Hot! The Good Kind of Hives—Valko’s Tattooed Bees


On assignment to seek out tattoos with stories behind them, stories that connect a person’s tattoos with their passion or occupation, I came upon Valko and his bees. Valko lives on a cliff above the industrial section of Portland, Oregon, overlooking what was once a major trade route of Native Americans. Salmon still swim upstream here. From his garden, Valko can see St. Johns Bridge, one of Portland’s more elegant river-crossing structures. A few yards away from where we stood, the buzzing of Valko’s bees.

Bees aren’t the only tattoos on Valko’s body, but they are his focus and serve as a visual diary of his life’s journey. Currently, bees occupy a significant section of his path, and even though he has only two hives, these structures house thousands of bees that pollinate hundreds of thousands of plants. Our very existence relies on this exchange.

We walked a path between house and shed into an enclosed courtyard that contained the surround sound of hundreds of bees traveling to and from the hives. I walked slowly into the busy yard, thinking I wouldn’t disturb the bees. In fact, I was walking right into their flight path. We moved quickly to the back of the hives that were designed as two columnar, French Vanilla colored boxes with drawers resembling tall narrow dressers. The first order of business was for me to get down on all fours to stick my head under one of the hives and look up into the bees at work.

I asked Valko which came first, the bees or the tattoos. Actually, the sequence was: garden, bees, then bee tattoos. The garden set the table and was in place before he set up the hives. Finally, in homage, he designed five or six bee-related tattoos and had them. Most recently, he worked with G. Cosmos, who does studio sits in the Bay Area and Southern California. The artist who inked some of the others is Si who works in India, Goa and Bali Indonesia.

Valko considers his tattoos collectively as one piece, just as skin is one organ. He is, in short, a work in progress. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a tattoo done in a regular studio,” explains Valko. “Everything is done in private studios or rice fields in Bali.” Other artists who’ve worked on him include Don Ed Hardy and London Bellman. Some of his tattoos have been inked by hand rather than machine. “With poking, I don’t get the scabs generated by machines,” he says.

Bee tattoos on his chest include a queen, drone and bee inside a sacred geometric pattern. In the planning stage is a design of a queen and drone mating, but that one, says Valko, won’t be seen by anyone but him. “It’s kind of trippy,” he exclaims.

A bee’s life is short. They only live for about three weeks. Drones have no purpose once mating season is over, so, in the fall, they get kicked out of the hive and it’s all over for them. “I use to get emotional when the bees died, but you get used to it, because it’s part of their dance,” Valko notes. He’s learned to distinguish different sounds in the hive and can tell the difference between the queen and other bees by sound.

Valko estimates he’s been through about fifty hours, more or less, of inking and “body modification” as he puts it. He’s been collecting work for over twenty years. The military service, which he was in and out of in his late teens and early 20s, provided the major inspiration for getting tattooed, but he spent a lot of time thinking about what his personal approach would be and how tattoos would go on his blank canvas of a body. For Valko, the tattoos are spiritually inspired, not just “stampings.” Wearing tattoos is a form of adornment, he admits, but that adornment has behind it a meaning that runs deeper than the ink.

As far as his bee tattoos go, they are a tribute to one of the creatures on earth without of which humans would not exist. Valko points out the importance of backyard bee “guardians,” as he calls them. An estimated sixty to eight percent of our food is available because of the honeybee. Bio-dynamic agriculturist, philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) predicted about a hundred years ago that in a hundred years there would be no more honey bees. To further point out their importance, Valko quotes Einstein as saying, “Four years after the demise of the honeybee, humans will cease to exist.” No wonder Valko considers his bee tattoos as significant and his guardianship important work. He says, “The bees called to me, to teach me and guide me. They are a fellow organism. The hive is a successful democracy and we can learn a lot from it. I can’t say I like getting tattooed, but I like collecting art that way. It’s a way of appreciating time and space. Besides, it supports the artists and their insights.” If the message is in the tattoo, then Valko’s carrying a lot of buzz.

—Suzi Conklin (

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