Their Way: Studio Palermo

Their Way: In Conversation With Studio Palermo

With ‘Their Way' Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through an interview series.

Published on
9.5.21

Words by Blurbs
Photos by Lukas Turcksin

Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a content series. ‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and feature compelling stories, challenging initiatives and examples of integrity from around the world.

This month we visited Studio Palermo, a versatile design studio based in Antwerp. We sat down with tattoo artist and illustrator Sven Rayen, composer, performer and pianist Han Swolfs (Hantrax) and interdisciplinary entrepreneur and designer Ticuta Racovita-Cordemans for a glimpse behind the scenes.

Horst: Music, tattoos, illustrations, fashion and design, you touch upon many disciplines. Could you tell us a bit more about Studio Palermo?

Ti: Studio Palermo is a hybrid design studio, we are a mix of various things. Sven and I have known each other since high school. When I met Han, ten years ago, I was immediately impressed by his music and approach. I have a background in fashion and cultural management, and run our daily business. We also have a small record label ‘Palermo Records’.

Sven: Each member of Studio Palermo has his or her own field of expertise. By working together, we allow ourselves to do what we do best. For me, it’s creating an image out of a story, for Ti it’s design and providing structure, and for Han it's creating music and magic on stage.

"I enjoy translating a story into a customized image."
- Sven Rayen.

Ti: It’s not always easy to explain Studio Palermo in a few sentences. Our projects and collaborations spring naturally through connecting with other people. Studio Palermo is more of an experience than a single-purpose business. We don’t even have business cards, we wouldn’t know what to put on them. I’m aware that it’s recommended to have a mission statement for your business. However, I also believe you have to be your business and live it, rather than state it on paper. What Sven, Han and I all have in common is that we’re dedicated to our work and clients, it’s not a hobby. We operate in a focused way, up to a point where we forget about our surroundings and fully blend in with our work.

Horst: What do you hope to mean for your clients? For what can potential clients come to you?

Ti: Customers can visit us for all sorts of advice on design, tattoos and music. We also provide strategic counselling and are always happy to listen to our client's needs. Our customers range from artists and designers to cultural organisations and companies. Somehow we attract people with whom it immediately clicks, maybe it’s because we share the same needs. At Studio Palermo, we favour time-honoured relationships and believe it’s crucial to make time for our clients. We enjoy working in-depth, as this will add value to our work. This means we are very selective in the things we do, and prioritise a few projects rather than accepting every opportunity on our way.

Horst: Could you tell us more about the meaning behind the name ‘Studio Palermo’?

Sven: The name ‘Studio Palermo’ originates from the German artist Blinky Palermo, the pseudonym of Peter Heisterkamp. He was a student of german visual artist Joseph Beuys, and famous for his monochromatic canvases and textile paintings. He took the name from the notorious American mafioso Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo. When we were brainstorming for a name, Studio Palermo came up and we immediately all liked it. I enjoy the idea of a certain name being passed on to the next generation.

"We believe it’s important to pay attention to the structure underneath what is visible. This structure will define how people experience your business. The added value lies below what meets the eye."
- Ticuta Racovita-Cordemans

Horst: To the outside world Studio Palermo seems a bit mysterious, is this a conscious strategy?

Ti: I think our public image results from the way we operate, although it’s not our intention to be mysterious. We aim to be focused and dedicated to our projects, in order to provide the best experience for our customers. By taking our time, we can balance the needs of our clients with our own. At the start of Studio Palermo, people could come in for a tattoo without an appointment. This resulted in long queues, where people would be standing outside in the rain. We also wouldn’t find it pleasant to be waiting outside after a long drive, so we changed our policy. Today, clients send us a letter to request a tattoo, and Sven only takes up to two clients a day. This working method allows us to truly listen to our clients, make them feel at home and give them the privacy they need.

Sven: The letters give you a little insight into someone’s personal life, and are often quite emotional. We carefully read throughout all the letters and translate them into personal designs.

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Horst: Sven, you are a highly renowned tattoo artist. Has it always been your dream to become a tattoo artist?

Sven: I have studied applied graphics, and have always been interested in making images and learning new techniques such as drawing, airbrushing and printmaking. Tattoos have always fascinated me as a medium. However, it was only until the age of 29 that I took my first steps as a tattoo artist. It was a long process, but I believe everything went as it was meant to happen. When I started in 2009, the tattoo business environment was entirely different than it is today. I had an art background and looked nothing like a bad-ass tattoo artist. I knew how to apply techniques, draw and make designs, but tattoos were an entirely new subject for me. As challenging as the beginning was, I seized the opportunity with both hands and incorporated my technical background into tattoo design. What do I like the most about my job? It sounds corny, but making someone happy with a very personal item that will be on their body for the rest of their lives.

Horst: Han, you are a multi-faced musician known under the name Hantrax, and famous for your live electronic performances and piano stage productions. Could you tell us more about your music?

Han: Music was all I ever loved. When I was nine years old, I started playing the cello. As I got older I attended secondary arts education and followed intensive classical piano lessons with Dorothea Haers and jazz piano with Christoph Erbstosser. As a teenager, I was already interested in learning new styles and techniques. My passion and curiosity led me to discover electronic equipment. My approach to making music is mathematical. I can easily recall the techniques that I have studied in the past, analyze them and transform them into a new piece. It’s not one specific genre, but every aspect of music that has inspired me since childhood. I think it’s clear to say that music is all that I’m living for.

Ti: It’s wonderful to see how versatile you are.

"What I hope to bring to my audience is a feeling of joy and togetherness."
- Hantrax

Horst: Could you tell us more about your current projects? What will the future bring for Hantrax?

Han: Together with Belgian composer Michiel De Malsche and Adilia Yip, a marimbist and artistic researcher, I have just launched a classically inspired livestream. I also have a monthly show on Kiosk Radio where I invite various talented musicians and artists. I enjoy meeting new people through my music, from technicians backstage to my audience on stage. Seeing other people enjoying the music gives me so much pleasure. Currently, I’m also composing a piece for B-Classic festival and I’m working on a new album. On the side, I’m setting up a Hantrax doll expo with a collection of textile dolls that I have designed.

Horst: How has the city of Antwerp shaped Studio Palermo as a business?

Ti: Having a business in Antwerp teaches you to take a critical look at yourself, which is a good thing. We are surrounded by a lot of talented artists, musicians, designers and curators. The city pushes you to take a closer look at your business and ask yourself how you add value. It’s about finding a balance between doing what you want, and adding something that does not yet exist.

Horst: Today we see a lot of awareness movements such as Black Lives Matter. Do you see a role for Studio Palermo to influence our society through the way you work?

Ti: I believe ‘equality’ derives naturally through the way we operate, we make time and space for all our customers. What you can easily do on a small scale is to be tolerant. However, you don’t have to say that you’re tolerant, you just have to be it throughout your daily actions. It feels wrong to do it on purpose or because it may benefit your business. You just have to be tolerant and see people as people, regardless of their appearance, skin colour or religion. By getting to know each other, you also discover a bit more about yourself and what you have in common, which is a whole lot.

Horst: Going back to the beginning of Studio Palermo. Did you encounter any (financial) obstacles when starting your business? Ti, were you born with an entrepreneurial mindset?

Ti: As a teenager, I took evening classes in accounting, and I launched my first business at the age of 24 from which I have learned a lot. By the time we founded Studio Palermo I was able to implement all my previous experiences, so that we were able to operate in an efficient, structured and financially healthy way. At the start, it took us only two months before we were up and running. I believe a lot of entrepreneurs waste too much time making sure everything is perfect from the start, which will take longer to break even. Although our venue was not perfect, we just went for it trusting that all would fall in place. At Studio Palermo we prioritise sustainable growth of our business, instead of quick wins. I think it’s important to point out that a return on investment does not always have to be money, it can also be credibility.

Horst: Looking back, what are you the proudest of?

Ti: I’m not easily proud. I think it’s important to stay modest about both yourself and your clients. We are not overpromoting what we do, we even don’t have a website. I remember a quote from John Travolta that goes ‘you are never that good, and you are never that bad’. It’s nice when people praise you for your work, but it’s also important not to get lazy nor arrogant. It’s good to know what your strengths are, but also where you can improve. Maybe that's what I’m the proudest of, that I’m able to remain critical about my work.

I’m also proud that we at Studio Palermo can fully trust each other, that we all have a strong work ethic and choose to work in our own way which is also highly valued by our clients. Today’s focus often lies on individual entrepreneurs, but I believe you should always take your clients into account. You can do whatever you like, but you will always need other people in your business.

"As a musician, artist or creator you should never forget that you have an audience. It’s never only about you. People need each other."
- Ticuta Racovita-Cordemans
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