Iestyn is a very spiritual person and feels equally at ease suspending himself either from home with a small selection of friends or in front of a big crowd at many of the alternative clubs, where he tries to push the boundaries of suspension. He has also collected many of his tattoos from friends and feels his work is influenced by the tribes of the Masai and Borneo. Skin Deep delved a little deeper into the meaning behind his tattoos and body mods...
Your name is very unusual. What are its origins?
The name originates in Wales, it apparently means, ‘fair’.
For someone relatively young, you are quite heavily modified. Where did this all start?
I’ve always experimented with pushing the limits of my body. As a young child, from the age of 4 or 5, I used to shut my hands in doors, stick safety pins through the webbing between my fingers. I also used to put clothes pegs on my face, around my lips, trying to see how numb things would get.
Did you like the element of pain?
Yes, I think I did enjoy the pain, experimenting with how far I could go, how much I could actually take. I liked the feeling of being in control of the pain I was experiencing.
How did things progress as you went through your teenage years?
During my teens we were living in New Zealand and it was there that I began meeting people from the alternative scene, many of who had tattoos and piercings. I liked the way they looked, so decided to explore the new world I had stumbled upon. It was during that time when I met Nick, who has since become a really good friend. Nick was a piercer and body modification artist and, through him, I began to explore the cultural history of tattoo, piercing and other forms of bodily adornment and this is what has helped me to evolve in to the person I am today. I got my first piercing when I was 15 or 16, it was a central labret. When I got home that day my ex stepfather went a bit mad about it, so I then left home and got my septum pierced.
You once told me that you did your first suspension on your 21st birthday. Tell us about that.
I saw the suspension as a rite of passage. My friend Nick helped me to organise things and I prepared myself by fasting for 4 days as the Native American’s had done when performing the O-Kee-Pa ceremony. They also used to sit in a sweat tent and smoke Peyote, which I didn’t do, but I thought it important to mentally and physically prepare myself; hence the fasting. For me it was quite a spiritual event, an inner body experience.
Since that time you have done a lot of suspensions both public and private. How has your engagement with the experience changed since the time of your first suspension?
Nowadays, if I am looking to have an intense spiritual experience, I will suspend at home with only a couple of friends present. When you are performing in a club or public environment, you have to be aware of the audience, many of whom will have seen suspensions before, and will therefore expect to see something more extreme every time. That’s all about entertainment. But even when I did my first suspension there were film crews there, and an audience, so I was still under some degree of pressure, I couldn’t just bottle it, not that I ever wanted to. That was a few years ago, and, at that time in New Zealand, not many people had ever seen a suspension, it was very new.
You have extensive and beautiful tattoo work. How has that evolved over the years?
Most of the work has been done by people whom I consider as friends. I started getting tattooed at the age of 18, the first was the piece on my chest, done by an artist called Sharon, in New Zealand. It represents the serpent of wisdom around the tree of life. I was a hairdresser at the time, so Sharon got free haircuts, I got free tattoos. Getting tattooed for the first time was quite an intense experience, especially due to the placement of the tattoo. Had I thought about that beforehand, I might have opted for a design on an easier part of the body. On the other hand, I’m glad that I got what I got, as I was thrown in at the deep end, shocked into the realisation that getting tattooed does hurt. A lot of the work on my arms was also done by Sharon, the fire and water symbols, water because my star sign is the water sign, and fire to fire me up a bit.
I have had, and am still in the process of having, a lot of black work done by the one and only, Xed Le Head. I love heavy black work, which I think looks quite striking when juxtapositioned with all of the negative space. My head and right hand were tattooed, by hand, by Mr Boff Konkers, as I wanted to experience the different methods of tattooing, I love the organic finish that handwork delivers. The Ohm on my neck and Mantra on my head were done by Andro of Haunted House Tattoo, Soho. The Borneo roses on my shins were tattooed by the maestro of Iban hand tattooing, Ernesto, of the Borneo Headhunters, when I visited his studio, whilst on my travels. The placement of the Borneo roses is not a conventional one but I am really happy with the results. Those tattoos are a souvenir of my time spent in Borneo. I had read an article, written by Lal Hardy about tattooing in Borneo and had been really excited about travelling there as Borneo has one of the oldest tattoos cultures in the world. The experience of getting tattooed by Ernesto, using traditional methods was very special, not at all painful. The sound of the tapping was very rhythmic, very restful. Ernesto’s studio is situated in Kuching, and is decorated traditionally in bamboo. Its interesting in the sense that there is all of this history, this tradition, at the same time Ernesto has a mobile phone, website and most of the trappings of modernity associated with people in the western world. I travelled around Sarawak for about a month, the people there are incredibly friendly. We visited the Orang Utang sanctuary, which was amazing. They are incredible creatures, very funny to watch, one of the females pissed on my head.
Talking of animals, you told me once that you went to Bolivia, with Angela, your girlfriend, to work with Puma’s.
That was amazing. We had to take them for walks in the jungle every day, but it could also be quite scary as they are wild animals and can be unpredictable.
A lot of your tattoo work is done by Xed. How did your meeting come about?
I first met Xed through Boff, the guy who had tattooed my right hand, top of my head and back of my neck, because he lives with Xed. When I first met we seemed to get along well, he initially did my elbow tattoos, my rock’n’roll style skull and crossbones. We then decided to embark on a larger project, using the black work style that Xed is renowned for doing. He will do the rest of my body, finish my back, my legs, at the same time covering some of the old work I have done on myself. I enjoy being tattooed by friends, I could never get tattooed by an artist I didn’t like. For me, it’s all about the complete experience so a certain rapport with the artist is essential, without that, getting tattooed would be too impersonal.
So, would you say the work on your body has just progressed naturally?
In many ways it has. The look that has developed has been inspired by many different influences such as the Masai tribes of Africa and the indigenous people of Borneo. I have been inspired by many tattooists and body modification artists, such as Lukas Zpira and Steve Haworth. Lukas brought the art of scarification into the public domain and Steve is often considered to have been the most influential and innovative person ever involved in body modification. Blair, in Canada, is one of the only artists specialising in Strike Branding, he is another friend of mine. Samppa has also influenced me with his surgical modification techniques.
Tell us about the mods you have.
The Ohm scarification on my leg was done by Simon, aka, the freakshow performer, Captain Howdy, he did the microdermals in my forehead too. Howie did some work on my ears, Clem did the scars on my face. A few weeks ago I inserted five, 8ml teflon balls around my penis, that was quite difficult to do on myself. I will be adding more to that area in the future. They were a bit painful for a while afterwards especially whenever I got a hard-on, so I will wait to continue with that project until my girlfriend goes off for a trip to Equador. I intend to get many more mods in the future. I would like Steve Haworth to design and fit a big silicon Ohm for my arm, Quentin is going to do a Tibetan style branding on my stomach and a couple of lines on my face which you will hopefully photograph being done. Lukas is going to do some scarification on my leg, so, as you can see, I have quite a lot of plans.
You currently work as a piercer. What led you towards that career and do you intend to get more into doing extreme mods yourself in addition to the piercing you already do?
I’m currently working as a piercer at Diamond Jack’s tattoo studio in Soho. I was lucky enough to get that job when Simon, Captain Howdy, left. I was initially attracted towards that profession through the process of getting pierced myself and wanted to share that sense of ritual with others. From the time of deciding that I wanted to become a piercer until I finally broke into the profession took six years. Like tattooing, piercing is an industry that is over saturated, especially in London. My advice to anyone wanting to pursue that career option is to keep going, never give up and strive for perfection. Always be prepared for knock backs, as these are sure to come. I am pretty much self-taught but am lucky in that I could always seek advice from friends who were already established within the industry. I have learnt a lot from Nick in New Zealand, Balir in Toronto, Simon, here in London and last, but not least, from my girlfriend, Angela, who has been piercing for nine or ten years. Quentin, from the Kalima studio in Worthing has also given me a lot of advice when it comes to remaining grounded and being patient in terms of embarking on some of the more extreme aspects of body mods.
I do intend to become more involved in body modification and have done some implants on my girlfriends arm, implants on another friends chest, I’ve done some scarification, but I want to take things slowly. I’ve done some lobe scalpelling, dermal pouching, stuff like that. Unfortunately nowadays, there are too many people who want to be body mod artists and many of them want to run before they can walk, they have not got the experience and they will make mistakes, and that’s no fun for their clients. That’s one of the problems when anything starts to become mainstream. However I can understand where many of those people are coming from. I am a very impatient person and have had to curb that in order for my work to develop at a pace that enables me to learn and to be safe. We will all make mistakes, hopefully those mistakes are not irreversible. The more you rush into anything, without sufficient knowledge or experience, the more likely mistakes are to happen. Having said that, many of the procedures now being undertaken are relatively new and still experimental, so there are few guarantees and clients need to be made aware of this, before agreeing to a procedure. Anyone wanting implants, scarification, branding, or any other body mod should ultimately research the artist, don’t be governed by price or the location of the studio, its far better to save up and to travel that to end up with inferior work. There is so much information available nowadays, so many amazing artists, so many available options.
Since I’ve known you, you have become more involved in performance. Is that something that you hope to continue and develop?
After my first suspension in New Zealand, I did some more performance work with my friend, Nick. When I left New Zealand, I did some stuff with my girlfriend, Angela, but didn’t really push what I was doing, I just did a show every now and again. I also did some shows with Captain Howdy’s Flying Circus and now perform with the Psycho Cyborgs. We have performed in Athens, Lyon, Barcelona, Rome, we’ve done the Rubber Ball, Ink and Iron show for the Outlaws, we’ve just performed at Download, so things are quite hectic. People have described us as the most extreme freak show in the world, but you are only as good as your last show. I’m not an egotistical person and want to stay grounded, but I like performing, I enjoy being on stage.
It seems to me, from looking at people like Samppa, from the Psycho Cyborgs, that body modification is moving away from modern primitivism and into the realms of comics, sci-fi and fantasy characters.
That’s right. Lots of it is influenced by horror movies, space and ultimately, imagination.
So as time goes by, we will see a generation of heavily modified senior citizens, there are already a few around, Prince Albert, for example.
I’m really looking forward to that. But its important not to forget that the roots of all body modification lie in tribal cultures such as the Masai or the tribes in Borneo and places like that. What is currently happening in the western world is that those influences are being embraced and developed in order to find their place in our contemporary society. As far as I am aware, tongue splitting for example, was not practised by tribal cultures and the transdermal implants that we now see do differ considerably from the subdermals practised by some tribal cultures.
It’s important to remember that the human race has been altering its appearance since history was recorded. In tribal cultures customising the body was often seen as a rite of passage or as a way of differentiating one tribe from another, whereas in the western world we have the opportunity to choose at will and choice is infinitely reflected in the ever widening range of customised bodies that one sees on the streets, at tattoo conventions or clubs such as Torture Garden. Which mods are likely to become more popular, in your opinion?
I do feel that surgical mods, such as removing areas of flesh, skin or cartilage, will become more apparent. But ear reshaping, for example, is quite irreversible so I doubt that it will ever become as mainstream as implants, which can be removed. You also have to remember that not everybody will react to a procedure in exactly the same way. One of the procedures I especially like is where branding is done over a black tattoo, creating a white area, Quentin has been doing quite a lot of this lately. Personally I have always loved scarification, to me it’s quite beautiful, very organic. There are just so many options, it’s an exciting time.