love bites

Words: Jane Lerner

Art: Riikka Hyvönen

All roller derby players are assigned a stage name, and Finnish artist Riikka Hyvönen, well known in the community for her huge, sculptural paintings of bruised butts, is ‘Friik Kiss.’ Blood marks and scrapes are called “kisses” in the derby world, and Hyvönen has lovingly transformed derby girls’ injuries into gorgeous, grotesque artworks. Hyvönen, who was born and raised in Lapland in northern Finland, has played on three different derby teams: Kallio Rolling Rainbow in Helsinki, and Rockin Rollers and the Rollergirls Recreational League in London (where she went to art college at Goldsmiths). But she’s not skating much these days. “I am in the studio seven days a week,” she says in her Finnish-accented English. “I don’t do anything else right now.”

Leaning up against the walls of her Helsinki workspace are disembodied parts and pieces of her oversized creations. At first glance, her paintings appear to be flat two-dimensional canvases, yet they are actually constructed and upholstered objects, built in separately assembled sections that extend up to 10 inches outwards from the frame, the curves of the round bottoms stuffed with soft material before getting slathered with dozens of layers of paint and pigment.

Each of her bas-relief artworks is based on a real photograph— skaters around the world send her snapshots of their bruised body parts, hoping to be immortalized. Hyvönen says that some of the earliest ones came straight from her team members: “A friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall. She said, ‘I have a really beautiful bruise on my bum. Do you want to see a pic? It has 12 colors and is the size of my head.’ In the end, this entire comment of hers became the name of the work.” All of the pieces in the series have similarly illustrious

Roller derby dates back to the early 1900s, when endurance roller skate marathons were staged for light entertainment; from the ’40s through the ’70s, a more comical version became popular, with outrageous characters and showy rivalries similar to WWE wrestling. Interest peaked in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when teams like the Bay Bombers and Midwest Pioneers packed coliseums and inspired a 1972 feature film, Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch. There was a resurgence in the late ’80s, culminating in a series of televised matches where competitors circled a pool of live alligators. The modern version of the sport—where five-skater teams whip around a track in a series of aggressive two-minute “jams”—began in Austin, Texas, around 2001. Roller derby is now an international phenomenon—the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association verifies almost 400 leagues—and is a way of life for its participants.

Trained as a makeup artist before she moved into fine art, Hyvönen, 33, is fascinated by the temporality of the physical body—she seeks to solidify the impermanent results of the collisions and crashes that are intrinsic to the sport. To Hyvönen, the pain of a skate in the ass results in a compelling, lurid beauty. “This project began from a realization: I wanted to capture the momentary marks, the bruises that are seen in a completely different light inside the derby-player subculture than they are in mainstream culture,” she says.

Hyvönen’s Roller Derby Kisses series was exhibited in 2015 at the Finnish Institute in London, and selected pieces were shown at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles in fall 2016.

Victory Journal: How did you first hear about roller derby?

Riikka Hyvönen: My friend’s girlfriend used to do derby, and I’d seen pictures on social media of tough girls in fishnet tights and skates. My friend and I went to see a game. We got really drunk. We had no idea what was happening, but the exciting pace, the dangerous turns, and the powerful women made an unforgettable impression. We decided to enroll in the next “fresh meat” course—that’s what beginners are called. You’re not allowed to play before you do a fresh meat course. But I bought my own skates before I even trained because I got so excited about it.

The fresh meat class was two days, eight hours a day, so we skated 16 hours—I was knackered, definitely in so much pain, but it was so much fun. They teach you how to fall on skates, that’s the beginning. If you don’t know how to fall you’ll hurt yourself—I’ve seen a lot of broken ankles. It usually happens when you start skating, because you don’t have the muscles to protect the bones.

V: What types of women are drawn to roller derby?

RH: All kinds. There are a lot of people who’ve never done sports before. It’s interesting that you can pick up a sport and play almost professionally, even when you start in your 20s. I think roller derby has managed to create an open subculture that accepts and embraces different personalities and bodies—there’s a place in the rink for women of all shapes and sizes—and we give support instead of envy. It’s about pride of one’s own body. I find it beautiful and liberating.

V: Is roller derby an especially dangerous sport?

RH: The game is a proper team sport, and that includes heartwarming expressions of solidarity, but it’s also very aggressive and occasionally bloody. There is always a chance you will hurt yourself. But I don’t think it’s more dangerous than any other sport.

In normal team sports women are not allowed to tackle— like in ice hockey the rules are different for women than for men. And it shouldn’t be like that. Women are as tough as men. When women play with men in roller derby, men play very differently—of course because they are stronger, so for them it’s about going through very fast, but women have a lot more tactics. I’ve seen coed bouts where women win because of the tactics they used, mental and physical moves.

V: How would you describe your aesthetic?

RH: I’m mesmerized by kitsch. My aesthetic can be pop, kitsch, occasionally even camp, but what I myself think my different projects have in common is how I tend to focus on markings frozen in time, such as a bruise. It’s one actual moment that I’m depicting—it looks beautiful but still a bit disgusting. That’s what I find interesting.

A hero of mine is Marilyn Minter. She makes us look again at things that we might otherwise take for granted. She helps us find the magic in particular moments, makes us reconsider what we see, and her use of colors is hypnotic. At the time when I got interested in Minter’s works, I was painting pictures of melting ice cream. The transience of her art suddenly captured my attention in a whole new way—the momentary nature of things is deeply moving to me.

V: Can you talk about your construction process?

RH: The very first works of the derby kisses series were actually just paintings. But I came to think that these artworks needed more form and sparkle. So I started to work in this multidimensional way, mixing sculpting and painting, glitter and rainbows. I use wood, medium-density fibreboard, leather, glitter, and various tools from paintbrushes to a jigsaw. It takes me a long time to actually make them before I can even start painting. I’ve got a lot of power tools—I’ve always built stuff, since I was a little child. I need to break the surface of the leather, then paint it, then break it and paint it again many, many times in order to create a picture, so it’s as hypnotizing on canvas as on the skin.

People often tell me that I do photorealistic work, but they’re not even close to photorealistic! They are huge leather sofas. I sit on them all the time—they’re actually really comfy, and very soft.

V: How do you choose which bruises to paint?

RH: I know immediately when I see a bruise that needs to be painted. I’m looking for the most original story in the form of a bruise. Sometimes the marks tell us what the player has been wearing—particularly if that something has been fishnets.

A fearless derby girl recently sent me a picture of her bum—it was, even for me after seeing plenty of gigantic pain galaxies, slightly hard to handle. She was simply dark violet. Completely. I felt sympathy, and I wanted to honor her well-played game, but I usually choose bruises that present more subtle forms and colors that encourage me to paint in a meticulous, delicate way.

And I am particularly fascinated by skin. Skin is so protective, fragile, and strong. It is such an indivisible part of being human. I believe skin tells the stories of our lives.

The colors of these bruises alter from light green to all imaginable shades of purple. The psychedelic figures are capable of taking on mystical forms. They tell stories of the moment. The bruises are just markings that show that you can get up and continue to play.