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While we’re all for a tattoo artist drawing out and slapping on a stencil, there’s something to be said about freehand tattooing. Freehanding a design allows the artist to create a tattoo specifically catered to the unique curves of their client’s body. Paula Sgarbi’s preferred style, ornamental blackwork, is perfectly suited for the freehand approach. We caught up with Sgarbi to learn more about her artistic background, why she chose her style, how she approaches freehanding and much more.

Tell us about your upbringing and how you developed a love for art. 

I was born in Brazil, but I was raised in Malaysia and Singapore. I grew up with an amazing and unique mixture of traditions and spirituality, which have always been at the core of my inspirations. Since I was very young, I’ve always loved to draw, paint, make music and anything else that needs creativity.

How did you go about learning how to tattoo? Did you have an apprenticeship or are you self-taught? 

I’ve always loved tattoos and got my first one when I was 14 at an underground studio in Singapore. Later, after I moved back to Brazil, I began tattooing. I bought the equipment and would teach it to myself. I started traveling around, tattooing people and getting tattooed by friends and artists whose works I loved and wanted to learn from. After a few years, I met Jun Matsui while working at a tattoo convention in São Paulo and began studying freehand with him until I moved to Barcelona. If I had a master, it would be him.

What drew you to the blackwork style? 

I studied and became inspired by primitive tribal tattooing, which is mostly done in black.

What are your favorite parts about blackwork tattooing? 

Black is neutral and powerful at the same time—it allows you to do anything.

What are the biggest challenges of blackwork tattooing? 

For me, when the work is very anatomical, I love the challenge of having to work out the balance and proportions of all of the elements in order to find harmony on the client’s body.

Why do you choose to freehand your tattoos? When did you start freehanding?

I choose to freehand my work because I have come to love the beauty of fitting into the body’s natural form and finding a balance between body and tattoo. Despite seeking symmetric perfection, I appreciate the “imperfection” of the freehand work—it’s handcrafted and based on the organic anatomy of the client as it is. Nobody is perfectly symmetrical.

I began freehanding when I realized I wanted to expand my work into a kind of movement that would “wrap” around the body and working on a flat paper or screen was limiting my creative process. Up to today, I make only a few quick sketches on paper before the session and spend most of the time freehanding and working together with the client on the final design by drawing directly onto the skin.

What’s your tattoo process as an artist who does freehand? 

For each piece, the process flows in a different way. After the basic email exchange, I like to ask the client to drop by the studio for a quick chat so we can meet each other. You know, establish some connection; after all, we’ll be spending a lot of hours together. It makes it easier to create a tattoo for someone when I know their story and their expectations. Then I start experimenting from there.

How is freehanding advantageous to your ornamental work? 

To explore movements and cuts that I am only able to discover when drawing directly on the body. For me, that’s the starting point of the creative process—identifying that body’s lines and moving on from there. Those lines will define a lot of the final result. Also, freehanding gives me the possibility of fitting the work onto the body’s movement more accurately than with stencils. It’s all about personal taste and the technique you choose to work with.