The black tattoos of El Nigro reflect his many interests (horror films and Italian Neorealism, period photographs – from Victorian cabinet cards to daguerreotypes -, not to mention the folklore and legends of southern Italy, the Blues, and much more) – as well as his own dark, melancholy outlook on life. Read on to see what he has told us, and if you like his work, be sure not to miss out on his marvellous new eBook.
Hi Marco, tell about yourself – where you’re from, about your artistic background and how you got involved in tattoo…
Gladly! I’m Marco El Nigro, born in Naples in September 1982. I was introduced to art by my dad who got me into painting and drawing when I was around seven years old. I’ve never stopped since, even though I’ve gone through a number of different phases. From 1994 to 2005 I devoted a lot of my time to graffiti, but in 1998-99 I became involved in the contemporary art system. I worked at it with dedication and passion, exhibiting my work in galleries and museums in Italy and abroad in collective and personal shows. In those years I had the chance to experiment with new media and techniques like installations, video art and analogical photography. In 2009, I was waiting for a personal show of mine in a major Italian museum but there was a misunderstanding, it never happened, and the disappointment I felt at that moment, after a two-year wait, was enough to turn me off that whole world. I had already become interested in tattoo years before, but right then, I didn’t feel it was something I could get involved in professionally. It took two years to convince me. Actually, rather than convince me, it was my wife who was convinced (at the time she was my partner). Fed up waiting, she was the one who gave me my first tattoo machines in 2011. The first year, naturally enough, was all about trying things out on myself, my wife, and some friends. In 2012 we moved to London and I had the chance to get to know lots of brilliant artists and learn from them. Directly or indirectly, they taught me a lot.
And where did your great love of black come from? Obviously, we’re not just talking about the colour itself, but also the subjects and atmospheres in your tattoos.
I am a melancholy sort of guy and I’ve always been attracted to the macabre, gloomy, disturbing and basically anything that has to do with death. There is something solemn and regal in the celebration of death and the overall aesthetic of mourning which fascinates me. This is what got me into studying and collecting Victorian and Edwardian objects which I’ve really come to love. These periods saw the development and production of mourning jewellery and accessories of a disarming loveliness.
It seems to me that your work tell us a lot about what really interests you. Correct me if I’m wrong but I see references to a certain kind of horror movie, early twentieth century photography, the Preraphaelites, the etchings of Albrecht Dürer, Wicca, tarot, as well as the Traditional style of tattoo. Am I right? Where does it come from, the inspiration for your pieces?
You’ve hit the nail on the head about many of my sources of inspiration. I love cinema in general, any genre at all, but I do have a weakness for good horror movies and old black and white Italian Neorealism. Then I also love literature, poetry, and any art form. I have a genuine appreciation of craftsmanship and things that are well-madel, made to last. Period photography is another thing I am really interested in, from Victorian cabinet cards to daguerreotypes and photographs from the early twentieth century. I pick them up whenever I get the chance. So I try to take inspiration from everything that’s around me and that interests me. Even the place where I live, Naples, has a huge influence on my work.
The cult of the dead and the celebration of mourning has always been an integral part of our way of life.
Just think of places like Fontanelle cemetery where people used to adopt and look after the skulls of anonymous dead people buried there during the plague in 1656 and the cholera epidemic of 1836. And then I recently discovered that a part of my family has roots in the area around Benevento, and looking up the history of the place, I got into the history and legend of the Janaras, the witches that were said to live in those places. And so I started to include them in my work, and I have to say I wasn’t expecting such a positive response from my customers, especially in Germany and Spain.
While we’re on the subject, how does an El Nigro tattoo come to life? What are the stages you follow to reach a satisfactory conclusion, from the first encounter with the client to the final touches?
For me, drawing is a necessity. I draw practically every day, even if I’ve had a particularly busy day and my kids demand all the rest of the time that I don’t spend in the shop. I try to draw at night or whenever I get the chance. This means I always have plenty of idea, and fortunately, most of my customers choose whatever they like most from my sketchbook. When I get specific requests though, I prefer to meet the client in person if possible, so we can have a chat and I can find out what their interests are and try to find a balance between their idea and what seems to me the best way to execute it, choosing the position and ideal dimensions so that both of us are satisfied with the final result.
Let’s talk about technique for a moment. How has yours changed over the years and what is it that you do to ensure a solid and lasting tattoo?
Well, it’s all changed over the past two years. As you probably know, I started out working on colour Neo Traditional. Even then, there were large areas of flat black in my compositions… and this was because I have always believed that black gives solidity and structure to a tattoo. In my recent period in London, I started to think about eliminating all the colour, but it would have been really difficult because, obviously, all my client base expected colour Neo Traditional from me. So when I came back to Italy and I had to start out again from scratch I decided to reset everything and reboot my style. Sure it was risky, but I have to say it has turned out for the best. I’ve found a new approach in blackwork that allows me to express what I am and what interests me and I think that people get this and appreciate it. The basis of my style is blackwork and balancing the blacks, in the contrasts and in the composition, and this made it possible for me, apart from some subjects, to work in a fairly simple manner. This, I feel, helps greatly with the stability and duration of the tattoo over time.
How did you come up with the idea of an eBook for Tattoo Life and what will our readers find in your drawings?
For about a year now, I had been thinking of publishing a collection of my illustrations, but I could never find the time to dedicate to actually doing it. Then a few months back, I had the fortune and privilege to be invited to take part in this Tattoo Life project and I was only delighted to agree. The initial idea was to organise the book around a theme that is particularly dear to me I’m not going to tell you what because I’m working on it at the moment and I would still like to publish it at a later date!), but I realised that it would take far too long to do. Which is why I decided to propose a cross-section of my more recent work (2018), selecting the pieces which proved most popular, which includes the floating architecture, Janaras and figures from classic paintings with a somewhat darker twist. And of course there are also some completely new drawings as well.