While some dread the pain from a tattoo machine’s needle, Michele Servadio wants to emphasise it. Rebelling against the industry’s commoditisation of ink, his sonic Body of Reverbs rituals consist of him spontaneously playing on human skin with an amplified tattoo machine. But the tattoo artist, painter and illustrator does not want to be seen as sensationalist.
“London is a beautiful, horrible, drowning city,” says Michele. The Asiago-native sits crossed-legged, eyes gazing through the dusky fog hovering above River Lea. It’s a chilly morning in Hackney Wick. “It’s allowing a creative platform. I could have a cock tattooed on my face and people wouldn’t give a fuck.”
His ambivalence to the city where he’s lived for the last 10 years is reflected in his work. London’s industrial, chaotic mess mirrors the themes of death and loneliness. “People pretend to be successful, but they’re being consumed by the city,” he says. He’s been close to leaving many times. But when legendary London tattoo artist Liam Sparkes offered him a spot as a resident artist at Old Habits Tattoo in Hackney, it made more sense to stay.
Michele’s technique has become reliant on speed and spontaneity – he says the precision needed for straight lines and needle changes for shading will disrupt the creative process, and falsify the result. He uses only one size of needle, building up layers of rough lines, often without a stencil. “It’s the gesture that’s most important,” he says. “By working fast and impulsively, I’m filtering reality. I’m expressing myself [onto] someone else.” As a result, his work has more in common with Amedeo Modigliani and the expressionist artists of the 20th century than something from a flash sheet.
Stemming from this philosophy of spontaneity and imperfection is Body of Reverbs. Michele’s tattoo machine is amplified with a contact mic, which turns vibrations into sound. They’re then processed through pedals and filters. It enables him to literally play on people. It was initiated from a joke four years ago, making experimental noise rock with his mates, but is now taking place every other month, all across Europe.
At first glance, the rituals ooze fetishism and violence. Hosted in spaces ranging from cemeteries to galleries, they’re a bizarre mix of art, performance and exorcism. Performed in front of a crowd, the tattoo itself is often abstract and spontaneous. It’s the process that’s important, not the result. Michele says the person getting tattooed is always the main focus.
“I’m responding to something they really need, unrelated to style and appearance. I’m hitting a layer of their personality. I’m amplifying their pain; manifesting the permanence of getting tattooed through sounds and imagery. The pain from getting tattooed is vibrating. When you send that back through sound, it becomes an intense experience.”
Usually performed with Michele’s close friends: Alberto Brunello mixing sounds and Karl Verboten doing visuals, the rituals look different depending on where they’re held. Sometimes there’s a large crowd in a gallery, sometimes a few people in a cellar.
Body of Reverbs is hard to define. It’s therapeutic, as the clients are asked what experience they need, instead of what image they want tattooed. It’s spiritual, as clients often pick chakras for the tattoo, and the amplified pain can lead them to a tantrum. It’s an art installation; emphasising the moment where permanence is manifested, in front of a crowd.
“This is not some sensationalist bullshit,” Servadio stresses. The rituals should be viewed more intellectually than him marking someone for entertainment. He speaks with great fervour when asked about the idea behind it all. Leaning forward, he pauses for a second, as if allowing a moment to reconcile his thoughts.
“Throughout our lives, our interactions with different people, environments and experiences are what makes us who we are,” he starts, referencing Félix Guattari’s philosophy on subjectivity. “Now, imagine if these inputs left a mark on the surface of the skin. That’s what tattoos are: reminders of what made you who you are. With Body of Reverbs, I’m emphasising those moments.”
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