This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
It's safe to assume you wouldn't blindly trust a friend to tattoo anything they wanted on your skin, let alone allow a complete stranger to do the same. But somehow, tattoo artist Monty Richthofen has convinced hundreds of people to do just that.
Under the name Maison Hefner, the 23-year-old from Munich tattoos willing adults with motivational quotes and mantras without telling them what it'll be beforehand. Richthofen's project, "My Words, Your Body", started in 2017, though he worked as a regular tattoo artist for a year-and-a-half before that. He is now based in London as he finishes a design degree at Central Saint Martins art school.
I caught up with him to find out why anyone would ever agree to this, how he picks the quotes and what happens when someone hates their tattoo.
VICE: Hey, Monty. Can you describe your process?
Monty Richthofen: It starts with a conversation that usually lasts anything from 30 minutes to an hour-and-a-half. At some point during our chat, I'll ask each person the same four questions: Why do you want to do this? What does trust mean to you? Why do you trust me? And: what are you going to do if you don't like the tattoo? Their answers then determine what direction we go in.
The length of the initial conversation depends on how open they are and how long it takes to get information from them. Some people want to talk through their love lives, some want to talk about their careers, while others bring the conversation to life and death.
How do you pick what the tattoo will be?
Based on my own experience and what they've told me, I pick the design that I think best represents that moment in their lives. I have five notebooks filled with around 5,000 different phrases. Sometimes I have to flick through the designs for quite a while, until something suddenly clicks in my mind. But other times I don't even have to look through the notebook at all because I already have the right words in my head. They can then decide which part of their body they want tattooed.
Are they always sober?
Yes – I would never tattoo a drunk person. They have to be aware of what's going on at all times. That's also why I don't allow them to be distracted by their phones or social media.
Why don't you just tattoo something that they actually want?
Because it annoys me how the traditional tattooing process is always the same: people come in with an idea or just pick a random design out of my book, then I ink them and say goodbye, without either of us getting to properly know the other. I just wasn't interested anymore in having people who aren't on the same wavelength as me running around with my personal work on them.
I want the people who come to me to get a tattoo that marks a specific stage in their lives and could actually help them in the future. People sometimes think that I just ink images of penises and other nonsense on people – but I have friends who I can do that to. I would never do that to someone who has given me their time and trust, and revealed very intimate things about themselves.
You get to decide what someone is going to have on their skin for the rest of their life. How does it feel to have that kind of power?
Too often in our society, people take advantage of their power for their own benefit, which is wrong. I would never abuse my power over someone else's body. It means a lot more to me if I can contribute something positive to another person's life.
Do you get people to sign any sort of agreement in order to protect yourself?
No, which is probably naïve of me. But how I see it, if they trust me, I have to trust them, too. So far, though, nobody has complained.
Why do you think people take the risk?
I think most people are trying to force themselves out of their comfort zone, or they just want to feel what it's like to fully trust a stranger, which can make the process quite therapeutic. Then, obviously, some just get a kick out if it. But I always do remind people that a tattoo is permanent, so they have to be sure.
What do you tattoo on someone you don't like?
If I don't like them, I’ll break off the conversation and tell them that I don't think they're ready for it. It's taken a while, but I've learned to say no.
How many requests do you get?
I currently have over 100 inquiries from all over the world in my inbox. I try to work my way through all of them, but it's quite a slow process as the conversations take time and can get heavy, so I have to prepare myself mentally for each client.
Have you ever made a mistake?
An ex-soldier once came to me at a point in his life when he was trying to figure out what he should do next. So I decided to tattoo: "However long it may take." But I got distracted, stopped looking at the stencil for a second and accidentally went over the line on a word. He accepted it, though. You could say the sentence now applied to both of us – neither of us had reached our goals yet.
Watch: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask Someone With Face Tattoos
Do you have a favourite tattoo and customer?
One of my favourites is: "I'm not who they promised you I was," which I inked on someone who had just had gender reassignment surgery. I did it under a scar he had from the operation.
Do only young people come to you, or do you see a diverse range of customers?
I get all types: students, parents, truckers, famous people. If you met some of these people on the street you would never guess that they were the type to get a surprise tattoo.
What do traditional tattoo artists say about your work?
They don't see what I do as real tattooing, but that's OK. I don't necessarily want to call myself a tattoo artist anyway – I want to show that tattooing can be more of a service. Today, the ritual aspect that used to be part of the art form has largely gone. In the future, I want to make the process even more intense, possibly by spending a whole day with a client before tattooing them.