Gleb Pesoc is a Russian artist who travels across Europe and beyond. Although Pesoc creates many different kinds of art, he’s best known for his tattoos. For information and bookings, email Gleb or take a look at his Instagram.
Little Birds, Little Flowers
I first met Gleb when I was sitting on the edge of a flower pot outside a dayrave – or, regular-rave-turned-dayrave – on Saint Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island. Oli and I had met at the venue at eight in the morning. We got mildly buzzed on expensive bottles of shit imported beer and, after a couple of hours of dancing, we came outside to get some space from the ravers, thinned and straggled, the hard core of the scene, who’d been going since midnight. We sat on an oversized planter and talked about our next move – coffee, a filled roll, a nap, then come back? Or just go to the pub?
A slim young man was standing in front of us, looking at Oli. His slender frame and gentle, quizzical features were at odds with the five litre bottle of water he was carrying, his outsized clothes – black leather boots and a corduroy jacket that made him look like an inner city Victorian kid wearing his dad’s work gear. His ears stuck out comically from underneath his knitted skullcap. His Adam’s apple looked painful below the taut skin of his neck.
In the bright, clear morning light, his facial tattoos looked even more defined against his pale skin. They became somehow more inherent: not bodymods, but naturally occurring pigment, indivisible from his facial features. I gaped at him, at those etchings across his face. A black line ran from his ear, along his jawline to his chin, as if to say: this is where my face is. His neck was held by blue leaves that looked like a cross between a spine and a hand. And, most frighteningly, a bright blue teardrop was inked below his eye. A kid with stylised prison tattoos.
He was looking at Oli, not with particular enthusiasm, but with a slow, resigned sense of duty. He shifted the heavy water bottle in his hand. Oli, however, was characteristically delighted. He leapt up, not quite embracing the overloaded Gleb, who he introduced to me in his Scottish-accented Russian (“This is my friend Rosie – Rosie, Gleb,”) but somehow still managing to wrap him in a welcoming warmth, using language, tone, and his body movements to express how pleased he was to see him. Gleb seemed to soften slightly.
“How’s the tattoo?”
“Ideal!” said Oli. He pulled his striped button-up shirt aside to reveal the now-healed tattoo of a sunflower on his sternum. Gleb leaned in to examine it critically. He ran a gentle finger over it, pleased that the yellow ink hadn’t faded. Oli beamed and told him how happy he was with it, how it hadn’t even bled much. From this, and from Gleb’s own inked appearance, I gleaned that it had been this boy who’d given Oli the tattoo, his first one, some months after he’d moved to Petersburg.
I’d heard that it had been an endless torment: to be tattooed right above the bone, for hours. The vibrations of the tattoo gun had rattled Oli’s teeth; it felt like they were interfering with his heartbeat. He’d asked himself, a couple of hours in, looking at a raw, half-finished flower leaking blood, if it was worth it. Plenty of people, seeing the finished tattoo, have wondered the same, whether privately or to Oli’s face.
I, for one, loved the tattoo from the moment I saw it. It had never occurred to me that tattoos could be so colourful, playful. I don’t think I’d ever even seen colour in tattoos, aside from the classic black-blue and the red of a bleeding heart. In this piece, like in all of his work, Gleb eschewed the classic thick, purposeful lines that look like they’ve been laid down by a machine for thin, feathery strokes. They remind me of the doodles a kid, bored in an endless lesson, draws in their exercise book. Oli’s sunflower didn’t have the same look of morbid permanence traditional tattoos struggle to avoid – the statement of having chosen something to stay on the flesh until it rots – the statement that can only talk about lasting forever if you remember that forever, for the tattoo, is only as long as the subject is alive.
But my love for the tattoo went far beyond liking the aesthetic: Gleb seemed to have created something that mirrored Oli himself, on a far deeper level than tattoos I’d seen before. The tousled petals reminded me of Oli’s own bleached blonde curls. The sunflower’s stem was aligned over the boundary of his ribs and when you laid your hand over the black mass of seeds, you could feel his heartbeat. The entire image seemed animated with joy and enthusiasm, and a clumsy, unselfconscious cheerfulness. It had been designed for him, and now it was an indivisible part of him – not simply because it was etched in his skin, but because of the way it coordinated with his personality and his body.
We said goodbye to Gleb. He took his groceries back home to the studio where he worked and slept with his girlfriend Yana, and we ordered an Uber to take us home to Kanal Griboedova. I spent more time looking at his stuff, online as well as the sunflower, and I was sold: I wanted a tattoo from Gleb. I didn’t see him again while we were living in Petersburg, though: he kept to his repurposed factory on Vasilyevsky and Oli and I barely left our canal.
I next met him in Berlin, in an airy, high-ceilinged room, chipped paintwork partly concealed by sketches torn out of a ring-bound notebook. Instead of a chandelier, a fluorescent strip hung from the decorative light fitting. A paint-splattered stereo jolted from the corridor, the radio station interrupted by the footfalls of Gleb’s flatmates.
Oli had come to visit me in Prague and, seeing that Gleb was in Berlin for the week, we decided to go and visit him. Drop him a line, said Oli, to check if he’s available. So I messaged him on Instagram in my rusty Russian: “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me but…” He replied almost at once: sure, come, I have time. And, to my frank disbelief, “Yeah, I remember you.” We booked a bus for the following morning.
The makeshift studio was on Sonnenallee, in Berlin’s Neukölln. Oli, who speaks some German, told me that the street’s name means ‘Sunshine Street’, but, a Slavicist at heart, I had already interpreted it as ‘Dream Alley’.
“Suits him,” I said, when Oli told me my mistake. But, thinking about it, Gleb was more a wisp of dream than a ray of sunlight: more ambiguous, mysterious. Ethereal, rather than accessibly joyful.
I was sure that my request must be the strangest Gleb had received, and I’d texted him about it beforehand to make sure he got what I meant. “A mammoth standing on a chocolate bar. Is that OK? Do you know what I mean?”
Clearly, I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the tattoos on his feed: a chocolate mammoth is nothing compared to a dinosaur in a vet cone; a crocodile holding a bouquet; a raccoon with a can of spray paint, furtively shooting a rainbow stripe onto an unseen wall. Gleb took the request in his stride, and when Oli insisted on telling him the emotional story behind the unusual motif, Gleb seemed at most politely curious.
It struck me that his every day is characterised by other people’s extraordinary – knowing his childlike, dreamy style, people come to him with their most outlandish ideas, stretching the typical understanding of what can – and should – be inked onto one’s skin forever. And if he’s not sketching other people’s proposals, he’s drawing from his own imagination.
He showed me his sketchbook, where he collects ideas for tattoos and art of other kinds, when he came to visit me, months later, in Prague. I recognised some characters from his Instagram posts: the cherubs, the long, stretched hearts, the lion staring wistfully at its own reflection.
On the tram back home from a trip to a gallery Gleb had found near the castle, Gleb said suddenly, “Sponge.”
“Yeah?” I replied, perplexed. When we got home, he took a yellow and a green pen and drew a yellow sponge frothing with bubbles.
“Sick,” I said, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“That’s not it.”
He began tattooing as a teenager in his native Neftekamsk, a small Russian town that gets its name from the river it sits on and the oil that forms the basis of its industry. Like most tattoo artists, his first subjects were his friends. He used a homemade tattoo gun for his first experiments, and this edgy, DIY tinge is still clear in his work.
Tattooing, as a medium, is usually thought of as something that alters the body, but some of Gleb’s tattoos seem to stand in defiance of this, allowing themselves to be affected by the uneven, imperfect nature of the skin, and the intricacies of the soul. Scars, freckles, and stretch marks – blemishes on the canvas, in a sense – all have an influence on how Gleb realises his designs. Often this is a natural process, the variations in bodies necessitating adaptation, but occasionally he seems to take inspiration from these elements, particularly when scars are self-inflicted. FML, he prints, next to a series of healed self-harm cuts. A safety pin is poised to close a red mark on a subject’s forehead. He doesn’t always incorporate the peculiarities of people’s bodies into his tattoos in such a self-conscious way, though. Sometimes it seems almost coincidental: a cowering ink tiger is caught in a lightning storm of stretch marks.
The idea that Gleb alters his tattoos around the personality of his subject might be shortsighted, since the people I know with a Pesoc original also happen to know him. Perfect strangers might not feel the same way – but there’s always something more personal, Gleb told me, when someone trusts you with their body. It’s not like painting on paper. You have to try and balance people’s expectations with your vision – no easy feat, if you’ve just met them.
Although the most significant part of his income is earned by tattooing, Gleb is an artist in a broader sense. He painted murals in a club that Oli and I used to go to in St Petersburg, although I didn’t find this out til later: white, Aztec-looking figures that glowed in the dark and drew my eyes through the smoke. I’d seen some of his paintings and sculptures, with their thick, generous daubings and unpolished edges. Like his best tattoos, these seemed to combine contrasting elements: a primitive, innocent execution, but challenging, dark themes, sometimes evoking unspoken trauma. A lumpy, unglazed vase like a face with a broken nose. A fluid, melting skeleton proffers a dripping heart, bright colours not quite distracting from the sinister figure.
Some of Gleb’s best work is created without permission, without any clear financing, seemingly as and when inspiration strikes him. A self portrait on his social media consists of his shadow cast on a wall, his signature scrawled at his waist. A signed portrait of a walking man hangs on the ramparts of the Great Wall of China. These pieces, departures from the realm of commissions and ownership, could be seen as acts of vandalism, but to my mind they speak of an artist testing the definition of public spaces, probing the boundaries between creativity and crime.
These days, international public health crises notwithstanding, Gleb spends a significant part of the year travelling. It makes sense: people outside of Russia tend to be able to pay more for his work, and he seems to appreciate the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas with a wide circle of artists. By travelling frequently and widely, he’s able to make a name for himself in the tattooing world. His particular brand of childlike images, sometimes incorporating elements that betray a world weary outlook, has resonated with people across Europe and beyond. As his art becomes more popular, he’s able to justify – and support – more international trips, often sleeping on friends’ floors and taking coaches from country to country.
He spent more than half of 2019 abroad, first touring now-familiar European cities (Paris and Berlin are regular destinations), then taking a trip to East Asia, visiting China, Japan, and South Korea. This trip was of particular interest to me, because it was during this time that Gleb fell off the map.
I noticed that Gleb hadn’t posted anything on social media, which had been buzzing as he kept followers in the loop of his movements around East Asia, announcing travel plans and encouraging people to get in touch if they wanted tattoos. One day I realised I hadn’t seen any updates for a couple of weeks, but I assumed that he was taking a holiday from the endless self-promotion that freelance art necessitates. When a couple of months went by, I was concerned. I was beginning to wonder whether I should try and get in touch with Yana when Gleb sent me a laidback message asking where I was living in the UK. He was thinking about getting a visa to visit the UK, and wanted to know whether he could stay for a while. I asked him whether he was enjoying Asia, and, in one long message, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, he told me what he’d been up to for the last few months.
When he was in Tokyo, Gleb visited Akasaka Palace, a former imperial palace which is now used as accommodation for visiting dignitaries. Gleb painted on a wall in the grounds of the palace – a small design in neon pink paint – and signed it with his characteristic G.Pesoc. From Tokyo, he went to Okinawa, an archipelago in the East China Sea, to continue his travels. Meanwhile, back in the capital, journalists were in uproar: Gleb, unknowingly, had vandalised a very important building, and it so happened this was where the G20 was being hosted. Politicians, journalists, and the authorities were convinced the artwork was politically motivated.
But Gleb was no longer in Tokyo, and didn’t know about any of this. The first he heard of the small uproar his work had caused was weeks later, when a journalist who’d looked into the signature got in touch to ask if he’d been the artist. Gleb flew back to Tokyo to face trial.
He sent me a clip from a Japanese news station, presenters speaking over footage of a slender, pale, vulnerable-looking Gleb being led into court, his slightly dreamy expression suggesting a calmness that I certainly wouldn’t have felt in his shoes. Rather than frightened, he looked at what was going on with detached interest.
He was sentenced, he told me, to a year and six months in prison, and was released on probation after three months. He was released from prison and deported to Russia. Landing in Vladivlostok, Gleb left the country as soon as he could, flying to South Korea to continue his East Asian tour.
I asked him how he felt behind bars, and he replied, somewhat laconically, that he’s open to new experiences. The food was good, and he had the opportunity to spend time drawing and writing. As for what he’d drawn – this, surely, must be provocative to the extreme, must express a political agenda I didn’t know he had, for him to have risked so much – I couldn’t quite make it out from the news footage.
“Little birds?” I asked.
“Birds, flowers,” he clarified.
Some time later, a self-portrait on stationary branded with Japanese characters appeared on Gleb’s Instagram. It was captioned:
Akasaka police station ‘19
I asked Gleb what made him do it – it seemed unnecessarily risky to paint on a government building. He couldn’t have expected to get away with it. Gleb seemed surprised at the question, puzzled by the implication that he’d been arrested by accident. He looks at the process as an extension of his art, an experiment into the nature of spectatorship. The long period of silence which so worried me was diametrically opposed to the normal, necessary publicity-fuelled nature of Gleb’s day-to-day: the space between utterances, the blank space on a canvas. And as all artists know, the unpainted strokes are as important as the boldest, thickest ones. The fact that Gleb’s social media is punctuated by silence adds a certain sense of mystery to his creative work, and this long period of silence, as well as being a formative time for the artist, also constituted a message to the viewer.
He views the fallout from the work as a form of performance. The process, trial and imprisonment, he told me, are an extension of the art itself.
At the time of writing, Gleb is confined to his St Petersburg home. He’s using the enforced time at home to explore some more creative avenues, collaborating with his girlfriend Yana Kryukova, and experimenting with music. I, for one, am excited to see what he comes up with, and looking forward to the end of this crisis when he can tour Europe again – maybe even making a stop at Sheffield.