Today just about anyone can walk down the street, find a shop, choose a design, and walk out with a brand new tattoo in about an hour. But there are still some people who believe that getting body art should be taken more seriously, almost like a sacred ritual or rite of passage. Inspired by ancient tribal styles such as Polynesian and Marquesan, Ben Volt’s tattoos express a reverence for the idea behind those traditions: a tattoo is something that’s earned. We recently spoke to him about how he got into the industry and the process behind his art, but now here are his thoughts on the theory behind his approach to creating such groundbreaking blackwork.
Tattoodo: What about blackwork attracts you to the style?
Ben Volt: So many things! The timelessness of the designs. The boldness. The spirituality and notion of transcendence in the indigenous tribal tattoos. The connection to family and culture. The ancient meanings of the patterns and designs. A connection to something larger than yourself. Archetypes of humanity. The way you had to sit there and earn wearing something like that. It says a lot about a person. It makes you carry yourself a little differently. You stand a little taller. I like empowering people in that way.
Would you mind elaborating on the idea of earning tattoos a bit more?
I am by no means an expert, but what I’ve learned is that one of the principles behind indigenous tattoos is that they are earned. It’s like a mile-marker for a stage of life or an accomplishment. Rites of passage. Everything means something in the design. An homage to family. History. Culture. Nature. You have to overcome obstacles to get those pieces. You have to win battles. It’s all about respect.
In the modern tattoo world, the act of getting large work like heavy blackwork tests you physically and mentally. Especially mentally. Life is so easy for us with technology. Everything is set up in a way that we don't have to really test ourselves on a daily basis, relatively speaking. I would say that a good number of us don't feel pain (like getting tattooed) every day. I find that getting tattooed for long periods of time or consecutive days really can show people what they are made of. What they are really capable of enduring. It’s usually much greater than what they thought, and I like to think that it shifts their paradigm, like traveling does.
Your work seems simultaneously futuristic and traditional. How do you manage to find a balance between these two extremes?
I think it’s just because I am a very visual person, and again, my love for art has made me really excited about exploring a lot of different subject matter. It’s super interesting to me to find parallels between unrelated things, like repetitive Polynesian patterns and the details of Brutalist architecture. Futuristic sci-fi armor and indigenous tribal body painting from the Amazon tribes. There are so many similarities.
I am also a big fan of the psychiatrist Carl Jung's work. He has a lot of theories about the collective unconscious, and how indigenous cultures all over the world, tribes that have never met, share similar symbols in their art. Archetypes in the human brain that are remnants from the past. Like being afraid of fire and "fight or flight." Like triangles being in both Polynesian and Egyptian history, among others. It’s old pieces of our subconscious that are inherited from our ancestors. We are all connected in this beautiful way.
What do you think is the value of bridging the ancient and the avant-garde?
I guess the value is relative. For me, it’s a way to connect with greater things outside of myself. I really don't have a strong connection to how I was raised, my family, or "culture," so it allows me to tap into something more ancient, authentic, and pure that I can relate to and admire. Something based on the roots of humanity. Something that isn't based on false timelines like capitalism and destroying the Earth with fossil fuels and plastic. I feel like so many ways that we live as a global society have gotten away from our connection to each other, nature, and spirituality. I yearn for a more authentic self and existence, but can only project my art through my experiences as an artist living in the modern world. It’s simultaneously contradiction and hope.
This overwhelming desire to connect with something greater than himself is what makes Volt’s work so visionary. He is attempting to bridge a cultural divide brought about by modernity through creating art that’s so in touch with its ancient roots but also infused with the spirit of the new millennium. Getting tattooed by him is not only an act of empowerment; in many ways, it’s an initiation into a larger community — a tribe of forward-thinking blackwork enthusiasts.
Follow Volt on Instagram to see more of his groundbreaking blackwork, and be sure to check out the other half of the interview, where he talks about how he got into tattoos in the first place and the process behind his postmodern ornamental body art. If you’d like to get one of Volt’s bold and boundary-pushing pieces, he can be contacted via his website.