Introducing the Brutal Black Project: “No Compassion. No Scruples. No Empathy.” This is where mandalas come to die

(Published in VICE as "Meet the Tattoo Collective Who Prioritise Pain Over Aesthetics")

This article was the precursor to VICE’s documentary on the Brutal Black Project for their Rites of Passage series.

Kill Franky. Image courtesy the Brutal Black Project. (Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

Kill Franky. Image courtesy the Brutal Black Project. (Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

Although pain is a psychological barrier to be overcome during a tattoo session, tattooists are usually mindful of their client’s physiological threshold, catering for breaks and mitigating any unnecessary brutality. So, it’s abnormal to watch someone bolt upright in agony to escape the needle’s unrelenting penetrations, or to see their writhing body restrained as their face contorts in pained rictus. Nor is it very common to see sadistic mirth occupying the faces of multiple tattooists as they continue inflicting the unnaturally long, thick, quick, purposefully heavy-handed lines, seemingly without pause as though interminably carving into wood.

This is where mandalas come to die. Where your traditional neo-traditional Japanese tribal watercolour realism is rendered a cute little fashion statement. This is one of the most brutal experiences one can imagine in the field of tattooing, where wills are either broken or solidified. This is the Brutal Black Project, and they’ll “ruin your life”.

Conceived as an aesthetic collaboration between tattooists Valerio Cancellier and Cammy Stewart to make large scale, fast, chaotic work (with Phillip participating in the most recent event), the pair quickly encountered a unique energetic potency during the sessions, unearthing ritualistic elements such as the pseudo death and symbolic rebirth.

I contacted the three to learn more about what Cammy Stewart poetically described as, “a black blob of shit made with raw passion and intense energy.”

So how did the Brutal Black Project come to be?

Cammy: I met Valerio online via Facebook. He had tattooed someone’s face, I liked the tattoo and was interested in talking with him. After a few emails, we decided we would work together on a large scale blackwork project in Italy. It went well and we got on with each other and our tattooing styles seemed to complement each other, so we continued to work together as often as time allowed, usually twice a year. We have made 3 projects together so far. The last project was in Germany, this is when Phillip joined, however, I ended up not being able to make it due to problems with flights.

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

Tell us about the session in the video.

Phillip: The whole project was conceived as a brutal Black Project, Germany edition, however, there were problems for Cammy Stewart on entry from Scotland thanks to his appearance and a few tattooed swastikas, so the police had a few extra questions making him miss his plane. However, Valerio Cancellier had already arrived from Italy and the whole project had to take place under new conditions. It was already several months in the planning and our customer, a good friend of mine, had declared blue-eyed ready: Franky knew that something very primitive and brutal was about to come to him. Tattooing totalled about 5 hours over 2 Days, as fast as possible, but with brakes for puking and crying.

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How is this different to your normal tattoo session?

Cammy: With my normal work, what is most important is the end result. But this is a completely different thing for me. I'm not saying this type of tattooing is for everyone but this concept tears apart what I feel tattooing has become: the plastic, soulless bubble-gum, broken down by fashion, the media and popular culture. To me this is a big FUCK YOU to what most people believe tattooing to now be.

Valerio: Today the tattoo world is the continued research of an exceptional artisanal product which is very often referred to as art – rejecting the ritual aspect. Brutal Black Project doesn’t want to settle for compromises with modernity: its fundamental element is experiencing the ritual.

Phillip: It is not like every day to make work like the BBP. In my every day work, I’m still brutal, rough and hard, and I fill huge skin in the shortest time, but I pay more attention to the customer and to his body. No compassion, no scruples, no sense of empathy – it was a little strange to behave accordingly. But, it’s fucking sick to kill these people during the session. Seeing the pain in their eyes, the shaking from their bodies and the mess in all kinds. But it makes me proud that I’m reaching goals together with my clients. It doesn’t mean a full sleeve or big piece, it just means to break one's own will and to go to its outermost. When you have problems to walk after the session you have done it right. Pain is perishable, proud remains eternal!

At what point did you realise the Brutal Black Project was more than an aesthetic endeavour?

Cammy: Things started to change in my head when I saw the reactions of the clients during the tattooing process. The project is not always about the outcome, it's about the process. Taking things back to the primitive, the rite of passage: pushing the limits of your inner self; how much do you want something? Can u see it through to the end? The marks left from the tattoo are only a reminder of what you learned about yourself during the process. To me, the marks left in skin are less important than the marks left in your mind.

Valerio: Nothing was defined, nothing was planned, nothing was forced. It wasn’t still clear what it was going to become, but I’m 100% sure that Cammy and I both lived the experience to the fullest. An awareness was born: Brutal Black Project recalls you to the primitive brutality that was screwed up by modernity. There are lots of other violent tribal rituals that could also be described as survival trials. Although the Brutal Black Project is not a remembrance of tribal rituals, it’s typical energy has the same kind of origins.

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

What do you think motivates someone to partake in a Brutal Black session?

Cammy: I can only speak for myself here, as everyone I imagine has their own motivations for being part of this. Basically, I enjoy the energy shared with both the clients and tattooists, it’s really intense for everyone, but in a good way. It’s sometimes good to push yourself a little further than you think you can, both as an artist and in regards to the endurance and determination of the client. There is no end goal, life is a series of events, this is just one of them. Tattooing can help you find your roots and learn that pain, like pleasure, can be processed in any way you wish. It's nothing more than an intense moment in a life mostly filled with feelings that can be easily forgotten. Stripped back to the tribal you were once a warrior – remember it. It's easy to become a drone in the bland world we’re forced to exist in.

Valerio: Everybody is free to live the experience in his own way. It could also be a trial for ourselves or against ourselves. It may be difficult to believe, but there’s no negativity in it – no hate, no sadism. Anyway, I’m just the vehicle, the executioner, the butcher. The body can bear this kind of ritual, but it is necessary to have a very strong mind.

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

(Photo: Sebastian Beierle)

When’s the next Brutal Black Project?

Phillip: The end of the year in Italy, which will make our 2-day meeting with Frankie look like child’s play. Let's hope no one dies ha-ha!

Click here to read Brutal Black participant interviews