This article was originally published on VICE New Zealand.
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Tattoos hurt, but for most people the pain is just a means to an end. And tattooists are usually mindful of their client's pain threshold, catering for breaks and mitigating any unnecessary brutality. It's abnormal to restrain someone while they're getting tattooed, or for them to bolt upright in agony to escape the needle's unrelenting penetrations. Nor is it very common to see sadistic mirth occupying the faces of multiple tattooists as they inflict the unnaturally long, thick, shallow lines, seemingly without pause as though interminably carving through tough wood.
Enter Brutal Black. It's the tattoo project where mandalas come to die. Where your neo-traditional Japanese tribal tatt is shown to be nothing more than a cute little fashion statement. Valerio Cancellier, Cammy Stewart, and Phillip "3Kreuze", the three tattooists behind the collaborative project, want to bring back some ritual and rebirth to tattooing. What they've come up with is one of the most brutal experiences one can imagine; they proudly claim it will "ruin your life".
I contacted them to learn more about why the hell anyone would do this.
VICE: How is Brutal Black different to a normal tattoo session?
Cammy: With my normal work, what's 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: plastic, soulless, 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. Its fundamental element is experiencing the ritual.
Phillip: In my everyday tattoo 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. In this project there's no compassion, no scruples, no sense of empathy—it was a little strange to behave like that. 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. 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 walking after the session, you have done it right. Pain is perishable, proud remains eternal!
So how did this all start?
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 three projects together so far. The last project was in Germany, which is when Phillip joined, however, I ended up not being able to make it due to problems with flights.
Phillip: There were problems for Cammy 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. So 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 himself ready. Franky knew that something very primitive and brutal was about to come to him. Tattooing totalled about five hours over two days, as fast as possible, but with brakes for puking and crying.
At what point did you realise the Brutal Black project was more than an aesthetic thing?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 you 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 an awareness was born. Brutal Black 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 project is not a remembrance of tribal rituals, its energy has the same kind of origins.
What do you think motivates someone to be tattooed like this?
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 go, 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 their 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 two day meeting with Frankie look like child's play. Let's hope no one dies!
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