Swiss-born and London-based body modification artist Yann Brenyak's face features micro dermal implants, manipulated eyebrows, swaths of ink and scarification (sometimes layered on top of each other), a giant skull on his forehead, and a bifurcated tongue that he can wiggle like a serpent. If you scroll through his Instagram and Tumblr, you'll find detailed shots of him peeling the skin of his clients like a fleshy potato or inserting metal implants into their chests. Because the artist's work pushes the boundaries of body modification, he has developed a cult following and frequently travels to do residencies at different body art studios around the globe.
Though skin removal and scarification are not new practices, Brenyak is experimenting with these forms through "graphic skin portraits," a process that involves giving a client a sleeve of ink before the artist carves a silhouetted image into the tattoo with a scalpel. The resulting art, often portraits of human faces, looks like an inverse tattoo, completed through skin splitting, peeling, carving, and removal.
I wanted to learn more about how the artist got into this undeniably niche field and then created his own space within it. So I reached out to Brenyak, who elaborated on how he built a career following his passion.
"Everyone thinks, Oh my god, you're destroying your body in a painful way. You look like a fucking freak… blah, blah, blah, " Brenyak told me over a Skype call as he was in between appointments during a visit to a tattoo studio in Sacramento. Not only was the artist candid and open to my curiosity, but I'd also describe him as a spirituality-minded sweetie—even when he opened his mouth and playfully flicked his tongue(s) at me. "My mother doesn't even know I have a split tongue," he said.
I asked if he felt like the public misunderstood the goals or motivations behind getting one's body modified. "This is not any more extreme than someone getting plastic surgery, and it's less painful," he told me through a thick accent. "You could say shaving an eyebrow is extreme, after all."
He continued in a tone that felt more educational than defensive. "People go through much more pain by going to the gym every day trying to be a mass of muscle, and to many, covering your body with ink or scars can be more helpful or beneficial when it comes to making people feel good in the skin they were born in."
Brenyak got interested in body modification when he was a kid and saw an image on the internet of someone who was heavily tattooed performing body suspension. He was immediately enchanted by the idea, and asked his father if he could get a tattoo. When told he was way too young, his stepmother began covering his back in henna ink. His passion only snowballed from there. "Changing my body has been a desire deep inside me for my entire life," he told me. "It's always been exciting to me that you can alter your body however you'd like and make fantasy a reality."
Brenyak trained as a body piercer at the studio Tribe Hole in Switzerland, where he met the body mod artist Lukas Zpira and became his apprentice. He quickly learned a variety of BM techniques, such astransdermal implants, scarification, reconstruction skills to restore the earlobes of clients trying to reverse their gages, and flesh branding—a procedure he prefers to avoid due to the foul scent of burnt skin. He moved to London in 2011 and worked out of a variety of shops like Hammersmith Tattoo, Body Temple, The Lacemakers Sweatshop, and Iron & Ink, where he honed his skills even. Eventually, he started to develop graphic skin removal.
"I was told it could never be done," he said about the part-tattoo, part-surgical scarring technique. But his former partner and dear friend Delphine Noiztoy of The Lacemakers Sweatshop encouraged him to keep experimenting with how he could push the boundaries of body modification. "She was once told she could never successfully create dot portrait tattoos, but she kept trying until it was not just do-able, but perfected. She taught me that nothing is impossible with body modification and my obsession with mastering the idea of [graphic skin removal] eventually came to fruition. Through her, I learned there are no limits to my art."
After practicing extensively on his own legs, Brenyak completed his first successful graphic skin portrait, an image of Björk, in 2013. He's since used the technique to create a variety of faces and geometric designs that look like ghostly forms emerging out of someone's skin. While performing this technique, he says he feels as if the "outside world shuts off and I enter a state of grace. I lose myself in the craft."
I reached out to Lefio Bardolph, a 26-year-old mycologist in London who's worked with Brenyak several times and received the artist's first graphic skin portrait. "I hadn't seen many refreshing ideas like Yann's for some time and I think his passion and dedication for his art form is what attracts people from all over to him. You can recognize it when you see it: Someone who appeals to a market or someone who goes against odds to stay true to their vision. He's a hell of a guy and he's got a shit ton of character to go with that pretty 'ol mug of his."
After getting pointed ears and lobes from Brenyak, Bardolph got the portrait scar of Bjork on his upper arm. "I was slightly anxious before the procedure because I'd never had a dorsal scar before," he remembered. "I was more scared, so I'd jump or twitch during a decisive cut from not being used to the sensation."
Bardolph described the seven-hour procedure as a collaboration, and noted that deciding when to take a break was the only topic they disagreed on. "I get real crazy hungry when under the knife, but he likes to keep going, but it's a joint effort after all!" Bardolph also added that the BM artist helped with final design and pattern formation (with a myriad of potential options to choose from). "He's influenced the body mod ideas almost as much as myself."
The two have collaborated on other body work since, the most recent being an ink rubbing into skin removed on his shoulder blade that depicts the profile of a woman's face.
"The atmosphere created when working together—whether it's an earthy ritualistic energy or a more bold and focused wave—is always where it needs to be for me to endure any challenging procedure we'll tackle. I'll always remember that, plus his teasing after I'd yelp from an unexpected snip."
I talked to another BM artist named Shiva, who's been a friend and colleague of Brenyak since the Swiss artist moved to London. Shiva also does scarification and inverse tattoos, but told me Brenyak is the pioneer of the graphic skin portraits he's become known for.
"The graphic portrait style is his baby and he's the master of it," Shiva said over email. "I have seen a few people try to do it, but never to the same effect."
When asked what people in the BM community will associate with Brenyak's legacy, he replied, "This motherfucker will be most remembered for being my little brother, always asking me to borrow blades or equipment he forgot to order. But jokes aside, Yann's among the few artists who are advancing the scarification industry."
"The graphic portrait style is his baby and he's the master of it. I have seen a few people try to do it, but never to the same effect." –Shiva
V. Vale is the founder of publisher RE/Search and creator of the seminal 20th-century body modification text Modern Primitives. The fringe amateur historian, known for covering the re-emergence of body art within Western society, said it appeared as if Brenyak had a promising career ahead of himself. "I don't want to say anything too exaggerated, but he seems to be seeking to expand the palette, scope, directionality, and visual vocabulary of what can be done to a body."
Creating the graphic skin removal images is a bloody, gnarly affair and Brenyak describes it as the type of job that only serious enthusiasts with a deep knowledge of the subculture will commit to.
"There are two types of people who are interested in body modification," he said. "There are those who find it trendy, and then there are people who are interested in the history, culture, and origins of body modification. The second tend to be more interested in the rituals and subcultural intricacies, compared to just altering their body to 'fit' a certain role or perceived identity. I don't think you'd get your skin peeled by a man with a scalpel unless you were really serious about this lifestyle."
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All images courtesy of Yann Brenyak