Michele Servadio On Transcending Tattooing Traditions
On a massage table he laid, rigid as a corpse, dressed only in chinos and trainers as a camera hovered above his eye-line, focused on his chest. A shoji screen shielded his feet as a student-flat party of scenesters in black satin, denim, leather and lace, gathered around his neck swilling wine from disposal cups, eager for the composer of this Frankenstein-esque scene to begin his work.
Outside, on Dalston Lane, east London, equal numbers dressed black as a funeral procession buzzed like moths beneath the Sang Bleu sign as they sucked back cigarettes on a Monday evening in late February.
Holding a tattoo gun like a scalpel Michele Servadio began to mark his canvas of flesh as a rumbling soundscape searched for a rhythm and the screens reflected his work.
Like a jackhammer the gun dislodged pigment, setting off car alarms like a thief in a car park, shattering brick walls and whipping the air into gale force winds as the subject’s father edged through the crowd: “Sorry, that’s our son… I’m just wondering what they’re doing to him”, he offered, apologetically, as his boy became an instrument of industrial sound.
Reaching a Mad Max climax the images on the screen reverberated as Servadio dug deeper, as if sawing-open the sternum with an angle grinder, fracking for his subject’s soul, as sonar sounds echoed and the procedure ricocheted across a dozen iPhone screens.
Black rubber gloves smear black ink across the subject’s chest like a finger painting as the music climbs the high canopies of consciousness into metaphysical recesses and dreamscapes.
The boy’s chin is high, his throat soft as tissues, as Servadio stands above him examining his work – an abstract scribble. Silence gives way to howling applause as his subject stands, slight as spaghetti, and poses for pretty girls with fancy cameras and a pink-haired lad with a gold retro cell phone charm earring who secures his skateboard like a baguette under his arm as he steals a few digital keepsakes of the evening.
The subject’s dad gives a thumbs-up as the skater retreats into the crowd and tries to impress a girl with talk of having his dick inked.
Sang Bleu is a paradoxical place for Servadio to perform for he has not so much rebelled against the tattooing scene, for which the shop is a mecca, but ignored it altogether.
Yet his installation – Body of Reverbs – the headline act of Maxime Plescia-Buchi’s latest project launch – TTTism, a contemporary tattooing Instagram vision realised in print – signifies his ascension and the mainstreaming of his mixed-medium exploration, which began in London with performances involving Sitex security screens – the metal sheets landlords ambitiously use to keep out squatters, which Servadio was for three years after packing a bag and his bike, to relocate, from his native Venice, in 2010.
The decision was made on a whim, with a mate, having spent “three… maybe four years” at a visual arts school in Venice where he moved to escape the boredom of his hometown, a village called Arzergrande, and to develop his drawing, “the only thing I could do and the only thing I really enjoyed doing”.
Pictures by @giacsto
The course was “nothing academical”, but Servadio passed the time “mainly doing my own things… I’ve never been a good student”. He did illustrations for Punk bands, painted and skateboarded – the sport whose 80s’ skull and snake motifs – made famous by Powell Peralta’s Tony Hawk and Mike McGill – were the genesis of his early tattoo work.
While initially thinking tattoos were “tacky”, Servadio nonetheless inked a jawbone on his own thigh age 20 or 21, before turning the gun on his friends.
“As soon as I tried, I was like, ‘this is the thing. This is beautiful’.
“Tattooing taught me to avoid what is not necessary. Minimal works.”
Servadio’s background meant he “didn’t learn drawing with tattooing… I had a style already”.
But like most artists trying to break into the trade he tried the route of servitude but never got an apprenticeship. An attempt left a sour taste in his mouth – “it was a really bad experience” – and a later trip to a tattoo convention in Milan compounded the feeling that the tattooing scene was rotten.
“Ten years ago it wasn’t so easy to learn… people were very closed minded and materials weren’t as available,” Servadio said, before adding that his real frustration lay with this “beautiful medium, with such strong traditions”, being confined and controlled by rampant egos.
“I didn’t trust the scene. I do it for friends, not as work.
“I didn’t trust it, ‘fuck that’… tattooists are full of themselves. I didn’t respect it or want to be part of it so I stayed by myself.
“Then this Blackworkers Instagram thing came along… but it is such an empty box. You can put anything inside it. Styles are crystallising and confining artists in boxes.”
AN ARTIST’S LIFE
In London Servadio lived a bohemian life, moving into a house that friends – “the craziest people ever” were occupying in Stamford Hill, “such a good spot… with people with a really good sense of community”.
“Living on twenty quid a week, it was my happiest time in London… I had no expectations at all. I didn’t come here (London) to work in some café, to clean up shit to pay rent… that’s not life, that’s a new era of slavery. I didn’t want any part of that at all.”
Music, tattooing and art continued to be the only pursuit, “It was like, ‘so, what we doing today people?’”, and nothing was left unexplored, including the Sitex security screens, “the symbol of squatting”, which Servadio and his friend, Mattia Portello (akaVera Spektor), took off the windows and played like instruments.
Servadio’s next artistic home was on the water, in Lower Clapton, “we rescued an abandoned war boat from the 1950s, a mine sweeper”, whose interior was transformed into a printing workshop.
“There was already a guy living in it called Camden, but we took it on as a project called ‘Minesweeper Collective’ and rebuilt the whole deck… I never tattooed in there though, ‘fuck, it was way too dirty’.”
(The 156-foot Ham Class Minesweeper HMS Ledsham was moored in Greenwich in Deptford, having been salvaged in 1998 and renamed ‘The Mindsweeper’. In 2008 it was accepted onto the Registry of Historic Ships as a vessel of historical significance but it was destroyed in a massive explosion in January 2017.)
Servadio spent his evenings at an atelier nearby, “God that sounds so wanky… a studio”, where he showered and stored his stuff: “I was transitioning”.
He had by then made a solid spiritual connection with tattooing partly through the writings of Dr Betti Marenko – now a research and programme leader at London’s Central Saint Martins – who had investigated the practices and politics of bodily modification through the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. Servadio had discovered one of her books by chance while looking through anthropological books in a library in Venice.
“I was like, ‘oh, alright’ and I just got into it. I was like ‘fuck, this is it, this is exactly what I had in my head but I couldn’t put it together’, and that was it.
“I studied how she viewed tattooing… how contemporary tattooing fits into the culture we live in. And it’s just a product,” Servadio told Parlior.
“That was a turning point for my tattooing, that’s how I wanted to make it. It is how I connected with tattooing.
“Marenko explained tattooing as a connective way between an act of the body, the body on the skin, interacting, and the skin being a border between the tattooist and the client and the rest of the world. Of the past and the future, represented on the skin.
“(She examined) What happens to the individual identity when the body is indelibly marked? Is it possible to conceive permanent body modification techniques as reconfiguration techniques of the subjective self?
“She made a theory where she connected the tattoo practice with the machine theories of Deleuze, and the Vectors of Guattari: Tattooing as practice of self reconfiguration.”
Using all of the money he had, Servadio sought out Rafel Delalande, who was then working at AKA London, in Dalston (but now tattoos from Shadwell’s Seven Doors Tattoo) for his first custom piece, and his perception of ink culture changed: “I really wanted to get a tattoo from him. But I didn’t know how to feel about it… I didn’t want to go to a shop,” Servadio explained.
“But he was such a kind person. So good in so many ways… he is one of my favourite tattooers. A really cool guy.”
Delalande did two faces on Servadio. One was of “non-conformist Lombroso picture” (Italian criminologist and physician, Esare Lombroso, often referred to as the father of criminology) and the other was a woman’s face, done in a similar style.
Servadio is “fascinated” with “non-conformist shapes, reminiscent of 1800s criminal tattoos”. In exchange, Servadio did a snake on Delalande and some lettering in a “black metal kind of way”.
“The whole idea was that these two faces, these non-conformist faces… because they’re on my knees they’re always bending and deforming, the concept behind it… I took it quite lightly at the time but after looking at it, and living with it, you build concepts behind it and it gets deeper and deeper,” Servadio said of his tattoo thought process.
“I think that’s the beautiful thing about tattooing. You might approach it lightly and then you think about it, and you realise what’s going on all around it, with the concept. The meaning gets deeper because you have more time, not just to think about it, but it lives with you. So you really come to embody the design and the concept behind it. So I can talk about it now more than at the time when I got it. At the time I was more sure about it, ‘I want the Lombroso stuff’, but now I have a bit more culture on the topic, or maybe I’ve just lived longer with it on my knees.”
Delalande introduced Servadio to the late artist Jon John, the founder of AKA Berlin, and he was asked to join the art collective in London. With some reticence, he accepted: “I had the boat, studio, atelier… life was good… but I was like, ‘yes, fuck yeah’.
“But at that time I had no Facebook, no Instagram… no social media at all.” (Servadio now has 36,000 Instagram followers)
AKA later became The Dungeon and Servadio again struck out on his own, working from a private studio in Hackney Wick where he tattooed until around two years ago, “due to the state of the building”. (He still uses the space for painting, print- making, “weird stuff”, experimental tattoo research, but he is now largely on the road doing guest spots, of late at Red Couch Tattoo in Milan, Sang Bleu Zurich, Hard Work Tattoo in Rome and Old Habits in London among other studios).
A MIRROR TO THE WORLD OUTSIDE HIS WINDOW
Servadio’s tattoos reflect “the life outside my window” and the bohemian brick wasteland of Hackney Wick, whose charm has survived a dozen-rounds of gentrification, courtesy of the 2012 London Olympic Games and Hackney’s endless thirst for craft beers – was a perfect palette of romanticism, nostalgia and change.
“It is about what you live every day… the environment, the buildings, the small towns… Hackney Wick with its old industrial buildings, the brick walls and barbed wire, the broken bottles… and they’re tearing it all down. It’s nostalgic things; things from my window… the basil dying on my Window Sill.”
Servadio doesn’t like to “take from books, or trace… a lot of tattooists are really good at it… spotting a cool image, but if you tattoo it, it is like the image belongs to you”.
“I draw from reality. If I take from a book, I like to close it and draw from my mind free from the attachment of the image.”
Before hitting the road, every Thursday, Servadio hosted life-drawing classes at his studio, “it is zero point one of ideas”, and sketches later became etched on to clients’ skin, even pictures of his girlfriend, “in bed, at home, or where ever it was”, a happy happenstance caused by the collision of his sketches and flash ending up in the same portfolio. “It doesn’t look like her… the hair is different… you can always change something,” Servadio explains.
His own tattoos are mostly “a collection of trades” with other artists – a classic patchwork of images scattered across his arms, front and throat, although he has a big piece from Xoil on his back of Modigliani. “They can’t be big, because we often don’t have time… and I want to make space for everyone”, and they’re random – “on the spot”.
Servadio’s back piece was a shotgun decision: “It is a drawing that Xoil found on the back of an art school in Geneva. There were many bad copies of famous paintings made by young students. I totally connected with him, understanding that, that iconographic source was beautiful and honest, true art. I remained impressed by this drawing which was a copy of a Modigliani painting and in 5 minutes I decided on getting it on my back.”
Body of Reverbs, like his tattoo collection, was born in a very natural way.
“I was joking with a friend about it, how it was really right there in front of me,” Servadio recalled from the lounge of his parent’s home earlier this year.
Returning from his tattoo studio, around 2014, Servadio began using a microphone and a synthesizer to see “what a tattoo gun sounded like… so I was playing a tattoo machine”.
The experiment soon became an act, initially called Garabato (scribble in Spanish), and Servadio toured Europe performing it with Paula Delgado: “With Paula the experiments became an act, she was taking care of the performative side of it. And we toured together in collaboration with other artists.” However, he often did the act with no audience at all, “just with the person getting it… examining what are the possibilities with permanent marking of the body. I wanted to break boarders”.
Servadio explains that Body of Reverbs is a “modern ritual in which technology serves to amplify the sensory experience” with the sound of the tattoo machine being captured and “live-processed by a sound artist through effects and synthesizers”.
“The tattooer and the musician influence each other advancing in a progressive loop. The subject jumps into a synesthetic darkness between visual and auditory pain, operating deeply. The concept, a form of ‘post-tattoo’ practice, was born from the need of rebuilding lost aspects of tattooing, which nowadays is perceived and understood more and more as a mass product.”
For those on the table, Servadio says, the sounds and sensations are often “very unrelated – opposite to the pain – because the experience is so involving, it can take the pain away, or it comes on in waves, up and down… someone said it felt like quite a trippy experience”.
At the Sang Bleu performance the music was “very industrial… very strange, but with a clear and direct message”, but at other performances it has been ambient, or involved an actor, and most recently print making – art conceived out of the flotsam and jetsam left on the tattoo table. The performance has become, as one audience member deducted – “total art” – an art experience with zero waste.
“At the end the idea was to create a whole product that embodies all of the aspects of the experience of what happens in that time and space… there’s the tattoo… we are recording on tape, all of the sounds that were processed… and the print making process was made of the blood, and the ink and the plasma, and all of the things I used to work on the tattoo.
“It’s a total artwork, it’s a performance then it produces a print, and the sound, the actual tattoo and the person there. I had some one making the print, I was tattooing, and someone was doing the artwork… it was a collaborative thing. Someone there was like ‘It’s like total art you know’.”
In London, in February, Servadio’s subject was pre-chosen. The design, a collaboration: “I had tattooed him before. He wanted to get it done last time (I performed). Normally I find someone on the night. Someone is always up for it.
“He wanted something strong. Metaphysical. Not a snake with a skull.”
While Body of Reverbs is an avant-garde performance, Servadio doesn’t want it to be viewed as entertainment as “tattooing is already cheesy, with all these fucking TV shows… this began as something very underground… it is something more”, and he is torn between the idea of doing it simply as a guest spot, or doing it for every client, “four times a day”.
Servadio sees himself as a “kind of Sharman”, guiding his clients and audience to higher artistic plains, but while humbled by the “tradition of tattooing”, his ultimate vision is sky-high: “I’d like to do it (Body of Reverbs) in the Alps. People would come and stay overnight and get tattooed… that is the dream at the moment.”
“It (Body of Reverbs) started as a brutal performance because I wanted to shake the basements, the foundations of what is tattooing today. I wanted to… but now, it is okay because I understand there are very wide possibilities. So seeing myself as some sort of Shaman, it is a good way of understanding the process, but not just as an artwork and not just as a tattoo, made in a different way, in a fancy way, but understanding that you are working on people… so it’s that subjective reconfiguration that (Dr Betti) Marenko was talking about.”
Eight years after stumbling upon Marenko’s writing Servadio, before the Sang Bleu show, wrote to her and sent her videos of his performance and much to his delight she “completely understood… and I was really, really, glad because she had provided me with some understanding of why I am tattooing all those years ago”.
Performing at Sang Bleu signified to Servadio that he had gone “full circle”, from initially rejecting tattooing culture, to redefining the experience and its artistic boundaries at the very heart of the London scene.
“Definitely I had the journey that took me from the squats, to the underground events, to the fetish dungeons, to Sang Bleu… it is full circle. I think Sang Bleu embodies the 360 degrees aspect of what is contemporary tattooing in a way. They are really high, but at the same time they can embrace something that is very underground in a way.
“It is everything, and the opposite of everything, it is this big whale that is swallowing everything… it is the place that says, ‘this is what is going on today’. And to be there, with the performance… it is so good, because we can embed it in any situation, we can do it up in the mountains, or we can do it in Sang Bleu, or we can do it in a gallery or a fetish dungeon, or in a squat… which is fun. And every time it is different and the people are different and the feedback is different… that’s the beauty of it.”