Blood, Sweat and 30 Years

Vincent Castiglia opens his retrospective show at the Sacred Gallery in SoHo, NY tonight. The media are all over him – from the BBC to Reuters, there are a line of TV crews and journalists fascinated by his huge paintings of “the universal themes of death, sex, birth and decay” as he succinctly puts it each time.

The fact that they are created solely from Vincent’s blood is a sensational hook to draw in the viewers with a 2 minute clip, but this is more than a macabre sideshow. I should know, I spent 4 months in 2008 on Vincent’s therapist chair in his alter ego as renowned tattoo artist. This is a story of how on 12/12, Vincent Castiglia, Brooklyn tattooist and artist, Adrian Wilson, English interior design photographer and Boogie, Serbian street photographer came together on a magical day.

I had thought about a tattoo for a long time. I wanted an illustration in the style of Vasalius showing my skin peeled off and a cutaway to my heart. I wanted it anatomically correct and I wanted letters on each body part so I could put the initials of my children “J” and “E” on my heart. It was a fancy version of the old style forearm “mom” heart tattoo. I met with Vincent at the Roseland Ballroom tattoo fair and he was perfect as he specialized in anatomical work. I wrote my idea in his book “If I like your idea I will call you” and 6 months later here I was having the 36th hour worth of tattooing being documented by my friend Boogie.

Vincent Castiglia working on Adrian Wilson’s tattoo, 2008

Not 36 hours one after the other mind you. This was nearing the end of a 3 month process when I would take a double dose of painkillers, grab the prescribed sugary drink and lie face down on a massage chair for 4, or if I could manage the pain 5, hours of needlework every Friday afternoon.

Attending a willing torturer is a strange submissive act. Being in pain was no pleasure but felt the right state to be in. Vincent has a penchant for extreme thrash metal and there were various objects dotted around such as a skeleton and a still born baby in a jar “I cover that up for some people”. Vincent has dressed in black for the last 28 years, he has a bald head with tattoos which continue where each piece of clothing ends. It was winter, in a disused theater off the J train. So began our 40 hour interview.

This was one of Vincent’s darker periods in terms of things he was dealing with. We talked about many things. Atoms, universal god heads, abstract notions of extrapolated theories but Vincent had yet another personal bombshell awaiting him. Vincent is far enough away from it now to explain to you how he grew up in a house where his mother was an extreme hoarder, where rotten food was the norm and roaches would drop on him from the ceiling while he was trying to sleep. The city took weeks to empty the apartment when it was finally time to let normality into the dwelling he had to call home. At 12 or so he ran away.

He dressed only in black from that day and fell in with the fell out crowd. Druggies, thieves, derelicts were his new family. He learned tattooing and mastered the art but at some point decided he needed to let out the things he had been through and that was through his art. I am not sure why he chose blood. It seems so obvious – the blood letting, the decay from life giving oxygenated red liquid to untouchable brown stain. There are so many ways one can explain how he self administered a therapeutic and hepatic leeching.

He was very crushed but still in love with an ex girlfriend. Her behavior was too distressing to be exposed here. Many of his paintings at the time will give an idea of his torture, his anger but ultimately his attraction to her physical beauty. They may be “common themes”, but the way Vincent was portraying the unfortunate ingredients to his current malaise went way beyond bedroom pining for things that hadn’t turned out so well. Like many put upon people, Vincent had learned to deal with life’s downs and downs. He wasn’t upset, he was calm. He accepted his burden as his own story, the thing that got him to where he was. He could get over what any girl did to him if he could get over what his mother had already done.

Women had played a pivotal role in Vincent’s story but now it was time for an emotional bomb from the male of the species. Vincent had plenty of friends, male and female and certainly looked up to a lot of them. HR Giger had asked Vincent to exhibit the blood paintings in his gallery, which was the most wonderful encouragement. Most of his tattoo clients were men. Vincent has a repugnancy for betrayal but he was about to face another revelation. “Guess what I found out today?” was the opening line of a memorable tattoo session which to my amazement drew no blood and felt no harsher than any other week I was there.

The week later, Boogie came along and took the photos you see here. Two weeks after that the tattoo was finished and a bond was broken. We kept in touch.

In the 4 years since, Vincent has fallen in love again. I noted with disdain that he even used the word “awesome” in public, though he assures me he will only ever dress in black.

Adrian Wilson & Vincent Castiglia

Tonight we chatted about what the exhibition meant to him and he did use the words “decay, betrayal and death” regarding his work but also said the event marked a pivotal point in his life. He talked of “harmony” and how his last painting depicting an apparitional guiding angel was about the change away from consumerism and poor moral choices humanity needs to make. The irony is that his mother was the ultimate consumer with her hoarding and acquisitions. His absent father turned out to be good, not evil. And he is now at peace with a beautiful and caring woman. Ironically , he is even taking commissions for his paintings “they just tell me a general idea” and one of his first clients is a plastic surgeon, whose whole career is about preventing feminine decay. Don’t expect to see huge changes in the theme of his work, but Vincent is now positively inspired to create his art, rather than blood letting as a therapeutic reaction to personal turmoil. It is so satisfying to see someone grow as a person and creatively thanks to time and love.

Vincent’s blood paintings say one thing to me: Life can exist only within us. Releasing it causes much pain.