Max hopefully won’t mind me saying that solid blackwork tattoos often receive a mixed response from the general public. If you’ve seen photos of blackout sleeves on Instagram, you’ll have also witnessed the “why would you do that to your body” comments.
In the last month, I’ve heard and seen nothing but praise for a particular piece of ongoing solid blackwork art. People are talking about Max Rathbone’s work-in-progress blastover bodysuit and shots of it have certainly been going viral online.
Max’s original creative design that juxtaposes continuous black shading with delicate negative space imagery has undoubtedly drawn attention. It has allowed a wider public to finally appreciate (and celebrate) not just solid blackwork, but bold, interesting tattoos and unique, adventurous forms of body modification.
When Max offered me the opportunity to come and be part of the final day in this lengthy tattoo process, I couldn’t say no.
When I arrive, Max has just finished shaving Kaitlin’s head. They’re both ready to place down the last piece of the bodysuit jigsaw puzzle, in the form of a gorgeous patternwork design for the back of the head. So… what could be the most annoying thing at this point for for an artist deep in concentration and a tired individual enduring immense levels of pain? Persistent questions from me, of course! Thanks for letting me distract you, guys…
Beccy (Inkluded): Tell us about the journey so far.
Max: Kaitlin has flown over, all the way from Arizona, to have this tattoo. We’ve dedicated 10 full day sessions, over 5 weeks, every Tuesday and Wednesday. The days inbetween, she’s basically been in bed healing and watching Netflix! Today is our last day together – we’re putting a patternwork design on her head, then we’re done!
B: Is this your first ever project of this size?
M: Well, I have clients (friends) that are covered in tattoos by me, on every limb, their backs, chests… but I guess in terms of one full cohesive bodysuit, yes, this is my “first one”. I didn’t design it in one go, we’ve worked on it bit by bit, piece by piece, and some elements have changed as we’ve gone along. The demon face on the back was a fresh idea for example, we decided to incorporate just yesterday actually.
B: Demon… OK, so what are some of the other elements that make up the piece?
M: Ornamental patterns, cherry blossoms, daggers, skull – no particular theme, a few different images.
Kaitlin: And don’t forget the rabbit skull on the butt!
B: Do you have a favourite part?
M: Not of the tattoo, but my favourite thing about creating this was not having to worry about how big I can go. When designing, not having a limitation on size is great. Kaitlin actually gave me a lot of freedom on this which has been amazing.
K: When I booked in, I wanted to give Max free reign with it – that’s the best thing to do with tattoos because you have to let the artist do what they are good at without too much input and nitpicking.
B: And your favourite part?
K: Too hard to choose, I like all of it. Seeing myself in a full-length mirror… I love that view! My arms are now starting to annoying me as they’re not the same as the rest of my body, so I think coming back to get those done is inevitable.
B: What drew you to a second bodysuit, Kaitlin, and Max in particular?
K: I was having my chest worked on earlier this year, filling in gaps and just thought fuck it… I’ll save and get an entire second bodysuit instead. I immediately thought of Max. His work is just great. His blackwork looks like velvet on the skin, even when it’s healed. I just didn’t see anyone in the states doing tattoos like Max’s. For me, when getting that much work done, it’s more than worth the travelling.
B: Is this your first time in the UK?
K: This is my second. I specifically came here this time just to get tattooed by Max. I did actually intend to do a bit more travelling and sightseeing whilst I was here but definitely haven’t felt like it!
B: What do you make of Birmingham?!
K: It’s nice… I mean, the weather isn’t as sunny as Arizona but there’s a lot more going on here compared to where I live. In my free time, I’ve just been wandering around, going to museums. To be honest I normally don’t leave the house on Thursdays. I just can’t after having gotten tattooed solidly the two days before.
B: So, your new bodysuit is a blastover, being created as a second layer on top of existing work. Max, is it a challenge covering tattoos underneath, especially with something of this size?
M: I’ve definitely been using what’s already there, with the negative peonies that really shows. It’s a “blastover” piece and has been designed with deep consideration of what was already on the skin. Some parts of it were easy, like the freehand peonies, as they are something I do a lot. It’s not the last bodysuit – Kaitlin plans to one day have a third layer over this second one, made from scarification.
K: I’ll need to let this settle for a while but I am thinking that in the black sections scarification would add a really nice extra design element to it. My skin won’t be ready for a while, though!
B: How has it been healing in between sessions?
M: In terms of healing, the entire project was planned very carefully. We lined the torso, then legs, then went back to the legs after they were healed. Planning was completely focused around the healing. For example, I tried to not tattoo both legs one day after the other as Kaitlin wouldn’t have been able to walk!
B: How has the blackwork healed?
M: I thought that black healing on top of existing work would be a challenge, but it’s surprisingly healed exceptionally well. There are just a few little bits that need touching up which is to be expected, but no where near as much as I thought! Any healing problems have been in areas where Kaitlin already had scar tissue. She does a lot of suspension piercing so she has some pretty substantial chunks missing from her skin in places! (both laugh)
B: The question on everyone’s lips… Kaitlin, tell me about the pain! Max says you’ve been solid as a rock.
K: I think you just learn over time – the more you get tattooed, you teach yourself how to get through it. It’s mastering the ability to divert your mind. It’s hard for me to describe but it’s definitely something that I have built up over time. When we’ve finished this though, I really don’t want anything sharp on my body for a while!
B: Most painful area?
K: Ass-crack! I’ve had lines there before, but solid black shading… it’s about as lovely as it sounds.
B: Are you desperate to do another piece like this, Max?
M: Yes, I would love to! The person would have to be as good as Kaitlin is, though. I don’t think there are many people out there like that. I couldn’t have put myself through 90% of what she’s gone through. She’s easily been the best client I’ve ever had.
B: Since you’ve posted the progress photos, has anyone else booked in for a bodysuit?
M: I am starting about 15 different back pieces in the next few months which is exciting, but no full bodysuits yet!
B: Is it all over then, or will we see you again Kaitlin?
M: I think we’ll work together on a few more pieces. She’s going to pop back next year for touch ups and perhaps some additional work on her arms. One of them has sub-dermal implants so that will be an interesting challenge to tattoo. There’s no plan yet but possibly patternwork.
K: Yes, I want to say that I am emotional about reaching the end, but… I know I will be coming back for more!
Words: Beccy Rimmer (Inkluded), Max Rathbone, Kaitlin Elodie
Photos: Lewis David, Max Rathbone
Thanks To: Second City Tattoo Club