Currently reading : An interview with body modification artist Yann Brenyak
Yann Brenyak is a body modification artist, he pierces peoples skin, brands it, removes skin for the sake of scarification, splits peoples tongues and inlays implants and micro dermal piercings under the surface of the skin. Recently he has been perfecting the craft of graphic skin removal, which involves carving off thin slices of skin over the top of flesh blacked out by tattooing to create the effect of an image of a silhouetted face. Originating from Lausanne in Switzerland he has lived in London for the last two years but trained at Tribehole in Geneva originally working as a body piercer but gradually he has learnt more ways to manipulate the skin. Meeting Yann in a cafe in Hackney Wick last week where he lives and works with his girlfriend the tattooer Delphine Noiztoy we spoke about his identity, training and love for body modification.
Yann’s appearance is certainly unforgettable, his devotion to altering his body has spread all over the surface of his body. The angles of his face have been highlighted by tattooing and scarification layering on top of one another, his eyebrows have been exaggerated and geometrically aligned spaces on his face have been inlayed with piercings. What Yann does for a living is as brutal as his appearance, however for someone whose identity has had so much painstaking dedication played into it there is nothing fashionable about him. There is an air of absolute dedication to his whole life, in how he looks and his craft.
Our conversation starts by asking Yann why he never learnt to tattoo and prefers to modify the body, ‘I’m not the most sociable person, I sometimes felt that the tattooers job is similar to that of a hairdresser. You have to know all about the customer and build this relationship. But with body modification you’re usually using something like a scalpel; that intensity means that the customer doesn’t feel like talking too much, I also was never that interested in learning how to tattoo because I never drew when I was young but I liked the immediacy of piercing and the impact that it could make so quickly.’
Yann went on to explain the various types of modification that he performs; he does perform branding on the skin and that it looks very beautiful but prefers not to because the smell of burning flesh is so overwhelming. His favourite modification to create is tongue splitting which he likes because it can be hidden and its results are so satisfying; ‘My own mother doesn’t even know that I have my tongue split!’ However he did elaborate on the similarities that exist between the two practices ‘you have to have an understanding of the skin, especially with skin removal between understanding the difference between the epidermal and dermal layers’.
Besides from an understanding of the fragility and strengths of different parts of the skin what really stands out is the fact that unlike a tattooer Yann is directly working with the upheaval of flesh, cutting, slicing and splitting living skin to reveal the under layer of bloodied matter in the aim to create something visually incomparable. A tattooer of course deals with blood but in a far less excessive way. Looking at Yann’s work its difficult to detach a reaction from thinking about anything other than the process of pain in most of these procedures rather than the skill and healed outcome because so much blood is involved in his exercise. On top of that the healing process is far more prolonged than that of tattooing ‘it can take weeks or even months until the final result can be clearly seem with scarification.’
We talk about the popularity of body modification, we can all see how tattooing has escalated so dramatically over the last few years, but has the modification scene changed at all? ‘No, there always seems to be the same steady amount of people who aren’t effected by this fashion part of it. No one kind of modification is that much more popular than the next. I’m usually mostly in demand for stitching peoples lobes up. Ear stretching was really popular a few years ago but people don’t really want them anymore, a lot of people go to the doctors to have their ears sewn up but they don’t always do such a good job. That’s why they come to me’.
The practice of sewing up ear lobes certainly seems like a removal of a fashion which was once so prominent, a body modification which is permanent being reversed for the sake of fashions going out of date seems so utterly futile. There’s something strangely outdated about seeing men is their late twenties wearing suits or Americana inspired vintage with shrivelled earlobes that look so out of place and uncomfortable in the new context of many peoples lives. This comes down to the evolution of how sub-culturally inspired fashions gravitate, there’s a desire to look dedicated to your fashion, but body modifications are harder to justify as fashionable and this kind of notion of removing modifications couldn’t seem further away when speaking to the ultra committed Yann. Like how the Modern Primitive movement in the 1990s started there is something about the body modification scene which appears almost timeless since its inception, from the way in which people interested in the BM scene dress to the imagery that they inlay on their bodies feels likes this tight knit group of people all read from the same rigorous rule book. It’s a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for anyone, it feels no need to impress anything or develop for anyone else.
Expanding on the status of change in the Body Modification scene we speak more about who Yann’s customers are, ‘I’ve started to travel more because working on guest spots works better as a body modifier, having scarification is the kind of thing that you really need to organise, its not like tattooing where you can get lots of little ones and just walk into a shop. A lot of planning needs to go into it, that’s why if a modifier does a guest spot, someone knows that you’re coming and has time to plan what they want. It’s a huge commitment. I’m going to San Francisco next week and often go to France and back to Switzerland. It’s also not like tattooing in the sense that there are thousands of tattooer’s catering for every different need, there are so few modifiers in comparison to tattooers. So the client is so much more specialised’
How has the Internet affected the body modification scene? Are there any similarities between how people perceive modification like they are tattooing? ‘I use all the different social media outlets because it really is the best way to spread your work around, it also helps you find out all the people in the Modification scene who can be harder to find. It’s definitely a way to bring together like minded people but I don’t think that modification is becoming more popular, it always seems to go at a steady pace however there are people interested and practicing modi faction all over the world.’
There is such a direct strength to tattooing which varies from what Yann does, the tattoo has endless ways of being translated on to the body. Modification can’t always be as direct or intricate as tattooing in its message, but Yann has created something of his own with Delphine which almost meets in the middle of the two crafts. The graphic portraits created through skin removal on blacked out tattooed skin some how harmonize the space of fully covered skin with an intricacy of thin slices of skin removed to give the effect of a silhouetted face.
‘It started to be an obsession as everybody said it was impossible to do and as Ilive with my girlfriend who got told dot work portraits where impossible to do – she proved it was do-able, I learned from her that nothing is impossible. And so followed my obsession to prove that thing in my head could be achieved. Thus the obsession of overcoming difficulties and crossing the boundaries, showing that there are no limits.’
‘I initially started it on myself on some tattoos that I’d covered on my thigh and I’ve also tried the same technique on non tattooed skin but it just didn’t work in the same way. Its becoming more popular but its about finding people who have areas of skin covered up in the first place to be able to create this technique.’ It seems like this particular method only involves the heavily indebted individual, it’s a procedure that can only be developed onto someone with years if not decades worth of modification on the body.
While speaking to Yann this notion of dedication and un-fashionabilty was so prominent. His perseverance to his art and own identity is completely incomparable to many people who are dedicated to their careers, it seems to seep from his every pore and imagining him existing in another world seems impossible. Where notions of ear stretching or parts of tattooing may exist as an adolescent stage to many peoples lives Yann exists as one of those rare people who honestly doesn’t care about what others perceive of him. Whether that is people in the industry or the society that he lives in, there are few people who now live so far away from others expectations like in the way in which Yann does. It’s almost like Yann’s identity and his work could never live separately, they complete one other.’
Yann will start working at the Sang Bleu London shop in the coming months where you can book an appointment with him here.
All photographs were taken by Jean-Francois Le Minh, Interview by Reba Maybury