love. It allows me to really focus, and it also allows me the freedom to travel for work. There are a lot of amazing conventions, and I’ve been fortunate enough to set up some great guest spots at shops around the country.
How would you characterize your style?
I definitely have a wide range of styles, but there are a couple of different things I like to focus on. I started with a good traditional base: clean lines, simple design. Now, there’s more of an illustrative influence to my work. I’m really inspired by illustrators from the 1910s through 1930s. Movement and expression in my lines is now really important to me.
It’s such a personal thing to put something permanent on somebody.
Yes and no. It really depends on the person you are tattooing. Some people want to share their story with you, to make it an experience. But to other people, you’re simply a technician. They want to come in, get the tattoo and leave. I have a mix of both, but I’m lucky to have a few longstanding clients that have definitely become friends. There is a lot of trust there, which is nice because I do my best work when people trust me to do my thing.
It’s a wonderful job, and it is a privilege. Tattoos are a luxury; nobody needs a tattoo. I’m lucky to do what I love—I set my own hours, I travel when I want, I meet amazing people. I’m not sure if it’s because of the type of art I create, but so many of the people I tattoo are such positive people. I also work with a lot of women, I think because some of my imagery skews more traditionally feminine.
How do you keep inspiring yourself in your work?
For me, it comes from taking the time to reflect on things. I also research, learn and read a lot. I love science fiction and women’s history. It’s also really important for me to stay involved in the community here. Meeting new and established artists, traveling, going to conventions. It’s as important to meet up-and-coming artists as it is to meet very famous ones. You can learn so much from someone who is coming into the industry with a fresh set of eyes. New York is also a constant inspiration.
Has growing up here influenced your work?
I'm pretty damn New York! It’s obviously been a huge influence on me. My parents also shaped me. I get my love of biology and figuring out how things work from my dad. And my creativity and love of art comes from my mom. I was lucky to be able to get out of the city a lot as a child, as well. I spent all my summers in upstate New York, in a house that’s been in our family for years.
My grandmother had five sisters, and they all stayed pretty close together as they grew up. It was a very tight Sicilian family. They all lived on the same block in Bensonhurst! I had a lot of strong women in my life growing up. My mom was actually one of the first female firefighters in the country! This was before I was born, when she lived in Washington state. She was an explosives technician, which means she blew stuff up to clear paths for the forestry service.
Wow! How did she get into that?
She left home when she was 16, and traveled across the country. Eventually she ended up in Washington because she wanted to work for the forestry service—all five feet, 90 pounds of her. The way she tells the story, she saw one of the guys blowing stuff up and she was like, "I want to do that." So, yes I had some very strong, opinionated women who ran things in my family. I was really encouraged to go to school, to study, to get an education, and to do what I wanted, which was good.
What do your parents think of you being a tattoo artist?
It was a long time before they were happy with my career choice. My parents are pretty traditional when it comes down to it. I mean, they’re children of immigrants; we weren’t even allowed to speak Sicilian because they wanted us to do the whole “American” thing. My dad was raised by a single mother, since his father died when he was a baby. He was the first person to “break the cycle”—go to college and get a “respectable” job. It was a big deal.
Also, tattooing was illegal when my parents were growing up, so it had very different connotations. If you had a tattoo, that meant you had broken the law. There was that shady element to it. When I first started working at a tattoo shop during college, my mom asked me if I was hanging out with biker gangs! [Laughs]
They’ve come around now. I think once they saw my work, and that I was getting regular gigs, they were more comfortable. Now my mom will text me after meeting people who have tattoos and say, “Your tattoo is much better than that.” She’s even joking about me doing a big dragon tattoo over her hip-surgery scar!
Have you tattooed anyone In your family?
I have tattooed my older brother. I’m actually doing a full sleeve on him now. After I did the outline, though, I had a full-on panic attack. Like, “I’ve ruined my brother!” [Laughs] I’ve given my sister two tattoos. My other brother is tattoo-less.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Figure out what you want and stick to it. That’s the advice I give to people starting out. Stick to what you want to do, and put in the work until it pays off. Tattooing can be a hard business—there are a lot of interesting characters working in this field. You have to work with the right people, make the best decisions for yourself. A friend of mine, who's been tattooing for almost 30 years now, told me this advice: Find a place where you can stay put, that you know you can do consistently good work in, and put in the 10,000 hours.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is about energy. It's a place where you can die and be reborn continually, if you have the guts and strength for it. You can always start over here. Everyone who lives here adds to the incredible energy of the city—if you can tap into it, you’ll find something that you can’t really find anywhere else.