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Keq Marku is certainly a unique individual. He’s turned this former bunker into a renowned tattoo parlour, which is surrounded by a beautifully poetic landscape, giving visitors a little taste of both heaven and hell!
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes seems to come vividly alive as soon you set foot in this unique bunker-turned-tattoo parlour in Albania, where the earth’s devils it seems, guard the gates. For quite some time now, Keq Marku Tattoo has been a place where you’d go to get much more than just a tattoo. Here, you get an experience. The bunker’s status as an attractive tourist spot is as much down to the fascinating tattoo artist as the actual tattoos themselves. He’s a man who goes by the name of Keq Marku .
Keq Marku’s portfolio of tattoos range from the perfectly simple to the more fascinatingly intricate, which can take months to complete. With the sound echoing off the concrete in the background, we ask Keq about the choice of this particular name. (In Albanian, “keq” means “bad.”) He confirms our suspicions, that his family gave him this nickname during his childhood because of his mischief. His real name is in fact Pjetër, while many of his local friends also call him Pjerin. He’s a man of many names, which is not surprising at all for someone who has had to reinvent himself several times throughout his life.
Most people would agree that in order to understand the correct path to take in life, you must sometimes follow several mistaken ones. Such is the life of Keq Marku who, before turning the famous dichotomy of good and evil into the primary theme of his tattoos and paintings, had to experience them both first hand.
It was in 1985 that Keq first decided to emigrate to Serbia, and afterwards to the United States. To this day, he remembers the exact day and time of the moment he decided to leave his home country: “It was August 25th, 1985 at 2 PM. I remember it exactly. Two weeks before I had to join the army. I had no plans. It was a spur of the moment decision.” Many of his choices in life, he confirms, have been like this. “Then, it depends on where fate takes you. For me, the direction wasn’t so good,” he says, alluding to his 9-year-long jail sentence in the U.S.
It was in jail that he began making tattoos, an occupation he continues to this day and one that has given him some freedom, even though he still must work within the limited space of a bunker. He opened his tattoo business in 2000, when the bunkers were still considered to be unpleasant reminders of the terrible Communist past. Keqi saw them differently. For him, this was an opportunity to give these useless – and never truly used – objects a second chance and, along with them, to himself, as well.
It was not long before Keq Marku Tattoo got the attention of the Albanian and the international crowd. Whenever Albania’s infamous bunkers are mentioned, so is Keq Marku’s bunker, located in Bajza of the Great Highlands (Bajzë të Malësisë së Madhe), half an hour away from Shkodra (for the map click here). Many documentaries and videos about Marku’s bunker have circulated online, culminating in this recent viral video by popular blogger, Nas Daily.
Marku’s entire body is covered in tattoos, most of which were done by him. The most recent, and unfinished one, is of a double-headed eagle with a sword, on the side of his neck. Thankfully, his 17-year-old son is helping him work on this one! According to Marku, his son is nearly ready to inherit his father’s trade. The father of four – three sons and a daughter – Keq tells us how his children love spending time with him there, and closely follow his work in the bunker every chance they get.
An unavoidable subject throughout our conversation is that of the apocalypse, a scene not only painted at the bunker’s entrance, but also on Marku’s back. While originally this term meant “to discover,” today it is only associated with the end of the world. Keq, for one, is certain that the end is near, and the only way to save ourselves from this fate is to make a pact with the devil.
But, this is a discussion topic that could go on endlessly. Keq leaves the bunker and invites us to feast our eyes on the poetic landscape around the beautiful lake and mountains, as well as the house next door, where he lives with his family. Here, it seems that both heaven and hell are very much part of Marku’s world.
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