Tattooist Rafel Delalande on Death, Rebellion, and Being Exorcised
If blood were black, it would have been touched by the ink of one of the most talented artists of the dark art of tattoo. Hidden in his little room in the back of Seven Doors Tattoo in London, Rafel Delalande is surrounded by skulls, amulets, stones, small sculptures and all the drawings that he has been collecting in the past 15 years of his career as a tattoo artist. Inspired by the underground music and horror movies, he considers tattoos a harsh rebellion against religion and society and for this reason he thinks they need to be unique and scary. What you are going to read is the vision of Rafel Delalande.
You’re based in London, but you’re not from England. How did you end up here?
I came here for a girl. I was staying here quite often, and I met a girl. So I decided to move to London. That’s the reason.
You travel the world with your needles and ink. But can you please also tell us more about your roots?
I was born in Mallorca, Spain (I’m part Spanish, part French) and then I moved to France. I always wanted to do something with visuals. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. But that doesn’t mean that much, you know. And I started tattooing when I was 20 years old. I’ve been lucky because I’ve met lots of interesting people throughout my career. And, yeah, I ended up here, in a really nice place.
I saw a picture of you, a younger you, during Semana Santa. Do you think your cultural heritage has influenced your attitude as an artist?
Yes, definitely. When I was in Spain, the visuals were all really Catholic, with a pagan aspect. That’s part of it. Semana Santa is a good example, but also Saint Michael with the devil in the church. All the devil stuff is part of the Catholic imagery. I also come from a very Catholic family, so that probably influenced my fear of the devil. Catholic imagery is really bloody. The central symbol for Catholicism is the crucifixion, and it’s full of blood and calvaria – that means skull. I really like also the representation of Saint Lucy with her eyes on the dish. All this imagery is the base of my work. Also, the devil is the adversary because I come from a Catholic family. This has been my way of rebellion. When I moved to France, I remember going to church with an Iron Maiden t-shirt on. It’s the best way to piss off the priest. It works.
You told me you started drawing when you were a child. Do you remember what your favorite subjects were?
Devils, dinosaurs, Semana Santa. I have some stuff on my Instagram that I drew when I was six or seven years old. It was like devils, capuchins, dinosaurs, and monsters. I started collecting skulls when I was a kid, also. I’ve always liked these things. Lots of kids like these things, but it never changed for me. You usually like monsters when you’re a kid, and then you grow up, and you change. It never changed for me.
How much does art, in general, affect your work? Who is your favorite artist or art movement?
I think the main influences are movies and music, but mostly movies. I do lots of The Devil Rides Out, Eyes Without a Face, Nosferatu, the Klaus Kinski one, Suspiria, Christopher Lee, Michael Berryman.
And your subjects experience deep fears like death, decomposition, and possession. What does it mean for you to deal with these subjects and why are you attracted to them?
I think it’s the rebellion thing. Like I said, I come from a super Catholic background, so I’ve been raised with a fear of the devil. I was scared of monsters when I was a kid. That’s probably why I drew so many. Kids are afraid of the monster in the closet, but if you draw it, it becomes yours. It’s probably that.
I think death is a very universal subject. Everybody can relate to it. It’s what makes everyone the same; everybody, from the king and the pope to the working class. Death and skulls are a classic subject. And then devil tattoos are a bit more accepted now, but it was something more rebellious. So I tried to keep in line with the punks, so that’s probably why I use these symbols.
You mentioned that your art is inspired by movies. Who is your favorite director or film in general?
I really like Italians, like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Then, the French director Franju who did Eyes Without a Face; that’s my favorite movie. I really like the cult people like I Walk with a Zombie by Jacques Tourneur. And all the cheesier stuff too. Yesterday I watched A Night in a Cemetery, you know the Lamberto Bava, and Demons. All these things that are bit softer, but I really like them.
Do you have a particular childhood story or memory related to one of your tattoos?
I got a lot of tattoos while traveling. I got tattooed by my friend Guy [Le Tatooer] a lot who I travel very often with. I know those were nice moments, but I don’t really remember everything because I used to party and drink a lot. I don’t anymore. I got this devil here [on the shoulder]. I remember a little bit. It was one of our first guest spots in London with him. Or one night we did Liam in Berlin, tattooing the sole of his foot at 2:00 a.m. But the same thing, I don’t really have that many memories because of that.
What do you think about the tattoo scene these days?
I think the level of quality has never been higher. But I’m quite bitter about the tattoo scene nowadays, because one of the things I like about tattoos is the traditional aspect of it, that wants you to respect your elders, and I think there are still so many tattoo artists that I really, really love. I like to be the small fish in a big ocean, and I think nowadays people prefer to be the big fish in their small aquarium.
I think you have too many people nowadays without any background in tattooing and this is because of social media. I’ve been tattooing for a long time now, for 15 years. And I waited so long to show my stuff because I thought I wasn’t ready. And now you have people coming out like one-trick ponies. I just do black, but I try to have as many techniques as possible. I think people don’t really understand that. I think it’s a lot about how many followers you have on the Internet. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t be able to do the work I do if tattoos weren’t so mainstream. But it’s like with music, I like the underground to stay underground.
Have you ever said “no” to anyone?
Oh, yeah, often and for many reasons. I had one guy that started getting tattooed here and wanted blast over when he only had a few tattoos. Or visible tattoos when they don’t have any others.
Like maybe on the face or on the hand?
Yeah. I don’t get asked for that many face tattoos, and if I do, I’m able to decide whether or not I want to do it. I’d rather do a walk-in infinity sign than a face tattoo on someone when I think it’s a bad idea.
Your logo and some of your lettering works remind me of the black metal culture. What impact does music have on your work?
My logo was done by an Italian guy named Raul (View from the Coffin).
Oh, I know him!
Yeah, he’s incredible. I wanted somebody to draw my logo because I needed something that I could keep for a long time. My drawings are always changing and improving, and I’d often need a new design.
How did you meet him?
Internet. He came to Pietro [Sedda], at The Saint Mariner in Milan (Italy). I got in contact with him, and he came to get tattooed, and we decided to do it. He doesn’t usually give away the originals, but he made an exception.
So does music have an impact on your work?
Yes, it does. Lots of different kinds of music inspire my art. I listen to metal, but I also listen to almost everything.
Are you into black metal?
I’m really into black metal, but there are lots of other things I listen to. Lots.
French hip-hop. I’m crazy about French hip-hop. And I know a lot about French hip-hop. They’re the only ones in French music who know how to use the French language nowadays. There’s lots of shit also. I like Sleep, but I listen to lots of different things. I really like Amenra. I think they’re incredible on stage.
The other thing with black metal is that the music is incredible, and the visuals and everything on stage: red lights, spikes, corpse paintings. It’s a whole experience, like theater. I really like that. That’s one of the things about black metal that I love. And then you have the political aspect, but I try to keep this on the side because the music is more important for me. If you see my family there is black, white, gays there’s everything.
How did you get into extreme music?
It’s the best way to rebel against religion.
So rebellion is an essential thing for you?
I’m a tattoo artist, and nowadays it’s considered a normal thing and super fashionable, but that’s why I try to be. There are different levels. When people talk to me, they’re not scared, but when they see me on the street, and they don’t know me, they are. There are different levels. It’s still possible to do scary tattoos.
I mean, you do…
I try. I can do super clean stuff, but sometimes I like to get a bit rough. A bit too dark. I use just black, but I want to have different techniques. But I love to go really rough when I do the devil or stuff like that. And people are going to think it’s not nicely drawn or whatever.
That’s the idea: to not be acceptable.
Talking about music… If you could choose three records that could tell the story about who you are, what would they be and why?
Well, it’s not going to be black metal. One is Ænima by Tool because as a teenager I listened to it all the time. The music, the visuals… There were bands at that time that I used to listen to a lot, and now I don’t anymore. But this album for me is incredible.
Then, Carpathian Forest. They’re kind of like the GG Allin of black metal. You put a tiny bit of punk in black metal, and it makes it even more incredible. As for a third album, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be La Rumeur, French hip-hop. It’s kind of underground French hip hop. Regain de Tension it’s terrific. They don’t burn churches; they burn cars. But the sentiment behind it all is quite similar.
In France, it’s not okay to be different. They don’t like differences in France. Whereas in London – and I don’t know about the rest of England – being different is quality. Whereas in France it’s like, “But people are going to look at you!” Especially in Paris. Everything that people say about French people is not entirely true. When people talk about French people, they actually mean Parisians. You know, about them being snobby. I have lots of Parisian friends, and I don’t want them to hate me for saying this, but Paris is a shithole. I fucking hate it. Everybody hates everybody, and I don’t like it.
Have you ever collaborated with any bands and drawn their cover art? Either the album or the logo.
I did this thing with Watain for Hellfest, and I did the jackets for the exhibition with Judas Priest. I got to meet Rob Halford. That was incredible.
If you could choose an artist or a band, dead or alive, to collaborate with, who would it be and why?
I would love to do a cover for Darkthrone. I listened to Transilvanian Hunger for the first time when I was 15 years old. It was a revolution for me and I think Darkthrone has everything you want in black metal. It’s probably the best black metal band ever.
And were you parents happy that you listened to this kind of music?
Oh, no. My mom took me to get exorcized. We traveled from France to Italy to go see a real exorcist.
How was that?
It was exactly like in the movies. A tall guy that looked like God but with short hair. Black dress. Like the exorcisms in the film: the same thing. It was awful. I wanted to make jokes, but I didn’t want to scare my mom at the same time. I was ashamed for a while, but then I realized it’s good for my street credibility… (he laughs)
Anything else you would like to talk about?
Going back to tattoos, what pisses me off about tattoo culture nowadays is that there are lots of people who pretend to be something that they are not.
What do you mean?
People act so traditionally when in fact they started tattooing a year ago. That means you’re not old school. You’ll be old school when you’ve been tattooing for 30 years, like Pietro Sedda, for example. People rip off his ideas so much. The guy gets his work ripped off so much. And now people call it a “style” when they rip off somebody else. So I think there are lots of fake people in the tattoo world. And I don’t really get it, because if you do something creative, you’re supposed to talk about yourself in a way, you know?
With tattoos, you have these two things: you follow a tradition, but you also have the possibility of talking about yourself. And that’s something that pisses me off, makes me sad and that I don’t really understand.