About halfway down the 500 block of Haight Street is an unassuming storefront with a worked iron spiderweb splayed across the window.
Curiosities and lush, green plants fill the window display. Horned animal skulls, gorgeous oil paintings, framed flash art, and taxidermy fill the space from top to bottom. Tattoo stations are partitioned off at about waist height, creating a sense of openness.
This is where you’ll find Swedish tattoo artist Hanna Sandstrom.
We wanted to find out how this outgoing, talented, and beautiful (she’s an occasional model) artist found herself at Idle Hand in the Lower Haight, halfway around the world.
Hanna was born into a family of artists in Lund, Sweden, a southern town near the Baltic Sea and Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.
While still in her teens, Hanna’s natural artistic abilities led her to work as a freelance illustrator. She carried the image for her first tattoo — a black-legged spider — around for six months, and had it done the day after she turned eighteen.
An early marriage to an American brought her across the Atlantic. While working at art supply stores in Boston, Hanna decided to pursue tattooing as a career. She found a mentor named Marcus Kuhn in Portland, Maine, and soon moved to Portland with her husband to begin an apprenticeship.
In exchange for critiques and mentoring, Hanna learned the ropes by performing shop tasks, eventually earning her way into this “secret society” to become a full-fledged tattoo artist.
In 2009, after she and her husband separated, Hanna made the huge decision to relocate to San Francisco. She packed up her two pug mixes Bela (Lugosi) and Wednesday, and made the 3,000 mile trek across the country. Hanna arrived in SF without a real plan, but soon began looking for the perfect tattoo shop.
In her travels around the world, Hanna had developed a sense of what she liked — and didn’t — in a workplace. A warm environment, with a creative, non-competitive family vibe — that’s what Hanna wanted. The Lower Haight’s Idle Hand Tattoo fit the bill.
Hanna served as a guest artist at Idle Hand for six months. She made an effort to be positive and kind, say “yes,” and be patient and determined. In February of 2011, she was asked to be a tattooer at Idle Hand, and she’s been there ever since. In fact, she now can’t see herself working anywhere else.
“Tattooing is not a job, it’s a life” — that’s Hanna’s motto.
“You have to be 100% committed, this work is draining physically. Some clients are energy vampires. You are always catering to their needs. You have to know how to approach the situation and talk to the client during the consultation. Some clients are super nervous and I will tell them not to have the tattoo if they are not ready. The more you do it the better you are at it.”
Hanna steers away from neck and hand tattoos, for first time clients in particular. “You have an ethical responsibility to your client,” she says.
Tattoo artists all have different styles. Hanna’s work is line driven. She doesn’t do photo realism, and will refer clients to other artists when needed. But she keeps her mind open to her clients’ requests, noting as an example, “I am never too cool for tribal.”
One trend in the tattooing world that Hanna dislikes is the commercialization, where trade secrets that were formerly passed from tattoo artist to apprentice are now displayed for the world to see on reality TV shows. That aspect of the industry has no appeal to Hanna.
Nor does the potential for fatigue. She has seen other tattoo artists suffer from physical and mental burnout, so she paces herself, booking only one or two appointments per day. In her spare time, Hanna keeps her creativity flowing by painting and illustrating, and takes frequent hiking and camping trips with boyfriend Flynn and daily dog walks with Bella and Wednesday.
With this balance, Hanna hopes to remain a tattoo artist for the rest of her working career. But she knows that sometimes, even the best-laid life plans can change.
“Never say this is what you have to do forever as a creative person,” she says.
And so for now, she just continues enjoying her work at Idle Hand, one tattoo at a time.
Thanks to Hanna for sharing her story with us. If you’d like to meet her, or find out more about her tattoo services, be sure to drop by Idle Hand at 575 Haight Street. Walk-ins are always welcome.