“Jaina-style” figurines are tiny Mayan clay sculptures dating from 600-1200 AD, named after their discovery site on Jaina Island off the Gulf coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Fashioned into whistles and rattles, these figurines functioned primarily as funerary objects. Although they are often smaller than 12 inches (~30 cm) tall, each figure is intricately molded with elaborate garments, jewelry, and other adornments. From tiny feathered garments to elaborate headdresses and ear spools (tuup), each figurine seems to display a museum’s worth of garments and jewelry. No two are completely alike.
Especially interesting (to me at least) are these sculptures’ reflections of trends in body modification. Many display, for example, elongated and flattened skulls, a modification practiced among the elite. Others don ear spools, plugs for stretched earlobes that were often fashioned from semi-precious stones. Each of the figurines below displays stylized facial markings, delineated as raised bumps on the figures’ “skin.” As with many colonial and pre-colonial records, it remains unclear whether these facial markings refer to scarification, paint, or tattooing. The figure on the righthand side of the first image also seems to wear an artificial “nose bridge,” a clay structure possibly used to create a smooth slope between the nose and forehead.
This essay has been re-blogged from the tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak‘s website.
The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.
Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.
Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.
Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.
Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.
At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.
Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.’” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”
The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).
Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren“, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.
While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonials because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent her spiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.
According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”
Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.
After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.
The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.
Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.
As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.
Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.
Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.
However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsor girdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.
But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest
Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.
Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.
Batchelor, John. (1901). The Ainu and Their Folk-Lore. London: The Religious Tract Society.
(1907). Ainu Life and Lore: Echoes of a Departing Race. Tokyo: Kyobunkan.
Fitzhugh, William W. and Chisato O. Dubreuil (eds.). (1999). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hitchcock, Romyn. (1891). “The Ainos of Yezo, Japan.” Pp. 428-502 in Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1889-1890. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Munro, Neil Gordon. (1963). Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: Columbia University Press.
Article taken from The Vanishing Tattoo by Lars Krutak
After my post last week on the representation of facial tattooing in Inuit graphic art, I figured it would be appropriate to provide some historical photos of Inuit women with tattooing. These photos act as an invaluable record of an Inuit cultural practice that has since largely fallen out of favor as a result of missionary and colonial influences. Below you will find a selection of photos from the website of Library and Archives Canada alongside the titles given to the images on the website. By clicking the link beside the title you will be directed to the website which offers more contextual information on the image.
“Kila, a tattooed Inuit woman, from the Dolphin and Union Strait area, Coronation Gulf, N.W.T., [Nunavut], 1916. ” Via
“Ward aid Paulette Anerodluk looking after her own mother in St. Ann’s Hospital. Her mother, Eva Kokiloka, is tattooed in the traditional style.” Via
“Inuit woman with facial tattoos and braids.” Via
“Inuit woman with facial tattoos and braids.” Via
“Hilda Hipgogak at Charles Camsell Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta” Via
“This picture shows the tattooing of the different tribes.”
Calling Duncan X iconic within the tattoo world could seem like an understatement to some, as an integral part of Alex Binnie’s Into You shop in Clerkenwell Mr X has been turning out some of the most abrasive black work tattoos since before the shops inception.His severe appearance is completely authentic to his own art work and lifestyle. The completely original trademark style of tattooing that Duncan has so perfectly translated is solidly black and overwhelmingly brutal in its imagery. Reading almost like a cliche, stories of his progressive and intense life have quite literally been imbedded into his skin.To explore more about this fascinating man director Alex Nicholson has created an absorbing short film with Duncan revealing accounts of his life. The sophisticated nature of the film has meant that through special effects the director has let Duncan’s tattoos slowly appear and crawl over his skin as the film progresses.The film was revealed on Tuesday so to celebrate this we’ve created a short interview with the director to find out more..How did you come about making this film?Well I just wanted to make a beautiful looking short for my reel initially. Shooting an interesting a subject as possible.
Who has this film been made for? Who do you want to be watching it?It wasn’t made for anyone really. Me I’d say at a push. I want everyone to watch it. I didn’t want it to be just for people who like/have/want tattoos or people who know Duncan, I wanted it to be as accessible as possible for all viewers..How involved are you as an individual in tattooing?Not at all really. I do have quite a few and will continue to get more, as long as Duncan promises to be gentler next time.
What is it about Mr X that you find so fascinating?Everything! Ha! – Its more to do with the fact that as you get to know him over time, these stories leak out. The fascinating tales of a thousand lives lived within one mans life. Its the fact that he’s highly intelligent, very eloquent, a delightful personality and looks like a Barber-surgeon from the 1900′sA great mix.Was there a particular stance that you wanted to take with the film?If I was pushed, I’d say that you should never judge a book by its cover.
How did the decision to have all of Mr X’s tattoo re-appear through editing occur?I wanted his tattoos to slowly emerge during the film. For him to start naked of tattoos and end as he is, covered. When we got into edit, myself and my editor (David Stevens @ the Assembly rooms) simply pieced together the best story that we saw in there. The animations and tattoos suddenly became secondary to the fascinating Duncan X.
Canada’s Inuit have a long history of tattooing that stretches back several thousand years. However, once the Canadian Arctic was colonized, the practice of tattooing faded almost entirely after being discouraged by missionaries. By the early twentieth century, few Inuit were continuing the practice. After the introduction of graphic art to the Arctic in the late 1950s by James Houston, many Inuit artists began depicting, and therefore recording, cultural practices such as tattooing that were in danger of being lost altogether. These artworks now act, alongside oral histories, explorer accounts, and photographs, as documents of a once thriving cultural practice. Inuit tattooing is now beginning to see a contemporary resurgence, with a number of Inuit women, such as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, getting their own facial tattoos. Nevertheless, drawings and prints by Inuit graphic artists have become an essential part of the recording this practice’s history.
Jessie Oonark, Tattooed Women, 1960
Pitseolak Ashoona, Tattooed Woman, 1963
Peter Pitseolak, Tattooed Woman, 1975
Arnaqu Ashevak, Tattooed Women, 2008
Christo Geoghegan is a documentary photographer and writer who has made time to tell Sang Bleu about his time in the remote Northeast India and the fascinating culture of body modification practiced in the particular areas that he visited.
The art of tattooing and body modification has always been an intrinsic part of tribal culture. Cultural identity and heritage is the beating heart of any tribe and as such body art has been used as an external expression of internal values. It became a form of visual ID to indicate which tribe you were from and where your loyalties lied. And in the remote northeastern states of India, whose populations are predominantly tribal, this was important.
Northeast India is a collection of seven states connected to mainland India by a 21km wide stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor. Though administratively Indian, much of the culture and people share almost no similarities with their Indian neighbours and as such the ‘Seven Sisters States’ are disparate siblings of their mainland brothers. Northeast Indian culture is far more influenced by the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Tibet and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh. And it’s because of this isolation away from mainland governance and the inexorable modernisation that goes with it, that the region has remained one of the last bastions of tribal culture.
Back in 2009, I was incredibly fortunate to obtain the necessary permits required to enter the geographically secluded states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in order to meet and photograph two of its most famous tribal inhabitants: the Konyak Headhunters of Mon and the Apatani women of Ziro Valley. Both of these tribes are famous for their distinctive tattoos and body modifications, but the significance and origins of each are entirely different.
The Konyaks are a hill tribe separated across three different geographical locations. Some reside in the southernmost region of Arunachal Pradesh, some live in the hills of neighbouring Myanmar, and some, like the ones I spent time with, live in the state of Nagaland. The Konyaks have a rich history of being fierce and highly feared warriors and the tattoos that were adopted by the tribe were created to show this. The Konyaks became notorious across the region as headhunters, who believed that when they collected the skull of an enemy they could in turn harness the life force and soul that once dwelled inside of its original ‘owner’. Successful and prolific headhunters were then given the honour of being able to wear the mark, having their faces and chest covered in tattoos. The Konyak women however, would receive decorative tattoo designs (primarily on their legs) to signify various advancements in life. These tattooing practices would continue up until the late 1960s when Nagaland began to experience a cultural shift that would affect Konyak tattooing forever: Christianisation.
From the beginning of the 1940s Christian missionaries from America, Wales and New Zealand set out to the remote northeastern states to spread the gospel and attempt to convert non-believers. However, some of these envoys were of the opinion that many of the activities and beliefs that these tribes held were primitive or barbaric and preached to the tribesmen with a heavy hand. And as such, as Christianity began to spread across the region, many tribes began to lose sight of some of the ancestral heritage and original animistic beliefs that were once at the forefront of their very being.
This isn’t to say that Christianity did not bring some aspects of social prosperity to the region, in fact it was one of the main reasons that practices such as the violent art of headhunting were outlawed. But what is undeniable is that this shift in thinking began to have an impact on many forms of tribal art and expression, particularly tattooing culture. With the end of headhunting and a conversion to Christianity widespread, the Konyaks ceased all tattooing activities and with the number of tattooed Konyaks dwindling as their ages increase, the marks of the headhunter look set to be erased forever.
The women of the Apatani tribe however, had very different reasons for body art and modification. Believed to be the most beautiful in the region, the Apatani women were prone to being kidnapped and raped by the surrounding Nishi tribesmen. To stop this from occurring and protect the tribeswomen, the Apatanis agreed to begin a practice known as ‘imposed ugliness’. By ‘destroying’ the beauty that was so desired by these invading tribesmen, it was believed that they would no longer be at risk from attack. This practice was forced upon all Apatani women when they reached a certain age and began with facial tattooing: one single vertical line from the forehead to base of the nose and then five vertical lines beneath the lip to the base of the chin. Small incisions were then made into the sides of each nostril, and a plug, known locally as Yapping Hullo, were inserted into them. Over time, these plugs were replaced with larger ones in order to stretch the original incision until it was at an acceptable size.
However, it wasn’t Christianity that ended this bizarre form of rape prevention, but peace with the Nishi in the 1960s. Many Apatani women, distraught from having the practice carried out on them, chose to have elective plastic surgery to remove their imposed ugliness. But many embraced their modifications and a popular belief is held amongst many in the tribe that the larger the Yaping Hullo, the more beautiful the woman, inverting the original intention of the process.
There are still many other tribes in the region such as the Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh who still tattoo tribesmen, but as external influences begin to creep in at an increasing rate and globalisation begins to grip the region like an ever tightening vice, the art of tribal tattooing in Northeast India is beginning to slowly, but surely fade.
All images and text has been created by Christo, to find out more visit his website here: http://christogeoghegan.com
Yann Brenyak is a body modification artist, he pierces peoples skin, brands it, removes skin for the sake of scarification, splits peoples tongues and inlays implants and micro dermal piercings under the surface of the skin. Recently he has been perfecting the craft of graphic skin removal, which involves carving off thin slices of skin over the top of flesh blacked out by tattooing to create the effect of an image of a silhouetted face. Originating from Lausanne in Switzerland he has lived in London for the last two years but trained at Tribehole in Geneva originally working as a body piercer but gradually he has learnt more ways to manipulate the skin. Meeting Yann in a cafe in Hackney Wick last week where he lives and works with his girlfriend the tattooer Delphine Noiztoy we spoke about his identity, training and love for body modification.
Yann’s appearance is certainly unforgettable, his devotion to altering his body has spread all over the surface of his body. The angles of his face have been highlighted by tattooing and scarification layering on top of one another, his eyebrows have been exaggerated and geometrically aligned spaces on his face have been inlayed with piercings. What Yann does for a living is as brutal as his appearance, however for someone whose identity has had so much painstaking dedication played into it there is nothing fashionable about him. There is an air of absolute dedication to his whole life, in how he looks and his craft.
Our conversation starts by asking Yann why he never learnt to tattoo and prefers to modify the body, ‘I’m not the most sociable person, I sometimes felt that the tattooers job is similar to that of a hairdresser. You have to know all about the customer and build this relationship. But with body modification you’re usually using something like a scalpel; that intensity means that the customer doesn’t feel like talking too much, I also was never that interested in learning how to tattoo because I never drew when I was young but I liked the immediacy of piercing and the impact that it could make so quickly.’
Yann went on to explain the various types of modification that he performs; he does perform branding on the skin and that it looks very beautiful but prefers not to because the smell of burning flesh is so overwhelming. His favourite modification to create is tongue splitting which he likes because it can be hidden and its results are so satisfying; ‘My own mother doesn’t even know that I have my tongue split!’ However he did elaborate on the similarities that exist between the two practices ‘you have to have an understanding of the skin, especially with skin removal between understanding the difference between the epidermal and dermal layers’.
Besides from an understanding of the fragility and strengths of different parts of the skin what really stands out is the fact that unlike a tattooer Yann is directly working with the upheaval of flesh, cutting, slicing and splitting living skin to reveal the under layer of bloodied matter in the aim to create something visually incomparable. A tattooer of course deals with blood but in a far less excessive way. Looking at Yann’s work its difficult to detach a reaction from thinking about anything other than the process of pain in most of these procedures rather than the skill and healed outcome because so much blood is involved in his exercise. On top of that the healing process is far more prolonged than that of tattooing ‘it can take weeks or even months until the final result can be clearly seem with scarification.’
We talk about the popularity of body modification, we can all see how tattooing has escalated so dramatically over the last few years, but has the modification scene changed at all? ‘No, there always seems to be the same steady amount of people who aren’t effected by this fashion part of it. No one kind of modification is that much more popular than the next. I’m usually mostly in demand for stitching peoples lobes up. Ear stretching was really popular a few years ago but people don’t really want them anymore, a lot of people go to the doctors to have their ears sewn up but they don’t always do such a good job. That’s why they come to me’.
The practice of sewing up ear lobes certainly seems like a removal of a fashion which was once so prominent, a body modification which is permanent being reversed for the sake of fashions going out of date seems so utterly futile. There’s something strangely outdated about seeing men is their late twenties wearing suits or Americana inspired vintage with shrivelled earlobes that look so out of place and uncomfortable in the new context of many peoples lives. This comes down to the evolution of how sub-culturally inspired fashions gravitate, there’s a desire to look dedicated to your fashion, but body modifications are harder to justify as fashionable and this kind of notion of removing modifications couldn’t seem further away when speaking to the ultra committed Yann. Like how the Modern Primitive movement in the 1990s started there is something about the body modification scene which appears almost timeless since its inception, from the way in which people interested in the BM scene dress to the imagery that they inlay on their bodies feels likes this tight knit group of people all read from the same rigorous rule book. It’s a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for anyone, it feels no need to impress anything or develop for anyone else.
Expanding on the status of change in the Body Modification scene we speak more about who Yann’s customers are, ‘I’ve started to travel more because working on guest spots works better as a body modifier, having scarification is the kind of thing that you really need to organise, its not like tattooing where you can get lots of little ones and just walk into a shop. A lot of planning needs to go into it, that’s why if a modifier does a guest spot, someone knows that you’re coming and has time to plan what they want. It’s a huge commitment. I’m going to San Francisco next week and often go to France and back to Switzerland. It’s also not like tattooing in the sense that there are thousands of tattooer’s catering for every different need, there are so few modifiers in comparison to tattooers. So the client is so much more specialised’
How has the Internet affected the body modification scene? Are there any similarities between how people perceive modification like they are tattooing? ‘I use all the different social media outlets because it really is the best way to spread your work around, it also helps you find out all the people in the Modification scene who can be harder to find. It’s definitely a way to bring together like minded people but I don’t think that modification is becoming more popular, it always seems to go at a steady pace however there are people interested and practicing modi faction all over the world.’
There is such a direct strength to tattooing which varies from what Yann does, the tattoo has endless ways of being translated on to the body. Modification can’t always be as direct or intricate as tattooing in its message, but Yann has created something of his own with Delphine which almost meets in the middle of the two crafts. The graphic portraits created through skin removal on blacked out tattooed skin some how harmonize the space of fully covered skin with an intricacy of thin slices of skin removed to give the effect of a silhouetted face.
‘It started to be an obsession as everybody said it was impossible to do and as Ilive with my girlfriend who got told dot work portraits where impossible to do – she proved it was do-able, I learned from her that nothing is impossible. And so followed my obsession to prove that thing in my head could be achieved. Thus the obsession of overcoming difficulties and crossing the boundaries, showing that there are no limits.’
‘I initially started it on myself on some tattoos that I’d covered on my thigh and I’ve also tried the same technique on non tattooed skin but it just didn’t work in the same way. Its becoming more popular but its about finding people who have areas of skin covered up in the first place to be able to create this technique.’ It seems like this particular method only involves the heavily indebted individual, it’s a procedure that can only be developed onto someone with years if not decades worth of modification on the body.
While speaking to Yann this notion of dedication and un-fashionabilty was so prominent. His perseverance to his art and own identity is completely incomparable to many people who are dedicated to their careers, it seems to seep from his every pore and imagining him existing in another world seems impossible. Where notions of ear stretching or parts of tattooing may exist as an adolescent stage to many peoples lives Yann exists as one of those rare people who honestly doesn’t care about what others perceive of him. Whether that is people in the industry or the society that he lives in, there are few people who now live so far away from others expectations like in the way in which Yann does. It’s almost like Yann’s identity and his work could never live separately, they complete one other.’
Yann will start working at the Sang Bleu London shop in the coming months where you can book an appointment with him here.
All photographs were taken by Jean-Francois Le Minh, Interview by Reba Maybury