SINCLAIR, Maine — Chris Gendron, better known as “Kocha Saraswati” in the tattoo world, has honed his craft throughout the world for over a decade. Now, he has returned home to the St. John Valley and opened a shop next to a childhood home in Sinclair.
Gendron obtained the name “Kocha” while in Bulgaria. It happened while he was learning Bulgarian in a village with some local kids. When he got to the word for ram, they pointed at Gendron and laughed.
He said Chris Kocha would roughly translate to “Chris The Ram.” This was later shortened to just Kocha, and then Kocha Saraswati. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, and often associated with art, learning, and music.
Because of the stigma once associated with tattooing, Gendron said many tattoo artists would use stage names, so their family names were not attached to the business.
Gendron, who is now 39, was first drawn to tattooing at age 16. He recently lost his grandfather to cancer, and traveled to Edmundston to get a tattoo in his honor. It was his first tattoo, and he had it drawn at the top of his spine on the back of his neck, which is among the more painful spots to get tattooed. It is a tribal design that he said represents his grandfather ascending to Valhalla, a mythological hall where those who die in combat reside.
“He was a warrior,” Gendron said. “He was in the military, and I wanted to think of him in an honorable way.”
He said he chose the spine because it mirrored the pain his grandfather felt in his final months.
Gendron spent the first eight to nine years of his life in the south, living in Savannah, Georgia and South Carolina. He then moved with his mother to Houlton. He said his mother, who worked as a respiratory therapist, is originally from Massachusetts, so she moved to Maine to be closer to family.
Gendron spent the final years of his youth in Sinclair, when his mother met his stepfather. And after traveling the world, his tattoo shop is now temporarily set up in a garage right next to that childhood home.
The shop, located on 122 Sinclair Road, will host a grand opening featuring musical guests and a potluck supper on Feb. 18. Doors open at 1 p.m., with supper from 4:30 to 8 p.m.
Gendron graduated from Wisdom High School and briefly attended the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“And then 9/11 happened,” he said, “and I joined the military.”
He served in the United States Air Force for five years, five months, and 24 days, where he worked as an F-16 and F-117 avionics technician. He said he always wanted to serve people, but later decided that he did not want to do that via military service.
“It’s always been about service,” he said. “How can I serve? That’s why I joined the military, but I realized it wasn’t for me. So I got out, and life happened.”
Shortly after he left the military in late 2007, Gendron traveled to Florida. This is where he met his wife, Caitlyn, and his tattooing mentor, Isobel Hitchcock.
Hitchcock, who has owned and operated Ancient Art Tattoo Studio since 1987, worked under Bill Hannong. And Hannong worked under Peter Poulos, who played a significant role in founding the National Tattoo Association.
And while Gendron never formally worked as Hitchcock’s apprentice, he said she taught him a great deal about the craft while he was in Florida. He concluded that he will always consider her as a mentor.
He later studied law and graduated from Hodges University, and then moved to Seattle. Once he arrived, however, money became too much of an immediate concern for him to spend time as a tattooing apprentice.
He became politically active during this time, and worked with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Democratic National Committee. He was also an organizer for the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was during this time that he started to become disillusioned with the United States.
So he went to Bulgaria.
While he was there, he met another English-speaking resident, and then learned of a tattoo shop a few villages away in Popovo called Icon Tattoo. He was able to obtain a work visa and prolong his stay.
It was at this shop that he administered his first tattoo.
He and his wife returned to the St. John Valley in 2014 and had their second daughter. Gendron briefly opened his own shop, Nomad Tattoo, in 2014. He said it was too early in his career, however, to open his own shop.
“I had just been tattooing for like a year and a half,” he said. “So even though I’ve had this long learning process, my actual practical experience with the craft was very short.”
He then briefly worked at Precision Tattoo in Presque Isle before taking another trip overseas. Between 2015 and 2017, Gendron worked at three shops in Bucharest, the Tattoo Company in the Netherlands, and made appearances at the Bucharest, Rotterdam, and Eindhoven tattoo conventions. And during the summers of 2016 and 2017 he worked at Freak Out Tattoo in Albufeira, Portugal.
He returned to America in August of 2017, and for several years worked throughout the midwest in shops in Iowa and Nebraska while also attending tattoo conventions throughout the country.
Gendron and his family moved back to Maine in July of 2022. He worked at Fox Den Tattoo in Caribou for about a year. Gendron then opened his current shop, Aroostook Ancient Art Tattoo, in Sinclair last November.
The name is directly inspired by Hitchcock’s Florida shop. He said Hitchcock is a major reason that he now has a career as a tattoo artist.
“She’s still my mentor,” he said. “She owns 10 percent of this company. I can’t think of anyone else that I would want on a board of advisors and for me to share the profits of my labor with.”
The shop will feature guest artists from across the country, many of whom Gendron has met through his travels.
And now, after over a decade of worldwide tattooing experience, Gendron said much of what he learned could be summarized by a quote from The Beatles.
“All you need is love,” he said, quoting the song of the same name. “Everything else is a complete waste of time and energy.”