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Beauty Is Pain: Meet The Artist Turning Women's Bruises Into Art

Artist Riikka Hyvönen's series of paintings was borne out of a love for roller derby and the female bonding that takes place therein. We talked to her about upsetting the male gaze (with glitter).
"Violet, You're Turning Violet!" All images courtesy of ​Riikka Hyvönen

Riikka Hyvönen is an artist and roller derby athlete from Lapland, and is currently undertaking an MFA at the University of Arts in Helsinki, Finland. Her latest project, Roller Derby Kisses, is a series of large-scale 3D artworks depicting the miniature "galaxies" of bruises earned during bouts of roller derby. Players send Hyvönen photos of their bruises—the eponymous "kisses"—and she recreates them as giant 3D paintings employing a special technique she developed specifically for this project. Using a jigsaw, Hyvönen cuts the bruises' shapes out of wood and MDF board and upholsters them with foam, plush, leather, and glitter. Roller Derby Kisses upsets the male gaze, but it's not as if Hyvönen is not objectifying the models. "I am objectifying these women totally," she says, "But—I am doing it exactly in the way they objectify themselves."


Roller Derby Kisses will see six new exhibitions next year, and Hyvönen is constantly creating new work for the series. I sat down with the artist to learn more about her process and find out how these bruises got under her skin.

Broadly: What inspired you to begin the Roller Derby Kisses project?

Riikka Hyvönen: First, I started to pay attention to the way my team members were showing each other their bruises on the side of the track after well-played games. Like badges of honor. I felt the feminist, communal spirit was something exceptional and definitely worth researching. At the same time, I was fascinated by the way the derby subculture creates its own objectifications on the Internet: posting photos online and commenting on them is an essential part of the unapologetic representation of beauty. That's how my investigation to the psychology of bruises begun.

How long does each painting take? How did you develop the process wherein you break the leathery surface and paint again to achieve the effect?

It takes about a month to make one piece. The biggest work in the series so far is Fresh Meat in Fishnets!, 2015. That one took me at least three months of work [as well as 50 kgs of MDF, wood, glitter and leather].

The paint has to become part of the [leather], and cannot stay only on the surface, which is why I need to break it and paint it again several times. But of course, the making of my derby kisses has been a long process full of experimenting and accidental findings. I started with oil paintings, but soon felt that they were not doing the tacky, strong elegance of the bruised bums full justice. With the help of three-dimensional sculptures, rainbows, leather, and glitter I think I can get much closer to capturing that hypnotizing glory.


Between the Kisses and your background as a make-up artist, you seem to like working with skin. What is it about skin that interests you? Did your time as a make-up artist help or influence you in the realization of these artworks?

Skin, covered and bare, is something that interests me both as a material and as a theme. In derby culture, the momentary markings on it appear after nasty tackles (or "love bites," as somebody once commented) from team members. These bruises are looked at as something one shouldn't be too scared to show—they become admirable, beautiful, even. The derby girls are giving them a whole new meaning inside the subculture they have created—a completely different significance than a bruise has in the mainstream context of course.

Somehow the combination of something so protective, intimate, fragile and strong as skin, and the various ways of hiding it and showing it, is just such an indivisible part of being human. Metaphorically, but most importantly, as physically as ever.

Amy Schumer recently posted a photo of a huge bruise on her shoulders and back from a sketch she did for SNL. I see a connecting thread between Schumer posting this photo, and the Roller Derby Kisses projectwould you agree?

Yes, I'd say Schumer represents a similar kind of female representation as I depict through my art. She is showing her bruise proudly, telling about work that has been done, like derby girls do. (And yes, running repeatedly into a fake airplane door sounds like an excellent profession. I would love to try that sometime.)


You are exhibiting the project in Finland in 2016, how does it feel to take the Kisses home?

Even though the crowds are going to be smaller, it feels heartwarming and very, very exciting to show the derby kisses at home, too. In some ways, it is even much more exciting and stressful. Probably because the most demanding audience, family and friends, are going to be around.

I've discovered that there's Men's Roller Derby too. Have any guys approached you about painting their bruises? Would you paint them? Would it change the message?

This is something I have been pondering quite a lot. I do think it would be fascinating to objectify a man through my art as well, but on the other hand, I haven't yet decided if the attention point would drift too far away from the original if I started capturing men as well. I guess I haven't been forced to make that decision yet because not a single male player has yet sent me images of their bruised bottoms!

Is the project complete or will you still add new bums? I've enrolled to join a roller derby team in the new year; will you paint me like one of your roller derby girls?

That's great! Well done. The series is still expanding. In Helsinki, we'll see three new works and in London, one more heroic bum is going to make a debut. So definitely, new images are always encouraged. The fact that I am receiving pictures from derby women from all around the world these days is wonderful. I cannot turn all of the impressive bruises on their bums into art, due to unfortunate time limitations, but I am still searching for particularly interesting forms and colors. A bruise that ends up in one of my works is not always the biggest one. Instead, its beauty lingers in its uniqueness. The most mesmerizing bruises often bring little universes to mind: they tell stories of their own.