These interviews are based on Brutal Black tattoo sessions. If you are unfamiliar with the Brutal Black Project you can read about it from my original report here.
In a society where actively avoiding physical pain is the status quo, the idea of voluntarily engaging with extreme forms of bodily punishment is rendered pathological. 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.
What led you to decide to have a brutal black session instead of a “normal” tattoo session?
When I first contacted Valerio I just wanted my left arm blacked out to match my right arm. He told me there were still slots for the Brutal Black Project in Pavia, so I took a night to think about it. I accepted and decided to go bigger by doing both arms, which pleased them: go big or go home! Although pain will be a present factor in any kind of tattoo session, trying to go beyond my pain threshold was motivating and gave it a ritual meaning that is not always present when you get tattooed.
Why did you want your arms blacked out?
It started when I was a child looking at tribal tattoos—heavy black and bold—that was striking to me. As I grew older I became influenced by tattoos from the musicians and bands I was listening to, which kept me wanting to be (heavily!) tattooed. Finally, when I became old enough to start my tattoo journey I came across the work of Yann Black—that was a big epiphany for me. It was the first time I saw tattoo as bold as the tattoos which influenced me earlier, but with this rock'n'roll, modern touch that I was looking for because of my musical influences. Later, I had the idea of using black ink as an open canvas when I saw Lucky Rich's own body. To me that was a big eye opener: tattoo wasn't having only one layer anymore, it was about having fun with your body and mind. I wanted to do both my arms only because I'm quite attached to symmetry!
So how long was the session?
The session was about three and a half hours long from start to finish, with a thirty second break so I could take some puffs on a spliff—I couldn't resist!
Describe the physical sensations of the procedure.
It was my first time having more than two hands working on me and I didn't know what to expect. I was wondering if my body could handle pain signals from three different spots and how, but when it started I got my answer: it was intense, but not that different to other tattoo sessions. It felt no different to have one arm or both arms simultaneously tattooed; as I said, pain will always be around somewhere when you're playing with your body.
Can you talk about how you mediate the pain and your thoughts during and after the procedure?
Anytime I get tattooed I spend the first five minutes thinking “what's wrong with you man, you'll never put up with this pain, you better stop now”, and this time was no different! You have to get along with that initial pain; I try to breathe well and be as relaxed as possible.
I also try to process the pain as if it were only a random feeling, like a finger poke or back rub, trying to not let the bad feeling—aka physical pain—be the bigger part of what my body feels while I get tattooed. During the session I’m often so relaxed that I start to feel like I'm letting my body go through all this while I'm watching from another corner of the room—I am not connected physically and thus not feeling pain. At the end I was washed up. When we went in the streets to take some pictures I could barely move my arms. I was so tired that I felt freezing cold although the weather was good, but I was happy and proud that I had made it.
We had lot of fun during the session, making jokes and laughing about what we all go through in our tattoo journey. After we were done I came back to France and tried to stay alive for next couple days! Just kidding, but I was fucking swollen and exhausted for some days.
Why do you feel like going beyond your pain threshold is important or useful?
Going beyond my pain threshold is not my goal, it is part of my way of life. I do a lot of "extreme" or gravity sport where you can take some hard slams, and sometimes it's harder than having three tattoo artists working on your body simultaneously. To me it's kind of metaphoric of what I experience in life; no matter what your life is you'll experience things bigger and stronger than what you would think you can endure, such as facing the death of a loved one or surviving an accident.
When you live your life, and face those experiences, you are just in the moment and don't measure the hardship you’re going through at the time. When you finally rise above it all you feel proud that you had so much more strength than what you first thought. To me that's exactly what I go through when I put myself into these kinds of body rituals—whether it is a big tattoo or other body modifications, such as suspension, you should let yourself follow the flow. Going against pain won't help you achieve your goal, it's almost always the opposite, you burn your strength faster letting pain have the last word.
What do you think of the aesthetic outcome? And the reactions of others?
I'm glad to be finally done with blacking my arms. It was an old project, which for personal reasons took more years than I would have liked to happen, but now I'm very happy with the outcome. It's been a long time since I’ve cared about people's opinion and reaction—everyone has an opinion but I won't let that influence my personal choices. My family and friends all know my tastes and motives—although some don't get it they all respect it, and that's all that matters to me!
Did the session have a lasting impact on you?
It has impacted my life on many levels, the first would be that my body is more and more matching the image I've got of it in my head. It's been a long time since I made almost all my tattoo plans, and each time I get tattooed, I'm getting closer to it.
Every session has a lasting impact on me; anytime I get tattooed I learn something new. Whether it is something new about me, my body, my journey or others, I appreciate this side of the whole process of modifying my body and what it has taught me throughout the years. And it was the same for this session. The tattoo itself was important, but the ritual part of this experience is something I will never forget.
Frenkie: Tattoo Artist
What led you to decide to have a brutal black session instead of a “normal” tattoo session?
Phillip aka 3kreuze had already done my lower arm and hand. In the next few months I looked for more blackwork tattoos because they felt more like me than the other tattoos I had. I didn’t like them anymore and wanted to get rid of them. So, I made the decision that I wanted a full body suit with blackwork and want it done fast. I contacted Phillip and he told me about the Brutal Black Project he was doing with Valerio and Cammy. It sounded interesting to me to get tattooed by more than one person at a time. It’s way faster than getting tattooed by one and of course I thought about what kind of pain I was going to feel but pain doesn't stay and I think you should always push your limits no matter what! If you want something you’ve got to work for it—nothing in life is free. So, we set a date!
What were the other tattoos?
All kinds of stuff some old tribal, Chicano/realistic, I still have some Japanese and Chicano work on my legs that will be gone soon. Some were made by myself when I had just started tattooing so they didn’t look too good!
Talk me through the experience.
The day of the session we started there was no drawing. I remember they started on my ribs together at the same time on both sides that felt horrible. I think after twenty minutes I wanted to stop and I have a pretty good tolerance for pain but this time I thought like what the fuck I can’t do this it’s too fucking crazy but that was a feeling for a moment. I took a quick break and went back on the table.
How did you work through the pain?
What kept me going is that I know I can do much better than that, I have dealt with a lot of shit in life so this few hours of pain is nothing, that’s what went through my mind and pushed me through the session, but again, it was still horrible! I felt sick, I needed to stop for puking and went back on the table until I couldn't push myself anymore.
What was the healing process like?
My brother brought me back home because I was feeling like shit and became even more sick! I took a good sleep and woke up broken. My face was double its size, I had black eyes like I was beaten and I also felt like that. I took some days off from work to recover, after the first three or four days the swollen face was a bit less and everything healed pretty quick.
How do you feel about the outcome?
I am more than happy with the outcome. Like I have always missed this part of me, I feel more complete and can’t wait to continue this month when we will do another brutal session.
Most people I know or meet are all positive about it but yeah in the streets you always have some people that will give you dirty faces looking at you weird, but, I knew that before the session—but they don’t pay my rent so I don’t give a shit! I can say it has a positive impact in my life—I feel more happy! And that’s what life is about right—being happy?! And doing what you love to do.
For the next session we’re gonna finish the upper body and add some more to the face.