Interview by Sylvie Myerson and Vid Jain
(c) Sylvie Myerson and Vid Jain, Originally published in Sandbox Magazine


Appropriately located in the heart of the meat market, the New York City Body Archive is a place that has to be seen to be believed. Part carnival side-show and part reference library, the archive is a public resource center and emporium dedicated to tattooing, piercing, body modification, Mehandi (Indian Henna), branding, scarification, body painting and temporary tattoos. The archive is crammed with material covering the entire spectrum of Body Art and its curators will point out all kinds of oddities that might otherwise be missed on a first visit, as well as offer expert advice and referral.

Together with its parent organization, Circle Arts, the Body Archive is involved in all forms of “art outside walls,” including art parades, performance parties and contributory magazines and cassettes. The Archive is located in Manhattan at #9, 9th Ave., and is curated by founder and tattoo artist Matty Jankowski, his partner Roy Zukerman (body painting, temporary body art and founder of Temptu), Jeremie (piercing) and Kristin Collins (branding and scarification). Call 212-807-6441 for times and information.

Sbox: Could you tell us about the New York City Body Archive?

Matty: We started off with the idea of presenting information about tattooing but there are other people doing that already. I saw this as an opportunity for my own interest and curiosity about other art forms that use the body: piercing, body modification, body painting, scarification or branding, cross-dressing, body mutilation … things that I’m not expert at but curious about and I think that there are people involved in one form of body art who would be more interested in investigating other possibilities. The main project is to provide people with information as a resource center where they can come and explore these topics in a friendly safe environment. Mainstream interest in tattooing and body piercing is now pretty extensive. They might come here wanting to know more once they’ve had two extra holes pierced in their ear or gotten their first tattoo. It’s an opportunity for me to provide them with more information than they may want to know through printed matter or film and video. Also, live events will be taking place. Some of them will be targeted for an audience that is interested in a specific fetish or type of body work, something that can be referred to as the “Golden Calf Society.” There will also be events for people who are interested in discovering something new, which can be referred to as the “Salon des Refuses,” where you’re part of a collection of oddities and you let the public come and view it. Others will be general information seminars where people can come and debate on topics such as teen-age tattooing, the significance of tattooing for Jews, tattooing with religious significance discussed with priests, rabbis and people who have these tattoos. This leads into the historical/anthropological significance of body art and how and why it was thought to be a dangerous thing. Those are some of the things we’re looking at.

Sbox: What do you do when someone walks in off the street and wants information on, say, branding …

MattyJ: The first thing we’ll do is make sure they talk to someone on our staff who has been through the actual experience themselves. Then we may recommend someone. I mean, I don’t even have my ears pierced so I can’t talk to someone about that but I can tell them who I think would be competent. Some people have specific requirements: it has to be a woman, or it has to be a man, they want a specific style or they want it done for a specific reason. We have someone who is putting together a resource directory that would be here and accessible. The subscribers would be advertising with us and writing their own blurb on their work and their shop, whether it’s a private studio or public piercing shop, whatever … it would be there for people to look through and copes would be available as well. Ultimately we want to establish a data-base of information with visuals and text that would be accessible via modem.

Sbox: So you don’t see yourself as merely providing information but also as a sort of counseling or referral service?

MattyJ: Well, the counseling or referral part is definitively a factor in it, because myself and the other people involved in the Body Archive are involved with a passion. We really enjoy the experience we’ve had with the body, becoming part of a group that’s pierced or tattooed or scarified or branded or has gone through different rituals of body modification with good results at the other end. We can tell them what our experience has been. What I like to do in my own personal work is to suggest a real personal investigation so it’s a real statement you’re making about yourself with symbolism that has either religious or spiritual significance, or finding graphically a symbol that you find attractive, then finding out what that symbol’s about and the correlation with yourself…

Sbox: Is there any reason why you would turn away someone who came to you and wanted something done?

MattyJ: I sometimes want people to be shocked and upset by what they see here because if they’re very naïve and they have that “I can buy anything so I can have a tattoo” attitude, then those people are not into it for the right reasons and should really see what it’s all about from an excessive point of view. It’s a commitment as a life-style and not just as a weekend warrior. Also, if someone was in a state of mind where they couldn’t clearly make that decision, if they were forced to do it by somebody else, or too drunk or drugged out, I would let them go away and think about it… Although tattoo historian Lyle Tuttle has said “Thank God for drunken sailors and loose women” because it’s kept tattooing alive for a period of time then it would’ve been a lost art. Tattooing has gone through all sorts of changes and cycles. In Western culture it was a very elite private thing but the electric tattoo machine brought it into mainstream acceptance. In the 60’s it became part of a new culture of peace and love. Janis Joplin had a tattoo, a little heart, nothing like the full back pieces that you see now on-stage, like Henry Rollins, the Chili Peppers, Guns ‘n’ Roses… 4 out of every 5 videos you see on MTV has a tattooed person in it… the rock-star imagery… when someone wants it for that reason I try to dissuade them a little bit but part of the excitement for them is living through that… I’ve done comic book characters on people’s skin and tried to talk them out of it but it seemed to suit them after it was done. I’ve rarely heard anybody complain or regret getting a tattoo except in the media. Maybe it’s just the people that I know that are tattooed and pierced are very secure about making these decisions.

Sbox: What happened after the 60’s?

MattyJ: Well, the whole hard-core punk scene… lots of people were doing tattoos on each other with primitive implements, jailhouse stuff, no real machines and doing great work. I’ve seen a lot of people working in that community that tattooed each other and their friends and learned how to do it and were artistic and talented. The people who got the tattoos probably got the best value because, most times these were great artists. Being in that scene was an opportunity to work on people. There was skin there and they were cheap tattoos but a lot of times they were really great works of art. It was their icons. It was the “DRI” (Dirty Rotten Imbecile” symbol on the side of somebody’s head. After I did a piece like that on this one guy with an orange Mohawk he said “Do you do stitches?” I said “What do you mean?” He said “Can you make it look like my hands are sewn on, just a line with stitches around both of my wrists?” So you think the obvious like “Oh, he got a tattoo on the side of his head, he could always grow his hair back and conceal it”, you think that’s why he did it. But that’s not why he did it, he was committed to it anyway… and to almost prove a point, his commitment was to do something on his wrists… that’s pretty strong commitment. It’s a real artistic involvement in changing the appearance of your body and I really believe it changes the person. For some people it has real power… You feel you’ve committed yourself to making a lasting mark on your body which is a big departure from just being unsatisfied with yourself the way you came into this world. It becomes a non-verbal statement that, even if you never look anybody in the eye, you can say something.

Sbox: Do you think it’s a way of making your body your own?

MattyJ: Definitively. For some people it’s reclaiming. They’re 18, or 21, or turning 40, coming out of a difficult relationship. It’s at a certain point in their life then they feel they’ve done everything their mother, father and spouse wanted them to do, that they can now prove that they can be their own person and make a statement. There’s got to be as many different reasons as different tattoos, but there’s a similar thought process that makes you want to do it. Like I said, some women or men who look at mid-life crisis like “I am 40, what do I do? What’s happening to me?”. And they think that they need to do something at that point that’s strong for their 40th birthday, something they will live with. And it becomes part of you. It starts out on your skin and it becomes part of your skin. You don’t always realize the impact on other people sometimes, but people look at you differently. If you get tattoos on your hands, people respond to you differently. They’ll leave the change on the counter instead of putting it back into your hand. Not often, but often enough to make a difference and for you to realize that you’ve caused a change in how people respond to you. Even with the henna painting, that lasts a couple of weeks on your face and hands, and that’s your communication with the world. It changes your life for a couple of weeks.

Sbox: What do you think of the word “play?” We’re investigating the different meanings of this word and have come up with several definitions. Do you think that this word can refer to practices such as tattooing or making voluntary physical alterations on one’s self?

MattyJ: Well, by tying it in with the word “body” and saying it’s “body play”, I think it definitely has a significance that way. The word “play” doesn’t seem to lessen the importance of it. I think that body play is just that, it’s taking your body and doing things with it. Sometimes it’s amusing, there’s a sense of humor about some people’s tattoos like the frame that I did around somebody’s mole on their back. Just one frame wasn’t enough, we expanded on it and made it a more significant frame. The first one was a daguerreotype frame of a medical oddity in a book, the second one was this elaborate rococo frame that drew attention to something that most people would not want others to see: a hairy mole on their back. When people see it, they see this graphic tattoo from a distance, so it really makes an impact, its got color in it and everything, so they get closer, and then they realize it’s a mole. There’s a woman I know that’s got a toaster tattooed on her calk, but it’s not plugged in so she won’t electrocute herself if she takes a bath… There’s another woman I know that’s got vegetables tattooed on her body. She has stalks of corn done as a back piece, and it’s this beautiful balanced piece, like the leaves that are etched on the tops of columns in architecture. You get up close to it and really investigate it and you realize it’s corn.

Sbox: What we meant by play is that it can be frivolous and humorous,; but basically we meant “creating individual meaning”, and especially in terms of body play: reclaiming the body and not letting society dictate to you what you do with it.

MattyJ: For some people that’s true, but other people will play within the limits of society in being able to conceal their tattoos, doing major tattoo pieces but doing it for a private viewing situation.

Sbox: But as long as you know it, and it’s for you… you’re still using your body as a canvas, whether it’s for private or public purposes.

MattyJ: Yes, you are, but I think that if it’s for a public statement, it’s more the anti-social behavior statement. That’s what the Japanese tattoos are all about: that is a statement that you are outside the normal behavior patterns of normal society doing normal things. You’re part of a group of people taking risks, for example with crime, or firemen in Japan are traditionally tattooed or the military… Often these tattoos correspond to rites of passage, when they cross the international dateline, they’ve get one blue-bird tattooed, when they cross it the second time they’ll get another one tattooed on the other side. During WWII they would have a clothes line between the two bird’s beaks with underwear hanging on it from different conquests. So there are definitely statements that are not normal social behavior. But marking your body, for a lot of people it’s become probably more acceptable, or at least here in New York.

Sbox: Are there practices that you consider completely off-limits or too dangerous, either in general or for a specific person?

MattyJ: The idea of fear and danger for a lot of people is there interest, whether it’s an obvious interest to them or whether it’s something that they discover as they go along. These are people that are into S&M who keep pushing further and further into the whole culture of pain and pleasure. What is fear to one person is not to another, and when they overcome one stage, then what? What’s next? The endorphin rush from intense pain that I’ve seen in the experience of people being branded. It’s that second where their eyes roll back into their heads and they’re somewhere else, on this natural endorphin, and it’s legal. Nobody can tell you that you can’t take that drug, because your body is doing it for you and the compensation for the pain takes you beyond the pain.

Sbox: But where do you draw the line?

MattyJ: I don’t. I would say that people can do anything they want with their own body.

Sbox: How did you become a tattoo artist?

MattyJ: I got my first tattoo while I was married to a woman who said she wanted one, so we picked out a design that symbolized our union. We went to an underground shop and picked out a design from a sheet of flash. At that point that’s all you could do, there wasn’t really any art work being done. That was in the 70s. Shortly after that, a friend of mine went to get a piece covered up that he had gotten twelve years before. He went to a woman who was an illustrator for Sesame Street, but who also did these incredible Oriental and other motifs cover-up pieces. They were highly skilled renderings and I realized that this was a new canvas. This was an inspiration for me to do work on other people. I was a painter and photographer but it got to a point where it wasn’t satisfying. It seemed more satisfying to create a work on other people that would be a walking, talking piece. So what I did was find a tattoo supplier upstate New York that made the machines, and chipped in with someone else. Basically, tattooing is a craft that’s been passed on by apprenticeship but there were no shops to apprentice at. Everyone was worried about teaching someone else to do it because they only wanted the money for themselves. But we got lucky. There was a guy who came into town who was a biker. He had heard from somebody in a bar that we were thinking of opening up a shop. He was willing to help us get started if we would let him use our machines and space to make some money for the two weeks he was in town. It was a short crash-course, but it was enough to go from the point of tattooing fruit to working on skin. He was the first person I tattooed. It was great.

Sbox: So you first approached tattooing as a visual artist?

MattyJ: That’s what I was trying to say about technical excellence. Some people develop it as a craft, strictly. They have no artist talent at all. Calligraphy is an art only if you develop new styles of lettering whereas if you get the craft of it down, you can mechanically make those letters look like what they’re supposed to look like, at different levels of skill but still it’s a skill. So the old style of tattoo work was a skill. You reached that level of skill and you copied sheets of design from other artists, at different levels of competence. I didn’t want to do that. I liked the idea of doing other designs. I started doing Nouveau designs, very flattering shapes that would be on different parts of the body. I would work with that shape of the body rather than just smack “Harley-Davidson” somewhere. Over the years it’s developed. I’ve taken breaks from tattooing, moving around and doing different things.: changing jobs or relationships. Just got out of it for a while but I’m always coaxed back into it.

Sbox: When you talk it seems that your work and what you’re trying to do with Body Archive is really inclusive and open to all different kinds of practices. That’s very impressive.

MattyJ: Even as an artist I think I’ve gone through a lot of changes that probably most artists wouldn’t allow themselves to go through, working with other people … I don’t know it all and I’m always pleased to learn from other people. I would rather go through a day learning from somebody else than just telling everybody everything I know. That’s what’s gong to make it expand. Being a collaborative artist is letting down certain barriers and dealing with your own ego where you’re able to accept a lot more from other people. Even with tattooing, I’ll recommend different tattoo artists. I’ll recommend they read certain books or pursue it in a different avenue. I’m pretty pleased when people are doing their own art-work who start out saying “I’m not an artist”. I say “ok, you draw something of what you think you want to have a tattoo of”, then “I’ll take that, I’ll tighten it up a little bit” … I think it works better. They feel better about it. It’s not maybe this magnificent mural on their back but I’d rather see them have one piece that they like. And those people come back. They’re able to talk about it because they understand it. The people I tattoo, for the most part, are people who I feel will carry what I’ve done on their body with a certain strength and significance. They’re not going to forget me either, they’re going to remember me for the rest of their life, and the event for certain people becomes IT. Not, the tattoo, not the symbol, but the actual experience: the time in my life, there I was, what I was doing, how I felt, why I did it then is what it means to me now. The pain is forgotten. The reassurance I’ve had in being a tattoo artist is that it felt good to me to put a permanent mark on someone’s body, and it was reassuring to know that the experience afterwards still felt good.

Sbox: What was the experience of being tattooed like for you?

MattyJ: The people who did my tattoos were people I didn’t know personally but I knew them artistically, from the point of view of their skills, ability and understanding. The artist who did the Celtic piece was totally into the historical significance of Celtic art-work. When I went to him, he was already familiar with the design, a bronze cauldron. He understood the importance of the art-work, the integrity of every live and how it should look. And the woman who did the piece on my chest, I saw her draw as well as tattoo and she could draw these really fluid lines. Not everybody has the skill or the freedom. That’s what I’ve seen in other people and people have seen that in me and they haven’t been disappointed. I think that art is just another way to play. The freedom to do what I want in a tattoo, in the free-hand improvisational sense, that’s the ultimate: using space and just inventing as you go along. It’s happened that people say “So Whatever you want on my body”. And there are other tattoo artists that do that. It’s impressive that people can have that sort of confidence in you.

Sbox: Do you feel like you’re building a community?

MattyJ: I think I’m just tapping into an existing community. There’s a lot of information out there and I’m happy to be able to be a resource for people. People don’t know what they have. There’s a tattoo kit that I have downstairs that somebody lived with all their life. A turn of the century electric tattoo kit with paints and everything. She says that growing up it was on a shelf in the den in Arkansas. She thought it was a treasure chest when she was really young, and thought it was full of jewels. It’s a hand-made wooden box that she ended up selling to pay her rent. It’s the same with a lot of these other materials, somewhere somebody has other implements of body art that aren’t being displayed. Also, I think the community is expanding greatly. Even within the community of tattoo artists, its’ constantly happening … they’re getting tattooed by each other and they’re getting work and getting paid for doing work on other people, or bartering… There’s enough work for everybody.

Sbox: How about your kids?

MattyJ: Well, my life as parent has been totally unconventional in the sense of my activities as an artist involved in art outside museum walls. They seem to be pleased about what’s going on with the Archive. I think it’s incredible t just pass on that freedom. Being immersed in the creative process is a very healthy thing. To know that you can make something happen just because you want it to. They’re plugged into all my alternative art activities and I think it’s good for them. The feed-back has been good already … they have the freedom to not just site there and watch tv all the time.