Palaiseau – By night he is Freaky Hoody, the most tattooed man in France, whose tongue and even eyes are inked.
By day he is Mr Helaine, primary school teacher.
“There is always a moment of stunned silence” when he first meets the children and the parents, Sylvain Helaine admitted.
“But when I introduce myself and they see that I am a teacher like all the others, it’s cool,” he told AFP.
No part of the 35-year-old’s body has been left untouched by a tattooist’s needle.
“Mr Snake”, as some pupils call him, had to travel to Switzerland to get his eyes done — something that is illegal in France.
“It was torture. They hold your eyes open and you feel the needle pierce” the white of your eye, he said.
– ‘Don’t do it!’ –
“And you never know what will happen, which is why I say to people, ‘Don’t do it!’
“But for me, I felt incomplete without it,” said Helaine, who has spent 57,000 euros ($66,000) on his body art over the last eight years.
Having his tongue tattooed wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences either.
“It was so sore, it tripled in size. I was drooling and I couldn’t speak afterwards. I couldn’t drink for 20 hours and it took two days for me to be able to eat.”
Known as Freaky Hoody on social media, where he has nearly 60,000 followers, Helaine insists that he does not regret any of his tattoos, from the coloured flowers on his shaved head to the demon head on his back.
“I am probably going to end up completely black at 80,” he added.
Beyond his school in the suburbs of Paris, Freaky Hoody is something of a star on the tattoo scene.
Rather than doors being closed in his face, his tattoos have opened them for him.
“Model agencies have taken me on for films and television series. I’ve met (‘The Matrix’ director) Lana Wachowski as well as Mathieu Kassovitz,” the star of “The Bureau” and director of the classic French film, “La Haine”.
– ‘His eyes are scary’ –
Helaine “came out” as a body art icon at school three years ago when he was still living with his mother, the only way, he said, he could finance his tattoos “on a teacher’s salary”.
His appearance, he argued, was a good lesson for his pupils in accepting and respecting others.
“Children who see me learn tolerance of others. When they are adults they may be less likely to be racist or homophobic, and they will not look at disabled people as if they were something from a circus.”
And his pupils seem to agree.
“You should not judge him because of his appearance,” said nine-year-old Gayane.
“It is just his eyes which are scary, but he is very nice.”
Loic, one of his former pupils, said it was “worrying that people get stuck on physical appearance. It is mostly the parents who react because today young people are more educated about respecting all appearances.”
– Teaches tolerance –
Helaine said the only problem he has encountered was with “parents of children who were not in my class.”
Some sent a letter to the authorities with pictures of him they found on the internet, and he was “sidelined” for seven weeks before being given the green light to go back to his class.
“I have nothing against tattoos but I think a teacher should be neutral when everyone is talking about what girls are wearing,” said one father, Farid, 45, referring to the controversy in French school about some girls being sent home for wearing “inappropriate” dress.
“What he does in his private life is none of our business,” insisted Lydie Songo, the mother of another child.
“My children call him ‘Mr Snake’, but I am going to talk to them about that. They have to accept him as he is.
“Still it must be annoying for him to have all this attention.”