"What do you wear to an occult life drawing class, anyway?" I'm in front of my wardrobe, thinking out loud and looking for an outfit that functions as office-appropriate attire but also works for tonight's two-hour session put on as part of London's first festival of the dark arts.
I can't turn up to work dressed like I'm about to sacrifice a child underneath a blood moon; equally, I feel like I can't attend a festival named after the Witches' Sabbath looking like the Satanic equivalent of a not-cool dad who tries to mosh at hip-hop gigs. In the end, I put on a sports T-shirt and Adidas sneakers. If things get too dark arts-y, I'd like to be able to flee in comfortable sweat-wicking material and padded running shoes.
Come to the Sabbat festival has decamped for a week to Apiary Studios, a gallery slash studio that moonlights as a club and gig venue. Tonight, I'm promised a Satanic evening of "costume-based life drawing that takes models from May Queen witch cultists to ritualistically garbed High Priestesses", complete with incense, chanting, and occult soundtrack. In a pleasingly circular coincidence, the studios hosted a performance night last month in which two artists attempted to reenact Christ's ascension. If there's going to be any witchcraft tonight, we'll be doing it on JC's home turf.
As the small crowd gathers in the lobby of the studio, Jason Atomic swoops in wearing a black velvet cape, Vivienne Westwood shirt, and black trousers with a constellation of silver studs at the knees. "We're just getting the room ready!" the bald Sabbat founder shouts, waving a hand tricked out with knuckleduster rings.
Manko and Magdalene pose for the life drawing class. Photo by Steph Wilson
Atomic is the 48-year-old artist and oddly chipper, self-confessed dark arts believer behind the whole festival. "I tried to sell my soul when I was eight," he cheerfully tells me before the class kicks off. "Didn't work." His brief dalliance with Lucifer has spawned into an obsession with witchcraft and black magic--although, if his get-up is any indicator, there's also a generous dose of schlock-horror metal fanboy in there.
The group is led to a low-lit studio that smells thick with smoke and incense. Witchy art of varying quality and degrees of seriousness litters the room; in one painting, a naked girl in red heels with a ram's head for a face kneels on the ground, her fingers in the universal symbol for the A-OK sign. I am particularly taken with an arm-length clear glass sculpture of a penis, complete with cock ring and Indiana Jones-style crystal skulls for testicles.
Nobody, except for maybe the two goth girls in Lolita-style petticoats, seems like they're about to whip out a baby from under their duster and start some incantations to the Moon Goddess. I mean, there was even a guy in a baseball cap (even if it did say the word 'WITCH COMPANY' on it). Even if every other girl under the age of 25 in Brooklyn seems to identify as a witch these days, British people can't really get down with the supernatural without a healthy dose of arms-length skepticism.
Atomic himself admits that he does cast spells "a bit", but doesn't "buy that whole Catholic black Mass thing." Instead, he's all about the "American modern take on Satanism, which is a humanistic philosophy that says only God is man and we are masters of our own destiny."
Everyone in the room arranges themselves on chairs and takes out their sketchbooks, studiously ignoring the tableau set-up of a black canvas sheet with an illustration of an evil-looking goat skull and the words 'Leave Something Witchy'. We could be at any life drawing class in the capital, albeit one featuring an altar decorated with human skulls and candles.
Manko holds the ceremonial dagger. Photo by Steph Wilson
"Introducing Magdalene and Manko, our hippie witch occultists," Atomic says, switching on a scratchy recording of women chanting in what sounds like Latin. Two leggy life models in see-through white lace gowns and leaf crowns weave through the crowd, draping themselves over the altar.
Atomic keeps time on his iPhone, telling the women when to switch poses. If you took away the occasional devil horns, they could be modeling for a slightly racier Urban Outfitters spring catalogue. One pose involves Manko holding a pointed dagger above her head, as if to plunge it into her colleague's belly. I squint at my drawing, which fails completey to capture Magdalene's leaf-adorned thong or the curve of Manko's knife.
"Another ten minutes, here we go," Atomic tells the models encouragingly--holding up ritualistic weaponry is tiring on the forearms. I peek at the canvas of one man in a schlubby green T-shirt, who has made Magdalena's wig look like a giant Maine lobster on the side of her head. I immediately feel better.
Halfway through the class, the models switch costumes and re-enter the room to a Gregorian chant of "we are a circle within a circle / with no beginning and no ending". Manko has swapped her look for Maleficent horns, star-shaped nipple pasties and a long tufted black merkin, which swings between her knees. Magdalene has opted for a less immediately Satanic-looking outfit of a black corset and headdress.
Manko with a skull and dagger. Photo by Steph Wilson
The soundtrack segues into a monologue that intones, "Hail Satan, Satan is the rebel, the wild one." "Hail Satan," the models chant along with a little fist pump. "Dead arms for Satan," I hear Manko whisper to Magdalene. After one final 20-minute pose--both women slump against each other, clearly a little tired out from exertion--the class is done.
"I'm a recovering Catholic, which means basically an atheist," Manko, who is also Atomic's long-term partner, tells me. "Jason's thing is Satanism and the occult--it's really my partner's schtick. I love it because it's really glamorized atheism. It's atheism with a good PR. Satanism is all about believing in yourself and being responsible for your own decisions."
After the class, one life drawing student outs herself as the unthinkable: A Christian. "To be honest, this is the first Satanic class I've done," a 27-year-old dancer called Nadine says. "Which is a little bit overwhelming, when I walked in I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' I'm not gonna tell my pastor, it's going to be my little secret. He'll be alright, though--he's quite worldly."
Her friend, a petite black girl in a beanie with dangling pentacle earrings, volunteers herself as a practicing pagan. "There was definitely a good pagan energy in the class," she says. "Generally speaking, the aura artistic people give off is really encouraging and influencing. Being in a room that's not so massive with so many artists, the vibe is just hypnotic."
Later on in the night, Atomic takes me to a room decked out in day-glo graffiti featuring street art of English magician Aleister Crowley. "Satan represents equal rights, a balance in gender politics, a balance in racial politics," Atomic tells me. "It's kind of a bit communist, kind of a bit pagan, kind of a bit atheist. It's basically people making up their own minds about what they're gonna do with their lives and not following the rules."
Pagans and Christians aside, I count copywriters and pub bartenders in among the Satanic ranks. As we file out of Apiary Studios to the nearest Underground station, it occurs to me that an occult life drawing class is a lot like every other art class: You get dabblers, hobbyist retirees, and the general London flotsam that washes up with any Time Out approved London pop-up. Except with a few more Hail Satans involved.