Marks of Permanence on Paper and Skin: In Conversation with David Sena

In NYC’s Little Italy, nestled into the west side of Centre Street near Grand Street, you’ll find one of the neighborhood’s cultural gems: David Sena’s tattoo parlor and art gallery, Senaspace. Sena, a world famous tattoo artist and fine artist known for using pyrotechnic techniques to create large-scale wall pieces, recently invited Artifactoid to his workshop at Brooklyn Art Studios to catch a glimpse of some of his latest projects and techniques. Check out our Q&A with exclusive video footage below, and stop by Senaspace for the latest show or some fresh ink.
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Artifactoid: Tell me about your background using pyrotechnic techniques in your art. How did they evolve and lead to “Colored Smoke?”

DS: I began using the pyrotechnic techniques in my art work about 20 years ago… I was in art school at The Cooper Union and one day was at a gallery in SoHo where I saw an artist that had done some “paintings” or drawings on canvas with candle soot.  For one of my 2D Design assignments we were to do a self portrait using the grid system to breakdown the image into small squares and then assign a value to each square. Then, the portrait was made with the collection of values in the grid, similar to a Chuck Close painting.  Remembering the candle soot drawings, I thought to use a lighter to burn in different values from light to dark on the grid layout.  This was my first experience using fire to make art.
 Sena3

The following year I was in a drawing course, and was looking for new ways to make marks on paper.  Traditional mediums such as pencil, charcoal, and ink weren’t giving me the look or aesthetic I was looking for and my thoughts went back the lighter portrait.  As a child I had a big fascination with fire and always loved lighting off fireworks.  I remembered from experiences how the fireworks would sometimes leave behind burnt marks on the concrete or wooden surfaces I would light them off on.  So I had an idea to get some fireworks, light them off on a sheet of paper and see what happened.  I acquired some fireworks in Chinatown, did some experiments, and right away had found what I was looking for.  Since then I have built a large selection of techniques using fireworks and other volatile materials to make my art.

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Artifactoid: Describe how you created the mechanism you developed to make the “Colored Smoke” pieces. 

DS: The “Colored Smoke” pieces  were created by using a few different tools, i.e, a compass, which the colored smoke bombs can be mounted on, then used to draw lines on the paper with.  The smoke bombs emit colored smoke and saturate the paper when directed at the surface.

Artifactoid: What are some of the biggest challenges that come along with making this type of art, and how did you overcome them?

DS: I would say constantly being cautious and safe with using fire in a controlled environment is one of the biggest challenges.

This is constantly on my mind – to be aware of what I’m doing and not let any particular process or fire get out of hand to where an unwanted fire is started. Fire can obviously be dangerous, so I rigorously remain alert to any prevent any accidents.

Artistically, the challenge is to make art and not wind up with simply a burnt piece of paper. I am exerting different amounts of control over the process but not everything can be foreseen so I have to be open to the marks the fireworks make and use them to best accomplish the desired design and composition.  The process builds upon itself and I am always finding new techniques as I work with different pyrotechnics and tools.

Artifactoid: How does your career as a tattoo artist influence your additional artistic practices?

DS: My career as a tattoo artist has coexisted well with my studio work. I feel they are very similar in their very direct and permanent means of making marks on paper or skin,  just as I cannot erase a tattooed line, I cannot undo a burnt line on paper.  The tattoo imagery I work with has also come to be included in some of the more illustrative subjects of my fire drawings.  Luckily my career as a tattoo artist has provided me with the time and resources to keep making my fine art, all the while keeping my hand and mind in creative practice.

Artifactoid: What are some other ideas and techniques for pyrotechnic art you’re looking forward to testing out in the future?

DS: I would like to start doing larger-scale projects and installations with my pyrotechnic techniques.  I would also like to incorporate light and video projections as I did in some early work.

Tonight, Thursday, July 14th 2015 from 6PM-9PM, is the opening reception for “New Amsterdam, Photographs by Richard Koek” at Senaspace, 229 Centre Street, New York, NY. Look forward to seeing you there!
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