“2017 is all about tattooing, travel and having a fucking good time while I do it!”
From the illegal underground tattooists of South Korea to Brazilian women challenging social stereotypes, Grace Neutral’s productions with VICE are offering an edifying shift away from the usual fetishising of tattoos by using them as an avenue to highlight the often contentious social and political realms of each wearer.
“Mainstream shows on tattoos seem to only fetishise and poke fun at tattooing. I got sick of this and decided I’d have to do it myself,” explains Grace.
Sporting purple eyes, a bifurcated tongue, elfin ears, removed belly button, scarification and a glut of tattoos,Grace Neutral has also been on the receiving end of those jeers and derision.
“Obviously there has been the odd internet troll calling me a ‘freak’ because of the way I look, but I have heard it all before and I’m very good at shielding myself from any negativity.”
Several years ago, i-D approached the 27-year-old (Aries!) east London-based hand poke artist to write an alternative Christmas speech about beauty. The positive reception from that saw her produce a film about her perceptions on tattooing, which grew into her i-D series ‘Beyond Beauty’.
“I wanted to tell a true story about tattooing, and offer people a proper insight into how the art form came to be the big industry it is today. I also wanted to share some of the cultures and techniques that helped evolve the art.”
“Then I started making films with VICE at the start of 2016 and we wrapped up the first series of Needles and Pins by the end of the year. It has been one amazing year that’s for sure!”
The making of Needles and Pins, Viceland’s 2017 production, has seen Grace visit tattoo communities throughout New Zealand, Japan and LA, where she’s introduced to different cultures and sub cultures, all of which, she says, have been borne out of alienation, adversity, and oppression.
“I am not a TV presenter; it has never been a goal of mine. I simply got offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about my craft. Being in front of the camera and guiding the audience through my adventures was something I had to learn, but because I am so passionate about tattooing it was natural for me to quickly form relationships with a lot of the people we filmed.”
“But all the feedback about the show has, so far, been really positive and I’m over the moon about that!”
Travelling the world is in her blood, as it was her mother’s intrepid love of tribal culture and art that exposed Grace to the wonders of body modification and tattoo.
“For me it’s all about finding the stories. I was very involved in the development and making of the show. For example, I knew and suggested some of the contributors you see in Needles and Pins.”
And whether it’s riding around LA on quad bikes, undergoing Shibari rope tying in Japan, or doing a single point fall off a tree in New Zealand, she never feels too far from home.
“I have learnt so much from every single place I have visited. But the one common theme that strikes me is that that tattooing is such an amazing way to build friendships and communities. I feel so lucky to be part of the global tattoo family.”
These special interactions have left indelible marks inside of her, some as permanent as those dressing her skin.
“In one episode of Needles and Pins we go to New Zealand to learn about Maori tattooing and Maori culture – and this was the most interesting discovery for me. The Maori people are so beautiful – and their history is so intertwined with tattooing, nature and magic; it was hard not to fall in love there. It is definitely a place I will return to continue my tattoo journey and education.”
The magic of Maori culture and tattoo is undeniable, but as mainstream perceptions of tattoo shift from one of deviance to benign body art – great for reducing stigma and allowing autonomy over one’s body – it has also created a new beauty ideal. That commoditisation can often lead to a dulling down of any magic or spirituality involved in the sacred art of tattooing, instead turning it into a profane purchase of social capital.
But Grace Neutral is perceptive of this shift.
“I think that the majority of tattoo artists (well, at least the ones I know and work with) understand how sacred it is to tattoo; the energy you share with that person is so beautiful, and sometimes, even life changing. It’s been something that I have been conscious of for a long time – and I love that more and more people (not just tattooers, but also the people who get tattooed) are realising this as well.”
With body modification and tattoos becoming ever more mainstream, I think it’s safe to say that Grace Neutral’s audience are only benefitting from her representations of the industry, community and culture.