Exploring Avant-Garde Blackwork Tattoos with Ben Volt Pt. 1

Exploring Avant-Garde Blackwork Tattoos with Ben Volt  Pt. 1

The first installment of our two-part interview about postmodern ornamental tattoos with experimental blackwork extraordinaire, Ben Volt.

By fusing traditional indigenous tattoos and abstract geometric blackwork, Ben Volt makes jaw-dropping monochromatic body art that pushes the limits of “style.” His work is postmodern in the purest sense, displaying a reverence for the past yet remaining authentic to our day and age. You can pick up on cultural touchstones ranging from Samoan pe’a and punk rock album covers in his compositions. He draws on a wide range of influences, relying the philosophy of “less is more” to guide the process behind his outspoken pieces. We recently visited with Volt about how he got into making this kind of bold and visionary body art, and here’s what he had to say.

Tattoodo: How did you get into tattooing?

Ben Volt: I have always loved tattoos. I still remember, early in my life, seeing this tough punk guy in our neighborhood that had his legs fully covered in heavy blackwork. I had never seen work like that before, and it just blew my mind. So powerful and bold. So graphic. So simple and strong. I realize now I was looking at examples of Marquesan tribal tattoos. I started to learn about the roots of indigenous tribal tattoos, and I was hooked. 

Soon after I found a tattooer I really liked that was doing that kind of work locally, and went for a full heavy blackwork sleeve for my first tattoo. I made friends with her, and a couple years into getting tattooed she offered me an apprenticeship. I've been tattooing for six years now. 

Did you have any training or experience as a visual artist prior to becoming a tattooist?

Yes. Since I can remember I have always drawn, pencil and ballpoint pens; it was the one thing I had that gave me strength and confidence. I got a scholarship to a great art school straight out of high school, and attended for a few years. I majored in analog photography with a minor in cinematography — a lot of cool old stuff like daguerreotypes, palladium prints, large format cameras, and polaroid film. I ended up dropping out because I hated the commercial slant on my education. I thought the way they taught some things tainted the purity of the art, but every experience you gather in your development as an artist is important.

From there, I moved to San Francisco and had a lot of great opportunities to be creative. I played in a lot of weird, dark hardcore and post-rock bands. Toured, recorded albums, and did freelance graphic design. The singer from the last band I was in was a graphic designer, and he showed me things like Adobe Illustrator. We had a lot of conversations about how music physically looks. We developed a whole aesthetic based on it. Hard, geometric, and angular. I took it and ran with it.

Your work stands out because of its boldness. What led you to develop this distinct style?

I have always been drawn to strong graphic design. I like my work to be dynamic and to vibrate. When I look at something, I like to be visually punched in the face. I don't know where that comes from exactly, but I just like the drama and power that you can create using only positive and negative space.

Can you tell us a bit about your process, like how you come up with such striking minimalist designs?

It usually starts with a basic concept, by looking at lots of different reference material to find a more refined direction. I am inspired by a lot of things. I get lost in antique and thrift stores. Details from architecture. Modern art. Vintage punk t-shirts on eBay. Urban cityscapes. Old school graphic design. Listening to weird, obtuse, arty music. Sci-fi films. Textiles from all sorts of cultures, et cetera.

As far as the actual design goes, less is more. The fewer variables to a piece, the better for me. I try to distill the meaning or feeling of a piece to its essence. I like the work to be a strong, abstract representation, capturing motion through shapes. A hierarchy of light and darkness. Foreground, middleground, and background relationships without being literal. For me, it feels more timeless than illustrative pictures of things.

It’s really just a stream of consciousness when I design. I tweak shapes until I see a harmony that I like. Lots of revisions and different versions to compare and contrast, until I feel happy with it. That is the beauty of abstract and purely ornamental work; it is totally subjective, so I design a few options and let the wearer decide which one they are drawn to.

Now that you know how Volt found his way to the vanguard of blackwork, we can further explore how he pushes the boundaries of the style on a daily basis. Be sure to watch out for the next installment of our interview with him to hear more of his thoughts on indigenous body art, the idea of earning tattoos, and how he bridges the avant-garde and the ancient. Also, follow him on Instagram, and if you want to get tattooed by him, he can be contacted via his website.

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