Axe Painted Blood: An Interview with the Artist Who Drew Lucifer in Blood on Gary Holt’s Guitar

Creating iconic metal songs takes blood, sweat, tears... but mostly blood, according to artist Vincent Castiglia and Slayer's Gary Holt.

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Jan 27 2016, 3:00pm

Music of the heavy variety is rooted in the act of sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears, often in the revelation of truth, darkness, and passion. But what about adorning one of the most important parts of the music, the instrument, in your own blood, as an extension of yourself, changing the way the crowd interprets the music?

That's what Slayer's Gary Holt unveiled to the world at NAMM 2016, after commissioning 33-year-old Brooklyn artist and tattoo artist Vincent Castiglia to drain him of 18 vials of Holt's own blood backstage to create a custom guitar. This piece of functional art is said to be the first of its kind, and might be the start of a trend; the musician's literal take of putting blood, sweat, and tears into their craft, and Castiglia seems to be the man that musicians call for the task. The artist who paints exclusively in human blood (and in his earlier days, semen) has been compared to Michelangelo and DaVinci for his intricacy and beautiful workmanship. Another impressive feat? Castiglia is the first American artist to receive a solo exhibition at Switzerland's H.R. Giger Museum. His paintings are an examination of humanity in its cycle of decay: morally, psychologically, biologically. Hence the literal juxtaposition of living and dead tissue.

His themes range from destructive to victorious, rooted in survival and truth—much like the music created by the rock and metal musicians who commission him to create paintings, custom instruments, and tattoo designs. In fact, Castiglia has sold works to Gregg Allman, Martin Eric Ain, and Kerry King, and album art for Triptykon—but he's just getting started. His visuals vary from nightmarish to heavenly, but the Holt guitar is painted in a depiction of Lucifer. It might possibly be the start of other high-profile musicians vying for custom instruments decorated with their blood; Castiglia has already been commissioned by another artist whose name he can't quite release just yet.

Noisey: Your art very much resonates with the same type of lyrical content in heavier music. How do you feel it relates to music personally for you?
Vincent Castiglia
: Music is just as important to me as art. One is complimented by the other in amazing ways. I'm inextricably bound to both.

What were the challenges you faced while painting the guitar?
Well, the Gary Holt guitar was released by ESP as a limited edition. Gary gave me free reign over it, saying he wanted something "really sick." The guitar features a classical depiction of Lucifer, the fallen angel, painted entirely in Gary's blood, which I collected backstage at a Slayer show six months ago. I painted the entire front body of the guitar, headstock and pickups, and some of the back of the neck. It's the first piece of functional art I created.

I had to do a lot of different things opposed to a canvas; it wasn't easy. It was my first time working on a guitar; with blood on that type of medium. I usually work on watercolor paper. I got a quarter through and it wasn't going anywhere; the blood was just getting pushed around. It wasn't adhering.

Photo by Nathaniel Shannon

NAMM is a great place to unveil a project like that. Did anything else of note occur besides the unveiling?
John Burowski, who is working on a documentary called Bloodlines about my life and work, was also there. John is an award-winning filmmaker whose worked on many interesting figures – all of which have been serial killers to date. I'm the first who isn't.

That they know of. What are you most anxious about with this documentary?
Yes, that they know of! Anxious, as in a good way, right? I feel good about it, working with John and the facts of the matter. They're there. I'm excited for people to get an in-depth look into the process. But then at the same time, John suggested in the beginning that it should focus on my work and life, like biographical from birth 'til now. And that takes a different spin on things you know? I'm totally into it, but this will be the first time that my whole life is out there.

When you use the word "anxious" that's the sentiment that I get. It covers everything; you know, spots where I wasn't doing so hot. And you know... substance issues. But it's the reality of the situation, so it's fine by me.

It made you what inspires your art.
I feel that way. It's just... yes. There's a lot of circumstances there, thus the work had a lot of inspiration.

After being commissioned for the Gary Holt guitar, have you had other musicians approach you for similar projects?
Yeah, I have. There's one on the table right now that I'm really excited about. I can't say who it is just yet because it's not quite there yet. But I do look forward to doing more projects like this, with instruments. Obviously, select projects. It's not something I would just do constantly. I would want it to be for, you know, special artists whose work I admire.

And I believe this is the first of its kind in history. I started working on the project, and I was really enjoying it once I could get the blood to stay. I started doing some research to find similar projects. I couldn't find anything like it that exists.

"The Sleep" / Image courtesy of Vincent Castiglia

Have you seen more people start working in the medium of blood?
Yes. You know, I'm not the first person in human history to have done it. At the same time, after I had done it for a number of years, and established certain precedence and got a lot of press, I started to see it a lot more. Particularly after the National Geographic segment on my work a couple years back.

Have you seen a change in the shift of how people view your work?
Yes, but the work has always been pretty well received. Depending on what the subject matter might look like, there's always going to be a certain number of people who are uncomfortable with anything that makes them question their mortality or makes them contemplate their reality or makes them realize they might not exist at some point. My pieces examine mortality and the human experience, so for people who have not made peace with those things, I think it can make the response a negative one? But it's very little. Hopefully everyone else can see there's something more meaningful going on.

What paintings of yours do you feel are comparable to bands or albums?
I couldn't say that any one song or musician directly influenced any of my paintings. But if you're looking for a few song/painting comparisons I could think of, I'd compare "The Sleep" [owned by Celtric Frost's Martin Eric Ain] to Pantera, and "Gravity" to A Perfect Circle."