Dead pig heads. Like Nutri-Bullets or Iggy Azalea we can't seem to get enough of them, though nobody really understands the appeal. Even after British Prime Minister David Cameron this week finally denied allegations that he once put his peen in a pig's head, the UK is still abuzz with hoggy head chat.
Have any of us properly looked at a pig's head, though? You might've glimpsed one in a butchers, and thought, I would not be down for putting my genitals anywhere near that thing. But a fiver says you've never really looked deep into the jellified, recently-sliced-open eye sockets of a dead pig and truly beheld its glory.
New York photographer Peter Garritano has, and somehow he resisted the overwhelming urge to do anything inappropriate in a bid to earn entry to an elite dining society, and instead thought that the slowly thawing disembodied head of a pig would make a pretty neat canvas for tattoo artists to go to town on. So he took some severed heads to his favorite tattooists and asked them to have fun, photographing their artistic efforts for his latest collection, Pigs.
I asked him about the project:
VICE: Hi Peter. How did the tattoo artists react to the idea of working on a dead pig's head?
Peter Garritano: Most of the artists I spoke with were very receptive, like it was a no-brainer. I guess since tattoo artists deal with foreign anatomies and bodily fluids every day the idea of doing something a bit morbid wasn't too much of a stretch. There were some very reasonable hygiene concerns and a bit of squeamishness at first. One of the few artists who declined was a vegetarian, which made sense.
To be honest, it usually went kind of like this:
Me: Hey, would you be interested in tattooing a pig's head?
Artist: Yeah, sure.
Me: Like, not a tattoo of a pig's head, but like, doing a tattoo on a pig's head.
Artist: Ohhh. OK yeah, sure.
Gotcha. Do you see any recurring themes in the designs?
Yeah, death is present in a few. A couple of artists worked in swine-based wordplay and two even played on the same phrase, "hog heaven." I didn't give them any guidelines. I just wanted to leave the design totally up to them and see what they came up with. I imagine if I'd had these done in the UK this week we'd see a certain other theme coming up in a few...
What kind of artists took part in the project? Did you try to get a broad range of artists, or just go for the ones you didn't think would be too grossed out?
At first I put some feelers out to just a couple of artists whose work I really liked. Word got around, so soon I had a bunch of people interested and I was happy to provide a head to anyone who wanted to be involved. Basically, if you had a mind to ink a pig, I was interested to see what you would do with it. I ended up with a nice range of styles.
What expectations did you have before you saw the finished heads, and how did the designs differ in the end?
Pig skin is sometimes used by tattoo artists in training because it's so similar to human skin—that's why I'd originally thought the project would be feasible. But the practice skin you buy comes from the sides of the pig's body where it's smooth and consistent. The skin on the heads was very different. It's wrinkly, and varying in thicknesses and texture. So throughout the process I'd call to check in with the artists and they'd be saying how hard the skin was to work with. They'd have me really worried, and then I'd get the head back from them and their work looked amazing.
The pigs all look quite peaceful and chilled out in death, but they're covered in violent imagery. Were you hoping to get this kind of juxtaposition?
I agree, they do look very peaceful and content. The corners of pigs' mouths are naturally upturned such that they appear to smile slightly. It actually seems to be a common feature in animals that we find likable, like dogs and dolphins. Despite the imagery of death in the tattoos, I don't find them particularly violent, though I do of course see how there is something implicitly violent in any image of a severed head. For me though, the pinkness and that smile bring a vitality and calm to the images, and that does juxtapose with some of the morbid tattoos.
This pig's a bit of fun. How do you interpret it—apples are the way to a pig's heart?
Apples bear so many symbols but I also interpreted that one pretty literally like that. I grew up on a small farm and we used to feed our pigs apples. They do love apples, but they also love pretty much anything else you put in front of them.
What's the deal with this guy? I can't quite work out what it is... a hungry human?
Nope, it's a dead Cyclops monster character with a fez hat. Jim White is an amazing artist and he dreams up all of these little monsters. He did this piece freehand.
Recently in the UK it's been alleged the Prime Minister put his dick in a pig. Do you think tattoos can instantly make anyone/thing sexier?
It's such an exciting allegation. We've never had anything nearly that fun stateside with Obama. Our conspiracy theorists only drum up boring ideas like "he's a Muslim" or "he's not a US citizen." We really don't know a good scandal over here lately. Are tattoos sexy? I'd love to know the PM's answer to that question. I did see that his wife has a tattoo so maybe we can read something into that.
"Basically, if you had a mind to ink a pig, I was interested to see what you would do with it."
Are you a meat eater? How did you deal with having to carry round dead pigs' heads to tattoo shops all over the city?
Yes, I eat meat. I used to work as a cook so it wasn't too uncomfortable handling the heads. I did incidentally learn some otherwise very useless things about the transport and storage of disembodied heads. For example, a standard freezer can fit four full-sized pig heads, and not one head more than that. For the times I housed more than four at once, I have my reasonably confused neighbors to thank.
After some trial and error it came to light that the easiest way to work on the heads was if they were frozen in the centre and only slightly thawed on the outside. That allowed the needle to work the skin, while the frozen core held the head's shape and minimized leakage.
So which one's your favorite?
I couldn't pick just one. Most of the designs came out a bit imperfect and I like that about them. Sometimes you can see where the needle fell into tracking the rut of a wrinkle or where ink stained the open eye socket cut back by the butcher. It was fun to see how the artists' intentions changed as they embraced and explored these difficulties. It's a bit hard to see but Ryan Roi drilled a bunch of ink right into the eyeballs. I like that sort of thing—the stuff you'd never get a chance to see on something living.
Thanks Peter, we promise this will be the last pig head story on VICE for a while.
Follow Bo on Twitter.