We’ve been quietly stalking HTMLflowers (aka Grant Gronewold) these past few years since we found him through Simon Hanselmann’s Girl Mountain tumblr. The pair are housemates, living and working together in a most intense fashion – drawing, eating, sleeping and dabbling with chemicals together – but that’s something we’ve explored here if you want to find out more.
Today is all about Grant, specifically his new book Virtual Candle that’s being released through Space Face in the next few weeks. It’s a collection of one-off drawings, comics and a selection of some of Grant’s favourite stick-and-poke tattoos, inked on his friends in exchange for food, a bed for the night or just out of love. We’re totally stoked that he’s finally releasing a book, so we pestered him while he languished in a hospital bed to get a sneak peek at his art-book debut.
The book is a huge combination of comics work, one-off drawings and your tattoo work. How did you go about refining everything down to go into it?
It was pretty straightforward really. Most of it’s colour stuff that I couldn’t afford to print solo. I felt like I knew how I wanted the book to look but I took my time putting it together and failed two deadlines I set for myself. Once I’d collected all the work I pored over it a couple of times and then I asked Simon [Hanselmann] what he thought. He wanted one other piece called Madame Spongebob to be in it, but that was burned in a house fire sadly.
Your tattooing technique is pretty traditional. Tell us a bit about it and how you learned.
It started with my dear friend Oliver Van Der Lugt who had learned from movies I think, and a few tidbits online. I was coming close to my third life expectancy and I just wanted to regain some kind of control over my body. We boiled some needles and tattooed some dumb shit in some very visible spots. From then on me and a few friends – Paul Stillen and Miso – really took it and ran with it. At first it was therapy but the more I did it the more people asked me to do it for them. I travel around doing it now. It’s a great thing to be able to trade for a meal and a place to stay.
I don’t use a gun, I only manually apply each marking with a needle in hand. It is healthier for the skin, causes less scarification, takes longer and you can achieve a finer level of detail. I’m nearing ten years on my first stick-and-pokes and they haven’t changed, so as far as I know there is no danger of them fading or warping any more than a gun tattoo would – despite what the industry would have you believe. I think this slower more hands-on process really suits my interests and skill set.
“I’ve used Tumblr to become a B-level internet celeb. I get to tattoo all around the globe and make friends from every continent and support myself financially (sometimes) thanks to Tumblr.”
Also you’ve got an interesting tattooing philosophy in terms of who you do it for and how you do it. Can you tell us a bit about that too?
In the least I see it as medicine, at most I see it as a form of witchcraft, symbolising an idea or emotion and giving it power through ritual, pain and meditation. I try my hardest to only do tattoos I believe in but in all honesty sometimes I need to pay rent so I take a job that I otherwise wouldn’t. Luckily it’s rare that I have to do a design that I’m not charmed by or haven’t designed myself.
As it is a really personal thing when I design something for someone I’ll never tattoo that design on anyone else, unless of course the original holder of the design and its meaning consents to me sharing it. I’ve heard some people have just gone to a parlour with a design of mine they saw online before. I guess the integrity and its exclusivity is important to me.
You explore your illness Cystic Fibrosis a lot in your work but does it add a pressure in terms of how much work you want to produce? Being given only a couple of years to live age 19 seems like it spurred you to be really prolific.
Yeah I don’t feel well if I don’t work every day – like in my head. The older I’m growing the more I’m forced to spend hours exercising and doing treatments to combat my decaying health. If I did everything my doctors wanted me to I would be doing up to six hours a day of treatments. Then of course there’s just trying to reserve some energy for making things and being with the people I love. It’s a brutal life sometimes, but I was born like this and I’m done fighting that. Recently a friend of mine passed away from an overdose and it spurred me to quit the drugs that were killing me quicker – so that’s good. 95 days now! Smiley face emoticon.
The new thing for me is slowing down and trying to be ok with producing less work. I think patience can help me refine my shit or whatever – I have to sort of believe that to maintain hope. My current life expectancy is 35. A lot of people tell me not to put stock in that but I don’t know how to live without that threat. I think there is power in expecting to die young.
“My stepdad would be so embarrassed about how useless he told me I was when I was growing up if he had any idea how important my work was to some people.”
Some of what you’ve published here is also available on your Tumblr, how does that work in terms of the community that exists there and the support/criticism they offer you?
Well there’s actually over 50 pages of previously unseen content, but yes, a lot of the book is published on Tumblr which has really been as important a tool for me as any pencil. I’ve used Tumblr to become a B-level internet celeb. I get to tattoo all around the globe and make friends from every continent and support myself financially (sometimes) thanks to Tumblr. One of the best things about it is just the beautiful fan mail I receive near daily. It really helps when you hate yourself as much as I do to receive letters from people who feel moved by you.
Some people write me telling me something I wrote or created pulled them back from the edge of suicide or helped them understand a loved one with a life-threatening illness or reconcile their issues with their own existence as someone who is suffering from chronic illness. My stepdad would be so embarrassed about how useless he told me I was when I was growing up if he had any idea how important my work was to some people. I never dreamed my thoughts and craft could be so useful. I’m moving on to Instagram now too. Watching that follower count rise on the daily!
What’s your favourite part of the book?
My favourite parts are probably the Twins section and also the tattoos. I love writing the Twins. They’re avatars for me and my closest friends and adventures we’ve had or ones we should have had. Of course my tattoo work is one of my greatest prides. I can’t believe people let me mark them forever. Crazy ding dongs! I love you all you crazy ding dongs!
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