The Sanctum of Skin Rituals: Interview with Ant the Elder

The Sanctum of Skin Rituals: Interview with Ant the Elder

In this interview with tattoo artist Ant the Elder, he talks about the power of transformation and ritual within the tattoo community.

Tattooing is an ancient practice, as old as humankind itself. From Chile to Siberia, fossilized human remains have been found with ink inscribed into their skin. Many of these marks were sacred, and had roots in societal affiliations or ancient spiritual health practices. And although much of popular tattoo culture today seeks to monetize or dilute our community, there are still those who are preserving a more profound meaning within body modification.

Ant the Elder is one of these artists who continually pays homage to the esoteric heritage of tattoos. Realizing the function of tattooing is far from merely decorative, his artwork has the capacity to speak to the primitive within us. Using sigils, medieval etchings, Renaissance paintings, and more, Ant the Elder captures the transformative depth of experience with tattoo art.


Let’s start with the basics...how did you get into tattooing?

It’s a long story but I started getting into tattooing through body modification, more than from tattooing. Like, one of the first things I ever Googled when I was a teenager, younger, was hook suspension. That’s one of the first images I found on the internet. I saw a flier for a gig that said “hook suspension” and..I must’ve been ten or something...I was like…”What the fuck is that?” Through that I found BMEzine and that’s how I found out about all those body rituals, hook suspension, stuff like that.

Did you do it yourself?

Yeah, but not until much later. It was after moving to London, in 2010, I met a bunch of people that were doing hook suspension then I had a go at it a few times...performing at clubs, doing it at gigs, and I was doing performance art at the time as well. So, yeah, I got into tattooing through that side of things because once I turned 18, tattooing was the closest thing to body modification that I could find in the small town that I was living in. It was the only thing even remotely close to body modification, so I got tattooed when I was 18 and then moved to Lyon to study in France and hung out with a bunch of tattooists...got tattooed a bunch, moved to London, got tattooed even more...went to art school after studying politics in Lyon. Then I started to experiment with tattooing, mostly in performance art context, first of all, and then after awhile...I thought I should do it properly; I wanted to focus on tattooing so I put performance art aside for awhile.

So you don’t do it anymore?

I haven’t done performance in a few years. 

Do you miss it?

Not really! But...there are some times I think about it...tattooing does have a performative aspect and a ritualistic aspect...It kind of fills that gap for me, on an individual level. So, I don’t miss the whole spectacle of performance, or putting on a show. That’s not really the person that I am anymore. I was doing performance because I didn’t want to create objects. I was like...is my art worthy enough to create an object when there are thousands of them in the world? Producing a lot of waste...all the consumerism...and capitalism. I didn’t want to add to that, so that’s why I was doing performance.

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Yeah, I feel like all this stuff, tattooing, body modification, even performance, it can be very political. Are you still very interested in politics? Is that part of your process?

Oh yeah. For sure. One of the main reasons why I started to get tattoos was about body reappropriation because the ownership of our bodies...it’s something that I think is political, especially in this context, at the moment. Borders are getting tighter, gender is being policed...there is so much pressure being put on our bodies. Even though tattooing is becoming so mainstream in the Western world and it’s not such a strong statement as it was 20 years ago to get tattooed, there is still this aspect that, at the end of the day, our bodies are the only thing we really own. So, taking ownership of it and doing what we want with it is political in a way, I think. 

Yeah, I think so too. There’s also that transformative aspect of it too, like owning yourself and having control of yourself, because you really don’t have control over anything else. 

Exactly!

Do you find that your clients come to you for that aspect? For the transformative power of your pieces?

Some of them, especially at the moment. I’ve been doing a lot of figurative tattoos, drawing upon medieval art, early Renaissance art, so maybe not so much in that aspect. But, lately, I’ve been doing more ornamental, Neo tribal, sigil, and magical craft inspired things that maybe makes it a bit clearer that this is a side of things that I am interested in as well. But, for sure, of course a palm size piece may not have the same impact as a bigger piece, but I’m doing more and more big projects, and it’s highly transformative. Also, because I tend to tattoo fairly fast, within a few hours someone is going to be really transformed. I mean, you just got a full back piece in one sitting so you know what I mean! It’s a big part of your body that is completely transformed!! 

I also have this process where, because within a few hours you change someone, this is something I talk with my clients about. This is the transformative, ritualistic aspect of what I do.

That’s cool, because it’s a lot of trust that someone is giving you...and it’s always a collaboration with a client, right? But at the end of the day...it’s your responsibility. What does it feel like to have someone trust you that much?

It’s very humbling. It’s totally crazy...and I’m so appreciative of people trusting me with their bodies, and willing to let me mark them for life. But then, also...I feel tattooing is more and more, because of cover ups, lasering, that stuff, tattoos are not seen as permanent as they may have been before. So, maybe there's more fluidity to the process, but still...it’s crazy what people allow me to do. Last week, as you know, I was in Berlin and I had a client who I had already tattooed a bunch, and I had her booked in for a flower on her leg. When she got there we had a chat, and she was like “Actually, I’d like to do this whole leg sleeve, and add some animals.” We ended up lining a bird from her ankle to the ribs. A massive bird!! Like, thank you. That’s huge. It’s very humbling. And I’m very thankful for people trusting me so much.

Incredible. Yes, so when we met in Berlin you mentioned you were apprenticing your wife. I know it’s a bit personal, but I’d love to know more about that dynamic. You’re teaching someone who is also your partner...and I feel like a lot of people think of education as a hierarchy, but a partnership needs to be equal.

Of course, traditionally, there was a hierarchy, there was this weird dynamic that was based on traditions, like an apprenticeship before tattooing and, whether we want it or not, it’s at the back of your mind; it’s some kind of archetype that we have to deal with. But we are very equal in our relationship, so the way I see this apprenticeship is more about sharing knowledge, more than “master” and “apprentice”...Of course, in this specific field I have knowledge that is a bit broader than hers, but she also knows a lot already. She only started to apprentice with me a couple of months ago, actually. We were living in Berlin last year and that’s when she started to draw and spend more time with me, and then she moved up to London where she apprenticed in a different shop but then...it didn’t necessarily go as planned. And we just were like...we have no time for bullshit, so what we're doing now makes sense. 

I have the chance to share my knowledge with her, and help her out, and at the end of the day tattooing is pretty much learned by doing, so there’s only so much I can do and teach someone. People learn a lot by themselves as well; trial and hopefully not too many errors!

Has she practiced on you yet?

Yeah, about a year and a half ago, when she started to think about it, I was like...well, before you get into this and spend so much time focusing on such a consuming process, try it out a bit, and see how you feel, like what your gut reaction is, your first instinct. She did a tiny one...something like not even the size of a coin, and immediately she was like, “More. I want more!” And like, a week after, she did a small one on my leg, and already I could see improvement. It’s a decent tattoo! I was like...are you kidding?! She picked up so much from one tattoo to another...that may have been just a fluke, or whatever, but I don’t think it was. She can draw...and, obviously, I’m biased. 

Well, yeah, cuz you love her!

Exactly! But we’ve been together for many years, so I think it will be interesting to see this growing, and see where it goes. She’s in it for the good reasons, you know? It clicked. Even before we met, she used to draw as a teenager, she went to art school as well, but she wanted to do a tattoo apprenticeship as a teenager...but at the time it was a different context. Being in the countryside of England, a teen, female...so she never got the chance. And now she’s going back to what she wanted, and has a safe space to do it.

How long have you been at Sang Bleu?

I’ve been here since the beginning. 

No way! How long has it been open? Awhile, right?

I’m really bad with chronology, like, really bad. But, I think, about six years. It started like this...Maxime called me one day and he was like, “Hey, I want to open a studio in London. Would you want to help me out?” I had helped another friend open a studio in South London...and Maxime had tattooed me, just my throat at the time, and I was like, Yeah. Sure. I had just finished studying and I  have nothing else to do really! I’ll help you out! So, we opened, first, a private shop, like in a flat, and it lasted maybe six months...within the first week, it was crazy. We had the space set up, Maxime had just come back from New York, and the first guest was Norm, who had just finished a 4 week tour tattooing non-stop in Hawaii, LA, Canada, whatever...all over the place. So, this guy just literally came in the first day straight from the airport, did a bunch of tattoos, stayed for a few days, did a convention, then went back to LA. We didn’t really have time to settle in, it was like...let’s do this! It was intense. 

The private studio in London, at the time, was not a thing...it wasn’t quite understood. Because there is a huge tradition of tattooing here, but it was always in shops, so the private shop wasn't really working. And we were trying to be legit, and with licensing: it was a nightmare. So, we just moved to an actual shop. And then, we found this space...in the beginning it was just three people in this massive space. Now we have like...14 or 15 people between all the floors. I think we have 20 residents, maybe, plus the regular guests, plus one off guests...it has gone through a lot of transformation. We had an art space at one point, an exhibition and art gallery space, and then we had a friend renting part of the space to do fashion design, and there were tons of projects like magazines, clothing….a lot of Maxime’s projects. But I’ve been here since the beginning and it’s been crazy to see it grow.

And then Soto just opened one up in LA, right?

Yeah, exactly, a few months ago. So we’ve got LA, Zurich, and London now. It’s mad. I mean, from what I can see, it's all going well, and it’s an exciting studio to be a part of. Of course, once again, I’m biased. I’ve spent so much time and energy in this space. Just setting up everything, physically holding down the fort. I’m emotionally attached to this place, even though this is not mine as such. 

But it’s kind of your baby…it’s a little bit your baby. 

Exactly! Emotionally, it definitely is. It’s crazy to see how it’s evolved.

It’s interesting how all the tattoo communities are so different, though. Similar, but different. Like meeting you in Berlin, and the vibe of that city...it feels so much different than London, even though they’re relatively close. 

London is like...I don’t know about the UK in general, but London is really anchored in a long standing tradition. Tattooing in the UK seems to be part of mass culture, like everyone is tattooed. It seems to just be part of British culture. In Germany, tattooing is still an alternative of thing, of sorts...and Berlin, being the center of alternative in Germany, and in Europe, there is a really strong community there, and it's a very different attitude. I don’t know of any tensions between shops and everyone is hanging out together, everyone is chill. And London is mostly like this as well. But it’s a bit more old school sometimes; it’s a different approach. 

Also, I think the styles of tattooing are very different as well, between Berlin and London. There are a few more experimental styles happening in London, and Sang Bleu has some, and there are also random shops doing experiments with tattooing...but in Berlin, it seems, the norm is experimental. When I was there, in Berlin, it’s like either you like dark realism, or minimalist...sketchy...abstract stuff, and everything in between gets a bit lost. I mean, that’s my experience. I was at AKA and AKA was at the forefront of developing experimental styles of tattooing...it was one of the first studios of its kind. 

What AKA did was to show that tattooing can be crossed with performance, with illustration, with design, painting...it was a different approach to tattooing, and it’s definitely been a massive part of the Berlin scene. Because, I feel like, Berlin didn’t have a strong tattoo identity, and AKA kind of put it on the map for international eyes. At least that’s my perception and my understanding. I like to tattoo in both cities, both in different ways. Marking someone’s body, no matter where, is always an interesting experience.

Do you have any guest spots coming up soon?

In late August, I’ll be in Stockholm. I go to Stockholm a lot to work in a shop called Nothing. They’re really good friends. That’s the plan for the moment. 

Any projects coming up that you want to share?

Yeah, actually, I’m starting a book project as well. Where, it’s really early beginnings, but it’s an exploration of magic and rituals within the Western culture of tattooing. The ritualization of tattoos, and those practices. 

Interesting...are you going to be interviewing specific artists who do that type of work?

Yeah, exactly. It’s going to be a very anthropological approach...I’m not an anthropologist, but that’s the way I envision it. I want to do a bunch of interviews with tattoo artists who do rituals, or people who are collecting tattoos in that manner. I’m really interested in seeing how tattoos can be more ritualized. 

More sacred. 

Yes, sacred, in a way. That’s something I’ve been interested in lately. I wanted to read a book about it….and I couldn’t find it! So, I thought I’d make one. I’m in touch with a bunch of people for it. I’d say that’s one great thing about tattoos becoming so popular...you meet new people, you come in contact with so many like-minded, different people. 

Why do you think you’re so drawn to the esoteric?

Well, I would say that I grew up with a mom who was really into it. And I spent a lot of my life rejecting it. Like, I didn’t want to think about it. But now...I’ve started to realize that there might be something to it. I find it really interesting….I don’t know what I believe in yet. But I definitely believe in the power of suggestion, and positive mindsets, and these kinds of things...and whatever makes people feel good is what matters. For me, at the moment, the whole tattooing world being so concerned and focused with digital media...it’s something that frustrates me at times because we’re so obsessed with Instagram posts, but tattooing is analog. It might not look good in a picture, but that doesn’t make a good tattoo anyway. I’m interested in the other side of tattooing that is not so shallow, monetized, something that is more abstract. That’s what interests me. The crossover between the esoteric and tattooing. 

Yeah, because, really tattooing itself is esoteric, it’s primitive. For me, it’s one of the first art forms that ever existed. It’s almost inside of us, an integral aspect of human nature, that we just want to express ourselves in this way. So, it’s interesting...because it’s become so mass appeal, but sometimes I don’t think that many people understand the depth of this community.  

Yeah, I agree. The fact that tattoos are sometimes a commodity is something that is weird to me...because you are transforming your body, and how you will be perceived. And you go through this ritual, and you might not think of it as a ritual, but it is a ritual! Even little things...the way I set up my station is always the same specific way, and the process of being tattooed is...really primal. And, no matter what, no matter your pain tolerance, you do feel it...you feel alive when you get tattooed. And you go through this, sort of, self-inflicted trauma by choice, and then you get out of it, and then there's this relief...and this mark to prove it, to keep this moment with you.  

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