As the most distinguishable part of body, the face is our portal to one’s inner character and temperament—we appraise its features, the tone and health of skin, and its shape to judge personality, trustworthiness, and beauty. For Eli, however, the face is just the face.
“It doesn’t play that much of an important role to me if I’m honest.”
From London, twenty-seven-year-old tattooist Eli is in the process of covering his body in blackwork—including his face, eyes, and every other crevice and cranny. Once finished, he plans to coat the base in abstract colours and marks; “I love abstract art,” he tells me, “Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and a lot of tribal mark making and tattooing.” His radical look caught the attention of fashion photography student Richard Mensah, whose photos of Eli, wearing garments designed by Ali Abdulrahim, capture an awkward and arresting friction—the vanity of high fashion upon the shoulders of a body that has resolutely fashioned itself into a piece of art.
“The project with Eli stemmed from a university assignment which was titled ‘Radical Beauty’. My intake on that title was to separate both words: firstly, finding a subject that an audience or I find ‘radical’, then, by using well designed garments I would somewhat accommodate the word ‘beauty’ to merge both words.”
While his unique aesthetic could evoke references to some indigenous cultural practices in their use of lip discs and nose spacers, the imagery of Adam Curly’s physiognomy—another tattooist with a face masked in graphite tattoo, silver beard, and tattooed eyes—shifts the observer’s mental footing into a world of fashion fantasy and phantasmagoria.
“I obviously don’t want my emotions to be read, as I am not human. I want to look like a hybrid of a werewolf and vampire.”
Originally from Poland where his appearance elicited physical violence and harassment—“people were throwing rocks and bottles at me, they spit on me in the streets, I was beaten many times,”—the alternative model and psychology graduate has now found a modicum of peace in London, “I still arouse extreme emotions, from worship to gag reflexes. You can’t pass me by indifferently, you either love or hate me.”
“This is my body,” he affirms, “I have the right to decide what I do with it. Some colour their hair, some colour their skin.”
Eli displays the same sentiment of bodily autonomy: “no one can tell me what to do with my own body.” For Eli, although tattooing the face was no different than his arms or legs, he did worry how long it could take getting used to the new visage—two weeks later, however, he was adapted and settled, but his journey nowhere near complete.
“You’re always coming to parts that need topping up, or getting more layers to darken the skin. 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. The more uncomfortable you are the more you grow. I learn more about myself the more I get in the chair. This is what I find interesting, is seeing how far I can go into mind.”
For some, their respective physiognomies could represent a capacity for intense experience and devotion, while for others—as the pertinent cue for those wishing to draw assumptions about his character—they may struggle to make sense of it.
“I don’t ever try to make people understand because the people who understand will be attracted to it and the people who don’t wont. People react the way people react—some pathetic and over the top, and some people really interested and have kind things to say. I’m not here to make friends or to make enemies, I’m here to make art and leave a mark. People can say what they want to say but unless they know me in real-life they will never know the truth. This keeps me humbled.”
Eli’s matter-of-fact perspective is borne out of the keen focus and discipline needed to become heavily, and radically, tattooed. It’s a frame of mind shared by Adam, who says the people he chooses to surround himself with are supportive regardless of his appearance.
After a bout of colon cancer, the thirty-two-year-old developed vitiligo, resulting in the loss of skin colour. With the cancer also came depression and numerous nutritional disorders. It was here that Adam gained from becoming heavily tattooed what he lacked in life, a force to believe in his abilities and strength.
“Tattoo for me is not a style or trend, as everything passes. Tattoo is a proof of courage and presence. I stopped listening to the voices of blame—you only live once, so you should live it as best you can. Every day I smile a lot and show that you can live different, that you can live better.”
As with Eli, who admittedly tries not to complicate his thought process by keeping everything step by step and focused on his bodily autonomy, the process has humbled him. Somewhat paradoxically, by drastically modifying and drawing attention to the skin, both Eli and Adam have pulled into focus that which truly distinguishes the character of an individual, “different skin colour should not dictate people’s reaction,” Adam says, “it is important to be a good person, to love and be loved.”
“There is too much hate and madness in people. Beauty is not what we wear, beauty is the attitude we represent.”
Why do the media insist on repeatedly asking if tattoos have become uncool or too mainstream? I take a look at two moments in tattoo history that help to shed light on this question: the artification and commodification of tattoo.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) 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.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) 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.
(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 60s in 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.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) '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.
(Published in VICE 14/11/2018) 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. Photojournalist Luke Daniels used his friendship with one high-ranking insider to photograph members and their tattoos.
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.