noel’le longhaul – february 25 2017

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NL – I work across so many mediums, that all have different cultural infrastructure behind how people engage with them. There’s an overlapping audience for a lot of the work that I do, but ultimately, because of the social stratification and cultural capitalism and economic capitalism, there’s all of these schisms that exist between these practices, that are all in reference to this particular place or whatever. For me, necessarily, my body is at the center of those things, and then the space that my body inhabits is the architecture for those practices to exist in.

A lot of why I work across so many mediums is ultimately because the art that I make has always, necessarily, since I was a very young child, been a survival mechanism. Starting from a really young age, as a trans child, children are very good at detecting otherness in other children, and then pushing people out of access to social power. So at a really young age, I started spending all of my time in the woods by the house where I grew up. I instinctively inhabited that place in this way where, when I would spend time with other kids my age, the way we would do that is that I would bring them to these secret enclaves that I had developed what I now understand to be magic in. As a young person, what that meant was spending days at a time building really weird houses and structures and secret places, where I could actually feel connected to power, and feel connected through my body to the world around me.

As I started to grow up, I went through puberty and became a teenager, and those social divisions became enhanced and reinforced. I think that the art that I make evidences this moment of fracture, where my relationship to place was put through this gristmill of violence and alienation. The way that connects, for me, the ways in which I identify my art as ultimately being as much a practice that has as much to do with witchcraft as it has to do with the actual mediums I’m working in, feels like that’s because as a young person, those were these intuitive relationships that I found, that in coming into culture became abstracted and broken.

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I had this whole kind of like originating relationship to the landscape I was a part of, and the ways of interacting with it that came directly from my body, and were directly in dialogue with this source. In becoming a culture worker, I feel like I’ve had to necessarily deal with the ways in which the violence of the New England landscape, and the violence of colonialism, and the violence of white supremacy, and misogyny and transmisogyny acted on my direct relationship with place. In using media to generate product in reference to that source, there’s this really fundamental sense of loss that exists at the center of all of the work that I do because of that. The ways in which coming into culture and coming into adulthood was routed through an understanding of the violence of the world, and in realizing that there was no way for me to have a relationship with place that didn’t hold that violence, and archive it, my work necessarily became subtly but unforgivingly political in nature.

For me, having lost the ability to have an intuitive relationship to magic and witchcraft as a child, in coming back into that as an adult, I’ve had to route that through an historical analysis and through constantly trying to find ways of reapproaching how tangled all of those topics are. It doesn’t feel anymore like I can have a simple one to one relationship with place, or any of the kinds of intricate animated qualities that go along with that, that feel spiritually rich to me. So working in printmaking, drawing, tattooing, music, installation, that feels like a way for me to be holding the brokenness of what it means to be a settler, of what it means to be a descendent of both witches and healers, but also of the forces that destroyed those things. Working across media feels like a way to hold all of those pieces with each other in the wake of that initial thing being fragmented and blown open.

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EF – A lot of people I talk to start talking about the way their creative practice becomes a meditative thing, not like a coping mechanism, but maybe a way of building themselves into their body, or minimizing their body. When you were talking about creating buildings in the woods, and that was the first way that you had experienced creating magic and art at the same time, it seemed like that was kind of hand in hand with some of that, maybe?

Definitely, that was the time in my life that I wasn’t thinking about my body. I was just acting from it and making decisions that were unencumbered by thoughts about how the world perceived my body. When I was in school and experienced a really dramatic sense of ostracization from the people I was in school with, creating art, and also traveling and creating art at the same time, was a way for me to reconstruct the world that I knew when I was a child, as a place where I could live. Because of that, and because during that time, the really formative moments of developing a self conscious art practice, I wasn’t out as a trans person, or specifically I wasn’t out as a trans woman, making art in that context was both a way for me to remove myself from the immediacy of my body, which was so highly traumatizing to be engaging with, and developing these really fully realized fictional spaces was a way for me to build a world.

Starting to tattoo was a huge part of that. Tattooing myself was a way that I, essentially, transmuted a violent impulse towards myself, a self-hating impulse, and started to change it into something that had agency and power to it. So my art making practice has been this really tangled push and pull, between something that brings me back into my body and something that allows me to leave it and go to this space that’s beyond my body.

The worlds that I compose, in my tattoos, and in my fine art, really conspicuously lack the figure in them, always. I have evidence in them of inhabitation, and action taken by people in them, but the body itself is lacking and is absent. In fact, the most direct piece of art I’ve made, that just today is going up in this “Art in Ad Places” campaign in New York, that a bunch of people like Shepard Fairey and stuff are doing things in, has a negative space figure in it. That’s the closest I’ve come as an adult artist to having a human being in my artwork, and that being the one place that the figure is referenced, and that it being about the lack of the figure in it is really telling about my perception of how my body fits in to my artwork, how my personhood fits into it.

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It kind of seems like, when you’re talking about the impressions of people on the landscape, it fits with the colonialism discussion you were referencing earlier.

Absolutely, as a young person, intuitively practicing magic and making art, being genderless ultimately, in the woods, and the woods being so definitively that for me, in retrospect I’ve come into a place of being able to read the landscape. Now, I have more of an understanding that my conception of the world as a child, that idea of naturalness, is actually not at play in that landscape. It’s actually this archive of the dissolving points between human agency and the world that they inhabit. For me, the woods are necessarily this site of conflict between people, specifically white settlers, and the world that they came into. In the art that I make, I’m trying to deal with that in a way that doesn’t read directly to people all the time, but if you get past the implied pastoralism and the New England romanticism of it, it’s clear that it’s a critique. Not in a didactic way, just simply trying to observe what exists there. The work I’ve been making this year, getting back into printmaking, has been moving a little more explicitly towards that, in the way that civilization is talked about and represented.

Yeah, I grew up in New York, not in the city but outside of it, and it’s definitely like, it feels different here. You were talking about being in New England, and that being a specific feeling. Coming up here, there have been several moments I’m conscious of, and I’m sure many more that I’m not, where you like, are so suddenly grounded in the history of where you’re standing.

One of the things that makes me think about is layers, opacity and translucency. A lot of my process of coming into a coherent sense of self, I think there’s a certain commonality to a narrative of being trans today, that has to do with having been many different people over the course of your life, and having performed many different personalities in like this way of trying on different ways of being, and finding something lacking in each of those attempts. In transitioning out of those characters, they don’t go away. As someone who has been compulsively tattooing myself since I was 17, my body feels like it archives those different layers. My life and my spiritual practice and my art practice is so fundamentally bound to the northeast of this continent, that I’ve started to find parallels in my own experience, my identities and different lives that I’ve had layering on top of each other, just as the history of this place layers on top of itself.

Working across multiple media is also about that. Dealing with the same content over and over again, but in this way where the different approaches to that content have a certain type of opacity, and a certain type of translucency over them that kind of build up over each other. For someone to engage in my work, the best way to do that is to be present in each of the different layers, and feeling the full intricate stacking of the different histories that go on top of each other. A lot of that has been about trying to find the contiguities and the dissolve points between me and the place that I am of. My aspiration is for the work I make to be a product of that liminal space, that invisible boundary of where I end and the world around me begins.

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When I started pursuing tattooing a few years ago in a more fully realized and aesthetic way that involved electric tattooing for the first time instead of handpoking, the challenge of that for me was that it is so unforgivingly additive. I didn’t really have much of a drawing practice before I started tattooing, those two things really co-evolved. Woodcuts were the closest thing to drawing that I did, and for me the thing that was so compelling about woodcuts was the way that the reduction of it feels like the task of generating the image is ultimately about letting the light out. Thinking about removing material as this process of finding something that’s buried in, I’m going to be pretentious and say, “the matrix.” So, unlocking the potential of the material became the thing that I had to translate into tattooing.

The tattoos I make, for me to be able to be pushing back against the ways into which, formally, it’s additive, immaterially, I needed it to feel reductive. The way that translated is that, in consultations with people, feeling like there is this image that is buried inside of them, and there are all of these layers of information that exist over the top of their ability to access that imagery. My role became one of this archaeologist (which I don’t totally like the comparison, I think archaeology is a pretty fucked field of empirical information control via white supremacy) but there’s this process for me, in starting to work with people when tattooing, that had to do with figuring out how to uncover this image that was within them already. Similarly to how when there’s a block, there’s this feeling I have when I look at it that there’s something dormant inside of it, that I’m looking to sweep some of the layers off of it so it’s visible.

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I grew up in Amherst, right on the border of Pelham, next to the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. There’s probably still remnants of little weird structures I made around there. When I got out of high school, I lived at a punk house in Leverett with people I was in a band with, and I went to RISD after a year of that. I had a really fucked time there. I was put in a men’s floor my first year, so I didn’t use the bathroom for the first year I was there. I was like, “I’m not showering because I’m a crust punk, and crust punks don’t shower” as a way to like, defer the fact that actually I did want to be taking care of myself, I just didn’t have access to facilities to do that.

In my time at school, I maxed out the number of independent studies I could do, and I was riding freight trains all over North America, and making art as I was doing that. In the summers, I wasn’t living in one place, I was also riding trains. My relationship with school was that either I was not there, or I was cloistered in my room. School provided me a space to really rigorously pursue the art that I made, and because I was so traumatized in my time there, it was the one thing that kept me alive. That and a handful of people that were very tolerant and patient with how traumatized I was. So it was a really rough experience, but I also developed, it gave me the space to develop a world.

This is a personal thing about how I wish I traveled more, but maybe it is in the scope of this conversation, how did you feel like traveling that much, and being, not transient in a derogatory way, but just in terms of moving around a lot, do you feel like that affected the different media you worked in?

Absolutely. Traveling, riding trains was a thing where, the mechanism of riding trains is illegal, so it necessitates an invisibility. For me, to step into the void of that was a way to exit things fully. I feel like I used it to just step out of my life completely, and I would just not be perceived by the world in that, because it literally wasn’t ok for them to see me. But then, when you’re riding trains, there’s also this counterposed hypervisibility that goes along with it, because you’re filthy, and you go into a gas station, and everyone’s staring at you, I’d turn around and knock things over with my enormous backpack, stuff like that.

The work that I make is so bound to the intersection of my body and where my body is from that I had a moment a few years into riding trains as my default “I’m not doing anything else so I’m going to do that” thing, in which I kind of came to and realized that ultimately what I was using traveling for was to structurally dissociate. I was using it to leave the massive emotional difficulty of my experience. I realized I could no longer defer that, so I made this very intentional choice to stop doing that and to come back to the Northeast, to come back to these incredibly difficult conversations. That resulted in this thing where, I was born in Greenfield, so living permanently in Greenfield again doesn’t feel accidental, but it feels like this extreme exaggeration of the exact opposite quality that my life had from traveling so much.

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I had this wild experience when I first moved into this room. We had to rip up several layers of flooring and blow insulation in under it and everything, and when we were doing that, there were just hundreds of ladybug carcasses that we were unearthing. The only other time I’d seen so many ladybugs indoors was at my paternal grandmother’s funeral, which was like ten years ago and the last time I saw anyone on my father’s side of the family. I’ve been completely estranged from all of them since them.

Coming into this room, with the ladybugs, after a decade or so of just like not really being in one place for very long, and having this very scattered and rootless and ultimately pretty miserable existence, immediately just rocketed me back to this schism with my family that was intensely surreal and traumatizing. Coming to terms with the ladybugs has been this primary metaphorical site of engaging with a real family building project. At first, I was really freaked out by all of them, between having lots of bugs in my room and the associations, but now, I’ve come to feel very affectionately towards them.

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A lot of my tools are familial. Being estranged from a lot of my family, and also on my father’s side, we can trace our colonial ancestry back to like the 1600s, a lot of the tools I use to make art with are tools that were used to build the houses my colonial ancestors lived in. A lot of my chisels and my woodcarving tools were my great-great-grandfather’s wood-carving tools. This drafting table was my mother’s father’s drafting table. A lot of the furniture, too. Beyond that, I just have tons of hammers and like, my electric drill from the 1940s and so on. But tools are a hugely important component.

Did you put them next to the burning house on purpose?

Probably!

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So, you were saying that you kind of got started tattooing because you were doing things on yourself, and then other people were asking you, and then other people you didn’t know started asking you?

Essentially, yes. I gave myself my first tattoo when I was 17, and pretty shortly after that, I started playing in my first punk band. When I was around that age, my mom kicked me out of the house, and I stepped into my first experience of houselessness and really relying on my social infrastructure – my bandmates – to survive, and got really into punk and punk culture. That was when I first started to identify as an anarchist. I had a lot of anger that was pretty directionless.

I remember the first tattoo I gave to someone when I realized the power of it. It was on the porch of the punk house in Leverett that I was like kind of living at, off and on, at the time. My friend’s sister got in this really fucked up accident and was in a coma, and when he came back from visiting her, in a coma in the hospital, and my other friend and I, the only thing that made sense was to tattoo him. So, on the porch, we both gave him this tattoo of a daisy on his inner arm, with his sister’s initials in it. The ritual of that, of doing that to care for him and hold the weight of this event, was really galvanizing thing for me. I realized tattooing was not just this thing I was compulsively interested in, out of a desire to change my body, but was a really potent form of magic that I could use to support the people around me. Because of that, all of the first tattoos I did were like stick and pokes in squats and shit like that.

I started tattooing myself with a machine a couple years after that. Being in school, and essentially not being able to leave my room because of the emotional headspace I was in, I just started tattooing myself with a machine. From there, I started to actually care about the imagery that was coming out of it, and started putting those images on the internet. Almost immediately, people started seeking me out to do work. It took a couple years for me to get to a point where I was doing more than one tattoo a month. I got kind of rocketed out of Providence, out of this trauma cannon, and lived alone for a period of time in the winter in a cabin in Maine, that I had like grown up spending time in. I thought I wasn’t going to come back from it, I felt like I was going there to die. When I did come back, I came back to Montague.

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Spending time on the river I grew up on, all of this stuff started to come up and surface. That coincided with me reading a newspaper article about this tattoo shop opening. I got to a point where I realized that like a hundred people had come through my house, into my bedroom, into this inner sanctum of my life. I was doing this thing where I was totally letting people I knew to varying degrees, and some of them I didn’t know at all, into my most central space. This idea of mutual vulnerability was really tantamount to my practice, but at the same time, as I was starting to process all of my trauma for the first time, I realized that a huge thing that was going on for me was that I had been kept from being able to develop my boundaries, because I hadn’t been given space to develop my desires. Coming in to work at a shop, licensed, was ultimately a way for me to begin this process of of creating structure around what was this formless, constantly in flux practice that didn’t have a distinctive style, other than it being kind of like ignorant style tattooing.

There was never a moment where I was like, I want to be a tattooist as a career, or a job. It was just this thing that was really central to how I was able to feel useful to the people around me, and how I could occupy a position of power that was supportive. Slowly, as I’ve gotten more and more into it, the endeavor has been about structuring it more rigorously, and getting the way that I talk to people about their trauma and their hopes and their desires down to more of a space that I can know the ins and outs of. And that’s been in tandem with my aesthetic style co-evolving.

This shop is the first shop to be in this town, at all. I essentially went out on a big limb and came in with printouts of work I’d been doing, and exposed myself as an underground tattoo artist to a licensed tattoo artist. I kind of was like, if this doesn’t go well, I’m probably going to have to leave Western Mass. That was the thing I was expecting to be doing anyways, I didn’t move back here planning on staying here. I was just trying to get my bearings for a minute. I started working here like, two months after it first opened, so I’ve been here almost the whole time, that’s two and a half years. That’s the amount of time I feel like I’ve been a tattoo artist, really.

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Being in this room for that amount of time is the longest I’ve been in a room since my childhood bedroom. I have this continuum of place that broke when I was 17, and then nine years later, I’m here. I definitely feel like this room is the most layered I’ve ever had a space as an adult. It’s also coming out of the context in which I was tattooing, like, in my bedroom, or in whatever space I had available. I knew I needed a space that was dedicated, that was only for tattooing. Both for legal reasons, and because I wanted to start to be in dialogue with modern electric tattooing.

The tattoo world is so fundamentally hostile to self-taught or unlicensed artists, that I knew that if anyone was going to listen to me, and if I was going to improve, then I needed to be working above ground. I knew that meant, for the first time, I was going to be stepping into a space where I was going to be influenced by other tattoo artists; when I was first tattooing, I wasn’t looking at a lot of tattoo art. I also knew that I wanted my space to feel ultimately as though it was this outgrowth of this world I had been coming from, so this room is full of a lot of the same lineage of objects as my bedroom and my home studio.

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So, basically, your process with this is that you have a conversation, you consult with someone, and then you create something kind of together?

Thinking about what I do for people, and the way that comes down to structured and informed feminized labor, and paid feminized labor, I’ve been trying to step into a diversity of tactics around the process. The core of my practice is that I’ll work with one person, we’ll talk for as long as we need to. It’s generally like, they’re not coming to me with a really solidified sense of what the tattoo is going to look like, they’re just coming to me with an openness to that process. We develop the imagery over the course of that.

Over the last six months, I’ve also started doing more kind of like, “light” tattooing, and I’ll do predesigned imagery on a variety of scales. Some of what that’s about is that I’m also interested in a type of feminized labor that’s more like the salon or whatever, that’s more simply about adornment and beauty and things like that. As a trans woman, I’ve been really cut off from simple, feminized rituals of connection and care, so doing tattooing that’s less heavy, and less fully realized like that, feels like a way I’m trying to balance those things, so I can maintain that core practice over time.

And also setting a boundary of, maybe you don’t have to perform that deep emotional labor for literally everyone? I feel like it must be lot to be a vessel for that kind of thing, all the time.

Yeah, totally. I feel like a lot of the refinement I’m making to my practice involves how to be kind to myself in it. In a practice that’s so defined by me taking care of other people, I want to take care of myself.

That’s definitely like, I don’t know, once you’ve opened the floodgates – at least for me, like when I figured out how to have emotions, when I opened those floodgates, I had to figure out how to close them at some point, because it was too…

Too much? Yeah. Ultimately that, for me, is kind of like what making flash imagery and stuff is about. It’s more purely, I like this, and letting it be simple in that way. Within that idea we were talking about earlier, of many layers being important in my work, in the work itself I’m trying to find that also. Not just with these different practices layering on top of each other, but in the practices themselves. Working on a diversity of scale, working on a diversity of intensity. Because there are just all these different ways to approach that space, I want to have as wide a net as possible.

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You can totally tell me that I’m crazy for asking this and it’s too personal, but do you have any tattoos you did on yourself that you want me to take a picture of, as part of this process?

Yeah, you’re totally welcome to, I’ve done all of this stuff…[my left] arm is really how I learned how to use a tattoo machine. I think my hands are the place that really holds it. You can see this knuckle, it gets that way from tattooing. I was actually thinking that if I had thought ahead and set things up beforehand, I could have quickly tattooed myself a little bit, so you could get a picture of that process. I’ve been meaning to, anyway. I’m 26 and almost totally covered with tattoos, so now the way that I get them is just adding more layers. Now that this is all faded, from lack of experience and stuff, I’ve been wanting to go in and put in some more fully realized thing on top of it.

This is a totally weird analogy, but I have just started to feel comfortable with having my own art visible places that I can see it. So the idea of walking around, it feels really vulnerable to me, like that you have your work and you can see it all the time.

I think that now that I’m so heavily visibly tattooed, people don’t really ask me about my tattoos in public anymore, it’s just this wall of imagery. Ultimately, I think a lot of why I was really compulsively getting tattoos, when I was first doing that, was because I wanted people, when looking at me, to engage with that before they engaged with my gender. Putting this wall of imagery out to the world. It’s interesting, because it feels like armor, but it also feels vulnerable in the way that you’re talking about, because you’re taking your narratives and making them available in that way.

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When I first came back here, I was tattooing in the attic of an old farmhouse where a bat lived. I’d be like tattooing people and there would be a bat flying around our heads. Essentially, I had a number of people in my life who I trusted more than myself, who were like, “it’s important that you try to do this thing. You have a gift with this thing, take it seriously, really try,” you know? And I bought this box, which is definitely the most important tattoo-related object I have. It was $30 when I bought it, which was enormously expensive for me at the time. I was paying $50 a month in rent. I bought it so that I could commit, symbolically, to the process. There’s nothing really interesting in here right now, but when I first started, all of my tattoo gear fit inside of this box. So that was a way for me to really start to try to commit.

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I guess it seems like there are two different moments that I’m seeing in this – one is when you switched over to using a machine, and one is when you started working here. When I’m thinking about tools and spaces, they seem like very different breaks to talk about. We kind of touched on the space, but maybe you want to talk about the machine more?

Sure, I started using a machine in earnest because a friend of mine went to East River Tattoo in Brooklyn and got a piece from Liam Sparkes. When they came back from that, I looked at this tattoo that they had and I was like, holy shit, that’s what you can do with this medium? It felt different to be around their body. This thing happened where they weren’t a different person, but the person they were was emphasized in this way that was like incontrovertible. The formal limitation of stick and poke-ing meant that I was making these metaphors, or these gestures towards something, rather than generating the thing itself. But this tattoo totally changed the game for me around what it was possible to do, formally, with tattooing. I guess getting to work on a larger scale, more intricately, meant it was closer to what I was trying to do. I started to become interested in really changing people’s bodies.

All of my work and my intellectual labor and everything is in reference to ecological systems, and about the interdependence of bodies and place, and the ways in which, for me, I define magic, as the study of how things affect other things, and trying to show up for those moments of continuity and intersection. That moment was really, for me, about getting to have the imagery confuse the distinction between body and environment. That, in fact, tattooing places on people is essentially this assertion that they are that place, and that they hold that place. Whereas when I was doing stick and pokes, it was more of a thing where they just like, had this thing that I gave them. That break felt violent, in the way that any break is when something that once was simple that then becomes complex. But for me, that’s kind of like what adulthood is about, actually committing to being in the intricacy and the complexity of things, and trying to retain a position in that of agency and of orchestration.

My learning curve with tattooing would look strange as a graph, because it just kind of shot up a year or so ago. Now I’m in a place where I’m trying to reside in a more central location, where I can call on these different techniques and different tools, to be in a place where all the layers exist simultaneously.

Noel’le Longhaul is an artist and musician. She was photographed in her bedroom/studio at Lupinewood and at her tattoo studio.