There are an infinite number of colors in our universe, and Ivana Belakova is on a mission to use all of them in her tattoos. Born and raised in a small town in Slovakia, Belakova grew up in a country where tattooing was almost nonexistent. Yet, despite her upbringing, she’s made tattooing her life’s work and her career has taken her around the world. Today she calls Los Angeles home and has attracted some of the biggest stars in Hollywood into her tattoo chair—from rappers to world-renowned adult entertainers. We chatted with Ivana to learn about her unique signature style, her first celebrity client and what sets her apart from the pack.
Take us through your upbringing and how you were first exposed to tattooing.
I grew up in a tiny village called Kostolné in Slovakia. It had around 200 people and it's in the middle of nowhere—you need a car to access anything. I grew up surrounded by nature, playing soccer every day, playing and dreaming big. I also grew up in communism, which was a very interesting time for me.
The first time I was exposed to tattooing was through watching MTV and seeing all of these heavily tattooed musicians. I was fascinated with Guns N’ Roses and I used to draw Axl’s tattoos on myself and my brother.
When I was 16 I got my first tattoo at a bar in Slovakia. We didn’t really have tattoo shops in the entire country and I was also underage, so this was the way to go. At the time it didn’t even occur to me that this was something I was going to do with my life.
What made you decide to become a tattoo artist and how did you go about learning? When I finished college, I moved to a little town called Trenčín where I started to tattoo. One day my friend asked me if I would like to try to tattoo and I agreed. From the first time I held the tattoo machine in my hand and the needle touched the skin, I was hooked. I knew right there that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I started by tattooing my brother and friends without gloves or any professional equipment. My friend got me a tattoo machine from Canada and I found out after some time it was’'t even a real tattoo machine. It was a machine for cosmetic tattooing, but I could do small ornamental tattoos with it.
I learned the hard way and it took me longer to figure things out, but I’m very grateful for the way I learned. I didn’t have to abide by any rules on how to tattoo—what to do first, what not to do, how to apply color, etc. It was perfect and I’m pretty sure that’s what helped me develop my own unique style.
What was the tattoo industry like at the time and how has it changed over the years?
In Slovakia, tattooing was taboo. It was associated with bikers and prisoners for a large amount of time. Nobody wanted to teach me how to tattoo. We had two tattoo shops in the entire country when I started. The last 10 years have been completely different. There’s this new generation of artists who are on a whole different level—pushing boundaries and breaking stigmas. Nowadays, it’s all about art. There are tattoo shops everywhere, and we have some amazing tattoo artists with really unique styles. It makes me really happy to see it.
How would you describe your signature style?
My style mixes a few different elements together, but what makes me unique as an artist is all the energy I put behind my tattoos. I see colors all around me. Every person is unique and radiates a different energy, which I apply to my work. Today, my tattoo style comes naturally to me. I don’t really follow other people’s work, I only tattoo what I feel. After so many years of honing my skills, I have developed my own unique style that I’m still crafting and making better every day.
I would describe my style as “funky color.” I draw inspiration from street art and graffiti, coupled with high fashion. When I was little, I would spend hours drawing and cutting out pictures from magazines to create collage tapestries. Along with using bold colors, I incorporate graphics, geometric shapes and squiggle ornaments into my tattoos. This is why I describe my tattoos as organized chaos because nothing is perfect, just like life.
What are some of your favorite animals to tattoo and why?
I love them all. I love animals with funny expressions, weird faces, fun colors and interesting shapes. For instance, I love tattooing exotic birds. I love how colorful they are and I love their different layers of feathers.
Tell us some of the experiences you’ve had tattooing celebrities. Who was the first celeb you tattooed?
I’ve tattooed many celebrities from all over the world, but my first big one was Chris Brown. I’ve also tattooed Lil Wayne, Quavo, Lil Twist, Rich the Kid and A Boogie wit da Hoodie. It’s a great experience for me to meet my favorite hip-hop artists. I love being able to listen to their new music or albums before they’ve been released yet.
The tattoo you did on Mia Khalifa was especially meaningful. What’s the story behind this piece?
It’s my tradition with Mia to give her meaningful tattoos. Mia’s latest tattoo is a portrait of Asia Ramazan Antar. Asia was a Kurdish Women’s Protective Unit fighter who defended Syria against ISIS. She died at 19 while working to free the city of Manbij from Islamic extremists. The other pieces I’ve done for her are inspired by hope, change, acceptance and love. The first tattoo I did on her was part of a fundraiser for the Lebanese Red Cross, where she raised over $100K for charity. She’s one of my absolute favorite celebrities to tattoo, I love her energy and sense of humor.
What types of tattoos would you like to do more of in the future?
Childrens’ drawings, whimsical tattoos and playful pieces. I’d also like to work on big art pieces over multiple sessions, such as animal pieces or flowers mixed with my funky design elements.
Aside from tattooing, what other art mediums do you like working in?
At the moment, I’m painting bags for Louis Vuitton and that gives me a lot of joy.
What else should our readers know about you?
I’m the only woman in the world whose tattoos are certified as contemporary fine art by the Macro Museo in Rome.