Vincent Castiglia is one of those people that I always knew on the sidelines in the New York tattoo scene as a person of interest, but didn’t really know personally.
He’d apprenticed under one of the bigger names in the old New York underground, all the important people seemed to know him, and he did these really well known (in the scene) paintings in his own blood.
As time went by, his name kept popping up in mentions of art shows and other exhibits. He did gallery showings at Paul Booth’s shop, HR Giger’s museum in Switzerland, and I met and conversed with him briefly a few times at conventions.
Then, in 2014, Skin Art magazine asked me to do an interview with Vincent.
We covered a wide range of issues, I asked all the questions I was curious about, and I thought it was all a wrap.
Only the publisher, Carlo, died and the magazine ceased production just before the interview came out.
Recently, I was asked about that old interview, couldn’t find it at first, and decided a new piece entirely would be far better regardless. He’d recently worked with some big names like Slayer, and I figured there was definitely more to bring to the table this time.
This interview is the result, and I hope everyone finds it as interesting as I do.
- Let’s start with the basics, where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York. Gravesend, to be specific.
- You have this dark aura to all your work. I wouldn’t say it’s straight-up horror, but more of a surreal sort of approach to the real world. Would you say that’s accurate?
That’s very accurate. All of the work is rooted in and inspired by life.
Events, people, places, and things that have had significant enough effect on me to inspire meditation and reinterpretation and the processing of this subject matter through art.
- So that begs the question, where did this get all start? Personally, I’ve always been draw to the dark side, even when I was a kid watching shows like The Outer Limits, but we all have our own story.
My life, from 0-17 or 18 years old (when I could finally move out of my mother’s apartment and was able to support myself tattooing) was to be forthright, a horror show in it’s own rite.
My mother was incredibly mentally ill. Without getting into detail here, I can say the abuse was extraordinary. I was thoroughly stripped of everything that could’ve ever been considered a ‘life’ before I knew what life was.
My mother’s ‘mantra’ of sorts was she should’ve “ripped me out of her while (she) had the chance, with a hanger”.
Our house was floor to ceiling rotting garbage (she was a hoarder of the most extreme variety). It housed an ecosystem of squalor. Mice, live or dead, were there so long that some were just flattened carcasses rotting on the floor.
Carcasses that I was not allowed throwing out. Neither was I allowed to throw out any of the rotting trash in the apartment, or else I would suffer consequences.
Honestly this is just the tip of the iceberg of a monstrosity that really isn’t appropriate for publication. But I can just say her illness was completely pervasive, and manifested itself in all sorts of horrific and bizarro-world ways.
Ways significant enough that I found art at a very young age. That is how it started. As a distraction from a living nightmare. As soon as I could hold a pencil or any medium, I started drawing.
Which proved from the very start to be the best means to disconnect or dissociate from current surroundings or environment.
I’d tap into this ‘other world’, or imagination, where I could share my emotions and visions honestly (which was the only place I could share this).
- So, with that horrific background, would you say the experience instilled in you a sort of a nihilistic view of the world? Especially in the way you looked at life, beginning as it did at apparently early stage in your development?
1000%. There was a point at which I actually started to believe I was on earth just to suffer.
As if I had come into this world with bad karma, and this was reality’s way of “burning it out of me”. Whatever past life atrocities I had committed apparently warranted brutality in my current life.
It took a very long time to realize just how flawed that conclusion was. It was the best my mind could conjure at the time, seeing as to how exquisite the suffering was.
The further away from my mother I got, finally having nothing to do with her until the day she died, turned out to be what I really needed to do in order for me to survive.
She may have started with the best intentions in life, but she ended up committing acts that, continually and without remorse, really stripped me of my humanity.
Therefore she had to go in the ‘pay no mind’ box, until death. It was during this time that I think my greatest healing has taken place. It was also the beginning of my starting to work seriously, devoting myself to working in blood.
It was during this time period that I produced the greatest body of work yet. All because I was finally free.
- When did your mother die, and when did you start painting in blood?
I started painting in blood in my teens, abandoned it, then came back to it experimentally in 2000. That was also the year I started tattooing.
I continued working in pen, ink, and blood, doing very delicately rendered pieces in mixed media up until around 2003. In 2004 I started producing my seminal bodies of work, “Remedy For The Living” and “Coagula”.
She lived until 2012. So I had been creating my work for over a decade when she passed.
- How old were you when you started tattooing, and what pushed you into that art form? Which, from my early experience, wasn’t even recognized as an art form until recently, but that’s another story!
That’s true! I was 18 when I started tattooing. I had been heavily tattooed already by Mike Perfetto in Brooklyn, and I really took a liking to Mike.
And, I believe, he to me.
I spent a lot of time under the needle with him, asked a lot of questions, and we’d hang outside of tattooing. He’s a great guy, humble and no-nonsense.
This was my informal introduction to tattooing. I basically learned from Mike, in whatever I could gather from our time spent tattooing and talking.
I just followed whatever Mike did, in terms of process. He was encouraging of my early work whenever I’d show him, and that was really all I needed.
All that was 19 years ago, and I’ve never regretted a day of it. I was busing tables at Gargiulio’s Catering Hall in Cony Island before I started tattooing, working double shifts (16 hours a day) on my feet all for minimum wage and no tips.
Ever since I was young I’ve worked like a dog to survive, and tattooing was finally a harmony of trade and passion. I could now do something I really enjoyed dong, and as a bonus make a living doing it.
That blew me away, up until that point I had never considered it. I highly respected the art form, what with it being a permanent change to the body.
So, from the beginning I extremely hard. Even all throughout art college (which I put myself through). I even ended up withdrawing for 3 years while I juggled an almost full time tattoo schedule. So I really hustled for a long period of time.
It was always difficult to find a balance between tattooing and painting, they’re equally draining, and I love doing both, so it’s like giving 100% and then again 100% as opposed to 50/50, which is twice as draining.
I even hit a plateau for a while in terms of my output and what was physically capable within a given amount of time. All because I pushed the limits.
I’d started painting seriously in blood (taking 2 weeks off out of each month to paint), then tattooing everyday for 2 weeks straight (with a 5 month list behind me), and it was insane.
But I got shit done. Now I’m much more balanced and evenly paced about the work, and only start one painting at a time.
- I heard that you made yourself seriously ill from drawing too much blood to paint with! Am I on track with that, and if so, what’s the story?
It was 2008, and I was painting for my solo exhibition at the HR Giger Museum, while juggling a full time tattoo schedule. I was definitely taking more blood out of me than my body could tolerate, not to mention working like a maniac.
I believe between the blood loss, my smoking history, and the pressure I was under, my right lung collapsed. The upper lobe of it had to be removed and the remainder glued to my ribs. It was horrendous.
I sincerely thought after I woke up in ICU (with NO anesthesia, the nurse hadn’t administered it yet, so I felt the full on pain of the removal/fusion) that I was going to die.
It was a very dark period of time and I didn’t heal well or recover until about 1 1/2 years later. It was an uphill battle just to breathe, the pain excruciating.
I’ve learned my lesson, and am much more paced with my blood collection at this point time.
It collapsed twice, first time I was also tattooing, and didn’t know what was happening. My client drove me to the ER. It had inflated on its own but they said if it collapsed again this extensive surgery would be necessary.
And sure enough, in June of 2008, again, while tattooing, my lung collapsed. This time I knew what was happening.
This is a true story – the client I was working on when my lung collapsed was also ill at the time. I knew because of this surgery I’d be out of commission for months and wanted to get the piece done for him.
So, I spent another 4 hours working on him, and then he finally drove me to the ER. That proved to be the last tattoo I could do for a long while, and I knew it.
- See, now that’s dedication! So what is your current arrangement? I’ve seen recently you did some cool stuff for big names like Slayer. Do you tattoo part time and then do art part time? It’s all out of a private studio, right?
I work privately still, in LA now, and I’m just about to open my books again for tattooing. I will be booking probably 2-4 weeks in advance at the start. And yes, it’s been an honor to work with Slayer, and really, all my patrons.
It’s an almost mystical processing by which through the widening of one’s own experience and consciousness making art, then through the application of that ‘widening’ to life, living is enlarged and expanded upon and incredible things happen.
It’s the ‘spiral path’, our creations and emissions in this world mechanically produce, that create responses on a cosmic, universal level. It’s, for lack of a better more appropriate term, “magical”.
Just recently I’ve been tattooing part time. I was painting for my exhibition at the Dark Art Emporium, “Autopsy of The Soul”, a big show, which included the Slayer Farewell Tour poster painting, Gregg Allman’s portrait painting for his final studio album, “Southern Blood”, and a lot of new work.
All were in one large painting, “The Acceptance of Death & Transmigration of Consciousness”. The whole thing took 3 years to paint. I started the center panel in 2016, and finally completed the top and bottom in 2019.
Hundreds of hours of work. But when I paint I allow myself the space to spend as much time on the work as is necessary for me to call it finished.
Maybe I should be giving myself deadlines. But I’ve been again exploring the freedom that comes with not dealing with any time constraints or deadlines. On one hand, it’s good to have a deadline to push you to finish something. But it’s also nice to not have one and see where that goes, in terms of how much more developed the work could be.
And I’m just about to open my books again for tattooing and will be booking probably 2-4 weeks in advance at the start.
- So you’re in LA now Vincent? How can people get a hold of you and check out your work?
That’s correct, Dan, I’m in LA now, and loving it! My website is still the same, it just needs to be updated, but anyone interested in black and gray work can contact me directly through the contact form on the site.
- What are you going to do about the NYC in that web address?
Haha! I have done something about it, I haven’t figured out what yet, but will probably just buy a new domain name for LA.
- So you’re happy now, do think you’ve found some sort of peace?
I have, in a big way. There’s always more growth to be experienced, and I’m far from ‘healed’.
But rather, am still healing, and look forward to even greater states of ‘wholeness’ through this creative process. It’s daily, and unending.
- Well, thanks for doing this interview with me, Vincent, hopefully I’ll see you at some convention eventually!
It’s been a pleasure, Dan!
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Dan Henk has been working in and as a part of the tattoo community for 20 years. He writes novels, illustrates magazines and books, and owns The Abyss Fine Art & Tattoo Gallery in Long Beach, NY, and competes in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu. Check out all his adventures on danhenk.com!