The Headless Horseman backpiece

Getting a back piece was the first tattoo I ever wanted. Since I was 13 years old I remember. 

But little did I know that it would only become a reality 22 years later.

The year was 2013, and my friend and great tattooist Enzo Barbareschi was doing a guest spot in my old shop. After work, food and I think wine, we were talking about the tattoo scene, and how some tattooists are doing some incredible work, exchanging Instagram contacts, the new era of tattooing, etcetera, and among others, Enzo showed me the work of Peter Lagergren. I was instantly amazed. Peter’s application of colour was faultless and I could see straight away that all his artwork was original and custom made. “Where does he work?” I shouted! Sweden. He works in Malmö.

At first I thought it would be too far away to travel and get tattooed, but after checking flights and hotels, I realised it was doable. I was going to take probably 3 days off work so I can get tattooed by him. Travel in one day, get tattooed in the second, and fly back on the third. People do much longer trips to get tattooed by their favourite artists these days – as Peter would sometimes tell me, he had customers traveling all the way from South Korea to get inked.

At that time, even after years getting tattooed, I somehow still had a bare right upper arm. Which is very unusual as people tend to, or used to, start getting them on the right shoulder. Even more unusual for a tattoo artist. Mostly in warmer countries as short sleeve tops or vests are more common. It’s a particularly special place, from my point of view. A place where people choose to tattoo something (forgive the redundancy) special! Something that would be close to their hearts. It’s a place to wear a tattoo that signifies you. Something that is strongly connected to the individual. My first thought was to get a Black Sabbath tattoo, but I ended up not doing it. And that’s a different story.

I decided then to get in touch with Peter, to find out about availability and prices, and mostly if he would be interested in doing my Black Sabbath piece. I have to say that I was impressed with how soon I was going to be able to get tattooed, and that got me thinking. I looked at his online portfolio and I realised how many large-scale tattoos he was used to doing. I don’t remember exactly the price of the tattoo session, but it was a set price for a day sitting. I also don’t remember if I actually reserved the time for the tattoo before this, but I remember getting in touch with Peter again, not long after the first chat. I asked him how would he feel about, instead of tattooing a one day sitting piece, doing me a back piece instead. He obviously liked the idea and explained that we could start in a few months time, so I’d have to wait 4 months before the first sitting, but after that I was going to have one sitting every month, and get it done in 6 sessions. I was again amazed. 6 all day sittings and I can finally get my back piece done? Start to finish? Hell fucking yeah! And I then booked them all.

So the plan was to start it in September and get a sitting done every month until its completion in February 2014. I thought that was great. I had the money for the trips and tattoo, and I had people working in the shop so I could keep it open whilst I was away. Now, I had to decide what I was going to get.

People that know me know that Black Sabbath is one of my favourite bands, Geezer Butler is my favourite bass player, Toni, Bill, Ozzy, Ronnie… I moved to Birmingham because of this band. My first gig as a singer at the age of 14 included a cover of Paranoid. But, to get a full proper Black Sabbath back piece was a bit too much for me. So I postponed that idea. All I wanted was for it to be fierce and mean, and I decided on the Headless Horseman instead.

This infamous spectre is a character from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, by the American author Washington Irving. It was published for the first time in 1820. According to Wikipedia, the story was written while Irving was living abroad, in Birmingham, England. That was a way I found to pay homage to Birmingham and its literary culture, which also includes J.R.R Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (one of the best-selling books ever written), whose most notable novels were also written in Birmingham.

Considering that I would not meet Peter before the first outline session, I had to send him a photo of my back so he could draw it to fit. There is always a huge amount of anticipation in the days or weeks before your tattoo appointment. As a tattoo artist myself I know how people get excited but also nervous and often insecure. I was aware of the amount of pain of the consecutive hours under the needle (or so I thought I was) but regarding the design I was curious but confident it was going to be epic. I didn’t ask him to send me anything prior. So I waited four long months.

Flights, train tickets and hotel booked. Money in Swedish currency, route planned, someone to take care of the cat, check. And it’s finally time to hit the road.

Malmö is a lovely city. It’s clean and looks safe. People are friendly. The hotel where I stayed was humble and the breakfast was good. You know that people say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I agree, and for tattoo appointment days, with a full day booked? You can get serious about increasing your calorie intake. And that’s what I did. The hotel was walking distance to the tattoo shop, and I had plenty of time to look around on my way there, but I didn’t, because I was too excited to get tattooed, to meet Peter and finally see my tattoo design.

When I got there, I was not impressed by the size of the shop, I have to say. It was just big enough for 2 tattooists to work, with a fair size reception and a back room with toilet, copy and stencil machine and probably a little kitchen. My shop at the time was easily 5 times bigger. But what made it more impressive was the amount of large scale tattoo stencils fixed to the walls. It was amazing to see how such an incredible amount of large, high quality tattoos would come out of there. It was very humbling. That morning Peter was there on his own still getting everything ready as because of my anxiety I got there 30 minutes earlier. It is so impressive how there is a sense of calmness before getting a big tattoo when the tattooist is experienced.

It was a huge outline drawing. I could see the cool horse and the torso of the horseman, and a few severed heads hanging on his waist. One of them actually looked like me!

I looked at it quickly as that’s how it usually happens to most people and I said it was great, so he went in the back to make the stencil. I don’t know if he made it smaller or bigger in the copier machine. The stencil was applied in one go and I could see it on my sides. That’s one cool thing about back pieces. It’s the prime area in the body to get inked, as it can be big and it will mostly look flat. And then you think: that’s gonna hurt.

And boy. It did hurt. Peter said at some point that the lines didn’t really need to be extremely sharp and clean, due to the size of the whole piece. That’s actually true, but I don’t know if that was also a polite way to say that I was moving around a bit. It was painful and I couldn’t not tense up. It changed the way I talked to my customers about pain after that.

That was a good 6 hours of outlining, and afterwards I was exhausted. I thanked Peter for the great job and amazing experience and I headed back to the hotel, getting a pizza on the way.

It is such a great feeling to be able to endure a long tattoo session. For a few days you don’t even want to think about getting tattooed, but you already know that you will be able to do it again after a month or so. And that joy of knowing that you will get a back piece done, from start to finish.

I was really impressed by how Peter managed to organise the sessions in colours and get done pretty much all he needed to do each time. I didn’t wear my glasses laying on my front and it was uncomfortable having it on my face, but the power supply was just by my head, and I’m pretty sure that every half an hour or so he would crank up the voltage. Maybe I was too tense, and I understand that, but it looked like 20 volts. I never even heard of tattoo power supplies that reach that. I must be wrong. It doesn’t matter though, because he did what he needed to do to get the results that both of us wanted. And it was looking epic.

I stayed in the same hotel for the first 3 trips, and then, I decided to change. That next session was going to be all the fire in the bottom of the design, mid and lower back and glutes.

I will tell you something. I really felt I was paying for all my sins that day. Jesus. I would never have imagined that it would be so bad. But I trusted that it wasn’t him mad at me and it was simply the area! Glutes and lower back kills, for your information.

That evening I came back to the hotel with a pizza and a beer, and I was feeling exhausted again. The heating in the room was good and I decided to, this time, not cover the tattoo with cling film at night. My plan was to sleep on my front all night and not use the blankets. The bedsheets were white… But when I woke up in the morning I noticed that not covering the tattoo was a bad mistake. The bed sheets were stained with red marks of blood and red ink everywhere as if a murder had happened in that bed that night. I had to put a big sign so the cleaner would see it before seeing the bed so they knew what had happened instead of freaking out!

McDonalds was the same as anywhere else. The seashore was as cold as it gets and my face froze. It’s a beautiful place and I had the most amazing chips and steak. I went to a busy pub and it took a while for the food to come. I was almost fainting as I needed to recover my energy. It was worth the wait. For the food, for the tattoo appointments, for the trains and flights. For it to heal. I learned how to apply cream on my back with the back of a spoon. How to cling film my whole back on my own. I also learned how important it is to wash your tattoo well with hot water. I learned that the Swedes give you a portion of onions in a little plastic bag as an extra pizza topping. In Sweden you can walk your dog wearing a fur coat. You can also cycle everywhere and the cars have special tires with spikes for the icy road conditions. I also learn that Sweden has incredible tattoo artists doing such amazing work everyday.

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