The incredibly prolific, Asiago-hailing Michele Servadio has been injecting lonely, expressionistic magic into the world of tattooing for just over a decade – pushing the boundaries of the craft through experimental “rituals” and textural illusions. Fascinated by tradition and the cultural phenomena of tattooing, Servadio quickly became a key figure in London’s underground art and music scene upon moving to Hackney Wick. Here, he demystifies the influence of environment on his enigmatic work, his love for life-drawing and how reality constantly bleeds into his creations.
How did you learn to tattoo?
I approached tattooing about 10-years ago in 2007. I just picked up a machine and started on my legs. I didn’t follow an apprenticeship – I tattooed underground without shops or social-media for the first 5-years! I have always painted and illustrated. My background when I started out was the hardcore punk and skateboarding community. Everyone had tattoos, and when I started I had enough crazy friends that trusted me. Of course, the style and subject at the time were very different. I loved skateboard illustrations and the punk attitude of it all. I was trying to translate that kind of thing to tattooing. The true origin, the way I’ve actually learned how to draw, was through the expressionist approach, which I have embraced in the last few years following the rage of my early 20’s.
There’s both a sense of vibrant spontaneity and confident control to your tattooing. Can you speak to the influences behind your unique techniques and application?
We come from a time where tattoos need to be clean, well executed and professional. I believe if you follow these rules too strictly, you will end up producing a “product”, which is too far removed from the magic of what tattooing really is. What I am trying to do is take back those imperfections – the spontaneity as you said. I stripped down my set-up. I use only a needle for my tattoos. This is how I discovered so many options and visual possibilities. I believe that the more gear you use, the more you will be stuck in a creative process that doesn’t allow you to use your imagination – to find a solution and evolve. The “rough” look of my lines is due to the fact that I build them up with a smaller needle. The impossibility of having a flat, solid black made me discover the infinite world of textures. Details become unreadable with time, but textures age and change in-keeping with the tattoos nature.
I recently fell in love with a photograph of you tattooing a client’s back using only a life-model as a reference. Can you tell me about this process and how you came to push the boundaries of tattooing to such an extent?
I love life drawing. I love to draw my environment and the people around me. I use these things as starting points for my tattoos. I like to transfer reality to skin. I don’t really have flash of any kind. I keep a lot of sketches that I show to my clients. From there, something clicks. We find a common point, and the tattoo just happens naturally. I draw from my life so naturally that I end up tattooing friends or lovers onto people, but the translation always manages to change things. Lately, once every week, we have life drawing session at my place. My friend and painter Nicolas Freitag finds models, and we spend the evening drawing them. The process of transferring reality to paper, and finally skin, is very spontaneous. It is a beautiful experience – full of trust. To be able to let your flow transfer to skin – the observation of reality that both the client and the tattooer share, creates a deep connection and brings that magic back to tattooing. Let’s say that I try to explore techniques and approaches in tattooing that can bring back the spirit that is often missing in western tattoo culture.
Who is your favourite living artist?
I would say that Anselm Kiefer has been a big inspiration over the last few years.
Can you speak to the thinking behind your recent installation project ‘Body of Reverbs’, and what you aimed to achieve with this “sonic tattoo ritual”?
‘Body of Reverbs’ is a ritual where tattooing and sound come together. I literally amplify the tattoo machine, and I “play” on someone’s body. What I’m trying to do is connect pain and sound in a unique tattoo experience. The designs are abstract – dictated by the spontaneous improvisation, and the connection with the person we are tattooing. I sa ‘we’ because I collaborate with a sound artist who processes the sounds produced by the machine. The ritual is a free improvisation between a tattooer and a musician on a third-party. My aim is to bring back the ritualistic aspect of tattooing – to bring back the magic of it. I have chosen to do this with sound and technology. From the third-party’s point-of-view, it’s a very deep experience. The vibration of their bodies – the pain they feel, it’s all amplified and feeds back in form of sound – a loud sound, which means vibration is pushed back into their bodies. It’s like a huge feedback loop.
How has your work changed since you started applying what it is you do to skin?
Simple subjects are very powerful when it comes to tattooing. What works on paper doesn’t necessarily works on the human body. Since my work has started to become more rough and textured, I started to appreciate still-life subjects. I just have to look around, and I get inspired by what surrounds me – a pot of flowers sitting on a friend’s windowsill is more than enough to produce a tattoo I am happy with.
Outside of tattooing, you’re an incredibly prolific painter and maintain a long list of wider practices. How did your relationship with art begin, how did it evolve into what it is today?
My artistic production has become more consistent over the last few years, even though I’ve been painting and drawing for a while, now. Sometimes it feels a bit stressful to juggle all of these practices, but each one feeds the other: life drawing feeds tattooing and printmaking, which clears my head for what I want to do with my paintings.
You are constantly travelling. How important is environment to your work?
Environment is a key element to the creative process, from the base to the travels. I am based in Hackney Wick, London, and I am deeply influenced by the post-industrial look of the area – along with the general feelings of excitement, excess and melancholy that characterize London. Here, you can see how these things influence my work. It is this way because this is how I see and live London. When I started tattooing, I was working in the funeral industry – carrying coffins through little countryside cemeteries; the atmosphere was folky, Italian, close-minded and Catholic. In a weird way, it was so inspiring – the influence is still all there in my work. I never travel far, but for when it comes to tattooing, I like to guest in different shops around Europe. I like to be a witness to what’s going on. I travel for inspiration and to grow up.
What’s next for you?