Yann Black Talks Needle Making, Old-School France, Veganism And Becoming a New Driver...
Point to Point takes you behind the needle to share the personal journeys of tattoo artists like you. Drawing inspiration, spreading respect and love… This time we’re talking with avant-garde tattoo artist Yann Black.
@PatrickCoste: Bonjour Yann Black! Before we go further, I have to inform the audience here that they need to read your responses with a heavy, heavy French accent, hah!
@yannblacktattoo: Salut. LOL! Oui absolument! I’m here in Montreal now with my family. It’s quite a multicultural city but my accent can't lie, here or in my homeland!
PC: I can definitely relate to that! Yann, you've been tattooing for over thirty years, and you're tattooing in a style that’s quite marginal, even in these very open times. I know there’s more to your story... Let's start there. Where are you from originally, where is your homeland?
YB: I was born in a small town in the middle of France. Later on, I started tattooing and moved around a little bit in the north of France, then in Belgium, Brussels and then back to Paris, France. I've been in Montreal now for the last thirteen years, and I started tattooing around 1993.
PC: Holy! Ok, ok I didn't expect that… France thirty years ago! How was tattooing over there back then? How did you get into it?
YB: It was a thing I didn’t know about at all. I was scared of everything! In France back in those days, the big bikers were in control, tattooing wasn't very popular. This is how it was where I was from.
When I studied drawing in the north of France, at that time it was a closed trade that you just didn’t get into... For my eighteenth birthday, which is the legal age for getting tattooed in France, I still don't know why but I wanted to get a tattoo, which my family wasn't down with, like not at all.
So at eighteen, not so at ease, I went into a mysterious shop to get a tattoo from what seemed to be a scary dude. I was sweating and I was so nervous… The tattooer was actually so nice, so gentle. I asked him to tattoo me with some black square motifs, not at all related to that era of tattooing, well maybe in London... He went for it.
I looked at his work and I was impressed. When I think of it, it was so different. I remember they had tattoo needles, but remember way back then, the needles were just dropped into disinfectant and then basically waiting for the next client! It was another era. The same with the plastic stencil with carbon. I was so impressed and I also remember that it was incredible to mark someone for life.
At that moment I was inspired by the art, but I just went back to animation school to finish the year and then begin the next year etc.
At the same time, I kept thinking about tattooing almost every day... The more I was moving forward, the more I saw this cartoon as being more production work, very tedious.
So when I went back during the next holiday, I went back to the shop with my portfolio. I’d had three years of drawing school experience. I showed him what I was doing and, although he was a nice guy, he wasn’t a real artist who could draw very well.
I showed him all my drawings. He wasn't interested at all in that style; it wasn’t so tattoo-like.
You can only imagine back then, you couldn’t buy many tattoo supplies or equipment... Maybe in a bigger city or in England.
PC: Wow. So that was about the time when JET France were around and were the supplier for loose needles...
YB: Yes, that's true, JET France was there too! I didn’t know anything at the time and well, after trying a bit, I ended up getting a meeting with some scary bikers at a tavern in the next town. I was about eighteen years old and I finally got my first kit; an old Spaulding Rogers coil machine which I should’ve kept. I tattooed with it for years; a tattoo needle box, and an ultrasonic cleaner.
At that time it was “OK, we’ll sell you the stuff, but if we see you tattooing in the area we’ll break your fingers with a hammer. We’ll break your legs…” Lol, true story.
My mother was crying when I came in, lol. There were also people in my town that were scary. The tattooer dude was nice enough, but in the other towns, not very friendly. I think they were imagining that they were fucking me over with some old USSR machines at a high price, that they probably took from the drawer of a person who owed them money!
PC: So that was in 2000? 1990?
YB: It was about 1995ish! It was also when I started learning about tuning machines and making needles because there was no other way really to get them, so it evolved from there... I still do it everyday and share them with friends; a bit like a needle crafter!
PC: I saw that! It’s quite the thing... Not many artists do that, for sure. Do you enjoy making them? Usually the first thing here is, “Yeah, I know to make needles.. I hate it!!” Lol.
YB: Lol, that’s also true, but you can only become good when you make them constantly… I made many before I got good, but I’ve been doing it for about thirty years. I have a great routine in the morning, so it’s part of my life. It was tedious work. It took me about two years before I really got good and found prison tricks, lol.
During that time, I moved to Brussels, Belgium, where I stumbled upon a gritty but quite nice man named Paul. A bearded man, huge, had been at it for a while… Anyhow, Paul. A tattoo legend in a sense… He had a bit of a hearing problem, but super cool.
He offered me a set of needle jigs from Spaulding which helped tremendously, and from there it went up. I had a close friend with whom I shared knowledge, and he was making a custom needle; a large gauge needle. He told me tricks about how to solder properly, you know, an exchange of knowledge. A lot of the time the needles were so big that the machine was overheating, lol. Good times!
PC: Oh, lol, I hear you, and they must’ve had a metal tube and stem etc, so the heat must’ve been conducted all the way to the tip!
YB: YES! Lol, it was hell! For me, it was a regular day at the office. It was rough and I loved it… and I learned that way.
PC: What style of tattooing were you doing then?
YB: Even at that time, I was doing black sleeves but with 13-mags. It was a different time but really, I was just happy to be able to get tattoo supplies. I was able to get better machines and then well, it was a particular era, but it was what it was!
PC: Thank you for sharing... Tell me Yann, “Black” is quite an English name. Is it your real name, and how did you make it over here to Canada?
YB: Lol, Yann is my real name and “Black” is my artist name… It’s quite a funny story! I’m not related to Jack Black! Lol...
It was when I was in Belgium... I had a business card that had my name on it, just Yann, and at the time I was doing only blackwork. SO, I wrote my name and what I was doing… that’s it. Then I had an interview with a magazine from that period… I can’t recall the name, but we were at an event and the interviewer just wrote Yann Black… and then, well… I still wear the name today. Lol, funny to think it was just a fluke! I don't really care about publicity, but you know how it works.
How I got HERE is a beautiful story. Things weren't that great in Brussels so I left for Paris. I was waiting for calls in my apartment - remember we didn’t have cell phones back then ;P. It was a great place; the bar, the ladies, but you know, work wasn't great. I had a friend back then, who loved my portfolio. He was in Paris, it was the “Tribal” era and he was one of the first in Paris to be doing implants and body modifications. The shop was very high profile and it sounded like a great move to make, so I did.
My graphic design art style was a bit unique. I was a good fit for the shop and vice versa. The big boss hated my style, but the other boss saw the potential and the art in it. She saw the long-term possibilities and the development of the style. She felt “we’ve got to take him and go for the home run!” So in a jiffy, I was in Paris killing it!
The first three months were the best; big city vibe, you could walk everywhere, a few crazy people too! I met a girl who loved Paris, but my love for Paris wasn't quite there… FYI, in Paris you have two types: the lover of Paris or the hater. She was a lover, I was a hater. Professionally, Paris was great, so we stayed for a little while.
I had a friend who was working in Toulouse, in southern France; Oliver Julian. I traveled to work there as my clientele was good. I went there for about fifteen days every two months... I was far from Paris and it was good for me.
PC: Yann you are quite the artist and an innovative avant-garde one, a pioneer in a sense although I know you don't see yourself that way. During my research, I saw that your work got into a museum… That’s something in itself, right?
YB: You’re good! A cool thing that happened in my tattoo life was that; the Paris Quai Branly Museum. So, the Museum of Civilisation organized a fairly big exposition and asked some contemporary art magazine owners to do a story that tells a tale of tattooing called ‘’Tattooeurs Tattoués”. It actually came to Toronto, went on to Rome and the United States, and even Moscow! It was a great expo!
It was full of artifacts telling the story from the older relics, to today. They asked fifteen tattooers they thought were important to the narrative they wanted to tell, and they tattooed some fake/silicone body parts.
At the time, I was doing graphic-style tattooing and all of the sudden I was in the expo because I brought that style to life in the early days. What was really cool is that it touched people in great numbers; not the army people, not the bikers we were used to, but a new generation, a new wave of collectors of this avant-garde art. For me, it was a new career and a new way of generating income.
PC: WOW eh? What a great story... Thank you for sharing it with us. That’s pretty neat. This was far from Montreal though... Tell me how you got to become a Canadian citizen!
YB: Mainly because of a friend named Olivier, and Geraldine Julian. Olivier and I, we're both early students. We're both people who’ve been with clients for a long time. So, yes, with Olivier. I tattooed him, he tattooed me, you know, we became friends over the years. Then he wanted to emigrate with his wife, his children. He said to me: “Look, I'm moving to Quebec, like that, but I don't feel like doing it all alone. Do you want to come with me?” Me? I had only one desire... it was leaving Paris, so I said “Ah yes, absolutely.” I’d never been to Quebec and then suddenly, I spoke to my girlfriend at the time and then I was told “OK”. Although I had offered to go to Switzerland, to Germany, anywhere if I could work where I wanted in Europe, she said yes to Quebec …
PC: Ok, ok, I like that... What a friendship! Tell me more...
YB: When I said Montreal, she told me OK. I just barely understood all I needed to do to come to a new country. Nonetheless, we arrived in the month of January 2008 and tumbled into the middle of winter with our sneakers and hoodies. But frankly, life in Montreal is so pleasant that Paris was quickly forgotten!
One thing led to another, my ex went to France and I stayed. There you go. So after a few years working with Olivier, I moved into a private studio at home to be with my children more. We do school at home and well, now my wife is from Quebec; a girl from this island.
PC: Very cool, very cool... Yann, you’re a forerunner to your tattoo style but you're also an avant-gardiste on the work-at-home thing. You make it classy, clean and well, you’ve done it for years. Seems like family was a great part of it, what’s your routine?
YB: Yes, over the years I discovered what I like and what I don't like, and working from home is a great asset in living a good life. I’m old enough to know that life in a shop could be somewhat too much drama! It's not at all the atmosphere of a street shop, and I am one person a day.
I wake up very early, very often making needles, then have a shower, get breakfast with the kids, drop them to school, come back home, get ready for the client, client arrives… Sometimes it’s a bit different, but where it changes mostly is when the client arrives because I’m ready to give him all day. Sometimes it takes an hour to figure out the client’s desire, sometimes three hours. I’m here to listen and do the best I can, and that’s the way I like it.
PC: Very nice. It’s true that working from home is bliss, in any trade. I’m glad it’s better accepted these days, but younger folks need to understand that being in a shop is often where you can learn the most.
Yann, you seem like you’ve got this. You’re having fun and you’re on a great journey! What’s next for you Mr Black?
YB: My retirement! Lol! Oui, oui, with the years tattooing can take a toll on you, but drawing, painting could be a way to smooth the transition toward that. Tattooing is a career where you never stop but you can seek opportunity, so I’m working towards that. And family is a big part of my life, so time would be a nice commodity for them. Life is good as I’ve had good success with painting over the years.
PC: So true, thank you! I’m looking forward to my retirement as well... Lol, but I’ve got a few years before it happens...
YB: Oh and I’m gonna have my driver’s license very soon!
PC: Oh yeah? Your bike license?
YB: Non, non, car driver’s license! Up until now I’ve never had my driver’s license. Never really had the need to...
PC: Holy crap! Lol, really? I can say I’ve only met a few people who were like you, but WHYYYYYY?
YB: In Europe, like most of the big cities in America, you can go everywhere fast with a train, even when you want to get out of town. My wife’s got her driver’s license too, so really, what was the need? So I never did, but now I see a need.
PC: This is great! You’ve got this! Yann, this interview would be incomplete if we didn’t talk about Veganism. Hardcore, like, no compromise for you. I’d say I eat fairly well, very diversified and I take my protein from everything, even in meat where they raise them well and with no cruelty. But for you it’s a “No-No” … Like, a HELL NO!
YB: You need no meat for protein, I can tell you that. I hear you though, but you don't NEED to slaughter animals to get your proteins, they’re everywhere in many forms. I'd been vegetarian for a long, long, long time, but you know in the background of my mind it wasn't fully right. There was something clinging in the whole process… I knew it wasn't really ‘‘fair’’ at one point. I saw a documentary called “Earthlings” narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It was quite an overwhelming film that hurt... A lot. It’s not normal what’s going on in the slaughterhouses. When you’ve seen it you remember.
So a step above is veganism, which takes no bi-product of animals whatsoever. My wife is an “omnivore”. The only thing I asked of her was to not have any meat at home. It’s a respect we have. It works well with the kids as well.
The switch occurred when I realized that by eating eggs, I still was encouraging a drastic and shameless industry. So, that documentary opened up a discussion that lasted for a few weeks and I haven’t looked back ever since.
PC: Ok,ok that goes deeper than food, right? As an extreme example, we can talk about shoes and car interiors right?
YB: Voila! That’s a “No-No”, as well as pillows. I know where those feathers come from! Think of anything that has to do with animals... I consider them like living beings and we have to treat them accordingly.
For me now, it’s that I have to pass the message on to other people. In my social feed, in my emails, it’s important. I always include links to documentaries, text, examples, so people can take their blinders off.
PC: You are very passionate. You must have crazy conversations at times? I’ve got a mixed eating habit, I always buy on the organic and locally-sourced side etc.
YB: That’s very good, and I do have conversations with people who deny and can't face the facts, and I think that's why there’s a hole and ignorance. I think it's interesting when the person agrees to look at the facts, of what's behind the curtain, and then after you say in the end “I really needed this.”
Then in addition, not to mention ecology and all the massive destruction of our habitat, each year we kill 65 billion land animals, farm animals. That’s 65 billion a year! Think about all the deforestation in the world, just for the cattle. Whaaaaaaat? It's disconcerting and unacceptable.
We must always try to put in perspective that in the end, the animal is a living being. There’s a whole thing behind us that we’ve forgotten what we have. We have the impression that we’re predators, but we’re not predators at all. We’re eaters of fruit and vegetables, that's what we should have. Indeed, we know how to adapt so we’re able to eat meat, but it’s things like dairy products which are not supposed to be for humans. Besides, there are documentaries everywhere. We can see them on YouTube, Netflix... Watch them, it's just going to talk about the environment, health, then you'll see, it's very informative. I think it can change minds.
PC: Yann Black, thank you for sharing your passion, your dedication. You made my day with your story. Thank you very much for accepting the invite and telling us your story, which was a great one with an international flair!
Yann Black on instagram: @yannblacktattoo