The week of April 24, 2016

How Neeko Bonzini’s solar brands are transforming him

By Cynthia McKelvey

On a bright April afternoon in Oakland, California, Neeko Bonzini dons his gloves and pair of tinted welding goggles. He bows his head to say a silent prayer. Taking a tangerine-sized quartz sphere between his fingers, he lowers it to his foot, where a bright point of focused sunlight appears. With a quiet pop and a small plume of smoke, his skin begins to burn. Bonzini slowly traces the shape of a heart, leaving a small trough of seared skin.

Bonzini is branding himself, a small heart on his foot in commemoration of his father’s passing. Over the next month he’ll carefully monitor the wound, staving off infections while keeping it open to form a permanent scar.

This form of body modification is called “solar branding.” As Bonzini puts it on his website, “I scar stars with sunlight.” He’s one of just a few artists who do it, producing work he believes is more personal and less skin-traumatizing than typical strike brands, done with red-hot metal. “[People in the modification world are] doing spirit work and flesh work; we’re not simply dealing in flesh,” he says.

He works silently, with focused, controlled breathing and steady hands. A black hoodie shields him from the sun as he works; underneath it he has facial solar brands, multiple septum piercings, and earlobes stretched to his chin. Between each line he draws into his flesh, Bonzini pauses to explain the nuances of his work—the final product’s affected by everything from the type of skin to the position of the sun to the size of the ball between his fingers. This small piece takes about 10 minutes, but bigger, more complex pieces can take several hours, assuming cooperation from the sun and clouds.

Neeko Bonzini at work. Photograph by Billy York.

Bonzini—his nom de plume borrowed from the titular character of the children’s book Bonzini the Tattooed Man—believes in the spiritual experience of branding. He estimates between 200 and 500 people bear solar brands; he personally interviews each client not only about what their design should look like, but how their life has led them to seek him out. He’s ritualized the procedure: Throughout, he and his client are in close physical contact, and he asks to synchronize their breathing, so that the skin stays within the focal point of the light. “Each client leaves with less of themselves,” he says. “Part of each person’s flesh smokes away. I tell them to concentrate on it and to think about what’s leaving; choose what’s going to leave.”

Solar branding is unique and relatively new in the world of body modification. Like more traditional branding, it requires burning the skin. But using sunlight to do so means hesitation or a slight miscalculation can lead the wrong kind of scarring; even under perfect conditions, some people might scar in unexpected and undesirable ways. Acknowledging these risks, Bonzini sees himself as pioneering an art form; so far, though, he’s reluctant to take on apprentices and carefully guards the secrets of his process. To him, his practice sets an example of how all body modification should be: deliberate, personal, and spiritual.

In a cafe near his studio, Bonzini describes how he came to solar branding. Born in January 1979, he grew up in a small town near Ithaca, New York. His troubled family life had him and his mother in and out of halfway houses. At the age of 10, alone in his bathroom, Bonzini gave himself his first septum piercing. As he became more and more interested in piercing and scarification, he shied away from strike branding, which he felt was excessively traumatic and impersonal. He opted to use a scalpel.

“I was in a place where I wished for death. But I knew I had to stick around, and I knew I had to fight for something.”

Later, a tumultuous relationship ended in pregnancy; his former girlfriend, Bonzini says, then didn’t want him involved with his daughter, leading to a long and bitter custody battle that stretched on for years. At one point during the proceedings, he left town to visit his ailing father. After his father died, Bonzini extended his trip to attend a piercing convention. By traveling for too long, he says, he unwittingly violated a court order. He was pressured to sign away his parental rights, and he did. “I decided that it was in everyone’s best interest, at that point, for me to concede,” Bonzini says. “If I got to see my daughter, and we got to smile and laugh, it was only because she went through, like, four hours of fucking trauma for me to get there.”

Giving up rights to his daughter left him broken-hearted and without purpose. “I was in a place where I wished for death,” he says. “But I knew I had to stick around, and I knew I had to fight for something. So I told myself the only way I could be OK with this loss was if I was proactive about it. If everything I did with my life was in my daughter’s name, then I would have something to give her.”

He said that his daughter’s name, Alina, means “bright light.” So perhaps it’s fitting that when Bonzini was at his lowest point, casting about for purpose, he walked out of another convention to see a man carving into flesh with the bright light of the sun.

Andrew Stanton is a Renaissance man—a sword-swallower, suspension artist, and contact juggler—and, as far as he and Bonzini can tell, also the first solar brander. He says he thought to try it after watching his friend use a magnifying glass to pop popcorn. He experimented with using spheres to burn patterns into wood, then moved on to flesh. Honing his technique was slow going; he worked by trial and error, mostly on himself, his wife, and a few friends willing to be guinea pigs.

After several years of practice, he unveiled his new technique at the convention where he met Bonzini. Mesmerized, Bonzini struck up a friendship, and Stanton agreed to teach him what he knew—which at the time wasn’t much. “[Stanton] said that he had plateaued,” Bonzini said. “He didn’t have experience in healing and advising healing.”

The two continue to share tips. Bonzini, though, feels a responsibility to better develop his technique before making it public. “I’d rather not have [solar branding] explode before I can compile all the information,” he says, worrying that anyone trying to replicate his process before he himself fully understands it could do serious physical and spiritual harm. For that reason, and to protect his livelihood, he asks that key steps be left out of any description of the process. And he’s still refining it, learning as he goes. There’s no history to learn from, he says. “There’s not reference to ‘these people used to mark each other like this.’ That’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s come down to this sideshow freak and this deadbeat dad.”

Neeko Bonzini at work. Photograph by Michael Christopher.

Bonzini believes that his work is as much about the healing process as about the actual branding. Depending on the client, his brands can take more than a month to heal, and he asks clients send him four photos a day, so he can advise them on how to best cultivate the scar.

Scarring is still a somewhat mysterious process, according to Vincent Gabriel, a dermatologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada; researchers aren’t totally sure how and why scar tissue forms in certain cases and not others. Gabriel says skin cells are held together with a “glue” called the extracellular matrix. In normal skin, this glue is more like a silicone glue—flexible and relatively soft. But in scar tissue, it’s stiff and dense like dried craft glue.

“I was almost crying because there was a part of me that was leaving, but also a part of me that was being reborn.”

Bonzini considers solar branding a safer, less-traumatizing process than strike branding, because there’s no direct contact between the skin and the branding tool. In strike branding, the flesh is depressed and hugs the iron, leading to more cells getting burned, Bonzini says. With sunlight, that’s not the case, and, he adds, the lack of direct contact means the branding tool can’t introduce foreign bodies into the wound.

Still, Gabriel urges care. Both techniques seem relatively unlikely to introduce infection, he says, given the high temperatures involved. The real infection risk comes during the healing process, but he adds that among the tens of thousands of patients he’s seen, very few have come in with infections from branding.

The thought of spending several hours under focused sunlight might also evoke the risk of cancer for some readers. After all, scientists know that long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds can lead to skin cancer. Gabriel says there’s no reason to think the exposure to UV rays via solar branding would be any different. He couldn’t comment specifically on how much a single solar brand might increase the risk of cancer, because there’s been no research on the question. “One small injury like that probably isn’t going to change somebody’s lifetime cancer risk,” he says, “but if you have to pick, go with less radiation.”

Neeko Bonzini at work. Photography by Anna Doheny.

The likely minor risk aside, Bonzini’s clients seek an experience they can’t get elsewhere, even with traditional branding. It goes beyond simply marking flesh. Deborah LaMontagne says that in her preliminary interviews and conversations with Bonzini, she felt an immediate connection to him. When he asked why she wanted his brand, she says, “I told him that it was time for a change in my life, and I was hoping that he could help me transition.”

LaMontagne says that during the process she entered a different sort of consciousness. She was relaxed and free. “I was almost crying because there was a part of me that was leaving,” she says, “but also a part of me that was being reborn.”

When she spoke with me, her brand was still healing. From design to brand and through the healing process, she says Bonzini played a strong role in the experience. “He was definitely a conduit from the sun into my soul and into my spirit,” she says.

For Bonzini, each brand is as much of an experience for him as it is for his clients. “Every time that I do a solar branding, I’m thanking the universe for even being able to do this. And I’m also praying for my daughter,” he says. He still considers it a way for him to reach out to his daughter. “When the circuit is complete between me, my client, the sun, and the ground, it’s a big radio transmitter to me, in my mind. It’s sending signals into the future, so that when I sit with my daughter for the first time again, I want all that energy to flood back.”

Illustration by Jason Longo