Manhattan-based surrealist Vincent Castiglia uses his own blood to create profound visions of life and death
At 33 years old, Vincent Castiglia has received a staggering amount of acknowledgment for his artwork. The Manhattan-based figurative surrealist has created portraits for comedian Margaret Cho and musician Gary Holt of Slayer. He has shown in galleries throughout the U.S and abroad. But just as singular as Castiglia’s fine work, is the medium in which he creates — his own blood.
Castiglia’s imagery examines human existence and mortality, and his fascination with the meaning of life has motivated his profound subject matter. The celebrated artist sat down recently to talk about his life, his work, his unique choice in medium and his practice as a tattoo artist when he is not putting brush to canvas. Several Wyoming Valley artists weighed in on Castiglia’s work, offering their thoughts about his work and philosophies as an artist.
Life and death through art
“I’ve been making art in one form or another for my whole life,” Castiglia said. “To be forthright, it started as a kind of distraction from my environment, from my living situation. My whole situation was really not a good one, so I drew obsessively for that reason. It was a place I could go to that was comfortable, that was preferable over the reality situation.”
Castiglia’s paintings almost always contain contrasting imagery of life and death, and contrasting elements of light and dark to the point where his figures stand out from their backgrounds in a stark, stunning way.
“As soon as we’re born, we’re dying and forced into this existence where we’re temporary,” Castiglia said. “We’ve got a limited amount of days. So … what do you do with that time, and how do you bring purpose to a life, and what’s the human experience all about? That’s what the work probes.”
Ryan Malarkey, co-owner of Kingston’s The Strange and Unusual Oddities Parlor and tattoo artist, said she has been painting since the age of 7. Malarkey graduated as a critic award winner from the Fashion Institute of Technology. After working in the fashion industry, she said she left to pursue something more fulfilling and began making the transition to tattooing. She said she works mostly in black and grey and creates feminine imagery that contours to the human anatomy. Like Castiglia, Malarkey was trained as a painter prior to taking up tattooing, so her development happened in a similar way to his; getting familiar with a tattoo machine as instrument and skin as canvas.
“I think it’s painted in a classic, beautiful way,” she said of Castiglia’s art. “It reminds me a lot of Leonardo da Vinci if Leonardo da Vinci was resurrected in our modern day. (da Vinci) really went out on a limb and I think if he were to go even further, this would have been the new evolution.”
Castiglia said the motivation for his subject matter comes from the the path he’s walked thus far.
“My biggest inspiration, so to speak, was circumstance and my life experience, because that’s what really motivated me to create the art in the first place, and the imagery itself, it’s coming from the sincerest place,” Castiglia said.
For Castiglia, those personal experiences developed into images.
“These are allegories of what I believe to be experiences that are universal to human beings,” he said. “There’s love and there’s fear and there’s hope and there’s death and decay, and there’s also regeneration and life and sex and betrayal; everything in the whole gamut of human experience. It’s an honest conveyance of experiences that touched me deeply enough to inspire a painting.”
Malarkey said Castiglia’s allegory conveys deep meaning through symbolism and she identifies with Castiglia’s embracing death as a part of the life cycle.
“We own an oddities parlor and people think we have a whole store of death, but in reality we’re preserving the life that was once so beautiful, and we’re acknowledging that it does all come to an end, and it doesn’t need to be buried in the ground and forgotten about forever,” Malarkey said. “It should be celebrated.”
Blood as a medium
Castiglia, who primarily deals in human figures, said he began using his blood to create when he was searching for a deep, intimate connection to his creations.
“Through the use of the blood, something real for the first time was communicated and blew me away,” Castiglia said. “Everything I was trying to get out on these services, was communicated expressly with this one substance. It’s organic, and it’s a piece of me, and blood is an indication of there being a pain involved with its issuance. And it was human figures that I was creating and that was lending itself to it, using a substance that is uniquely human and delivers life to our flesh. I’m rendering flesh with it, so it was just a completion of a conceptual circle for me.”
Breandan Angley has several creative outlets. The 570 Tattooing Co. apprentice grew up drawing and painting, went to photography school and worked as a professional photographer.
Angley was impressed with Castiglia’s depiction of anatomy and attention to detail.
“He’s definitely very, very intricate,” Angley said. “You can tell he’s been doing this a long, long time. His contrast is great. I like the way his background is almost a separate piece in itself. He’s using his blood as a medium and you can see that he’s not taking away from it. There’s a lot of veiny looking strokes and a lot of flesh strokes.”
Castiglia uses religious iconography in much of his work. Those elements are key pieces to his personal spirituality.
“This is where I’m communing,” Castiglia said. “For that reason, I’ve incorporated into my visual language elements that are reminiscent of the religious experience. In terms of the Christ motif, that’s something that I identify with on a personal level. I identify with the suffering of that story.”
In his art, Castiglia said the religious-looking elements are allegory pointing to his personal experiences and don’t have religious or dogmatic connotations.
Shaun Flinn, an award winning artist who has had a six-year tenure at 570 Tattooing Co., describes his style as new school illustrative, tending toward bright color and cartoon-like figures, although he works in black and grey to depict more realistic imagery. His background includes years of art classes throughout high school and college. He has a penchant for comic book art, and said he likes to create fun images.
Flinn said he sees both the architectural elements and the contrast of natural to unnatural elements in Castiglia’s work.
“I see a lot of the church window (architecture) in it,” Flinn said. “It seems to be a theme. It’s really recognizable. It definitely speaks to people. That, and it’s got a nice architectural contrast from all the organic things he has going on. He makes things pop quite a bit.”
Skin as canvas
Castiglia talked a bit about tattooing, putting in perspective his affinity for another medium.
“I respect and appreciate the medium as well as the people I get to interact with and lives I touch through the medium,” he said. “It’s one of the most intense mediums. If you’re going to do something permanent like tattooing, you better take that really seriously. It’s gravely serious. You’re altering peoples’ bodies forever, and you will feel the weight of that when someone walks out the door.”
He said he has a different kind of connection with the work he does on the body of another human being.
“Tattooing … is another mode of communication and another mode of really heavy intimacy that goes on between the artist and the art work. And then, dealing with the client as a human being, because over the course of a tattoo, people open up and so do I. The way I look at it is, reality is difficult enough to navigate without having to think about what you share with who. I’m kind of like an open book. It’s an exchange on several levels. There’s something powerful going on in the process.
“It’s a very heavy exchange and it’s a responsibility that I take seriously,” Castiglia said “There’s a lot of planning involved. I design everything digitally on top of photos of their body. By the time I slip this thing on, it’s like a glove. It’s tailor made.”
Donovan White is a resident tattoo artist at 570 Tattooing Co. He began drawing and painting as a boy and became hooked on tattoo art after his father got a tattoo to memorialize his grandfather. White owned a shop in West Nanticoke before joining 570 in October, and he tends toward both realism and surrealism in his work.
The multi-medium artist likes challenges, like trying to paint a portrait on glass. He admires the daring risk of Castiglia’s style.
“He’s daring, and it definitely makes a statement in every one of his pieces,” White said. “His work seems to be directional. It gives the pieces a lot of motion, and he has very high contrast, which I appreciate a lot.”
White expressed admiration for Castiglia’s philosophy on tattooing, agreeing with the great personal connection it creates.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “Somebody who’s going to be willing to trust you, they’re giving you their body. Every tattoo that you do, you want to put your style in it, and you want to put as much effort into it as possible. Some of the best tattoos, in my opinion, are memorial tattoos. This person just lost someone, and they’re coming to you for closure or to remember that specific person. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. That’s a bond that you and that person share.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651
Extracting the medium:
Castiglia collects his blood by performing a self-administered phlebotomy, much in the vein a doctor would, but his method of gathering his vital medium developed via experience, through the course of trial and error experimentation. While the artist remembers early instances where he let too much too quickly, he now harvests just enough of himself so his body does not want for it and he can create as often as he pleases.