The Invisible Man - Little Swastika

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

He creates vast, abstract tattoo works that burst with so much ambition that they require not one, but two bodies to accommodate them. They’re a sight to behold. But however big his art gets, literally and figuratively, you won’t find the artist himself on a high street near you any time soon. Meet the forthright, enigmatic, and rather unique, Little Swastika…

Some tattoo artists discover their calling with a moment of enlightenment. Others gradually evolve into it. But for a few, it’s as though tattooing was already there, under the skin at birth and just waiting for someone to scratch beneath the surface and reveal it.

That’s certainly how it seems to have been for Little Swastika (or ‘Marc’). He began self tattooing with an array of potentially troublesome tools – Swiss Army knives, compass points, biro ink – when barely into his teens. At first his attempts wouldn’t take, but he persevered until the first inked designs stayed put in his leg. Then he did what many would fear to even think about: built a machine from scratch, using glue, lego, and a cannibalised hair clipper. Dubbed ‘Skinkiller one’ it marked his first step into a wider world.

Even so, there was never a plan to be a tattoo artist. He just liked the look of them. “I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pen,” he explains. “I never planned to be a tattooist, I was just going my way. I love tattoos and body modification, and from childhood I was going to get all my body done, for sure.”

Nowadays this “skatekid who's pissed you off since the beginning of time”, as he puts it on his Facebook biog, is indeed heavily inked and has worked as a tattoo artist for nine years. “I started tattooing to get myself tattooed,” he explains. “Then I started tattooing friends, then friends of friends, and then stuff ran out of control.”

Two years into his career he opened the Swastika Freakshop, a studio still talked about reverently by some artists; but a few years ago he closed the doors permanently. Why? “I closed my shop as a reaction to what goes on in our tattoo society. Tattooing became a TV show, tattooists became superstars.

Tattooing went mainstream. As my part of it, I decided to go far away.” These days he operates from a private studio, doesn’t appear at conventions and doesn’t do guest spots. To even find out where he works you’ll need his agreement to work on your tattoo.

The Machinist

But we’ll get to that. First of all, how did he go from wielding a Heath-Robinson-like tattoo machine to becoming a sought-after avant-garde artist? He believes that tattooing came naturally to him, he’s entirely self-taught and his body bears witness to his tests. “By not having boundaries in my head or having someone tell me what was possible and what wasn’t, I found the best way to get to where I am now,” he says.

The tools are important too, he believes, as are the skills to tweak them properly. “Tattooing isn’t just about technique. It’s about knowing the right way for you, knowing how to build a machine and get it running the way you want.

“You can only be as fast and clean as your machines are,” he goes on. “Today it’s easy to get a fucking hawk and just start. But you can’t change anything on them. A lot of tattooers don’t know how to change something on a machine to make them run as they should.”

As his own technical and mechanical skills developed, so too did his style. His distinctive work is the product of a formidable imagination, and also a strong allergic reaction to boredom, it seems, as he began to truly formulate his signature pieces once more traditional tattooing began to lose its appeal.

“I don’t like to repeat myself over and over,” he says. “I love art more than being a dude who makes what walk-in customers want. That’s got nothing to do with art and creativity. It limits you a lot.”

A Different Canvas

There’s another problem too, with the art of modern tattoos themselves. “I’m just bored of normal tattoos!” Marc admits that the quality of contemporary work is very high and that the artwork has progressed in the last few years, but for him it still all looks the same. “It’s just a picture somewhere on the body. I like to think big and play with different techniques. I like to use the human body, play with it and with the way I put designs on it. There are no rules. Never stand still with your mind.”

As for how his current style evolved, it seems to have been an organic process, much like his own discovery of tattooing. “I had nothing planned,” he explains. “But the more I was getting bored by normal tattooing, the more I started making work from my own point of view. How I’m tattooing now is similar to how I was painting before I started tattooing. My style changed heaps over the years; it’s part of progression, life and my own changing point of view.”

Asking an artist about their inspiration is often like asking a novelist where they get their ideas, or a songwriter to explain what that line is all about. They create precisely because they don’t know how to explain it any other way. So it’s not surprising that “life” is the major guiding influence he gives for his work.

However, there are other factors too: ways of working, perhaps, and also ways of NOT working, that have played a part. “I try to paint and not to tattoo,” he says. “Using the human body as an art canvas with a special paintbrush [i.e. the tattoo machine] that allows me to use techniques I couldn’t use on regular canvas.”  

The World is Not Enough

Plus, he claims not to be influenced by the tattoo world around him. “I try to be as far away as I can from our tattoo society: I haven’t been very influenced by it and I don’t want to be.” Which seems pretty clear. What’s not so clear is why, so I go ahead and ask. What’s the reason for moving away so strongly from the rest of the industry?

“I am who I am because I hate the mainstream,” he says. “But tattooing these days has become more mainstream that I could ever have imagined. I decided years ago not to be part of it, not to support it and to turn my back on tattoo society and the industry.”

To do anything else would be to forget himself and why he loves tattooing, he argues. “I would never sell my soul just to make more money. Everything that’s happening just destroys the soul of tattooing and what it means to people like me.”

Meaning? “I don’t like the way tattooing is going. The way that it’s now so much more accepted by our normal society, with stuff like hand, neck and small face tattoos becoming legitimised. Fuck that.”

That about covers his relationship with the tattoo industry, but what about tattooing itself, then? His work features more than a few mystical elements and the swastika itself – which he defends passionately on his website – is an ancient symbol of deep spiritual importance. Is there a spiritual level to tattooing, in his view? “For me and what I do, tattooing is art at the moment,” he says. “But still I know where the roots of it lie. I have many traditional tattoos on me, some covered up but still on me along with the experiences associated with them.” Tattooing is a mix of many things, he says, and even though technical advances make a lot more possible these days, he won’t forget tattooing’s origins – he’s even investigating traditional methods of inking, to stay in touch with that side of tattoo art.

“And sure, tattoos can have a spiritual feeling,” he adds. “Even handling a big session in a short time. Getting so much skin tattooed in a few days is a spiritual experience for most people, like a ritual. Overcoming your limits to get a full backpiece in three days, say.”

Out of Sight, Not Mind

So, we arrive back at how he creates his work. In some ways it’s similar to many studio experiences, starting around ten in the morning, working on a custom piece with music playing all the time and tailored to a particular mood – “sometimes loud, sometimes heavy, as different as people or the experiences we all go through.”

But there are differences too. As you’d expect his rule is that there are no rules to tattooing, and getting a piece from him is a little like talking about Fight Club. What don’t we do? Exactly. There’s no phone, you can’t walk in, and you won’t even find out where to go unless he agrees to work on a piece for you. “Only people who have an appointment know where I am, so I don’t get disturbed and other shit.” The “impersonal” atmosphere of conventions isn’t for him either, he prefers sessions to be more intimate.

Once things are underway with a client, he likes freedom. “I never make plans. Tattooing is art for me, and art is free. I like to talk to the person, find out what they would like from me and what specific techniques or graphic schemes I’ll use. I like to have a basic idea from the person and then I work it out in my way.”

He mainly freehands onto the body to make the best use of the individual client’s anatomy, which is especially important with larger pieces. “The only way to make big tattoos that really work is to tattoo straight onto the human body. See it as a canvas. A human canvas. It’s not a sheet of paper so it makes no sense to make a sketch for a big piece on paper, either. It’s also way too impersonal.”

Currently his showcase pieces are the extraordinary double-tattoos you can see on these pages, each with their own special history. “The story behind every one of the double backs is a story in itself, it’s cool for the people involved and for me. It’s something new.” The tattooing sessions themselves are something special, he says, not least because he’s painting, creating, tattooing – however you look at it – two people as one body. “I try to see it as one tattoo as much as I can.”

The idea began as a project to help him depart from his previous work and create something more abstract with the human body, and took a few years to get off the ground. “But now a few are finished and I’m already working on more, and on even bigger projects. The only limit we have is maybe our minds.”

Going Wild in the Country

While he explores and tests those limits, his future plans include building a new studio; “creating something really crazy” in the process that will be part studio, part abstract piece of art. It’s another step in his retreat from the televised tattoo industry, moving him out into the German countryside and away from the general population. “It’s a quiet village, lots of space and even more private,” he explains.

The wider world of tattooing is of no concern to Little Swastika. As far as he’s concerned, his determined withdrawal is the right move. “Quitting the shop and creating a private studio was by far the best step I could have taken,” he says. “Fuck tattoo society, I just want to concentrate on my art and only work with people who are really interested in getting something different.”

He’s adamant that the current incarnation of the industry has little or no impact on him, or on his relative popularity as an artist. “For the work I do, it doesn’t matter how popular tattooing is. Anyway, I don’t tattoo people who are in the fashionable tattoo mainstream; I’m happy to filter them out. I only have clients who love what I do.”

Guess we won’t see him at a convention soon, then? “No, you’ll never find me at conventions or at anything else. I’ve done two conventions in my entire life, and that was two too many…”

That’s Little Swastika, then. Passionate, talented, inking his own furrow and letting his work speak loudly from the quiet bucolic pastures of Germany. You might not see the man himself, but you’ll definitely feel his influence in the coming years. Brace yourself.

The Swastika

If ever a symbol had a PR problem, it's the swastika. In the West, and particularly Europe – and even more particularly, the UK – its association with the Nazi party in 1930s-40s Germany is so strong as to almost wipe out its identity as a spiritual and religious icon.

However, Hindus got there long before Hitler. The name comes from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’ – roughly, it means ‘to be good’ and denotes one of the swastika’s original purposes as a symbol of luck. It appears on ancient temples and in thousand-year-old holy texts denoting luck, Brahman or samsara (the Hindu cycle of rebirth).

The Nazi version of the swastika, the Hakenkreuz or ‘hooked cross’ is just that – one version, the genesis of which Hitler refers to in Mein Kampf. The earliest known version is rather different: it’s some 12,000 years old and was carved onto a Paleolithic figurine made of mammoth ivory, found in what is now Ukraine. Other examples have been seen in Iron Age cultures across Europe, in Neolithic China, and on Bronze Age carvings found on Yorkshire’s own Ilkley Moor.

The symbol has multiple meanings. Other suggested interpretations of the swastika include a symbolic image of a bird in flight, as a symbol to evoke Hindu gods; an infinite representation of the sun in Zoroastrianism; a Buddhist sign for eternity… there are even suggestions that Native American peoples made use of it as a healing symbol or to represent wandering tribes.

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Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Swastika