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Entry to Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi.

Last year I had the indelible experience of visiting Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. Dzaleka was established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1994. The camp is home to forcibly displaced people fleeing genocide, violence and wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

The camp’s population has since risen exponentially to 37,000. Despite being a poor nation—more than half of Malawians live on less than one US Dollar per day—Malawi currently hosts close to 50,000 refugees. Dzaleka is located in Dowa District, around 50 km from Lilongwe, the capital city. It is the largest camp out of three.

During my day I met refugees that had lived there for over 14 years, including teenagers that were born in the camp.

There are restaurants, barber shops, schools, churches, bars, mechanics, banks, a radio station. It covers huge terrain and expands daily. People build their own houses from mud bricks throughout the camp, during the rainy season these often collapse. When I walked through, I was greeted with warm smiles and handshakes. It is custom and a sign of respect to hold your elbow while shaking hands.

Although it was advised to avoid taking photos, I was granted permission to publish the following.

A child in a self-built mud hut

Children playing miniature pool.

Edmund (left) is from the DRC. He has been in the camp for 14 years and has just finished his diploma. Dan (right), also from the DRC and a refugee at the camp for 14 years. Simple Jay (centre) is the camp’s tattooist. He uses a stick & poke method, using a needle and ink that’s stored in a syringe for safe keeping. Customers come to him to have mostly animals and names of loved ones tattooed. He is a Rasta and fashioned a key out of a stick for his hut’s door—he called it a Rasta key. He is also in the camp’s dance troop.

Dance troop.

Jean tends the camp’s veggie garden. She sells produce at local markets.

The camp also has its own radio station.

Shalex (right) makes and sells clothing at the camp. He also runs workshops teaching other refugees how to sew.

The smaller kids would watch the dance troop from trees tops.

Some goats outside a residence.

Mr photogenic.

Kids on the roadside selling skewered mice, a popular delicacy among many Malawians.

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(Abridged version published in The Conversation 13/07/2019)

Visitors looking at photographs in Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. Credit: Ben Healley.

The Immigration Museum’s new group of exhibits offer visitors a chance to engage with tattoo on a level deeper than skin. Here, stories of culture, tradition and migration speak through embedded ink.

Without personally experiencing a tattoo, it may be hard to understand why somebody would undergo the painful procedure. For example, Joseph Banks, the 18th century naturalist on board Cook’s first voyages, was quite taken aback at the tattooing process of a Samoan girl:

“What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (tho I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it; possibly superstition may have something to do with it, nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom”.[1]

Banks, like so many of his Age, disregarded the ritual as quaint – a primitive custom in need of Enlightenment. Perhaps he had not yet been exposed to Europe’s rich and ancient tattoo history – notwithstanding it was episodic, diffuse and nonlinear in nature. To use Alfred Gell’s term, European tattoo had hitherto floated “unanchored” to any codified and universal meaning, methodology, or vernacular, and was referred to mostly as “scratching” and “pricking”.

Missionaries and colonists thusly sought to discontinue the ‘savage’ practice, all but effacing it from the Islands – not, however, before piquing the interest of sailors. According to Jane Caplan’s edited volume, Written on the Body, upon returning home seamen helped propel the craft into a new level of visibility. Through aesthetic and appellation (the Tahitian word tatau, meaning to mark or strike, was adopted and later translated to tattoo), they inserted it into the collective consciousness of modern Europeans.

Paul Stillen, Annie, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lekhena Porter

Today, divided across three stately levels, Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks, explores the contemporary form of Polynesia’s ancient and embedded tatau alongside the equally potent tattoo tradition of Japanese irezumi. Complimenting the two photography exhibits are four installations – curated by Stanislava Pinchuk – that offer a view of tattoo beyond the limitations of tradition.

Paul Stillen, Group, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lekhena Porter

Visitors are greeted by her curation of six photographed tattooed bodies featuring the work of Melbourne based tattoo artist, Paul Stillen. Connected Bodies explores the relationship he develops with clients as they collaborate to create tattoos that pay homage to the wearer’s diverse cultural heritage. It is an insight into a creative process that outsiders to the craft may never consider, yet, the exchange between tattooist and client can be one of mutual palpable vulnerability, where the artist strives to materialise what can often be hidden deep within a client’s psyche. Whether consciously or not, Stillen’s botanical tattoos resemble Sydney Parkinson’s water-colour drawings of native Australian plants made during Cook’s first voyage. That symbolic irony pulls into focus the land on which the museum stands, and the devastating effect of immigration on First Peoples.

Paul Stillen, Chrystal, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lekhena Porter.

On the first level Tatau: Marks of Polynesia examines the ancient custom of Samoan pe’a (traditional male tattoo) and malu (traditional female tattoo), providing insight into how they form a complex body of rituals and motifs inextricably linked with transitions to adulthood, culture, and sacredness.

The exhibition explores the emergent contemporary Polynesian style that embodies concepts of both pe’a and malu. Its vibrancy and visibility are due in part to the global migration of Polynesians, outsider appreciation of the style, and, not least, the efforts of the Sulu-ape family, one of Samoa’s oldest and most revered custodians of the sacred practice. The process of attaining a pe’a in a traditional manner lasts up to five consecutive days, the physical and psychological punishment of which cannot be expressed in words, although, a Samoan friend once relayed to me: “it was my PhD.”



Notably, Polynesian tatau – heavy black work and the absence of pictorial iconography – was instrumental to the expansion of tattoo art. The pioneering American publication Tattootime featured the powerful black graphic work in their 1983 issue, New Tribalism. Its publication gave birth to the “tribal” style tattoo and swiftly became dominant amongst tattooists and clients.

Indeed, the third floor is where, arguably, tattoo culture’s most distinct and recognisable style is found, one that helped elevate western tattoo into the artform we see today. Formed through a complex history, Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World explores contemporary Japanese decorative tattooing. Curated by Takahiro Kitamura, the exhibition features the work of seven pioneers and legends, where the intricacies of regional and tutelage differences can be seen in the pores of their work.


Tattoo by Brian Kaneko. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Horikiku. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Chris Horishiki Brand. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Chris Horishiki Brand. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Horitaka. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Horitaka. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Horitomo. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Horitomo. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
Tattoo by Jeff Gogue. Photo by Kip Fulbeck
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“I grew up tempting my primitive lust by reading good old National Geographic.” —Fakir Musafar (in Modern Primitives)

Body modification is more visible and ubiquitous than ever before. Branding, cutting, scarification, subcutaneous implants, earlobe, nostril, lip and labret stretching, hook suspension, corseting, tongue splitting, navel removal, pixie ears, whiskers, genital and digital nullification—all these processes intrude on and manipulate the body, redefining cultural boundaries of beauty, identity, and what it is to be human. Many have traced the Western inception of this phenomenon to the iconoclastic spirit of one individual—Fakir Musafar.

Born Roland Loomis, the ex-advertising executive turned self-proclaimed shaman took his name from a nineteenth century Sufi who spent eighteen years with daggers piercing his body. In the same vein, Loomis’ life was spent manipulating flesh in search of the spiritual, transcendent and transformative. A recent article about extreme forms of beauty credited him as revolutionising and radicalising the concept by introducing modern society to extreme body modifications. The article indulged some commonly afforded accomplishments—“integral to the birth of modern piercing culture”; “father of contemporary body modification”; “pioneer of contemporary body hook suspension”. The piece went so far as to declare him the creator of some of “history’s most extreme body modifications”.

Fakir Musafar

Indeed, ostensibly, he was those things. During the 1940s, at age 14, Musafar was piercing his foreskin, a time where he harboured a legitimate fear of being thrown into an insane asylum for the act. At 17 he was tattooing himself with sewing needles and India ink. At 18 he wrapped a belt around his waist and pulled tight, wearing it frequently for thirty years permanently fixing his waistline to 24 inches. At 33 he pierced his chest with wires and fashioned them into hooks that took the full weight of his suspended body. During the 70s and 80s, with the patronage of Doug Malloy, Fakir Musafar and Jim Ward took the practice of piercing from the diffuse enclaves of punks and gays into the skins of middle-class Californian urbanities.

But his most significant contribution to pioneering extreme body constrictions, encumberments, modifications and piercing was made in the 1989 publication, The Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and ritual. The 212 paged book contains 22 interviews and 2 essays with predominantly white practitioners and enthusiasts of tattoo and body modification. The authors, V.Vale and Andrea Juno, expected to sell only a few thousand copies. Ten years later over 60,000 copies in 6 reprints had been sold. In 2008, the number was at half a million and 13 reprints. The book stands as the canonical text that brought subterranean and fringe body practices to a vastly greater audience[1].

“That one more than anything else had my message in it,” Musafar declared of Modern Primitives, “and it has inspired more people than I can dream of.”

It was here, spread across 30 pages, that he outlined the philosophy of his oeuvre. Musafar had coined the moniker “Modern Primitive” to define any “non-tribal person who responds to primal urges and does something with the body” within a ritualistic context, preferably one emulating tribal practice. His fascination with indigenous modification and ritualistic practices was transcribed alongside images of him performing them. The dialogue was populated with countless references to a multifarious and random selection of non-western body modification rituals, or what Anthropologist Daniel Rosenblatt would later observe as “the whole history of Western speculation about other cultures… tossed into a blender with more than a little New Age mysticism and some contemporary sexual radicalism thrown in besides.”

Musafar spoke of how Compton’s Picture Encyclopedias, a multi volume set of encyclopedias compiled of thousands of illustrations and articles, had inspired a desire for a small waist line: “I saw another picture in an encyclopedia of an Ibitoe,” he would explain, “a wasp-waisted boy of New Guinea. It said above all things, these people admired a well-spiked nose and a small waist… I would become the Ibitoe.” He conveyed his fascination with the tattoo practices of “Eskimo”, New Guineans, and North Africans, and expressed avid adoration of the Native American “Sun Dance” ceremonies, Mandan O-kee-pa ceremonies, Sadhu Indian penis stretching, indigenous Australian penis manipulation, and Indian Kavandi-bearing.

Although Musafar had read the whole encyclopedia in his early teens, it was one publication in particular he claims ignited his “primitive lust”.

“Taken as a whole,” he said in Modern Primitives, “the old National Geographics constitute quite a compendium and survey of primitive practices.”

In fact, the magazine not only inspired but informed most of his early rituals and modifications, acting like a one-dimensional visual guide.

“I knew nothing about piercing but I had to have this hole in my body,” he would admit in Modern Primitives, “I had seen a picture in an old National Geographic of an old South Seas Island man who had just had a child; he was a father. So as a father he was entitled to have a hole bored in his nostril. In the picture, the caption was all I had to go by.”

He also credited National Geographic’s photographic journalism as the inspiration for his first tattoos.

“I guess I was influenced by all of the reading and all of the other cultures because that's what it's all about in Borneo or Marquesas Islands. It's not done solely for decoration, it's part of an initiation, a rite of passage. It's part of transformation.”

Musafar had seen in “primitive” tattoo and body modification a function hitherto not found in his contemporary Western context; non-tribal tattoos and body modifications, he argued, lacked ritual, thus, meaning gets lost along with its rich transformative and sacred power and rewards. It was his desire—which became his life’s work—to import that “primitive” aspect to a society he saw as fractured and profane, too civil and outward looking to realise the latent magic within. For many readers of Modern Primitives, it was their first time seeing a human hanging from flesh hooks or connecting body modification with spirituality. Although the book’s author V.Vale admitted the publication was an exercise in amateur anthropology, the absence of critical analysis did not preclude it from becoming the most widely influential volume on body modification practices to date.

Yet, the source and language of Musafar’s beliefs and practices were problematic, to say the least. A recent National Geographic editorial boldly admitted to failing in its role to present accurate and authentic depictions of anybody that was not white—“For decades, our coverage was racist,” read the blunt 2018 title. Elucidating on the magazine’s appearance at the height of colonialism, Susan Goldberg acknowledged how non-white subjects were presented through the colonial gaze, as exotic “natives”, unclothed and “happy hunters”, “noble savages”. In other words, the magazine’s imagery merely functioned to further subjugate the racialized other—silenced and exposed to the imperialist’s gaze. Not surprisingly, these same racist tropes permeate Musafar’s work, albeit in a partly reversed form, presenting “primitive” practices as the antidote to centuries of colonisation, modernisation, and Christian proselytization—the purpose of reviving “primitive” activities, he would claim, was the desire for a more “ideal society”.

Fakir Musafar “performing” a Native American Sun Dance Ceremony

Prescribing primitiveness as panacea for Western woes is not a new diagnosis. In fact, the intellectual scaffolding upon which Musafar’s ideas gained credence were the same that justified European conquest to begin with—the essentialist binary of ‘civil self’ and ‘savage other’. It is when we reacquaint ourselves with this history of demonising and erasing indigenous cultural and spiritual practices that the sacred shroud with which Musafar dressed his modifications and mimicry[2] render them culturally insensitive acts of ignorance and theft. By failing to engage with non-European people with respect to their heterogeneity, complexities, varied histories, and agency, he presented them like salvaged exotic plunder, their cultural practices plucked and sampled to “remedy” white malaise and ennui. Musafar’s contribution to contemporary body modification culture cannot be overstated, however, it is important to understand on who’s backs this subculture was built.

§

“We knew that we were not Indians and we could never have access to doing this as an Indian. So, we decided, being non-blooded Indians, and not knowing all that much about the myth and heritage behind it, that we would go out into the wild, into Wyoming, and do a Native American Sun Dance as best we could, our way.” —Fakir Musafar (in Modern Primitives)

During the 60s and 70s categories of class, gender, race and religion started to become ambivalent and unstable markers for identity. The rise of previously subjugated voices—such as women, blacks, and other marginalised groups—began to challenge traditional hegemonic structures of meaning, knowledge, and value. Erik Erikson, the German-American psychologist famous for coining the term identity crisis, described it as the era of “identity crisis”, where the formerly repressed energies of social movements and activists burst into the mainstream, facilitating a shift from social conformity to cultural revolution. They were an indictment of modernity; the limits of reason, democracy, religion, and unfettered industrialism manifested itself in imminent nuclear obliteration, war, fascism, patriarchy, the genocide of indigenous cultures and peoples, and global environmental degradation.

For more people the widening dimensions of choice—unless obstinately circumscribed by race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity—rendered identity as something to be manufactured rather than emerging from one’s social position. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, saw individuals scrambling for groups to which they could belong into a “world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else it certain”. The general mood of the time was one of ontological insecurity and anxiety.

Although Western thought had a tradition of demonizing any discourse surrounding the body not based in science or, paradoxically, Christianity, the conditions of late modernity were such that, for many, the body became a reliable foundation for individualised identity building, something social theorist, Chris Shilling, called “Body Projects”, or what Musafar termed “Body Play”.

Fakir Musafar emulating an Indian O-Kee-Pa-Ceremony

“Today, a whole part of life seems to be missing for people in modern cultures,” Musafar declared in Modern Primitives, “whole groups of people, socially, are alienated. They cannot get closer or in touch with anything, including themselves… well, there have got to be some remedies and they’re going to come from some very strange places… It all comes down to: it’s your body, play with it. For a long time western culture has dictated: don’t fuck with the body; it’s the temple of God. But finally people are starting to see things in a different way…People need physical ritual, tribalism – they’ve got to have it, one way or another.”

It was the 70s and tattoo began experiencing a Renaissance. Pioneering tattooist, Cliff Raven, saw the revival as reflecting the end of America as a melting pot: “Tattoo is one way of reassuring, or reinforcing, the ego under pressure. It provides an expanded, alternative, volitional identity: one can come to terms with the psychic constraints of the slot(s) one occupies in society.” Political, social and technological shifts were accelerating and shaping culture. Key European tattoo artists were travelling to Asia and the Pacific bringing home new techniques and styles. Flash art was failing to meet the complexities of self-realization; frontline tattooists such as Lyle Tuttle, Spider Webb, Cliff Raven, and Ed hardy were advancing the practice into large-scale, custom, full-body designs quite evolved from the limits of pre-congealed, formulaic and limited iconography of Western motifs. To accomplish large-scale full-body work like those common in Japan and Polynesia offered revolutionary potential for the bodies and identities of Western individuals, “to be able to transform somebody that much seemed truly spectacular,” Ed Hardy recalled, “that didn’t exist in our society.”

Ed Hardy and Le Zulueta’s Tattootime, New Tribalism issue.

In 1983 Ed Hardy and Leo Zulueta decided to create what became one of the earliest records of the bourgeoning modern tattoo industry—Tattootime. The first issue included powerful black graphic work featuring designs predicated upon Polynesian and Marquesas motifs, or, as Hardy put it, from “so-called primitive societies”. They jokingly entitled the volume “New Tribalism”, amusing themselves with what Hardy would later recall as the “outlandish notion” that the style would catch on. After publication it became apparent that, notwithstanding the diversity of growth in the industry, the anthropologically inspired blackwork was becoming ubiquitous. Hardy and Zulueta had given birth to a style movement.

Musafar saw this as evidence of a “primal urge” for tribalism and ritual; Hardy, however, resented the connection.

“It’s intriguing to see it [primitivist discourse] used by people as essentially the new kitsch. They’re not very original designs, but they pick up on this thing how it’s meaningful for them, how it’s a journey or a rite of passage and all that stuff, and it’s kind of incredible that that’s going on…I get so sick of hearing all that stuff, and of course I know that I started a lot of it because I started focusing on that in the first Tattootime, just kind of to make people aware of it, but it’s just so corny now.”

Until that point, tattooing in the West had never been articulated as a sacred or existentially transformative experience. Although the history of European tattoo is disparate and disconnected, its meaning and function was never universally codified or understood in the same way indigenous communities made sense of and employed the craft. It was a structure of meaning Musafar believed was detrimentally absent from contemporary Western tattoo and body modification. Yet, the intellectual kernel of his foundational claim—that modern culture is defined and bereft by the absence of tribal ritual—had its roots in another, more defining Renaissance.

§

“That whole Judeo-Christian belief system imposes an absolutely negative connotation on tattooing. It’s a basic human tendency to want to decorate one’s body; it’s something people have always done. Yet this society doesn’t provide any place for it, and the cultures that did have indigenous tattooing were pretty successfully wiped out by the Christian missionary intrusion covering the world with white Western culture.” —Ed Hardy (in Modern Primitives)

The seventeenth century rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge saw French Renaissance thinker Charles De Montesquieu refine ideas about human nature and society by proposing it evolved along three linear stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilisation. His conceptualisation of human history became known as social evolutionism, which, alongside many other new ideas spurred by the impact of new empirical and rational sciences and philosophical and political revolutions, coalesced to undermine the Church’s dominant authority and gave birth to what many regard as the beginnings of modernity.

One of the most influential voices of this Age was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French essayist championing individual reason and the human capacity for enlightened social action. His diatribes lambasted the State’s unjust structures and subjugation of Man. Rousseau became obsessed with trying to establish an image of how life might be lived outside their rule. Contrary to the Hobbesian notion of a brutal and short existence in lieu of State protection, Rousseau dignified the state of nature. He believed in the existence of a natural, egalitarian condition of man free from government abuse and authoritarianism, one that would not succumb to savagery. Although the term ‘noble savage’ has its etymology elsewhere, English translations adopted it to describe this mythic personification of utopian citizenry.

Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Omai

In 1768 the Royal Society commissioned James Cook’s first voyage to the south Pacific Ocean. In the spirit of the new..

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(To be published in VICE 7/06/2019)

Feris Tergo, a project in three acts, exist to show the art of what is possible beyond the limits of pain. By bringing together some of the world’s leading practitioners of beauty and pain, Miss Sophia orchestrates unrelenting tours of torture intended to violate the body’s integrity and leave indelible physical and psychological marks.

The first act saw a tongue and nipples tattooed, pierced, clamped, a face gagged and suffocated, a body beaten. Their second saw a body, naked and supine, its skin whipped, slapped, scratched, incised and tattooed, its flesh pierced, skewered and clamped, its neck collared. Via affixed flesh hooks, the beaten, bloodied body was suspended high enough to see toes float and curl in agony—or ecstasy perhaps—before rope was purposely snipped and it slumped violently on the remaining hooks, leaving one to marvel at the elasticity of human skin and take pause to reacquaint face with jaw.

For some, pleasure is the absence of pain; for Feris Tergo, more pain—more pleasure, something their third act intends to vehemently observe.

With the brutal chaos of blackwork tattooist, 3Kreuze, and meticulous manipulation of pioneering body modifier, Yann Brenyak, the sessions are designed to explore the murky and macabre space between what unites tattoo, body modification, and BDSM. We catch up with Miss Sophia, 3Kreuze, and their second client to gain a deeper understanding about Feris Tergo’s breath-taking visual and physical force, what would drive someone to want to go through such an ordeal, and what’s in store for the third and final act.

Miss Sophia (Feris Tergo Dominatrix @feristergo):

So, what is Feris Tergo? Feris Tergo is Latin and means something along the lines of “The most savage”. It’s a BDSM/Blackwork project that my partner 3kreuze and I created. The session is painful, exhausting and without compromise, but also with so much trust and deep connections between all the people involved—we try to make that visible for people. Every session has its own aesthetic, we speak about everything before we start in order to collect ideas and fantasies—it changes from project to project.

Photo credit: @ChristianTrippe

Why did you decide to film the sessions? We decided to document it to show people what’s possible how it is to push limits in a safe space.

Can you give us a little bit of background about yourself? I’m 22 years old and currently live in London but originally, I’m from Germany. I mostly work as a Model but BDSM has been part of my life for a couple of years now. I made my passion a job when I was 20, that’s when I became “Miss Sophia”.

For those of us unfamiliar with the accoutrements of torture, what tools does a normal BDSM session employ and how do Feris Tergo sessions differ in that respect? There are endless possibilities when arranging a BDSM Session, so in my opinion there is no “normal” session, but usually the slave leaves the session without forever marks. Feris Tergo differs in that respect, because the tattooing part is obviously a reminder for the rest of your life. We are creating art during our sessions.

Photo credit: @ChristianTrippe

The project is like a ritual but not just a pain ritual—it’s about trust, connection, and enjoying letting yourself go. Everyone is purely themselves, thinking about nothing other than what is happening in the moment. It’s satisfying to be in the moment, to forget all your problems and just enjoy. It’s not about the pain, it’s about feeling alive and letting yourself go.

Photo credit: @london.boudoir

Initially, though, the idea behind Feris Tergo was to form a connection between BDSM and tattooing, but for AktII we decided to involve body modification artist, Yann Brenyak, which was the best decision because the suspension made the whole session even more intense.

Right, that’s a lot of hands manipulating flesh. Why did you use a professional tattooist and body modifier instead of just doing it yourself? Tattoo and body modification must be taken seriously, it’s nothing I would do without being a professional. Also, I prefer doing other things during session.

How do you coordinate between yourselves? We are working together to make the session as intense as possible. I decide a lot of things during the session, but the best thing is to create something out of the ideas of everyone involved, getting creative together is important to get to know each other better, otherwise I would never know their fantasies and it wouldn’t be that satisfying.

Photo credit: @london.boudoir

Tell us about the acts.

Feris Tergo Act I Photo Album

AKTI: This was the first time we tried out working together and we weren’t really sure how to arrange everything, so it was kind of chaotic, there was no real structure even if it was working out well in the end. We learned that speaking about everything is the key. We had a lot of fun while doing it, it was exciting and new and we had just people around we knew already before the session.

Feris Tergo Act II Photo Album

AKTII: This was very well organised. We hadn’t met Flavia until the day before the session, but it felt just right, it was a good vibe between all of us. It was still very exciting. Although the suspension was new there was already something like a routine and we felt safer in what we were doing.

What’s going through your mind as you’re inflicting pain on your subjects in these videos? I enjoy seeing people suffer, it’s my pleasure to see their pain.

Photo credit: @wenzhelini

What do you say to people watching that might think, these folks are fucked? I understand that our sessions are not for everybody and that it’s extreme, so it’s okay for me that some people might think we are fucked in the head.

I don’t feel like a freak or special in a way anyone else isn’t. I have a pretty “normal” life in general. I’m in a monogamous relationship, I like cooking, clothes, make-up and Sunday walks in the park, everything other people consider “normal”.

Photo credit: @london.boudoir

3Kreuze (blackwork tattooist @3Kreuze):

So, 3Kreuze, what would you say to people who watch this and think you’re all just fucked in the head? I think they are right.

Haha, okay, so why did you and Miss Sophia want to create Feris Tergo? As a couple, Miss Sophia and I always had this idea about combining both our work to create something in between, especially something we’ve never seen or done before. So, we came up with this Project. It’s not for the masses and its better if this videos and images are visible for a few people with an interest in it and a different understanding about experimenting and exploring bodies—even if it’s such a rough way. The whole BDSM thing was quite new for me, I met Miss Sophia in a totally different way and after we became a couple, she told me about her job as a dominatrix. So yeah, I wanted to see her in Action.

Photo credit: @ChristianTrippe

It is extremely rough, indeed. What is going through your mind as you’re tattooing someone in this sort of chaotic environment? It’s weird, I mean I saw a lot of crazy shit in the last few years, especially in the tattoo and body mod scene, but this was mental! After the first Feris Tergo Akt, I didn’t want to talk about what happened for a week because it was crazy to watch my partner with this joy in her face and zero empathy for the person who was getting fucked up. I’m always more patient with tattooing and I always take care that the client can easily handle all the pain. But then you see your partner, crossing borders more and more knowing that this is what the client wants.

Photo credit: @wenzhelini

You participated in Brutal Black sessions—how does this differ? You can’t compare this. Brutal Black sessions are about tattooing, a craftsman using their tattoo machines to push ink into the canvas of an innocent client. Feris Tergo is absolutely more physical punishment. Pain comes in much more waves, faster, harder, destructive from one second to another. You can’t prepare your body for the next few hours of pain. And the biggest difference are the clients who get into it. People who enjoy pain and physical punishment. Not in a sexual way but for them its more than a passion.

Tell me about the power dynamic and your role during these visceral sessions. In these sessions I have the freedom to do what I want but I just play a small part—I just tattoo. So, basically, if Miss Sophia plans to do something I need to stop, or if it works and we can both work on the client we will do it. But, basically, I always take a look what she is doing first.

Photo credit: @wenzhelini

Why do you think people want to go through such intense physical trauma? Victory above their own bodies and minds. This is what I saw and felt during the sessions, they don't want to tap out or give up or give you a safe word to stop. So, at the end they want to win and survive this session.

What’s in the works for the next Akt? For now, we have some rough ideas about the 3rd Akt, but for now it’s nothing concrete—but it will be much heavier than the other ones, that’s for sure!

Photo credit: @wenzhelini

Jo Lastreg AKA Flavia Raus (participant from Act II, @jolastreg):

Tell us about yourself. I am 26, French, and currently live in Paris. All day I focus on three things: food, my job and photography. I am an artist—a photographer (but I graduated in archaeology). It's been ten years that I'm interested in tattoo art, piercings and suspension—when I was younger, I would change the way I looked thanks to Photoshop, but now the changes are happening in real life. I am truly interested in everything related to the human body and its transformations.

Photo credit: @wenzhelini

Why did you decide to have a Feris Tergo session? I am into the tattoo world for real, more than trash, and I have a thing for the BDSM community. The Feris Tergo project combines several disciplines I love, and it makes me feel alive. I get very excited. Since I adore 3Kreuze’s work I sent him a message right after Akt1 asking whether he was looking for a new victim. I was not expecting a positive answer at all; I was honoured and suddenly crazy about this project.

What were you expecting to experience, and did it meet your expectations? I had no particular expectations but the urge to live it a hundred percent. In a few words—considering the..

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Last week I was interviewed live on ABC radio [interview begins at 5.40min] for a segment on tattoo. I am not a tattooist—I am a sociologist that has experienced over 150 hours of tattooing and has been writing on tattoo and body modification for over six years for publications such as Vice, Dazed, Inked, Skin Deep, and Things & Ink. Credentials aside, it was my first radio interview, and my blood was flowing with too much caffeine and the all-encompassing fear of saying something irrevocably stupid.

The bit was a follow-up to Adam Gabbatt’s piece published days before in The Guardian entitled, At arm’s length: are tattoos finally becoming uncool?. Here he defined Vogue’s front page spread of a disrobed and tattooed Bieber and the topless tattooed torso of Adam Levine’s Super Bowl performance as the graceless demise of tattoo’s cultural capital. Tattoo expert and art history lecturer, Dr Matt Lodder, informed Gabbatt that the media have been positing these tropes about tattoo’s status—'Now tattoos are middle class’, or ‘Shock horror, women are getting tattoos now’—for decades. In other words, each unexpected location a tattoo turns up elicits another round of existential interrogations from mainstream media on the socio-cultural place of tattoo.

I was ready to don my sociological hat and put the question to bed. Instead, and even despite my using the first question to reveal my work’s modus operandi as one of presenting the stories of unique individuals without the usual fetishization found in mass media, I was asked the traditional set of facile questions tattooed bodies have been facing from mainstream outlets ever since they took a fascination with the ancient practice—what was your first tattoo?, how much have you spent?, where did it hurt the most?, what styles are popular?, are tattoos becoming uncool? what is the future of tattoo?.

This is not a value judgement on the interviewer; if one’s exposure to tattoo is through cultural industries like galleries, museums, advertising, the music industry, and mainstream print and online media, understanding tattoo as merely an aesthetic object makes sense. However, this one-dimensional view of tattoo and tattooed bodies imbues them with the same essence of ambivalence and ephemerality that makes a fad a fad, thusly encouraging these regular spurious musings on whether tattoos are uncool or too mainstream. And now, the same mechanisms responsible for saturating cultural industries with a superficial view of tattoo declare its rebellious spirit and visual impact diluted. Not only does this negate the social and sacred function traditional tattoo fulfils for many non-European bodies, it assumes the motivations for undergoing such a painful ritualistic process in the West is mediated merely by the current climate of cultural capital gains.

To better understand this phenomenon—and hopefully preclude the positing of such questions—we need to trace back to what social theorist, Mary Kosut, identifies as the artification and commodification of tattoo.

“Have you had your monogram inscribed on your arm? Is your shoulder blade embellished with your crest? Do you wear your coat-of-arms graven in India ink on the cuticle of your elbow? No? Then, gracious Madame and gentle sir, you cannot be au courant with society’s very latest fad”
— (early example of the media ‘elevating’ tattoo to fashion) December 12, 1897, New York Herald

For most of the 20th century, tattoos and art were two distinct socio-cultural spheres. Before the 1970s, tattooists were understood more as tradesmen ploughing their craft (yes, mostly men, although Australian Bev Robinson, aka Cindy Ray, is a noteworthy exception). These tattooists had little or no knowledge of the western art cannon; the industry was predicated on copying and reproduction, tattoo stencils were bought and sold, flash sheets displayed formulaic and limited iconographies such as roses, ships, cartoons, and pin-up girls. Although members of high-society would often flirt with the practice, tattooists were mostly working-class tattooing the dispossessed, blue-collared, itinerant, or criminal.

A rarity worth mentioning, however, is Samuel Steward, aka Phil Sparrow, a university professor turned tattoo artist who, during the 1950s, wrote what could be described as the first comprehensive sociological ethnography of a tattoo parlour in Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, notwithstanding Albert Parry’s 1933 contribution, Tattoo: secrets of a strange art, which examined the practice albeit through a more prurient lens. Indeed, Sparrow observed the dearth of artistic skill firsthand, “There is not much creativity nor originality among tattoo artists as a whole,” he wrote, “Obviously, someone at some time had to create the designs first, and there are a few talented designers in the field. But the majority of tattoo artists have never had any art training.” Nor were there magazines, associations, conventions, or even many methods for learning the trade. Steward attempted to teach himself from a “poorly mimeographed” set of lessons that revealed, he noted in hindsight, a distinct lack of knowledge on the teacher’s part. Regardless, Steward thought “learning to tattoo from a book is just about as successfully accomplished as learning to swim from a book in your living-room.” The characteristics of what have come to be known as “first-generation” tattooists contrast starkly with those entering the field during an era of fundamental social and cultural changes.

“Only in the 1960s or 70s did people even remotely start to think about it as being something about the individual. It was never about that… It was about ‘you’re a sailor so you get this, you’re a prisoner so you get this prison tattoo’… Only very recently has it become about individual expression both for the client and the artists”
— (2006) Alex Binnie, Tattooist

The 1960s and 70s saw tattoo’s clientele diversify. The social and political mood of the time was one of ontological insecurity—the voices of minorities began challenging traditional Western structures for meaning making and self-identity became insecure and problematic. As psychologist Erik Erikson described it, it was an era of identity crisis. The historian Eric Hobsbawm saw men and women scrambling for groups to which they could belong—certainly and forever—into a “world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else it certain,” while sociologist Anthony Elliott wrote of identity in the era as breaking with images of “sameness, continuity, regularity and repetition”, coming instead to mean “rebellion, discontinuity and difference”.

Such was the lack of solid structures to identify with, and growing avenues for difference and identity construction, that tattoo shifted from a marker of identity to an expression of self. This fundamental shift rendered flash art incapable of meeting the complexities and diversities of individuals wishing to construct and express their “selves” through tattoo. As a leading figure of this “tattoo renaissance”, tattooist Don Ed Hardy observed, “people had to fit their individual psyche into pre-congealed images that were often very out-of-date.” Tattooists had to up their game—they had to become artists.

Coincidentally, it was around this time universities saw a dramatic rise in the number of fine art graduates. Not only did the climate of uncertainty attract previously absent groups looking to anchor and express themselves though tattoo, the industry also saw the arrival of a new, university-trained generation of artists unable to find work in the already over-saturated and often impenetrable art world. Even today, large swaths of tertiary educated artists find themselves migrating to tattoo in the hopes of making rent. As such, these institutionally trained middle-class artists brought with them techniques, styles, self-reflexivity, business acumen, experiences, discourses, a highly critical way of understanding art, and a subscription to mainstream values and lifestyles hitherto unseen in the industry.

Further evincing developing links between the tattoo and art worlds was the appearance of tattoo related exhibitions in renowned galleries and museums. This tradition continues today—only last year did The Museum of Modern Art ordain tattoo as one of 111 most influential items shaping the past, present, and future of fashion and identity. Two pieces by L.A. based tattoo artist, Roxx, were chosen to illustrate tattoo. I was asked by Roxx’s publicist to write on the achievement—yes, publicist, it is not the first time a tattooist’s publicist has contacted me, a fact that palpably demonstrates artification’s stratifying effects, a point I made in my interview with Roxx worth repeating:

“Ultimately, the conditions of late modernity have rendered the body as something malleable—to be modified and improved according to our internal vision. Yet, as corporate culture industries like galleries, private museums, and the advertising industry, continue to include and ‘elevate’ the place of tattoo, such bodies of transgression become increasingly understood through the language of capitalism, as “art”, “object”, “high-fashion”—something to be objectively appraised. The gentrification of tattoo—its ‘elevation’ into the legitimizing world of art and fashion—has spawned a reactionary generation of anti-art tattooists who, in violating the norms of mainstream body art through indiscriminate, often unprofessional, primal, and aesthetically perverse and avant-garde pieces, are attempting to reposition the medium in opposition to mainstream tattoo and society—evoking its deviant and innately transgressive magic.”

The anti-art tattooists I mentioned here were Valerio Cancellier and Cammy Stewart. They collaborated to produce the Brutal Black Project, a tattoo session defined by its brutality and ritualistic elements and inspired by a desire to disassociate tattoo with “art” and affront what Cammy Stewart believes tattooing has become: “plastic, soulless bubble-gum, broken down by fashion, the media and popular culture.”

It is a discord rooted in the generational shift from tattoo practice to tattoo art, from craftsman to artist, from scourge of society to the accoutrements of cool, inner-city individuals. The initial internal resistance to artification was generated by a fear of social, economic, and stylistic stratification that was occurring within the industry. Today, these shifts are regularly influenced by factors outside of the community—for some, thinking about tattoo as “art” has become synonymous with making it palatable for celebrity bodies that shill, or voyeuristic charlatans that want to be associated with an artificially manufactured notion of cool, or for capitalist cultural industries to pillage and repackage into consumable commodities such as reality television tattoo shows, perfumes, clothing brands, tattoo schools, books, music videos, mainstream magazines and salacious or shock-horror clickbait. Meanwhile, despite the prevalence of tattooed bodies throughout culture industries, studies still demonstrate a high level of stigma associated with tattoos, translating into various forms of discrimination and harassment for people that do not perform at the Super Bowl or grace the covers of high-end fashion magazines. 

Perceiving tattoo as an aesthetic commodity ignores its subjective transformative—and permanent—qualities, incongruously positioning it as fair game for appraisal against a slew of ephemeral consumer cultural detritus. Conflated with cool, regularly measuring tattoo’s existential credibility now takes place within the precarious fields that “elevated” the practice, imbuing outsiders with the power to objectify and take agency from a tattooed body and reduce it to passé—as Bourdieu quipped, evaluating the “deficiencies” of another’s appearance is one of the ways the petit bourgeois exercise their power over others whom they deem “vulgar”.

Although, as Mary Kosut observed, it may be contradictory in nature—as both a commodified consumer product and creative and agentic postmodern product—I believe that questioning whether the proliferation of tattoo has reduced its “cultural capital” is an illogical enquiry driven by a superficial grasp of an experience, community and culture. Instead, maybe we should focus on the myriad and often profound functions the ancient practice can fulfil for individuals, groups, and cultures as an artform, craft, ritual, or intense physical and often remedial experience in our ever increasingly technological and digital contemporary lives.

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(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo)

Miriam Frank’s unbridled curiosity saw her illustrations shift from paper to skin—her inquisitiveness about the techniques of tattooing facilitated the “unexpected” transition, while the stories and people behind her tattooed illustrations lent them an animate quality she connected with and became addicted to.

Even so, Miriam is quick to clarify herself as first an illustrator—tattooing being the main subject of her current work.

“I grew up in an artistic environment, my mom is an abstract painter. So, all the colorful pencils and papers caught my attention from a young age”

From drawings that appear to be pulled from a prodigious child’s sketchbook to huge abstract chest pieces one would expect to find illustrating literary phantasmagorical realms, Miriam’s work has found its place within the bourgeoning trends of contemporary tattoo culture.

“In former years, tattoo artists produced a lot of the same looking designs and the client was the one who choose from a limited set of themes and techniques; there was an image of how a tattoo should look like. Nowadays, though, everything is possible and tattoo artists try to find their own way to express themselves, from realism to watercolor expressionism. Now, clients can choose their tattoo artist because of their unique work and style and give all the trust to them. I am very grateful to have been born at the right time and to be able to enjoy this development.”

Whether you are a traditionalist or progressivist, Miriam represents the quintessential nature of tattooing today, where a growing number of artists from a huge variety of disciplines are learning the trade to augment their personal oeuvre, while contributing to the field of tattooing in any which way they desire.

“When I started I had no tattoos myself, but all the shops I knew from my town looked awful to me. I had a bunch of friends who gave me some of their skin and then I became addicted.”

“If you are doing art, everything can be inspiring: interesting things, meeting people, places, bad experiences and even boring stuff like sitting at the dentist’s waiting room”

Her work is a variety of “serious illustrations” with linework, hachures and dotwork, combined with “more funny children’s drawing” and “abstract shapes”; “it’s just me,” she says, “what I like, and where my curiosity about technique, different themes and cultures guide me.”

Although she does not like to give it a name, she sometimes calls the style “mumpitz”, which loosely translates to ‘nonsense’. In a moment of self-psychoanalysis, she quips, “I grew up in an artistic environment—my mom is an abstract painter. So, all the colorful pencils and papers caught my attention from a young age.”

During her formal education, where she found inspiration from professors and student collaborations, the unfettered experimentation with varying types of media like photography, painting and animation excited her, however, it was illustration that captured her heart.

“If you are doing art, everything can be inspiring: interesting things, meeting people, places, bad experiences and even boring stuff like sitting at the dentist’s waiting room. You can always take something from there and try to transform it into images, involve it in your work, that’s amazing for me.”

She has transported this love into her new skin projects, being particularly partial to large projects and body suits.

“First, I see myself more as an illustrator. Tattoos are the main subject of my work right now”

“I would like to freestyle and experiment on an empty body, without having a plan or a concept, just go with the flow and the shape of the body, in best case for days or weeks. The best part would definitely be the face. I would love to make a super childish, abstract face tattoo.”

Miriam’s desire to experiment with her tattoo work sees no holds barred, and in an era where adults are transposing the color penciled ‘masterpieces’ of their children into permanent ink, a super childish, abstract face tattoo is probably just around the corner.

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(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo)

Although they do not like to pigeonhole their work, their desire to see beyond the rational and push the boundaries of the unconscious mind—to liberate thought and human experience from rigid criteria of style—see Kevin James and Jade Tomlinson’s artistic expressions championing surrealist philosophies.

“We are visual storytellers, experimenting and using art to connect and express issues and ideas. In a world consumed with style over substance, art is a powerful tool to communicate, critique, evoke emotion, and raise awareness and understanding beyond words.”

After respectively graduating from illustration in art school, the couple worked independently until their shared passions and love of the mystical began to inescapably intertwine, capturing their art and souls, and giving birth to Expanded Eye.

“The name reflects the ethos behind our work. To create art with purpose and meaning. To see beyond, and gain freedom from the known. To wonder and to question, to challenge and experiment and push boundaries. This mindset and approach has enabled our work to evolve across many disciplines from tattoo, street art, sculpture, installation, fine art, and assemblage.”

“We are visual storytellers, experimenting and using art to connect and express issues and ideas”

The tones and grains of reclaimed wood, vintage rustic hues of antique assemblage, the muted palettes of paint and the living body as canvas all offer various limitations and advantages that feed into one another and push Jade and Kevin’s work in new directions.

“Spending time away from making tattoos with their meticulous details and restrictive compositions and getting to work large-scale using wood and found objects is liberating and means when returning to body art, we can approach it from a fresh perspective and vice versa.”

Although everything they produce is a collaboration of two minds, it is Kevin that does the tattooing. After starting an apprenticeship in a London based street shop, he was invited to Xoil’s Needles’ Side, France: “it was a natural transition transferring art from paper to skin, but it was important not to alter our work to suit tattoo motifs and stay true to our art no matter what.”

“We would like to bridge the gap between these worlds and are grateful to attract clients with no tattoos who aren’t part of a ‘scene’ or getting tattoos to look cool”

Their purist attitude is borne from what they perceived to be a lack of diversity, originality and imagination in the cultural exchange between the art and tattoo worlds. As they explain, “the tattoo world has been closed off not only to the art world, but to many people who do not perceive tattoos to be a respectable art form. There appears, now, to finally be a tattoo (r)evolution taking place with many people making contemporary original tattoo art.” They hope to continue their contribution, without compromising their style, to bridging the gap between these worlds—which is why they are grateful to attract clients with no tattoos, who aren't part of a ‘scene’, or who “get tattoos to look cool”.

Expanded Eye work exclusively from the concepts and stories their clients provide. Whether philosophical, scientific, literary, or personal, they start by reading and researching to gain a deeper understanding of the story/concept. By working solely from words, absent of any aesthetic direction, this bespoke method allows them the necessary creative freedom needed to achieve their best work.

Upon starting, they work independently, a technique reminiscent of surrealist André Breton’s ‘exquisite corpse’, where artists collaborate while completely in the dark of their partner’s progress. They then come together, consult over the fragmented parts, and proceed to evolve the concept and aesthetic of the final fluid mosaic.

“We love this marriage of words and images in our process and are continually amazed and privileged at how complete strangers share such intimate details of their lives with us.”

“The story becomes a part of us and in turn the client has a piece of us on their skin forever”

It is this human connection—the intensity and intimacy of sharing one’s story, exploring the psychological and mythological underpinnings—that fascinate both Kevin and Jade, which is why they choose to take on few tattoo projects, offering each client the time and energy they deserve.

“The story becomes a part of us and in turn the client has a piece of us on their skin forever. It is very rewarding seeing our client’s reaction upon seeing the design for the first time and are always humbled at the long distances our clients travel from and appreciate the time we share together. For us it is about the whole experience, not just the tattoo.”

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(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo)

Preceding the Tattoo Renaissance of the 70s and 80s, the political and social climate of activism throughout the west facilitated the birth of a new, unabashed client base for tattoos. The skins of counter-culture groups like the black resistance, gay liberationists, and women’s rights advocates were adorned with tattoos embodying their identities of dissent. It is this steadfast spirit of rebelliousness—a vocal discontent with the status quo—that courses through the veins, and ink, of Indomito.

“For us, to be rebels with a cause is not to follow established dogmas, it is to think by yourself and act in consciousness, use and live your freedom, it’s yours, you have the right to feel and enjoy, to learn naturally and forget what is expected from you, to be free. Choose what your nature, not society, is telling you.”

“For us, to be rebels with a cause is not to follow established dogmas”

Their work is replete with such pithy statements and credos. After tiring of the few years tattooing under the name Eterno, Indomito was conceived as a moniker to capture and reinvigorate his soul and reflect the social and political objectives he and his project partner, Sabina, wanted to espouse.

Working from their small private studio in Ibiza, their ethically handmade art and craft is used to highlight a selection of social and political causes close to their hearts. As well as raising money through auctions, exhibitions, and collaborations, they also offer their social media platform to organizations that align with their beliefs, in the hope that more visibility will yield more positive results.

“Doing cool stuff is good but it’s not enough, we need to give back—not just take”

“Our creations are made to spread a positive message of fight and freedom, pro nature and animals; we’re looking for a strong visual and emotional impact to bring important issues to attention in times where nothing really shocks anymore. Doing cool stuff is good but it’s not enough, we need to give back—not just take. Personally, Sabina and me share the same feeling: if we could have our financial needs covered we would dedicate our lives full-time to rescuing and protecting animals.”

Short for indomitable, the name not only reflects the reoccurring motifs of their products, such as broken chains and knives, but also their tattoo themes and shared rebellious disposition.

“I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I remember myself as a rebel kid—I already didn’t agree with the system without being aware of it, my nature was indomitable already. I spent most of my life working with other mediums until I made a list of things I wanted to do before I die. ‘Make one tattoo’ was on that list. I never expected that I was going to become a tattooer.”

It was in tattooing, however, that he witnessed power in the expression of his ethos: “tattoo is stronger now than ever, it can be used as a powerful mental-awakener weapon.”

Yet, Indomito see contemporary tattoo culture as bifurcated. One branch, they say, is plagued with commercialism— where tattoos are made just to be cool—ultimately breaking its essence of authenticity. The other branch, though, is the continuation of thousands of years of history, where, they claim, “first tribes used tattoo as sign of identity, writing their culture and history, building armor that protects and keeps in their essence, enabling them to constantly present an authentic self through the good and hard times. It was an opener of unlimited self and communal expression.”

“I think my work is more about the message than the tattoo itself”

Although he found conventional tattoo culture hostile to his “unusual style”, he pushed his work, and message, to find like-minded individuals whom he could offer himself as a tool to help them reflect their thoughts through ink.

“I think my work is more about the message than the tattoo itself. Honestly, I don´t feel that into tattoo culture, my intention is to use any opportunity to nourish my personal growth and to contribute positively to the world—tattooing is one of the tools I have for it.”

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(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo)

Kelly Violet has come a long way since her DIY punk days scrawling “proper shit” tattoos on her friends’ sacrificed skin. Her desire to create art, but aversion to the term artist, drew her into the craft of tattooing where she has remained for the past fifteen years inexorably evolving.

“I started tattooing because I was an angry little teenager who always wanted to be different. I was weird, I didn't really fit in anywhere, I wanted a career in an 'arty' area as it was the only thing I felt I was mildly OK at, so ‘tattooist’ seemed to just fit with me so well—I got to draw and still be a weird little asshole.”

Starting with a traditional apprenticeship she soon opted to teach herself, a method of learning Kelly would never recommend, “it takes twice as long to learn everything and you have no one to help you when you haven't got a clue what you're doing.” She puts it down to being young, uninformed and naïve, however, it was this method, coupled with years of sacrifice, sleepless nights and “pure hard graft”, which cultivated the truly original style and meticulous attention to detail we see today.

“My style is—my style. It grows and expands—sometimes quicker than I'd like due to trying to retain some semblance of individuality.”

“My style is—my style. It grows and expands—sometimes quicker than I’d like due to trying to retain some semblance of individuality”

For Kelly, creating something original in an oversaturated industry plagued with reproduction, steeped in tradition, while host to a revolving door of fads—is sine qua non.

“Influence to me is taking inspiration from the work of others and applying it to your own aesthetic; compassionately integrating something someone else has worked hard for, and making something new for yourself. Not just trying to replicate every single individual feature someone has spent their entire career building up to. The technique, the shading, the composition, the contrast, the exact shape and shading of something simple like leaves- the tiny details implemented by years and years of artistic self-hate, sacrifice, and dedication. To take all of those things and get recognition for reproducing someone else's soul is astounding to me.”

Although she laments the way social media facilitates the pseudo “metaphysical maverick”—scribbling on someone’s skin three times a week and calling it hard work with the support of 50,000 plus followers—she is reluctant to completely discard the medium because of the overwhelmingly positive uses it has for work. And by work, she, poetically, means work: “I don't take kickbacks, I don't accept free stuff, I don't post pictures of my tits or my pouty face constantly. I'm a fat, old female, with the social skills of an aggressive three-legged guard dog—so I know that it's my tattoos that some people want to look at, nothing else.”

The years spent developing her own flavour and palate while striving for perfection were all-encompassing and wholly consuming, never switching off, and entirely framing her existence—which can be exhausting. The hardest part of her job, she says, is herself.

“Tattooing is my best friend and my worst enemy. I used to pride myself on my short and long term memory but now I literally can't remember anything about the film I avidly watched last night, but, I can tell you James' appointment in January 2019 needs extending because he wants to add a tiny dismembered leprechaun to his right arm, just below the elbow… That's fucked up.” Although, she’s quick to add, an incredibly evolutionary state of being when it comes to her tattooing.

Note that, time of writing is July 2017, and even after the rude and illiterate are filtered out, her backlog of emails is in the nauseating thousands—it’s a collection of expectant humans that induce guilt and anxiety in the already socially awkward, self-deprecating, self-confessed sweaty mess that is Kelly Violet.

‘They’ say patience is a virtue, and for those that exercise it the reward is Kelly’s acute dedication and humble virtuosity given to each idea and concept, and the weighty, almost ethereal movement of texture and painterly eye to detail encapsulated in each piece that defines Kelly Violet as a truly original tattooist.

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(First published in VICE 14/11/2018)

On face value, their prison tattoos look like what you’d expect from crudely sharpened guitar strings and burnt rubber. But for those in the know, the motifs offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of The Number, a South African prison gang with a violently enforced code of silence.

With a history purportedly stretching back into the late 1800s, The Number is one of the world's oldest gangs, maintained with an intricately complex hierarchy that spans across three factions—the 26s, 27s, and 28s. The 26s import currency, tobacco, and drugs into the prison; the 27s uphold the law, making them the most feared; while the 28s defend prisoner rights.

Photojournalist Luke Daniels used his friendship with one high-ranking insider to photograph members and their tattoos. He spent two years on the project, entitled ‘Tjappies Van Die Point’, documenting what he sees as a uniquely African subculture. No one has done this before, and we were keen to hear how Luke got such intimate access, what he learned, and what it was like hanging out with some of the country’s most ruthless criminals.

Gerald 'Horings' Hugo

Firstly, what does Tjappies Van Die Point mean?

Tjappies Van Die Point literally means Tattoos From Prison.

Tjappies is a colloquial South African term used to describe tattoos, specifically those rudimentary in aesthetic that, more often than not, were completed in prison. It originates from an old brand of South African bubblegum—Chappies. The wrappers contain interesting ‘did you know’ facts. So, the term became associated with prison tattoos because the markings etched into skin often reveal facts about the wearer—crimes committed, gang affiliation, and more.

So how did this project begin?

Well, I became interested in tattoos at a young age. I hung out and helped out a few dodgy shops on the 'bad side' of town. So, my introduction to tattooing was always tinged with a criminal element, and I was always fascinated by prison tattoos—the simplicity, the ingenuity, the craftsmanship.

I’ve always been interested in tattoos in the context of rejecting societal norms. Now, tattoos have become fashionable, but there are still markings which are still taboo.

Punzo

Prison tattoos, especially within the South African context, are still a purposeful rejection of ‘normal society’. The tattoos are easily identifiable as being done in prison and often contain violent and obscene motifs which adorn faces and hands. These tattoos are still symbols of the outlaw, and wearing them comes at a great cost. Add in the mythology of The Number Gang, which has ruled the South African prison system for the last century, and how that tale is told through the permanent etchings is storytelling at its most pure and dangerous.

Erefaan

I chose to document these prison tattoos because of their uniquely South African aesthetic, but, as the project went on, it became more about the process of tattooing in prison, the motifs represented, and the societal isolation and discrimination experienced by heavily tattooed convicts. The struggles of reintegration into communities, once released from prison, became all too clear.

In reality, the project was a way for me to deepen my own understanding of South African prison tattoos and the power behind them.

How do you go about recruiting subjects?

I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with a high-ranking gang member who had spent over 20 years in prison. We became friends; he was trying to get back on his feet after serving serious time but his tattoos had made it hard for him to get a job or reintegrate back into his community. So that got my mind working and I hired him as a ‘talent scout’ of sorts, to help bring the project together by finding people in similar situations.

Every single person I photographed was, or still is, active in gang activity—both within prison, as a part of the Number Gang (you don’t ever really leave the Number), and on the outside as part of some infamous street gangs. Towards the end of the project I was getting calls from gangsters saying “hey, I hear you’re photographing tattooed prisoners – take my photo!”.

Hangpaal

Tell me about the Number Gang, how did they come about, who are they and what are they like?

Truthfully, I’m not at liberty to discuss the Number Gang in great detail. The information is available out there, and there are more than a few ‘outsiders’ who would be willing to spill the beans on The Number.

The greatest thing about The Number, though, is its rich mythology and folklore which has remained largely confined to those belonging to the gang, who, in theory, took an oath to keep the gang’s dealings a secret. Obviously, these secrets have been divulged over the years. If you’d like to find out more about the Number Gang I recommend reading Jonny Steinberg’s The Number. What I will say is that The Number has by far the most intricate and involved backstory of any other prison gang I’ve ever heard of. The history and heritage of The Number stretches back hundreds of years, to a time when young black men were forced to abandon their rural villages in search of work on the mines in central South Africa and Delagoa Bay (now Maputo, Mozambique).

John

How are they positioned in general Cape Town society?

The Number gang was historically limited to prison—meaning that street gangs ruled the ‘outside’ world and The Number was the omnipotent force behind bars. That all changed in the late 1980’s when Cape Flats drug dealers started making heaps of cash through the mandrax trade.

Essentially, the leaders of street gangs then ‘bought’ their way into The Number once incarcerated; in order to bypass the gruesome rite of passage required to join. For a fee, gang leaders from the outside world became ‘safe’ in prison, without having to do much dirty work.

Though, in turn, this upset the balance of things—with The Number spilling out into the ‘free world’ by forming solid relationships with street gangs. Simply, the drug lords had the money on the outside, and The Number had the power on the inside. Drug lords promised Number gang members work on the outside upon their release and this led to a massive explosion of violence on the Cape Flats, something which still persists today, arguably, worse than ever before.

Mandown

Can you tell me about some of the members you’ve befriended?

Gerald ‘Horings’, my friend and fixer, is without doubt the most outstanding subject and person. He parks cars and collects scrap metal to make ends meet. As is the case with most of the people I photographed for this project, they’re not inherently bad people—just people born into abject poverty who suffered extreme trauma and abuse and ended up making some seriously bad decisions which cost them their lives and brought pain and misery to their own families and the victims of their crimes.

Most people I photographed were arrested and convicted of violent crimes—murders and assaults. In prison, as part of The Number’s initiation rites, they committed further violent acts against other prisoners and warders. Some prisoners, who were sentenced to a few years in jail, ended up spending 30 years behind bars for their commitment to The Number.

One guy, who calls himself ‘Mandown’, stole a loaf of bread in 1978 and got put into a cell with some high ranking Numbers. He got inducted and, due to further crimes committed while incarcerated, ended up being released in 2003.

Every single story told is one of heartache, violence and momentary madness.

Owen

What kind of equipment would they use to tattoo?

A sharpened guitar string usually serves as the needle. Burnt rubber, turned to ash and mixed with water to form a paste, serves as ink. All prison tattoos, until very recently, were all done by hand – no machines.

Can you explain the different symbology, iconography and meanings you discovered throughout their tattoo motifs?

Well, without going into too much detail about the inner workings of The Number, there are fundamental elements of the gang that are important to understand within the context of the markings.

The 26’s are tasked with gaining currency inside the prison, either through money or contraband, drugs, tobacco, that sort of thing. They’re master smugglers and manipulators. They’re said to work from sunrise—hence the term ‘sonop’ (sunrise) being a common greeting and motif present in the tattoos. Pumalanga, the Zulu word for sunrise, is also used.

Close-up of Hangpaal’s Tattoos

The 27’s are tasked with upholding the law of The Number and are the most feared and dedicated gang members. Their motifs often include weaponry, crossed cutlasses, and verses relating to the rule of law within The Number.

The 28’s are, traditionally, tasked with defending prisoner rights, usually through force, such as attacking prison officials should The Number not receive adequate attention and respect from authorities. They also dominate underlings, and non-gang members, by the use of sexual force, i.e. sodomy. Motifs including obscene sexual scenes and penises are common. In contrast to the 26’s, they work at night, and tattoos often relate to ‘sonsak’ or ‘Shonalanga’, Afrikaans and Zulu for sunrise, respectively.

Close-up of Desmond’s Tattoos

What stood out to me is the juxtaposition involving hardened criminals and comical cartoon motifs. Despite some of the people I photographed having committed heinous crimes, many of them had joyful cartoon characters tattooed on their bodies. This is because, I’m told, comic strips in prison formed the basis for many ‘stencils’; in other words, very often imagery available to prisoners was limited to cartoons found in newspapers.

Another thing which fascinated me was the presence of script-heavy tattoos. Some guys had their whole backs filled in writing—hundreds of words—most in broken English, despite most of the wearers and tattooers being Afrikaans. The essays inked into their bodies tell stories of life’s hardships, gang folklore, and self-inflicted isolation from normal society.

Close-up of Punzo’s Tattoos

And any outstanding tattoos?

The penis tattoos worn by the 28’s are iconic in their own right. Cartoon characters juxtaposed alongside rape and murder scenes are interesting, in a repulsive kind of way.

The tattoo which is most important to me is a phrase I was ‘gifted’ by Gerald ‘Horings’, which reads “Go tell it to the birds”. It’s the most meaningful to me—I got it tattooed on my neck.

The tattoos are intrinsically linked to the personalities of the people that wear them, but relate more to the crimes committed, and time served as a result, more than a defining overarching theme of their entire lives, dreams or aspirations.

Pieter

In South African prisons, as I’m quite sure is the case in most jails all over the world, prisoners get tattooed, heavily tattooed, to appear more intimidating and to further reject societal norms. Face tattoos baring obscene phrases are common—this is a complex blend between ego and self-destruction. It’s these kinds of tattoos which will earn respect and notoriety behind bars but damage the person’s chances of ever successfully reintegrating back into society. Nobody wants to hire somebody with ‘fuck you’ inked into their forehead—but in prison, that kind of anti-establishment, nihilistic attitude is appreciated.

Most of the people I photographed are proud of their tattoos, despite the pain and trauma contained within the markings as reminders of a dark past. In many cases, the tattoos are regarded as battle scars.

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