What’s Wrought by Human Hands
Written by Liam Sweeny on March 3, 2020
I have a junk drawer. Everybody does, but mine (and maybe yours) isn’t junk at all, but a collection of my own personal heirlooms, things precious to me but with nowhere else designated to hold them. And in that drawer there is a knife passed down, made by someone whose name I’ll never know.
Eric Radliff is a name you’ll soon know. He forges knives, among many other things, and his skill has gotten him national recognition. He’s also a tattoo artist. Come meet Eric.
I actually did sit down with Eric for real (just not for this.)
RRX: You really like to make a mark. You’re a tattoo artist and a forger. Physics and entropy aside for a second, most people would see both of your passions as creating permanence. Is this something that drew you to these pursuits, above others? And how does the permanent nature of marking both skin and metal shape your process?
ER: First and foremost, I’m an artist. Sure, leaving a mark that will last years later is pretty cool and rewarding, but creating art whether it’s paint on a canvas or on someone’s skin or reshaping a piece of hot metal, I can’t explain it… just creating things has always been a part of who I am for as early as I can remember. Tattooing and blacksmithing both require extreme amounts of creativity, it’s just always called out to me, I stopped working and focusing on things I didn’t enjoy and decided to dive into and pursue art and creating things full time. As far as the process of creating goes, there’s always going to be a part of “me” that’s poured into my work. My blood, sweat and tears, so to speak. My soul. If my work brings joy to someone, or if it inspires them in any way, well, I just don’t think there’s a bigger honor than that. I think the best mark to make isn’t always the materialistic one, but to inspire, or bring joy. That’s the mark I want to leave. INSPIRATION. I’m inspired all the time by so many different artists and people, and each one who inspires me affects my own creative process.
RRX: In our culture, I think tattooing is demystified, at least from the time I got my first tattoo; it’s more accepted, so more people have been in the chair, so-to-speak. But forging metal, any implement, is sort of by-default mysterious. No one’s had time “sitting on the anvil.” Yet both involve clients. How are the expectations the same? How are they different?
ER: I feel both tattooing and blacksmithing are becoming less mysterious, having the internet and even tv shows on both subjects. It’s just the exciting era we live in now. Back in the day, like way back, blacksmiths were thought to be wizards and forging was magic, controlling fire and bending metal was a big deal throughout human history and still is to present day. I think what really draws clients in is the handmade factor. Anyone can go to the store and buy a mass-produced item. But purchasing something custom or handmade, it’s truly one of a kind, it’s just yours, it’s more personal.
RRX: When people think of forging, they think of big burly blacksmiths at Renaissance Fairs. And no doubt, there are the big and burly, but modern forging, I imagine, is a whole universe of people. What drew you to take up forging? And as you’ve traveled in the trade, what are some traits common to forgers?
ER: Blacksmithing has definitely become more popular and I think that’s great! I hope it continues to grow. There really is a whole universe or spectrum of people and styles out there, that’s what makes it so exciting. It’s not just big burly bearded dudes forging. I’ve seen rich, poor, young, old, men, women, experienced mastersmiths, newbies, and everything in between! The one thing everyone has in common is passion! A love for creating! And I think that is something as old as time itself and something everyone, anywhere can relate too.
RRX: You were on season six of History Channel’s “Forged in Fire.” It’s always a big deal when someone makes it to a TV show, but History feels different, I guess. More “of record,” and Forged in Fire is a popular show. Considering all that is involved with forging, can you take us through the most challenging part of that experience?
ER: It wasn’t that big a deal, I simply had nothing to lose in accepting to go on, and everything to gain. Win or lose, I was gaining experience and friendships that I would never have known just staying home. So the answer was an easy, yes. The show in itself is just that, a show. Entertainment. The most challenging part of the experience for me was the unknown factor, which is also what excited me the most too. I was completely out of my comfort zone. I had to face everything alone and adapt to the new surroundings, challenges, equipment, people and the “clock” time itself. Also working with materials and a style for the first time ever on TV. Yup, no stress there. No heads up either, just surprise! And you figure it out and go! with a very short time limit, extreme heat, lack of sleep the night before and feeling a bit under the weather the day of competition. I believe Murphy’s Law was present that day for myself, but for every mishap and challenge, I gained an experience and a lesson. So for that I will always be grateful. It was honestly a lot of fun! I met some really cool people, made new friends and walked away with a once in a lifetime experience. I would totally do it all over again, or go back for a redemption episode.
RRX: When I got my work done with you, you mentioned forging a giant, really giant rose, and it was fun to picture a metal rose the size of a VW Microbus. But there’s a very real level of skill, understanding the function of it. Physics has got to be a big part of what you do with forging. How does formula and feeling meet when you have the hammer?
ER: There’s so many ways to forge, create or do anything.. so many different styles. None are wrong. But I have never been one for measuring, or physics, science or planning things out too much. I mean I do a little bit, but 90% of my work I try to just go with the flow. I can’t really explain it, it’s like the “force” – yeah I’m a Star Wars fan. So, when I made this giant 9 foot tall rose, out of metal weighing in around 200 lbs it was awkward it was top heavy and a nice challenge. It started out with the much smaller realistic roses that I’ve been making, I thought wouldn’t it be cool to build one bigger then me! As I held one of my metal roses in my hand. I just need to think big! Acquire all the same parts and pieces needed to build it just at a much larger size. But that’s not it, where I used needle nose pliers to maybe bend a rose pedal a certain way, I was now finding myself using my entire body to press down and roll petals or sledgehammers to shape pieces. I guess there really is no formula to my madness, for creating art, other than art itself. Madness.
RRX: You make great knives, simple blades to Damascus blades someone might need to take out a loan to buy. And these blades are going to last, becoming somebody’s heirlooms a hundred- two-hundred years from now. What elements do you think will go under some appraiser’s magnifying glass and be pointed out as the marks of a “Radliff blade?”
ER: I think the elements, as you put it, in my work if someone years from now was to examine a knife I made, they would see the artist in me, they would see the creativity or just not the norm. I tend to do things that nobody else is doing. If I buy something, I’m always finding ways to improve it or change how it looks or works. if I see a trend or a style, I’ll let that influence me or inspire me, but then I’m probably going to twist it and turn it around into something completely different possibly something new. I don’t want to be labeled as one style or a “one trick pony.” I’m constantly evolving and trying new things, so my style is constantly changing and to me, that’s what keeps it fun.
RRX: This is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. Any tips for the kids? Any cool-looking battle scars? The floor is yours.
ER: I do a lot of different things and styles between blacksmithing and tattoo work, that really push my creative thought process daily. It can be challenging, fun and everything in between. It’s definitely my calling, I’ve always been a artist. So my advice would be if you think you’re into something and want to try something new just go for it! Don’t let fear, inexperience, age, gender, anything stop you. Everyone’s a beginner at some point, I still consider myself a beginner. And I’ve always liked that old saying, “if you work doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s kinda’ true, I mean you’ll still work! But it’s just way more rewarding when you really enjoy the work.