Luca Cerlini is an Italian videographer and documentarian whose production company focus on commercial and artistic work. Cerlini's black and grey tattoos are both a meeting and marking point of personal memory and regional history. He kindly shares some of the stories behind his collection here.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Luca. I was born in the countryside of Brescia, a city between Milan and Verona, in 1987.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in a small village in Franciacorta, in an area surrounded by woods between two great lakes. My family has always worked in the “art world”—creating frescoes, bas-relief, and trading in antiquity—and they immediately directed me to drawing and instilled a passion for visual art. Living in Italy has certainly helped, since it is a country in which we are always surrounded by artistic heritage, from the Romans to the Renaissance up to modern art: I must admit that, for us Italians, art is really a serious business!
As a teenager the skate culture, the music scene (in particular hardcore, punk, and techno), certain ethical choices, and a highly politicized environment strongly influenced me. As it often happens, in the areas where I lived we were very few with a deck or with a piercing. This fact made us considered thugs: in short, the classic adolescence of many teenagers of my generation. This background was mixed with a great passion for folklore, which permeates the areas where I grew up. The pagan vibes are very strong in my region and that has created a cultural mix of traditions and innovation that strongly inﬂuenced my growth.
When did you start getting tattooed?
I started getting tattooed when I was 15.
What made you want to get tattooed? What are your ﬁrst memories of seeing tattoos?
I grew up in a very liberal environment. My father, who I would personally tattoo several times throughout my life, had a very “rusty” tattoo on his wrist—a symbol of peace that over the years became a blue ball, made with a needle and the ink of a pen by the owner of one of the village’s gas stations when they were boys. This, combined with the long hair and the earring, made him a pirate in my eyes—and if you have a pirate as a father…you want to became to a buccaneer! In addition to this inﬂuence, I have always seen the tattoo more like an amulet than an ornament, and I have always considered the fact of being able to own one on my skin as a rite of passage with which a kid can take possession of his own body—and therefore, in a certain way, to really become responsible for himself.
Who ﬁrst tattooed you and how did you choose the design and placement of that tattoo?
My ﬁrst tattoo was actually a double tattoo: two tomoe on my front shoulders. It was a birthday present for my 15th birthday. I was looking for a symbol that could express the beginning of a journey, in a "private" place that almost only I could see and that with one look could remind me that “my path” had begun. The tattoo artist was a friend of the family, Renzo, who was the ﬁrst tattoo artist in my city. He tattooed out of a study that was very ‘80s. It had a case with a python. A lot of bikers would come in and out with beers and crazy tattoos (crazy, at least, in the eyes of a fifteen-year-old), such as a giant television on the side of their head or a Ramones portrait.
After your ﬁrst piece, did you deliberately build a collection? How do you conceive of the relationship between your tattoos?
After the ﬁrst tattoo, what became immediately clear to me was not so much the content of pieces I would later add but a desire to put the coming tattoos to use. I wanted tattoos that corresponded with the cultural background of my area. A mix of Catholic heritage, Lombard, and pagan inﬂuences makes symbolism the cornerstone of non-verbal communication, not only in the artistic sphere but in culture more broadly. I understand my tattoos not as a collection but as the creation of a sort of encyclopedia of symbols that are, for me, reminders of values, states of mind, concepts, or quotes capable of helping me find calmness, strength, and positive feelings simply by seeing them reflected in the mirror. Life can often hurt and I believe that creating one's own armor of positivity is important; as the landsknechts did, my armor is full of symbols and “reminders.”
Are there particular pieces that have had a lasting symbolic and/or historical signiﬁcance to you? Is the meaning of a given piece or the time and context in which you got it important to you?
The pieces of which I am most fond are those with a personal symbolic value: what they refer to does not always have a "universal" value (I think, for example, of Albrecht Durer's signature). Rather, they are metaphors that evoke precise concepts in me, or visual transpositions of important moments. Surely the kanji on my chest made by Horiokami and the nocturnal raptors on my arms created by Valentin Hirsch are very important to me and full of meaning. The amulets made with bunches of ﬂowers that grow on our mountains tattooed by Totemica or the portrait of Vlad Tepes made for me by Mauro Maurer are perfect examples of how a design that for most people may have no meaning, or even have a negative one, can have a new life when they acquire a different value from the common one: the difference between signiﬁed and signiﬁer is always extremely personal.
"[A] design that for most people may have no meaning, or even have a negative one, can have a new life when they acquire a different value from the common one: the difference between signiﬁed and signiﬁer is always extremely personal."
How do you understand being substantially tattooed? How does it differ from living with your ﬁrst few pieces?
Unfortunately it seems to me that today self-perception is influenced by others’ reactions to an unprecedented degree. I have never shown off my tattoos, I have never taken a selﬁe to publish on social media, so I have always had a very personal relationship with my collection. Paradoxically, almost 20 years ago when I started getting tattooed, I felt their presence was like a natural thing—even though seeing tattoos was an uncommon occurrence in day to day life. Now seeing a body with more than 20 tattoos is considered normal; I notice that the public is tending towards this type of art and I’m happy about it. I have to admit that at work it happened that I might unconsciously choose a shirt which covered my arms before a meeting with a person I did not know. I later discovered a kind of "preventive prejudice" within myself. I tried to compensate for how others might judge me on the basis of my tattoos. Once I noticed this, I was able to forget about all of the tattoos in my skin and stop worrying about the judgment of my neighbors.
How do you choose your artists and motifs?
I spent a lot of time choosing my artists. It’s trivial to say, but with tattooing you consciously decide to change your body forever—it is not a piercing or a hairstyle, and I think that the person who does it has a great responsibility. I have nothing against those who live the tattooed life in an amused and carefree way, but for me its relation to ritual is still very strong. That's why for certain subjects I look for the artist that I think has the right style to represent them best, whether more detailed or more bold, and this has led me to travel a lot around Europe meeting really fantastic artists. Then, for some tattoos where the emotional connection is stronger, I have the opportunity to work with my best friend, Mauro Maurer, who (lucky me!) is an exceptional tattoo artist. In that case, I feel that the tattooist who will forever change my appearance must be someone I can trust—someone with whom I can talk in depth about the subject and who understands its context.
Has your collection received any interesting reactions that you’d like to share?
Rather than the subjects depicted, what I find often draws the attention of others is the composition and style of the collection. For those who are in the tattoo world, blackwork and etching are now common visual languages. But for those who remain outside, they are always curious to see tattoos that are not done in full color, or tattoos that are not done in styles that are (apparently) more dominant such as tribal and oriental. Often it happens that some enthusiastic literary author notices a symbol or phrase I have tattooed and at that moment a complicity arises—as if we were fans of the same soccer team. Still, the most curious reactions I’ve ever seen were in Romania while I was on a business trip. For the locals, the fact that a foreigner had a portrait of Dracula on his arm was really absurd—and I understand that sentiment well!
You can find Luca Cerlini on Instagram (@lucasecretwood).
Birds on both upper arms by Valentin Hirsch (@valentinhirschtattoo).
Flowers on both shoulders by Totemica (@totemica).
Flower on left forearm by Lupo Horiokami (@horiokami).
Bird and flowers on right forearm by Totemica (@totemica).
Snake in centre of stomach by James Kalinda (@jameskalinda).
Gauntlets on stomach by Mauro Maurer (@mauroxmaurer).
Knife composition on right forearm by Thomas Bates (@thomasbatestattoo).
Moth on right forearm by Maxime Plescia-Buchi (@mxmttt).
Lantern on left forearm by James Kalinda (@jameskalinda).
Eye on right shoulder blade by 6Dita (@6dita).
Torch on left shoulder blade by Christophe Bonardi (@christophe_bonardi).
Albrecht Durer signature and other text on right tricep by Mauro Maurer (@mauroxmaurer).
Bird head on right tricep by Mr Oger (@mr_oger).
Star, rope, and feather on left arm by Mauro Maurer (@mauroxmaurer).
Animal on left forearm by Sam Rulz (@samrulz).
Flower compilation on left forearm by Totemica (@totemica).
Snake on right wrist by Martin Jahn (@_martinjahn).
Back piece by Oliver (@xlxvxr).