Ryan Oullette and Jesse V working on a difficult client.
I recently shared the story of how the ModCon events came to be with the promise to chronicle the other events in time. That’s still on my to-do list, but today we’re going to talk a little about the ScarWars events; how they started and their connection to ModCon.
ScarWars One happened in May of 2005 in Philadelphia, PA with seven of the world’s leading scarification artists working and attending, but it’s roots go back to 2004 at the ModCon4 event in Toronto, Ontario where a guest named Chris and his then wife Danielle asked about doing a collaborative cutting/branding piece with all of the attending artists using different techniques to make a wholly unique scar. Brands, cutting and flesh removal all on the same client. At the time it was unheard of, and as I watched Blair, Ryan, Danielle and I believe Brian work on it, I realized that we had reached uncharted territory.
Trade secrets. When you looked at other body art disciplines- tattooing, body piercing, suspension… at the time there wasn’t a lot of sharing going on. Every new person who knew how to do what you do was one more person who could compete against you. Tattooing and Body Piercing weren’t a community- they were an industry. Tattoo supplies had yet to be an eBay/Amazon accessible purchase and body piercing supplies weren’t available in the mall. As niche as piercing was (and by 2005 it had sort of already reached it’s fever pitch apex) scarification was still it’s distant cousin- never quite gaining that popularity that other forms of modification were enjoying.
Watching multiple artists work on the same client- asking each other questions (“is that how you do flesh removal? I use hemostats”) and sharing tips and tricks… I realized that the culture of scarification was still untainted by commercialization and that if we acted now there was a possibility of getting the top artists together without ego or competition and to see where we could go with it.
Scarification/Branding had always been about simplification- bold geometric designs cut or branded by the legendary Keith Alexander, Raelyn Gallina, Fakir Musafar and a handful of others were the standard. Tribal shapes, runes, sigils. But times had changed thanks to the electrocautery work of Steve Haworth, the tattoo flash inspired cuttings of Ron Garza and the flesh removals from Toro; new possibilities were emerging and the younger generation of scarification artists had a whole new aesthetic and were already seeing where they could take it.
After ModCon, with Shannon Larratt’s encouragement, I took over IAM/BME’s scarification forum and we started talking about collaborations of style, technique and artists envolved and several weeks later the idea of an event was on everyone’s mind. Having already co-created ModCon with Shannon and hosted a score of IAM related events, I volunteered to take the reigns and with the help of my sister in law Carmela, we began working on what would become the world’s first Scarification ‘convention’.
We knew off the bat that it would be a niche event; the scarification community was small and opening it to the public would be a bad idea so we decided to go underground. Rent a private studio space. Only invite people we knew or that were able to be vouched for. Organize a staff. Arrange hotels. My sister in law Carmela worked overtime getting all of the practical stuff planned out while I concentrated on artists, supplies, artwork, shirts etc. We knew that we had to name the event and inspired by the weekend it was planned to happen (which saw the opening of StarWars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith) we decided to go with SCARWars. It was a little tongue in cheek and had great potential for marketing, so with no fear of George Lucas caring about us (much like he didn’t care for the prequels) we went ahead with it.
Officially, no invites went out to artists. That caused a little bit of ruffled feathers long term, but at the time the event was a small thing and the artists who took part in the IAM.bmezine.com Scarification forum were the core group of people expected to work it. We were open to folks who, after seeing the website or the mentions on BME (most specifically Shannon’s GLIDER profile on IAM- mentions on which got us a lot of attention) contacted the group and asked about attending, but when it came to inviting folks to work- that never happened. Sadly, egos got bruised (One artist said that it was ‘totally American to make cutting about Wars” and somehow managed to equate him not being invited to the event with why September 11th happened) and there was a little bit of hurt feelings, but ultimately the event went off without a hitch.
Not exactly a stranger to having underground events I was able to creatively explain to other residents of the building we used for the inaugural event why they couldn’t peek into the studio we were using to see what was going on (“sorry. We’re shooting porn” tends to get people to leave you alone) despite the occasional scantily clad and sometimes bloody people we were parading in and out of the space.
We had reached out to my old friend Philip Barbosa to document the event and along with cutting and branding stations we set up a small studio for Phil to take portraits of the clients who made the trip to Philadelphia to be cut or burned. In contrast to his start black and white work at the ModCon events I asked Phil to shoot in full color with a white background; to not focus necessarily on the cuttings themselves (that was handled by suspension pioneer and sometime photographer Allen Falkner) but on the clients themselves. Philip is one of those guys who never gets the credit he deserves; someone who was there with us on the front line hosting events and getting things done but unlike the rest of us had the talent and skill to make art while doing it. His images from the events- ModCon, Scarwars and the IWASCURED events document a collection of communities from the inside; one of us and not an outsider looking to shoot weirdos and freaks to impress his jaded friends. The images that he shot over the three days of Scarwars have joy, personality and a bunch of blood; can’t ask for much more than that.
Once the event got started we had a hell of a time. Artists included:
Some artists only worked on a few pieces, others were booked all weekend. Pieces ranged from small brandings to an almost 11 hour full back cutting by Brian Decker (with assistance from Jesee towards the end) that become one of the most well known scarification pieces ever to grace internet memes. There was a casual fun vibe as folks met each other, got cut, went out on sidetrip adventures and enjoyed the company of people who understood them. Artists worked together on collaborative pieces, sometimes at the same time and pushed the limits of what had been done before us.
Dave Gillstrap at work
For me? It was difficult. I was going through a divorce and really wasn’t processing everything well. I was trying to keep everything afloat- my staff was amazing but I was still in that raw emotional state where chaos was a more frequent guest than calm. I decided to ask Brian Decker to cut my face. Not exactly a spur of the moment decision, but certainly one that meant a lot to me. Towards the end of the last night of the event we started planning things out; a cutting by my left eye that could look natural enough to have been an accident but clean enough to make you wonder. Cutting your face is intense; there’s no hiding it from the world and more importantly no hiding it from yourself.
I needed the vulnerability; I needed the trust and the healing to help me get out of the funk I was in and with the lines drawn on my face, laid down and let Brian get to work. Everyone with a cutting has their own story.. for me it was this feeling of letting go. Of all of the negativity and fear and loneliness that that I had been going through. Trusting a friend to take a scalpel to my eye. I let go and as the blade started making it’s cuts felt a hand grab mine. And another. A hand on my leg and my shoulder. One on my head. My friends, the guests who decided to stay at Scarwars till the end, had wandered over to Brain’s station to support me. It was unspoken. One hand followed the other and soon I felt nothing but love. Right then and there Scarwars became something else for me. Not an ‘event’ I was hosting but a community. A place where people could change themselves- body and mind- and be surrounded by others who understood.
We wrapped it up shortly after and went our separate ways. In time we had two more Scarwars events and were eventually invited to do another- in the open and not underground- as part of a tattoo convention. My old friend Ron Garza continued what we started recently with his own ScarCon in London. But for those who made the trip to a little studio space in Port Richmond back in 2005… you were part of something special and new and you’ll always have my thanks and my love.
This article originally appeared on BME’s MODBlog on 06/05/2013, edited on 01/19/2014