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A bunker turned into a popular tattoo parlor, surrounded by a beautiful landscape, gives visitors a little taste of heaven and hell.
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes seems to come alive as soon as you enter the most original bunker-turned-tattoo parlor in Albania, where the earth’s devils adorn the gates. For quite some time now, Keq Marku Tattoo has been a place where you go to get much more than just a tattoo. It is an experience. The bunker’s status as an attractive touristic spot is due to the tattoos as much as the fascinating tattoo artist who creates them, the man who goes under the stage name of Keq Marku.
Keq Marku’s portfolio of tattoos ranges from very simple to more intricate ones that may take months to complete. Overhearing sounds of hard rock 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 he often misbehaved. His real name is, in fact, Pjetër, while many of his local friends also call him Pjerin. A man of many names, which is not surprising at all for someone who has known how to reinvent himself several times throughout his life.
It is a generally accepted fact that, in order to understand which path to take in life, one sometimes must go through several mistaken ones. Such is the life of Keq Marku who, before turning the famous dichotomy of good and evil into the primary motif of his tattoos and paintings, had to experience them firsthand.
It was in 1985 that Keq first decided to immigrate 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 Albania: “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 where fate takes you. For me, the direction wasn’t so good,” he says, alluding to his 9-year-long jail sentence while 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 are made by him. The most recent, and unfinished one, is of a double-headed eagle with a sword at its center, on his neck. His 17-year-old son is actually working on this one. According to Marku, he is now 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 and closely follow his work in the bunker every chance they get.
An unavoidable subject throughout our conversations 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 discussion 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 part of Marku’s world.
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