While Alëna Wedderburn currently lives in New York, the Big Apple couldn’t be more different than her hometown. Instead of urban streets lined with towering skyscrapers, Yakutia, Russia was a small city that lacked simple amenities like paved roads and running water. During the long winters, when the temperature dropped to 60 below zero, Wedderburn and her siblings walked to school. During the painfully short summers, they harvested fruits and vegetables to prepare for winter. Yakutia may have moved at a slower pace than NYC, but they taught Wedderburn the true value of hard work. Now, nothing stops him. We sat down with Wedderburn to find out how her tattoo career began, what led her to black and gray realism, and what advice she’s learned until today.
When did you first fall in love with art? Art has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can’t remember a specific moment when I fell in love with it, but I do remember drawing cards for all my family and friends for every occasion. The way these cards made them smile, it made me feel like I could make people happy with my little designs and I loved that. Even after high school, I continued to hand draw cards for my friends and family on special occasions.
How did your tattoo career start? My tattoo career started when I was in the second year of art school in the Czech Republic. Money was tight and art supplies were expensive. My mother could only send me enough money for food and my dorm. My dad died when I was 8, so it was just her and the three of us on her teacher’s salary. I had to start thinking about getting a job and earning my own money. But my school schedule was quite busy and I could never have found a job with this schedule. I loved tattoos and decided to give it a shot.
It was just before my summer vacation and my mother sent me money to bring home some goods from Europe. Guess what? I spent all that money on tattoo supplies. I went to my dorm, watched some YouTube videos, tattooed some fruit, then tattooed a random guy on the same day. When I returned to Russia for my summer vacation, I paid a tattoo shop for an apprenticeship. It was only for a few months, but two months later I was doing small tattoos for money and that summer I earned enough for my plane ticket back to Europe for back to school. I got a weekend job at a local tattoo shop in Prague and started making enough for my art supplies for school. Eventually I started to support myself and later I had enough to help my mother.
What led you to specialize in black and gray? Who are your favorite black and gray artists? I love realistic black and gray tattoos because they are timeless – not something that goes out of fashion in a few years. Also, I love to draw with graphite pencils and charcoal. It’s a very popular tattoo style and there are so many amazingly talented artists out there. But if you asked me my absolute favorites, I’d say Inal Bersekov, Alex Sorsa, Dmitry Troshin, Jose Contreras, and just about every Korean tattoo artist.
What are the biggest challenges of black and gray? The biggest challenge of doing this style is patience, both for me and for the client. You need to be patient to create your gradients and make them look smooth and creamy. You can’t just jump straight into whatever tone you want to end up with, it’s layers and layers of shading.
How did you learn to draw faces and how did you adapt those skills to tattooing? Ever since I was little, I have loved drawing people. But serious knowledge of how to draw human faces and everything else came from the architecture classes I started taking in high school. Academic drawing knowledge still helps me to this day. The most important part of performing a portrait tattoo is getting a likeness. Even a small detail can be crucial when it comes to portrait tattoos.