The Hierphant - Diego Brandi

Published: 06 February, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 208, February, 2012

Rome: the world capital of Catholicism where mysticism doesn’t hang around the neck of believers, Diego Brandi carves it into his customers’ skin. A product of the new generation of Italian tattoo artists, Brandi likes to give birth to strange monsters and animals. Fantasy, imposing monsters and eerie icons… prepare to be submersed into some serious old-school mysticism.

"I got my first tattoo when I was 13, a tribal, to be cooler than the other guys at school! I wanted to learn more but I was too young and there were only a really few studios at that time, around 20 maybe. When you compare today, it’s really crazy. In Rome there are actually more than 200 studios now. Anyway, when I was a teenager I was used to hanging around in the studio of Gippi Rondinella in Campo di Formio – even if he didn’t like it that much.

"It was really hard to get a machine man, the only two Italian distributors were in the north of the country. My first machine; a friend taught me how to build a jail-machine that I started tattooing with. After I could get a real kit for tattooing in 2000, I was taken in as an apprentice in a studio in Rome. I stayed there two years where I learnt everything, even how to solder needles… I don’t regret that, even if today you can easily find some ready to use kits where you don’t have to worry about that type of work, knowing that is somehow being part of the craft of the profession.

"Being a tattoo artist, for me, means being part of a period of history that started more than 2,000 years ago, when cavemen were getting tattooed to protect themselves from animals. It has some drawbacks; as a tattoo artist, you spend all your time bringing pain to people so I guess that if you believe in karma there’s nothing good you can expect from any other life after this! Anyway, I try to be sincere through what I do."

Would you care to elaborate on that last comment?

"It is my responsibility to conserve our heritage to allow people in 20 years to be able to convey the meanings of the designs. If you want to reproduce it correctly, you need references. I learn from books. Last week I spent over €700 Euros on books from California and Japan. That is what I want to give to my customers: a library which they have come to find. It’s possible to say exactly the same thing in at least 10,000 different ways, so it’s important for me to broaden my customers’ minds through my practice. I would like to create some kind of craft with people for whom the meaning of their tattoos is primordial.

"Even if I don’t like this kind of secret society, I respect the taste for knowledge."

How long have you been here?

"I opened my first studio seven years ago, but I moved here last year. I travelled a bit too. I worked at the Family Business studio with Mo Coppoletta in England. London is a great city, people are relaxed and very curious."

You work mainly using an old-school style. Why?

"Because it’s easy and fast to do. I like to work fast. No more than five hours on a design. I like to do tattoos in only one session; a shoulder or a calf. When I work in other styles, I need to take more time than when I do Japanese designs for example. I used to use vibrant colours and then I decided to focus more on intense and deep colours. Close to the colours of the sunset."

Why is symbolism of such great importance to your work?

"Mainly, I try to get people to react and I noticed that using a mystic vocabulary is intriguing for a lot of people. They try to understand why a particular symbol has been used. Maybe I feel close to this idea because my mother is a kind of medium and paranormal therapist. I grew up in that atmosphere, where symbolism is a kind of hidden language you can read and understand only if you know the symbols, otherwise you don’t get the meaning and the composition stays secret and mysterious. All the signs in the world are connected because people trade meanings while travelling and created a new language – and I like this idea of bringing some magic to my tattoos that could maybe also change a life."

You take your inspiration from different cultures, how did you build your language?

"I use a lot symbols and creatures from old Russian books where the iconography consists of monsters, scarring references, bedtime stories. After having taken a lot from Russian iconography, I’m now interested in other fields. I try to modify my mind and my drawing technique in order to create new monsters, to mix up elements. The most important thing to me is not to do just any old thing, but to truly value the meaning of things. It’s just a matter of respect for me, so I prefer to get inspiration from the original rather than a copy."

Which symbols do you most like to work with?

"I really like working with Masonic symbols and now I’m really interested in Egyptian and Mesopotamian symbols. I am always really curious and when I saw the work of Rudy Fritsch, I was really intrigued. “Why was the skull below a triangle, why did he put this eye here…?” I tried to understand all the symbols he used and once I got them, I started using them. I still use the wolf because it comes from Rome, where we are all children of the wolf, which harks back to Romulus and Remus."

And your influences?

"In Italian culture, I like all the things connected to religion. I like Lempicka too. In tattoo, I like: Rudy Fritsch, El Monga, Jonas de Goteborg Classic, Chad Koeplinger and also Alejandro Jodorowsky who developed some theories about the power of symbols to exorcise things."

Sheer Genius

Alejandro Jodorowsky spent almost a decade reconstructing the original form of the Tarot de Marseille. From this work he moved in to more therapeutic work in three areas: psychomagic, psychogenealogy and initiatic massage. Psychomagic aims to heal psychological wounds suffered in life. This therapy is based on the belief that the performance of certain acts can directly act upon the unconscious mind, releasing it from a series of traumas, some of which are passed down from generation to generation. Psychogenealogy includes the studying of the patient’s personality and family tree in order to best address their specific sources. It is similar, in its phenomenological approach to genealogy, to the Constellations pioneered by Bert Hellinger.

Jodorowsky has several books on his therapeutic methods, including Psicomagia: La trampa sagrada (Psychomagic: The Sacred Trap) and his autobiography La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality), which he’s filming as a feature-length film in March 2012. To date he has published over 23 novels and philosophical treaties, along with dozens of articles and interviews. His books are widely read in Spanish and French, but are for the most part unknown to English-speaking audiences.

For a quarter of a century, Jodorowsky held classes and lectures for free, in cafés and universities all over the city of Paris. Typically, such courses or talks would begin on Wednesday evenings as tarot divination lessons, and would culminate in an hour long conference, also free, where at times hundreds of attendees would be treated to live demonstrations of a psychological ‘arbre généalogique’ (‘tree of genealogy’) involving volunteers from the audience.

In these conferences, Jodorowsky would pave the way to building a strong base of students of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the unconscious as the ‘over-self’ which is composed of many generations of family relatives, living or deceased, acting on our own psyche, well into our adult lives, and causing our compulsions. Of all his work, Jodorowsky considers these activities to be the most important of his life. Though such activities only take place in the insular world of Parisian cafés, he has devoted thousands of hours of his life to teaching and helping people “become more conscious”, as he puts it.

Presently, these talks have dwindled to once a month and take place at the ‘Librairie Les Cent Ciels’ in Paris.


Subskin Tattoo

Via Urbano II, 43 C
00175 Rome

Tel: 0039 0697 2715 13


Text: Pascal Bagot; Photography: Diego Brandi