No Superfluous Flummery: An Interview With Bob Roberts

Last month, while in Los Angeles for BME’s Tattoo Hollywood convention, I was given, above all else, one specific task: to interview Bob Roberts, the owner of L.A.’s Spotlight Tattoo, whose art gallery opening that week I wrote about here. There was, of course, an element of danger. “He can be very intimidating,” people cautioned me. “Be careful what you say around him.” Though ostensibly well-meaning, these warnings were unnecessary. When we sat down to talk on Sunday afternoon as the convention was winding down, Bob struck me as a cross between Jeff Bridges’s The Dude from The Big Lebowski and John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski: an old hippie, content with his status and the life he’s lived…who occasionally gets very, very fired up about things. (Voice-wise, though? He’s The Dude.) Drawing from his nearly 40 years of experience, we talked about his humble beginnings, shitty artists he’s known, blow job etiquette in 1970s New York, various people who deserve to have their thumbs cut off and much more. Here’s our entire conversation, edited in parts only for clarity.

BME: OK, let’s start with some procedural questions and then once we’re warmed up I’ll try to make you cry.

Bob Roberts: Alright. Can you hear me? Test, test. Is the needle going on there?

BME: We’re ready to go. So where are you from originally?

BR: Los Angeles, California.

BME: And what brought you to tattooing in the first place?

BR: Well, it’s a long story. My dad had a store at Eighth and Broadway, and he used to take me with him to work on the weekends. When I got old enough to run around, first I would go by this pawn shop that had switchblade knives that would start at one inch and would go until they were maybe over six feet. Then, they had a lot of tattoo shops, so I used to go into all of them until I’d get thrown out, and I just always loved it, man. I saw all these people getting tattooed and from a young age it just nailed me to the wall.

Later on, I was in rock and roll bands for a long time—I played the saxophone—and I was painting a lot of flash and I wanted to find a job, and I thought I could be good at [tattooing]; I loved drawing the designs. So I went to a few shops and went, “Hey! Where can I get some ink and some guns?” And they just told me to get the fuck outta there.

So, I was living in Laurel Canyon, and I was driving down the hill one day and I saw a friend of mine hitchhiking, and he had this girl with him named Truly, and she had a fringed leather jacket on with a really nice Japanese dragon done in Indian beads on there. So I inquired! I said, “Man, that’s a nice dragon, it looks like a tattoo design.” She said it was, so I asked if she did it herself. She said, “Yeah, and I’m a tattoo artist too.” This is 1973, by the way. I told her I was looking into getting some equipment and machine, and she told me she had a whole outfit she could sell me. So, I bought some machines and some flash (that I still have) and a power-pack, and that’s really how I got started.

Shortly after that, I started going down to The Pike and got my first three tattoos—my first shop tattoos—by Bob Shaw, and I told him I was interested in working there. I’d bring him stuff that I’d drawn and I’d get tattooed by him, so he gave me the ultimate challenge: bring some people in that’ll let you put a tattoo on them. Well, I was in a rock and roll band at the time and these guys knew I could draw, so I told them to come to The Pike with me to get some free tattoos—I was bringing two carloads of guys a week down there. And I did alright, you know? I guess they figured, “Well, I guess this means we have to give this asshole a job.” And they did!

Continue reading

Losing Your Lobes: An Interview With David Kitts

A little while ago, we got an e-mail from a man named David Kitts. Having been around the body modification community for about a decade, he’d stretched his lobes to two inches, but recently underwent surgery to reconstruct them to their original state—the idea and process of which has left him conflicted at best. He felt like his story could be useful as a cautionary of sorts, and so we spoke to him. In our interview, he discusses why he went the surgery route, what the procedure itself entailed, the effects it’s had on him mentally and more—after the jump.

Continue reading

Live From Oslo SusCon: Interview With Havve and Christiane

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports for us from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

To give a better insight into the 2009 Oslo SusCon, I thought an interview with organizers Christiane and Havve might be interesting.

Havve Fjell is a freak-show artist/fakir performing under the name Pain Solution both in Norway and internationally. He runs the Fakir Academy in Oslo. Christiane Lofblad is a body piercer in Oslo, running the successful Pinpoint Piercing studio. Together, they are responsible for the Wings of Desire organization, which arranges the Oslo SusCon and smaller suspension events throughout the year.

Alexander Trowell: This is the eighth incarnation of the Oslo suspension convention. Can you briefly tell BME readers how the convention has evolved over that time?

Wings of Desire: Well, the first year we aimed for too much. We were in a big warehouse with no sinks, and partied every night. There were performers and bands and things like that, and although the suspensions were supposed to be the main part of it, they weren’t. We soon learned that we needed to keep it more to the point, focusing less on the unimportant stuff. Then the second year, we had no crew and trained everyone who participated. What we didn’t think of was that some people didn’t want a workshop, they just wanted to hang, so from there we changed. The third year, we had our first lectures, courtesy of Allen Falkner. We have grown in that direction since, accommodating guest speakers, and having a dedicated crew to handle the action.

AT: The convention sees members from all over the world and seems to be widely recognized among much of the body modification community. I know from personal experience that this is due to hard work and good organizing skills, but has it come as a surprise at all how popular it has become?

WOD: It has been something of a surprise, but we’re good [laughs]. We both have friends, within both the body mod industry and among performers, so it has kind of grown from that. Plus, of course, Allen Falkner helped spread the word.

AT: I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last Oslo SusCon. Do you feel that the level it’s at now is good, or do you want more/fewer people for future events?

WOD: From last year, we decided not to increase it much. There’s a really good atmosphere at the Oslo SusCons now, and we get a lot of positive remarks in that regard; we don’t want to lose that. The way the crew and team leader system works means all suspendees are followed by a set of crew members, which we have also been told is a nice way of doing it. That connection between crew and participant could be difficult to maintain if the convention grew too big.

AT: Obviously you guys travel to other conventions and body mod-related events around the world. How do you feel this has affected your own practices, and do you consider it reciprocal—do you find you get to influence other suspension groups’ practices?

WOD: Well, we do learn a lot of little tweaks from other people, and we are able to help others out too, so yes. There is a kind of social consensus to share good methods and technique, and the community seems good at that. Most people who run groups seem to do so for the love of it, as opposed to financial motivation, so most people want to expand and share their knowledge base.

AT: You guys appear to have excellent communication with local government, to the point where the local council provides you with some funding. I think it’s safe to say that this is quite rare in this subculture. How has this “partnership” formed, and what advice would you give to other suspension groups that want to function more dynamically with local government?

WOD: We are really lucky. We are really lucky, because legislation is quite relaxed and open in Norway. Scarification, subdermal implants and things like that aren’t banned, and it’s relatively easy to communicate with the council. We have the approval of the local council in Oslo to do this event, so that’s cool—they’ve inspected our protocol and are happy. In other countries, the situation is completely different, so if you don’t think you’ll get approval for suspension events, don’t ask [laughs]. Funding-wise, it’s very much intertwined with networking again. Havve has ties to cultural and art agencies, so that’s where the funding comes from.

AT: The Oslo SusCon sees well-established practitioners from Europe and America function as team leaders. It has piercers from all over the world that all seem to work very well together, and the convention no longer has the workshop feel it had in the beginning. Is this a result of wanting to include more people and suspensions, and do you feel this is the direction you want to keep moving in?

WOD: Well, from the beginning, we have communicated with piercers internationally because the “scene” was quite small to begin with and not that many people were available locally. The way it’s run now, with experienced team leaders in charge, is very good, and when we do workshops, we do smaller events. We still try to teach our crew continuously of course—it’s an evolving field. But yes, we do plan to continue in the same way forwards, since the recipe works well.

AT: Thank you very much for the time guys, I look forwards to coming back next year.

That’s all folks, now it’s time to start partying. Pictures will be on the way soon. Until then, I spy with my little eye, a branding iron…

- Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo SusCon: Day Three, Plus A Roundtable Interview (Of Sorts)

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports for us from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

On this third (or fourth if you count Thursday) day of Oslo SusCon (OSC), the atmosphere is quite relaxed. The weather is good and the suspendees are still going strong. Here’s a list of the suspensions for Sunday:

Christiane (2 point resurrection), Norway
Bena (coma & 2 point suicide), Sweden
Oscar (superman), Sweden
Stein (angel), Norway
Sanny (suicide/spinning beam), Germany
Stephan (suicide/spinning beam), Germany
Martin (suicide), Norway
Lea (crucifix), Slovenia
Kristin (lotus), Norway
Ida (seated), Norway
Becky (superman), US
Angst (4 point suicide), Norway
Nancy (6 point angel), US
Tracie (chest), US
Alice (knee), UK
Havve (angel), Norway
Stine (knees), Norway
Tommy (knees), Norway
Oddbjorn (single point chest), Norway
Line-Therese (knees) Norway
Lucky (2 point resurrection), Finland
Jussi (metal), Finland
Andreas (Angel), Norway
Zumo (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Enrico (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Bastian (suicide w/rib hooks), Germany
Morten (knees and ribs), Norway
Alex (calf), UK/Norway
Michele (suicide/spinning beam), Italy
Daniel (suicide/spinning beam), Norway
Ana (crucifix), Croatia
Ninak (suicide), Norway

For those with a keen eye for details, you’ll notice a few of us were able to hang twice this time around—a nice byproduct of the efficient team effort of the crew. By the way, this list may be somewhat wrong in terms of nationalities and such, so sincere apologies to anyone who has been mislabeled in any way shape or form..

In other news, we had our first fall today when Obbe did a one-point chest suspension. A tear occurred within a minute of his going up, and as Christiane noticed the formation of the tear and started lowering the rig, it was already too late. Being that he was on his way down anyways, Obbe managed to land solidly on both feet, and was repaired promptly with sutures by flesh-seamstress Christiane.

Aside from this, the convention has been very incident-free. Well, incident-free, but not event free. So many beautiful suspensions, so many beautiful people. A friend of mine pulled me aside a little while back with a little secret to share, which I had no choice but to include here, purely for the sake of comedy. Integral to the story is that OSC opened its doors to the general public for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. It was during this time our friend was doing a suspension of some variety. She really enjoyed going up…like, really enjoyed it. At some point, mid-air, she ended up climaxing—in my opinion, a hell of an advertisement for suspensions…

I guess the bar is set for how much fun it’s possible to have while suspending, but I hope you all go forth and try to top it, although I struggle to see how that would go down.

It’s Monday, and my intention of interviewing Havve and Christiane came to a halt last night due to them being extremely busy all day. Nevertheless, I am sat with Ben & Alice from the UK, Muffe from Denmark and Bena from Sweden, so why not do an impromptu interview with them, right?

Alexander Trowell: Guys, you all have a lot of experience with suspensions, and are all part of the standard OSC inventory at this point—how do you think this one has compared to previous versions?

Bena: Since 2002, the convention has improved hugely. This time we have water running and stuff, you know? [Laughs]

Alice: It’s been really accident-free. There are usually a few hiccups, but this one has been really good.

AT: Have you got any particular memories from the SusCon, either from this year or previous ones?

Bena: [Laughis] You remember being tea-bagged, right Alex?

Alice: Yeah, and you remember me biting your ass so hard it left a huge mark?

AT: I think it was pretty great watching Allen Falkner swing hard one year from a two-point suicide and his hook failing. He landed quite miraculously, and seemed quite unaffected by it.

Alice: I think the tea-bagging effort has been really poor this year, so we all need to sharpen up for tonight!

AT: There was no ass-suspensions this year. What happened, Bena?

Bena: Ah, that’s so 2005, you know? Plus, my hemorrhoids… There were a lot of knee-suspensions this year, and a lot of angels. That seemed to be the theme this year.

Alice: The two Italians on the spinning beam was a highlight though.

Ben: Yeah, 20-kg weight difference and crazy spinning! [Laughs]

AT: I am the worst reporter in the world, I can’t even think of any more questions to ask.

Bena: I’m worse. I went to a tattoo convention with a press pass, and ended up taking 10 photos over a span of three days.

Alice: Muffe, you haven’t said anything in this interview, how about some words?

Muffe: Bollocks.

I think that caps it off nicely. Now, it’s just a waiting game for the proper interview with Havve and Christiane, and, of course, the gang-bang.

- Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

Live From Oslo Suscon 2009: Day Two

Rolf doing a coma suspension.

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports all weekend from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

It’s a slightly wet Saturday. There’s a bit of Norwegian press here currently covering Ben and Ronnie who have just gone up on a spinning beam, and are pushing it harder than dead or alive. Meanwhile, Ron Garza is doing another seminar in the chill-out area, passing around a huge-ass skewer he brought.

I thought I’d include a list of suspensions today, so as not to exclude anyone, and here it is, in typical Microsoft suspension template style, i.e. name, type of suspension and nationality. My biggest apologies if I miss anyone out – feel free to teabag me later as punishment. (I can tell you that teabagging is one of those dark secret rites that always seem to take place once the Jager and various other liquids have been broken into at the after-party, which itself seems to have gotten the nickname “The Gangbang” (for reasons I would be neutered and lobotomized for exposing). Come to Oslo SusCon—it’s a scene, man!)

Continue reading

Live From Oslo SusCon 2009: Day One

Alexander Trowell is a body piercer and student nurse from Southport, U.K. He’ll be filing reports all weekend from the Oslo SusCon. Keep checking ModBlog for updates!

So, after a morning of paying extortionate amounts of money for a boarding pass, arguing with airport security about the importance of sticking my toothpaste in a see through plastic-bag and then finally arriving on Norwegian soil (only to sit next to a person who was clearly intent on waging gaseous warfare on my tender nostrils for a couple of hours), I finally arrived at Oslo SusCon.

I was very pleased to see that I was not alone in having made the trip an annual tradition. Familiar face after familiar face kept popping up in front of me as I made my way into the solid epicenter that was the eating quarters. After getting some much-needed grub and a hasty cigarette/coffee, it was time for the official introduction to the weekend. I say “official” because I know many of the crew, volunteers and participants have been busy making all the cogs fit together since Thursday—big thanks to you all! In fact, word on the proverbial streets of the SusCon is they already managed to fit in five suspensions yesterday; my suspicion is they’re planning to gradually make it an all-year event, stretching the time-frame and participant numbers just a touch every year. Havve started the introduction in his usual informal comedic fashion: Warning us to watch out for whatever may be worth watching out for, to be nice to each other, and to treat the venue with respect. A sort of support group round of introductions to crew and participants alike was quickly ventured, and I’m sure I remember at least five per cent of who’s hanging when and from what part of their lovely inked bodies. (Not a bad job at all if you ask me.) Next, it was time for Ron Garza to present an interesting lecture on suspension culture before the action was set to kick off. I don’t even know where to begin quoting and paraphrasing it—though, to be fair, I couldn’t do it justice, so I won’t even go there.

I realize I’m not a very good reporter so far, because frankly I am not 100 per cent on whether it was six or eight people that went up today—hell, it could have been 12 and I’d be none the wiser. But the people all seemed to enjoy them and there were even one or two first-timers, at least one of which seemed to enjoy it lots!

An awesome new rig was tested out by a couple of folks, and it made for some pretty pictures that I’ll try to submit tomorrow. So all in all, a smashing start to a weekend that carries great potential which I’m sure it will smash!

It’s bedtime now—need to be bright and shiny and whatnot for the morning. Please pardon the tongue-in-cheek approach to this first entry; tomorrow I’ll take it a bit more seriously and get my facts right…

- Alex

Tattoo Hollywood, BME’s first tattoo convention, is coming to Los Angeles from August 21-23, featuring contests, prizes and some of the best artists from around the world! Click here for more information.

And Here Is Your 2009 BME Scholarship Winner

Initially founded by Darrin Fowler and now run under the supervision of Mark Anstrom, the 2009 BME Scholarship winner has been decided. Here’s Mark’s write-up, followed by the winning essay. Huge thanks to all involved, and congratulations to the winner on an excellent essay!

Each year, the IAM community comes together to award $1,000 USD college scholarship to a deserving member of our community. Available to all IAM members worldwide, this year marks the fourth year we’ve been able to help a promising student cover the costs of college.

Donations to the BME Scholarship Fund can be made through our website:

The IAM College Scholarship is scored each year based on a variety of factors, ranging from school grades, community involvement, and the individual’s role in our community. Candidates each year are also asked to write an essay on a selected topic related to body modification.

The last several years have seen a marked change in the acceptance of body modification in the workplace. As members of the WWII generation are retiring from the workplace, members of Generation Y are stepping up to replace them. For this generation, piercings and tattoos are mainstream; however, for their Baby Boomer coworkers, they are not. Especially in this tough job market, being modified presents challenges and risks to people in the workplace that unmodified people do not have to face.

For this year’s scholarship essay, we asked applicants their thoughts on career management and navigating the workplace as members of the modified community. This year’s scholarship question:

“Many kinds of visible body modifications have yet to gain general acceptance within society. What things should visibly modded people keep in mind when starting a professional career? Do visible modifications necessarily exclude people from any careers? Feel free to discuss any aspect of this question, including choosing a profession, handling interviews, dealing with co-workers and management, the expression of personal identity in the workplace, or any other aspect.”

This year’s slate of candidates was particularly strong. While all candidates this year were well qualified, and each showed unique strengths, in the end there can be only one winner of the BME Scholarship. So here it is…

Continue reading

Working-Class Cyborg

People are angry at Rob Spence. It’s April Fools’ Day, and his prank of choice was to make a morning post on Facebook that a battery exploded in his eye and that he was in the emergency room awaiting…well, whatever sort of treatment such an accident requires. But he’s quick to shift the blame.

“That was your idea,” he scolds Kosta Grammatis, the brilliant 23-year-old aviation electronics engineer who’s been living in his home office for the last two months. Kosta laughs him off and goes back to his dinner. We’re sitting in Harry’s (along with BME photographer Phil Barbosa), a bar near Rob’s home in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. Less than an hour ago, we were in Kosta’s makeshift bedroom while he assembled a prosthetic eye for Rob—a clear, rounded silicone case housing a small red LED light—to give us an idea of the technology with which they’re experimenting. To be fair, his April Fools’ joke seems entirely plausible.

When Rob was 13, his right eye was damaged in a shooting accident on a family member’s farm. Six separate surgeries were performed over the years to repair the eye’s vision, but each time it regressed, and the eye grew larger, turned white, and became increasingly disfigured and painful. “I’ve had a doctor stick a needle straight into my eye about 10 times,” Rob says, “and I was thankful for it. Like, ‘Please stick the fucking needle in my eye.’” Several years ago, the ophthalmologist father of a friend of his told him he had to prepare to let go of his eye, and after a year and a half of deliberation and anxiety, he decided it was the right move. “It’s a hard thing to let go of a part of your body,” he admits, “but it was time for that garbage to go.” Three years ago, he finally had it removed. Now, Rob, 36, a filmmaker and videographer, wants to make good use of the vacant lot in his face: He’s trying to build a miniature video camera to wear as a prosthetic eye in the empty socket.

This is where Kosta came into the picture. He contacted Rob after hearing about his project and realizing, hey, he was more than qualified to run point on this. (Or, at least, he was no less qualified than Rob.) The two met in San Francisco while Rob was there visiting his father—Kosta, at the time, was squatting in a coop warehouse—and found they shared a similar vision. Kosta came to Canada and took up residence in the back room of Rob’s house, and the two have been teammates since, trying to devise a working prototype. The main difference between their operation and a proper lab, of course, is funding; that is, they have none.

Rob is broke, he says. His credit cards are maxed out. He borrowed $500 from his little sister earlier in the day. Plus, you know, he’s trying to build the world’s first miniature prosthetic eye camera, and now he’s pissed off a whole lot of people with this April Fools’ stunt. Now, thinking about the LED he was just wearing in his eye, he realizes the whole joke could have thoroughly backfired. “Imagine if the battery really had blown up in my eye tonight after I’d cried wolf on Facebook?” he says. He remembers, though, that his brother-in-law had a good point. “Do people think if I’d really blown my eye apart, and I was sitting in the emergency room, that I’d be talking about it on Facebook? It’s come to the point where people feel like sitting in the E.R. with my eye bleeding profusely is a perfectly reasonable time to update my Facebook status.”

Except, if anyone were to do such a thing, Rob would be a prime candidate. Ever since the initial accident, he’s developed a talent for drawing attention to himself. “When you’re a kid,” he says, “and you have a dramatic accident, it’s like the origin of a super hero. When I came home from the hospital, I’d turn to my little siblings and say, ‘My eye really hurts, can you get me a glass of lemonade?’ And they would actually fuckin’ get it for me.”

The Tiny Tim act only lasted so long, though, and, with his current project in mind, he realizes investors won’t be refilling his glass if all he has to offer is a sympathetic story. This is the part of the job Kosta calls “skepticism management.” According to Rob, the typical engineer mindset is that a person should build a prototype of an invention first, be modest about what he’s created, and then start showing it off to people. Not him. He’d rather create excitement for the project among the people working on it, the people expecting and, ideally, the people financing it.

“I’m all about the sizzle before steak,” he says, grinning, “because sizzle can buy you steak.”

Kosta perks up at this. “We shouldn’t even be building anything,” he says. “You don’t even need me.” Kosta is equal parts easy-going, sun-kissed southern Californian and genius scientist; it’s a disarming combination. And, to be sure, Rob does need him. The pair have two working prototypes for Rob’s camera-eye, success Rob attributes largely to Kosta, due to both his technical skills and his ability to seek out the right people to do the jobs they can’t. Thus far, they’ve built devices that create wireless NTSC signals—the sort of standard wireless signal a television uses—and are now working on getting this to work in sync with a miniature camera and a battery, all attached to a printed circuit board, all of which has to fit inside a prosthetic eye.

What about what we saw earlier in the evening, though? Rob sporting a glowing red light in his eye? Does that count for anything?

“Oh,” he says, taking a draw off his scotch, “that’s just bullshit for press like you.”

“Yeah,” Kosta adds, “that’s just for your entertainment.” Right. Sizzle before the steak and all that. And all of a sudden, they’ve just driven a truck through the fourth wall. It’s an admittedly respectable sort of transparency: Phil and I thought we’d captured something unique for our article (which we had), and Rob and Kosta thought they’d done due diligence in drumming up some more attention for themselves (which they had). They’re not approaching this project like seasoned veterans of the scientific community: They’re trying to make a breakthrough on a shoestring budget.

“Can you write, like, ‘Rob and Kosta looked emaciated, as if they hadn’t eaten for days’?” Kosta asks, laughing.

“Hey!” Rob says, pointing a finger at Kosta. “You look emaciated. I look fuckin’ fine.”

In the search for funding, they scared off National Geographic by requesting $75,000; apparently, the publication thought they could achieve their goal with closer to $10,000. This is a common experience, Rob says, and one that betrays a sort of myopia. He compares it to Alexander Graham Bell’s first success building a telephone: “How much more money do you think he needed to build a robust version that worked all the time?” Even as far as video devices go, he thinks he’s being reasonable. “People tell me I’m crazy if I want a hundred grand to build the eye,” he says, “but the standard high-definition camera they shoot with on T.V. is worth about $120,000 to buy. How much do you think it cost to develop?”

So in the meantime it’s bullshit red lights for guys like me, but even stunts like that can be beneficial—that’s the sort of sizzle that earns them credibility with the cyborg culture. This, it seems, is something of a concession for Rob. Support is welcome regardless of the source, he says, but this is a segment of society with a bit of an identity crisis. Lots of people have fake eyes, so what’s the difference between a cyborg and someone who just has a prosthetic?

“Someone with a wooden leg is not a cyborg,” he says, “they’re a pirate. Meanwhile, I have a fucking eye patch on…but if I take off my eye patch and you see a red light, then I tap into the cyborg culture that you know and love.” This, it seems, is the extent of the difference. “That’s really what a cyborg is. A fake eye with a red light in it is different from a fake eye.”

And therein lies the problem with the amorphous definition of “cyborg.” Clothing, he says, technically makes you a cyborg, because it enhances a human’s ability to live in the world as a naked animal; the same goes for glasses, pacemakers, breast implants and any other invention people use every day that’s been welcomed into the mainstream. “It’s adding shit to our bodies within the context of popular culture,” Rob says, that makes a person a cyborg.

“That’s why we went for the Terminator eye,” Kosta admits. “It’s quickly identifiable.” But the truth, he says, whether or not he’s just trying to sell me sizzle, is that once funding comes through, the possibilities for Rob’s eye are endless. He talks about an idea for installing a laser in the socket that he could bounce off mirrors and panes of glass, and with the right piece of technology, the reverberations off those surfaces could be translated to hear what people are saying in the rooms in which said glass could be found. “We could make you a bionic eye-ear! We could have a little transmitter that transmits audio into your ear.”

Rob belches in response. One of his dreams is to be able to screen movies from his eye. “What I want to do eventually,” he says, “is walk around always shooting Breakfast At Tiffany’s onto a wall, because chicks love it. And Dukes Of Hazzard, because guys love that. That’s why I’m mutilating myself and letting Kosta stick batteries in my face—because mostly, I want people to love me.”

He’s joking, but there’s a kernel of truth there. As much as Rob doesn’t deign to treat the loss of his eye with much seriousness, he admits to the difficulties in adjusting to life after the surgery. “You don’t feel quite right,” he says, “you don’t feel like you’re as attractive as you used to be, you feel like you’re not quite the man you were. It might sound stupid, it’s not like I lost a leg or something, but you don’t feel quite as confident as you used to.

“But,” he says, “if you start to feel like you can actually be cooler by replacing the shit you lost with something better than other people have access to, then that’s when you start to feel pretty good about yourself.”

“There are already scientists working on connecting [prosthetic eyes] to the optic nerve,” Kosta says, “so imagine if, all of a sudden, having a night-vision eye was possible and available to people who were missing an eye? Wouldn’t you be like, ‘Fuck, I want a night-vision eye’?”

And so is presented a modern predicament. For years, it seemed like the ostensible purpose of prosthetic limbs was to as closely resemble the original appendage as possible. Recently, however, this has been uprooted by a focus on mimicking the function of the missing part (and, in some cases, exceeding the original’s capabilities), with aesthetics becoming a secondary concern. Now, these two paths are converging; limbs and organs that look “normal,” but that carry possibilities far beyond what the human body can accomplish in its natural form.

Rob foresees a disturbing trend. “One day,” he says, “I might have a grandkid that will actually want to remove an eye voluntarily, and I would tell that kid not to do that. But, I know that kid would just say to me, ‘Well, grandpa, you did it!’” For him, there is a significant difference between him augmenting himself because he lost something, and a person purposely chopping off a limb with the intention of “upgrading” it. He worries that what he’s doing, playing the role of “Eyeborg” and whatnot, will make people think that he thinks it’s cool to remove parts of their bodies. “Which,” he says, “it’s not at all.

“But,” he admits, “I’m open to the idea that that’s where things are going.” He goes on: “I think the main point is, how can our kids shock us? My kid could be a gay punk rocker and I’d be like, so? I don’t give a fuck. Gay punk rocker—big deal! The way they’re going to shock us is, ‘Dad, I’m gonna get a new fuckin’ hand.’ And we’re going to say, ‘Well, I’m not sure you should be doing that.’ But we’ll be the worst offenders, because we’re all in the movement. We won’t like it. Even though we’re already buying into it, we won’t like it.” It’s the duality of the conscientious cyborg: How do you balance a desire to improve your own life—and find someone to give you hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so—with not wanting to set a precedent for future activities of which you already disapprove?

But maybe this is all just so much navel-gazing without grant money in hand. Until funding comes through to ensure Rob will be able to cement his legacy as Grandpa Hypocrite, there’s still the matter of living his life as a one-eyed man—which is not without certain high points.

“When he sees other people with eye patches, they give each other high-fives,” Kosta says, laughing. This reminds Rob of Steve Fonyo (“Terry Fox light,” as he calls him), a Canadian who lost a leg and, in the spirit of Terry Fox, ran across Canada; unlike Terry Fox, however, he made it the entire way.

“Except,” Rob says, “he was a drunk, and so was his father driving the van. They made it the whole way across and he never died, but he never gets any credit. And I did an interview with him, and I asked him, ‘So, Steve, did you get laid? When you were running across Canada with your one leg, did you get laid?’

“And he goes, ‘Oh yeah.’ And then, after a pause, ‘Big time.’”

Rob isn’t quite as shameless, but he’s got what seems like a go-to maneuver nonetheless. “When you’re at a party and you’re wearing an eye patch, girls are thinking, ‘Are you vulnerable? Or are you mysterious? Or are you a bad boy? Or are you all three of those things?’” he says, cracking up the table and breaking into a snort-laugh of his own. “They’re curious, so all I do is say, ‘Well, I’m curious about what your boobs look like. This is my raw fuckin’ naked eye here, it’s vulnerable for me and I don’t feel so great about it. So, maybe it would make me feel better if you showed me your breasts.’ And inevitably, it’s a fairly good deal.”

Kosta, the sidekick, is picking up life lessons. “You have to have some kind of emotional experience,” he theorizes, “because they’re going to have a unique emotional experience.”

“That’s the thing,” Rob says. “If you’ve got an eye out, and you show someone the flesh inside, it’s almost like you’ve got a pussy in your head. That’s what it feels like. They always want to see it. ‘Pull your patch aside and show me what’s in there.’ And when I do, it’s the same look as a 13-year-old boy who wants to see a pussy for the first time.”

All photos © Philip Barbosa / 2009. Video is coming soon!

Visit the Eyeborg project online at Rob can be found here, and Kosta can be found here.

* * *

Please consider buying a membership to BME so we can continue bringing you articles like this one.

New Article Posted! (Markus Cuff interview)

Even if you don’t know Markus Cuff’s name, you’re probably familiar with his work: For the last 15 years, he’s been one of the chief photographers for Tattoo magazine, as well as an accomplished travelogue and live concert photographer. He recently spoke with BME about traveling the country visiting tattoo shops, the anatomy of a great photo shoot and why he’ll probably never get a tattoo.

To read Markus Cuff’s Got a Head Start, please click here.

[Ed. note: Comments on this post have been disabled. Go tell it on the mountain in the forum attached to the article. Thanks.]

Markus Cuff’s Got a Head Start

© Markus Cuff Photo 2009

Markus Cuff has been cooperative so far, but now he’s stiff-arming me. We’ve been on the phone for a good half-hour or so, having a perfectly pleasant conversation about his 15 years as one of the top photographers at Tattoo magazine, and now this? He gives me the high-hat over a harmless, standard interview question?

“How old are you?” I ask with my typical childlike sweetness and wonder.

“I’m, uh….” He stops himself short. What have you got to hide, Cuff? “I’m 103,” he finally says. “My age is a closely guarded secret.”

“You can be vague,” I tell him. “Just say you’re ‘something-ish.’”

“‘Something-ish,’” he repeats, and pauses again. “A hundred and three.”

Whatever, wise guy. I’m only asking because his story makes it seem like he’s lived through (and contributed to) a number of seminal cultural moments, and these life experiences just seem a little incongruous with his lively, almost boyish voice. But, sure…103.

What he tells me is by the time he got around to photography, he already felt like he was late to the game. If he’d started in earnest as a teenager, he could have been going to concerts and shooting bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream, guys like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and maybe he could published a retrospective book by now, making money off portraits of rock gods. He saw others go that route, but while his potential peers were chasing fame as photographers, Cuff, the boy from suburban Maryland, home of Link Wray, took a detour and made a name for himself as a musician instead. He spent two years handling the drum kit for Emmylou Harris’s band, touring and playing on her Pieces of the Sky album. Some time in the late seventies/early eighties, he moved to Los Angeles and ended up playing in The Textones with Carla Olson and Kathy Valentine (the latter of whom would go on to join The Go-Gos), hitting the L.A. club circuit with bands like X and The Blasters.

It was there in L.A., though, that he made friends with some kids who were taking photo classes at Santa Monica College, and Cuff, who had once long ago learned how to develop prints from black and white film, felt that old passion start to warm. “I looked at their work,” he says, “and thought, ‘Damn! I know I could do as well as that! I think I’m a lot more artistic than these people!’ And I think it just sort of clicked with me—no pun intended.”

As a teenager in Maryland, Cuff would spend a lot of time in D.C.’s cultural institutions—the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, the Freer Gallery of Art—that allowed visitors in gratis. He developed a taste for Hokusai woodcuts and other Asian-style pieces, but more generally developed and nurtured an inclination towards the visual arts—an inclination that would lie dormant during his musical excursions, that is, until he joined his friends at SMC, where he excelled. He got a lot of A’s. He immersed himself in photography. He sorted out his influences: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, and, of course, the master as far as he’s concerned, Irving Penn, who he calls a “dynamo of photography.”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever been as versatile as he is,” he says of Penn, who’s shot everything from portraiture and fashion to cosmetic ads and the “mud men of New Guinea.”

None of this should come as a surprise. A young, eager photographer falling in love with the classical beacons of the art form? Sure, and next you’ll tell me there are freshman philosophers with things for Freud. But what happened next was Cuff, instead of shooting tulips and teapots, got picked up in 1990 by the magazine Easyriders and started photographing motorcycles. “That was fine with me,” he says. “I needed a job.”

Mike Rubendall / © Cuff

Except it was luckier than that. When he wasn’t hanging out at galleries or playing drums in his younger days, he was going to car shows, reading hotrod magazines and trying to copy the custom car designs of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on white T-shirts with felt-tip pens. He had experience dealing with insular communities of people who liked to go fast—motorcycles were a breeze. But Easyriders didn’t just traffic in bikes; their roster of magazines also included Tattoo and its sister publications, Flash and Savage. In 1994, Billy Tinney, the editor-in-chief and senior photographer for Tattoo, tapped him for a special assignment: To start shooting profiles of tattoo shops in Los Angeles for the magazine. It was an era, Cuff says, when tattooing was still somewhat underground. “This was before you were seeing [tattoos] on every basketball player, every football player,” he tells me, “and way before things like Ed Hardy shirts and Affliction.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is mighty…niche. I wonder where this could ever go?’”

Cuff’s first assignment was to shoot Greg James and the crew at Sunset Strip Tattoo, or, as he describes it, “baptism by fire.” He was accompanied by two other editors under the Tattoo umbrella, Frenchie Nilsen and Dave Nichols, to make sure he knew what he was doing and that he was the guy for whom they were looking. Sure enough, he didn’t freak out or soil himself or anything of the sort. And the tattoo artists? Well, they took to him quickly, too, he says. But I’m not buying it. If he’s not going to tell me his goddamn age, I figure the least he can do is give me some dirt about the vicious hazing he must have faced at the hands of these old school bad-asses…except he doesn’t budge. “I’m kind of a get-along guy,” he says with such sincere cheer that I know it has to be the truth. It’s becoming apparent that this is a guy who trades in gaining access to the famously inaccessible, and that’s the sort of station that requires either authenticity of personality or a high tolerance for fakery. After nearly two decades behind the lens, though, it strikes me that the latter would be too exhausting to cling to.

With Sunset Strip Tattoo in the can, Cuff was anointed “the local guy.” He hit shops all over the city, photographing their interiors, exteriors, staff and clients, building records for each. There are only so many local shops to cover over a year’s worth of issues, though, let alone four or five years’ worth, so the magazine started sending him on the road, first to San Francisco and San Diego and Santa Barbara, and eventually to Phoenix and Portland, New York City and Boston, Hawaii and Tahiti. He learned as he went along, though he still says he wouldn’t consider himself an expert. When he went to Tahiti, he picked up a book about the history of tattooing on the island and, when taking refuge from the heat, read about the English and Russian explorers who came to the island and left with tattoos, only to be gawked at back home like circus animals. It’s in these more “exotic” locales that he typically feels more compelled to educate himself about the culture. “The more literal kind of old school, classic American-style tattoo is a little more understandable,” he says. “It has symbolism, but it’s something you grow up with. You see someone walking by with a sailor-style tattoo and you don’t think it’s that strange. With the island tattooing, I felt like I had to study it a bit more.”

The Dutchman / © Cuff 2009

One of his greater thrills was getting the chance to photograph The Dutchman and his Dutchman Tattoos Studio and Gallery in Burnaby, British Columbia, a few years ago—partially due to admiration, but also because no one had photographed the artist in years. “He pointed to an old article on the wall,” Cuff says of The Dutchman, “and said, ‘See? We’ve been done before.’ And it was from the ’80s! I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

But some of his favorite studios are back on the mainland. He raves about Mike Rubendall’s Kings Avenue Tattoo in Massapequa, New York, to which he’s made several professional visits. “The level of the artistry is just so high,” he says. “There’s never one image that comes in front of my lens where I think, ‘Oh no, how am I going to do this?’ or, ‘I’m going to delete this after I leave.’ Because that does happen.” One of Cuff’s biggest pet peeves when shooting clients’ tattoos is going home afterward, looking at the images on his computer, and realizing that someone has tried to sneak a cover-up past him.

“All power to those who can do cover-ups,” he says, “but for me it doesn’t work. I see something underneath the other image and it bothers me, especially nobody’s told me it was a cover-up.”

At this point, he’s got shop-shooting down to a science. Shops are approached far enough in advance to allow time for the artists to contact clients to come in and be photographed, and once shows up and sets up his lights, it’s all business, blowing through an average of 25 clients a day, in addition to any supplementary photos of the shop itself and staff. There are no assistants, no make-up artists, no hair dressers, so part of his success and peace of mind can hinge on the cooperation of his subjects, some of whom, he says, go above and beyond. It’s not uncommon for shops to assign counter staff to handle photo releases and other paperwork and to supply him with coffee and muffins. Beyond that, though, the ingredients for a great photo shoot are somewhat expected. “Some hot girls are always fun,” he says. “It’s always great when you see someone who has it all together. Great makeup, hair, cool clothes…it’s a great feeling and makes my job pretty easy.”

Most shops, he says, have had a convivial atmosphere during shoots, but there have been exceptions. Occasionally, he’s had shoots where he’ll take a staff photo early in the morning, and then need to take another one in the evening—because someone was fired or quit during the day. “That’s not a horrible thing for me,” he says, “but it definitely makes you think, ‘Hey, there’s some drama going on around here.’”

All of this—the travel, the education, the meetings and greetings and inside baseball—and yet, Cuff himself does not have a single tattoo of his own. Sure, he has his reasons—he’s very light-skinned and prefers long-sleeved shirts, so he wouldn’t ever show one off; he doesn’t work out assiduously and isn’t going to be flexing in the weight room with a pinup girl on his biceps—but he largely abstains because he considers himself a sort of cultural anthropologist in the tattoo world. “I’ve dropped in via photography,” he says, “and I’m documenting a world. I don’t necessarily have to participate actively to document it well.” He analogizes the fact that he doesn’t have tattoos to the common phenomenon of great fashion photographers who neither (1) dress well nor (2) walk the runway. “The idea that you have to be a motorcycle rider to shoot motorcycles,” he says, “or a tattooed person to shoot tattoos is kind of a holdover idea from the ’50s and ’60s, when the tattoo and motorcycle cultures were so underground that the only people who were interested in capturing them were from those worlds.” When Easyriders came around, however, Cuff’s focus wasn’t on becoming a biker: It was on becoming a great photographer. “I’m a beauty fiend,” he admits. “I’m not trying to expose an underbelly, and I’m not trying to get at somebody and expose their weaknesses. I’m just trying to document things in the most beautiful and flattering way I can.”

Justin Weatherholz / © Cuff 2008

Following Cuff’s immersion into the world of tattoos, however, he’s experienced a dilemma all too common to the heavily tattooed: a relative lack of mainstream acceptance. Some photographers are able to stack their portfolios with tattoo imagery, he says, “but I don’t think if I sent in my portfolio of images and they were all loaded in that direction that I could get a job with a mainstream ad agency.” He’s approached gallery owners in Los Angeles about potential gallery showings, and has frequently been told of the catch-22 inherent in this sort of work: the people who are more likely to enjoy his work are the least likely to buy it. “It speaks to a certain crowd,” he says of tattoo imagery, “and it’s largely a younger audience, who, in general, is trying to pay their rent, trying to feed themselves, and they don’t have the kind of disposable income an older, moneyed crowd has. So if I print an image fairly large and I mount it and I matte it and frame it and I charge ‘X’ amount of money, it’s something that’s going to appeal to an older audience as far as the quality and presentation, but it’s something that a younger audience is more likely to buy…if they could afford it.”

It’s a tough spot, he admits—all the more reason to not allow himself to get stuck in one niche. As a photographer, he’d love it if people looked at his tattoo work and, in that, saw someone talented enough to do fashion or advertising, or looked at his motorcycle shots and entrusted him with a car campaign. It’s a conundrum for the photographer who worships the versatility of an Irving Penn, yet maintains, “I don’t necessarily want to sell out, I don’t necessarily want to be watered down.” The common thread through all his work, he says, is that he seeks imagery with an edge—work that speaks to what he calls a “knowing audience.” The sort of thing that can be off-putting to people in the “straight world.”

And sure enough, he has branched out: Within his portfolio is his “Wasteland” series, which focuses on broken down, dilapidated rural scenes (with some shots of Hank Williams III included for good measure), as well as some of the live concert photography he missed out on in those early days. “It’s like big-game hunting,” he says of shooting concerts. “You’ve got three songs at the front of a concert. That’s all. You get the thing in your sights and you get it…or you ain’t gonna get it.

“There’s an adrenaline rush when Madonna jumps out on stage; you’ve gotta get a charge out of what you do.”

Nonetheless, he still feels like he’s hustling to catch up and build his body of work. “It’s almost like their classic rock photography is my classic tattoo imagery,” he says of those who jumped on the photography train ahead of him, the artists close to him in age—whatever that is. “Maybe if I live to be 100,” he says, laughing, “there’ll be a retrospective.”

Wait…100? What the hell happened to 103?

Dawn Purnell / © Markus Cuff photo 2008

Visit Markus online at

* * *

Please consider buying a membership to BME so we can continue bringing you articles like this one.