(Published in VICE as "Meet the Tattoo Collective Who Prioritise Pain Over Aesthetics")
As a result of this article, VICE US produced a documentary on the Brutal Black Project for their Rites of Passage series. Unfortunately, they lifted sections of my article to use in the synopsis without my permission, did not credit my original reporting, and did not include me in the adaptation process.
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.
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.
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.
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!
London based tattooist Eli and Polish-born tattooist Adam Curly share their respective heavy blackwork journeys: “I’ll never be same again after this—tattooing solid black is a very spiritual thing, for me anyway. It rips apart from emotions. The pain in some parts is unbelievable and leaves you speechless for days sometimes. You can feel sick, faint, or you can feel happy and blissful. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
(abridged version published in VICE, 19/03/18) JILF, a self-described nihilist and practicing dominatrix, orchestrates painful and subversive acts with her partners with the aim of eliciting trauma and embracing disgust; her partners regularly refrain, “today, I will suffer for your art.”
“One of the things I love the most is I’ll play with my partner and do things to her that evoke disgust. She’ll be covered in filth, her mouth full of tampons and blood, she’s covered in shit and her heads all wrapped up; she’s crying, and she’s distraught, and everything’s so disgusting—everything’s just out. That blows my brain.”
(Published in DAZED & CONFUSED, 13/12/17) MoMA's recent exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? declared tattoo an influential item among 111 garments and accessories shaping culture and society. I speak to the L.A artist chosen to illustrate tattoo, Roxx, on the paradoxical and multifaceted nature of contemporary tattoo.
Although tattoos in the West are becoming increasingly mainstream, the pain accompanying a session usually remains something to be tolerated at best, or completely mollified through the consumption of analgesics at worst. So when people began actively seeking out the painful ritual of a Brutal Black tattoo session, I contacted them to find out more about why they chose to engage with amplified tattoo pain.
"Modern-day passion, tangible tradition, and striking creativity: trace how tattooing continues to evolve in the follow up to Forever." Read extracts from my articles featured in FOREVER MORE: The New Tattoo, including interviews with Kelly Violet, Miriam Frank, Indomito, the Brutal Black Project and Expanded Eye. Purchase discounted copies of Forever More here.
(First published in VICE 06/07/17) Respectively raised in the suburbs of the Gold Coast and Perth, the couple longed for something with more danger and glamour, so, naturally, after meeting one another they combined their hearts and skills to saturate the world with their idiosyncratic aesthetic of "demented sparkling" performance art.
(First published in INKED, issue 45) When forensic inquiry is applied to tattoos, it can assist in the identification or capture of criminals or missing persons. The Forensic Analysis of Tattoos and Ink is a pioneering work detailing the methodology of this process. This is an interview with the book's author, Dr Michelle Miranda.
Love Shakthi Om, to be launched in the first week of May, will produce limited works of art to be sold with profits donated to charity. "We strongly believe this life is about karma, sharing love, traditions, and cultures. For us, this is largely based in art."
(VICE online 25/04/17) 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”.
In this second installment of the 'Interview with the Editor' series, where editors of some of the most influential tattoo publications share their two-cents, Alice Snape, editor of Things&Ink, talks about her journey as an independent publisher of a female friendly tattoo culture publication.
"I bought a load of tattoo magazines for inspiration. Needless to say none of them appealed to me, they were very much aimed at men and none of them featured tattoos that I like or would suit me and my tastes. They were also all very much geared towards men, with half naked women legs apart with barely any tattoos on the cover."
(Abridged version first published in DAZED & CONFUSED magazine, 03/03/17) Touka Voodoo has actively used body art and modification to transcend the notion of binaries.
In this first installment of the Interview with an Editor series, head honcho of Skin Deep, Sion Smith, offers advice for writers, photographers, and tattooists looking get published, while discussing life at the helm of the UK's best selling tattoo magazine.
"For writers, be original, spell things correctly (I have better things to do than watch your back), be on time, be nice to work with and don’t be a dick."
Milo's comments embracing the positives of a legal, consenting relationship between a teenage boy and older man were labelled pedophilia. So I ask three male friends to share their teenage sexual encounters with older men.
(First published in Skin Deep, issue 275. Republished in INKED, issue 45) Ahead of VICELAND’s 2017 series, Needles and Pins, Grace talks about her experiences in front of the lens, riding around LA on quad bikes with Venice Bad Boys, and what it’s like to be an ambassador for contemporary tattoo culture.
(First published in INKED, issue 45) Currently in her third permutation of a body suit, New Zealand based artist Jak Nola talks about her psychedelic erotic art, tattoos, and what an orgasm can do for the mind.
(Abridged version first Published in The Guardian, 23/11/16) Lying in a satin-lined coffin or wearing a bondage hood may help you face up to your inevitable demise. I attend the inaugural Sydney Death and Dying Festival to get a taste of what's to come.
(Published in INKED issue 42) “That was Ricky’s right above Pinky’s. That’s because Pinky’s had a hepatitis scare and the American navy had banned them from going there, so he just opened upstairs and called it Ricky’s. It was two shops but it was the same. They just liked names that had that “icky” sound and I just happened to be there at the right time.”
(VICE online, 27/09/16) "Isaac Comer was heavily tattooed including on his cock. Henry Findlay was tattooed on his chest, arms, hands, fingers, calves and from his knees to his groin 'after the Burmese manner’. Henry was a soldier, court-martialled in Burma, so presumably he got some pretty wild tatts during service." Discover a rich history of colonial stick & poke tattoos and wild convict stories with Simon Barnard, author of the new book Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia.
(INKED magazine, issue 39) On February 26th, I presented an exhibition of tattooed silicone hands and sheets at Melbourne's Neon Parlour. All profits from the sale of these works went to SafeSteps and WIRE, two Melbourne based organisations dedicated to providing support to women and children experiencing domestic violence.
(INKED magazine, issue 35) 'Tattooing in the Islamic Republic (dictatorship) of Iran' is the culmination of furtive correspondence with four brave Iranian tattooists who risk imprisonment and torture on a daily basis all for the sake of their art.
(Things & Ink, issue 10) "Tattooing is conducted during the vigil. Beside the body the near family sing the deceased's history in a rhythm made of tears. While clusters of cousins drink and gamble in little pockets of light about the village, as the ancestors one by one arrive from their graves to receive the spirit of the newly dead, as the animals set aside to die in the morning shuffle blandly, a select few receive tattoos."
(Things & Ink, issue 12, abridged on VICE online) What began as an intellectual interest in body modification within the context of BDSM ended with 250mls of saline infused into my scrotum and 500mls infused into my girlfriend's breasts.
(Things & Ink, issue 11) "I think it’s a real big kick and liberation once you’ve put on a face and the costume and you go out in public. You become a character, a different person, and so people respond to you differently, and so I can take it on and enjoy whatever it is that could potentially serve me, which is completely different every time."
My scrotum is a thin sack of skin that contains part of my reproductive system. Insert a needle, add a litre of saline, and it is apparently transformed into a serious fun bag.
(Things & Ink, issue 10, republished in INKED magazine, issue 31) "Most people understand that taxidermy is done with the leftover skins, and so it is separate from the live-animal debate, and the leather/fur debate, which uses farming. Animals are not objects, but taxidermy pieces are objects. If taxidermy is made into art for art’s sake, there is still the beauty and appreciation of the animal and the art, so it really isn’t for nothing."
(Things & Ink, issue 9. Republished in Melbourne Permanent, issue 1) ‘Since putting the photo on Instagram, I was like, “Wow; I didn’t realise it would become such a thing”. Someone put it on Facebook, and it turned into this big thing with over 200 comments, and everyone was thinking I was a total freak. I guess I took it a bit lightly and didn’t explain myself, it was just like “RAAAAAHHH; I’m eating my own head!”
(Things & Ink blog, 23/12/14. Republished in INKED magazine, issue 30) I talk with the Bangkok based Knowing Buddha Organisation about it's objection to Buddha tattoos, and discover that it may pay to think twice before tattooing a deity on your body.
(Things & Ink blog, 14/12/14. Republished in INKED issue 32) ‘Yeah man, vultures on the streets shaking down people for payouts. I was headed back from a ju-jitsu session and I was told I’m a Russian selling coke around the red-light areas, [the officer] greedily stuck his hands into my gym bag to find a sweaty ju-jitsu gi! These guys’ other rackets are being squeezed by the military so they need to find other ways to buy Christmas goodies this time of year.’