This Year’s Models
The Art Duo behind The Lexington Tattoo Project
By Kakie Urch
This Year’s Model is the duo behind the sprawling, living, breathing, exfoliating, video-starring, print-book-filling human concrete poem that is The Lexington Tattoo Project.
Every year, Ace chooses a person or group that best embodies the spirit of community engagement, innovation and art (the stuff we’ve been dealing in for 25 years) and, with a sly glance toward an Elvis Costello record your great-aunt had on cassette, profiles them as “This Year’s Model.” Past Model (citizens) on the cover have included Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X Walker, Bruce Burris, Jim Embry, Alltech’s Pearse Lyons, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (though he wasn’t mayor at the time).
Transylvania University professors Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, who grace this year’s Ace “This Year’s Model” cover are the force behind an art project that is an ode to Lexington, tattooed on the very bodies that live in and love the place.
The two commissioned Affrilachian Poet Bianca Spriggs to write a poem about Lexington for the project, thinking (after reviewing her work) that it would be the length of her average poem – 100 or so words. Their plan – to persuade Lexingtonians to have the poem, in pieces, permanently tattooed on their bodies.
But the muse is a beguiling mistress and Spriggs’ poem, “The __________________ of the Universe: A Love Story,” was much longer. They broke the work up into 253 phrases and assembled them into a layered artwork made up of dots and circles – all layered on Photoshop. Then, they found the canvases.
The duo (who quote as one voice, collaboratively) said that they think the biggest social/community accomplishment of Year One of the Lexington Tattoo project was “Getting 253 people to love their tattoos and the words Bianca wrote for all of us: a public statement of our shared commitment to Lexington, our home.”
Community art leader (and 2006 Model Citizen) Bruce Burris said the most surprising part of the project to him is “half of Lexington’s aging hipster population now has a portion of this project permanently inscribed on their body… this makes discussing some elements of it… difficult. For me this aspect in itself may be the most fascinating… troubling and yes… surprising part.”
Project sponsor Dr. Nick Kouns said he first became interested in the artists’ collaborative work with the “Passing” exhibit, an early initiative he sponsored at the Lexington Art League. He recalls, “Due to the project’s innovative presentation and complex themes, the usual corporate stalwarts decided to take a pass when it came time to ‘pony up’. It was the sort of project that I believed deserved a broader audience. The Passing Project, in my estimation, was way before its time. It predated our culture’s current awareness of bullying, as it relates to gender and identity by quite some time. While I have known Kurt and Kremena personally for quite a while, I quickly became aware of the fact that they were on to something. They made me look at ‘art’, with all of its potential and all of its promise, in an entirely new way.”
He signed on to sponsor this one, because “this project is a living, breathing, work of art—a piece that comes along once in an age. It encompasses literature, visual art, music, and a highly constructed narrative. It also plays out on the skin of humanity.”
The biggest artistic accomplishment of Year One of the Lexington Tattoo Project was, in Kurt and Kremena’s view, “the video artwork that premiered at Buster’s on November 15. Every part of the larger artwork comes together within this video: the design of each individual tattoo, the diverse community of people who participated, the photographs of all the participants, Bianca’s beautiful reading of her poem, the soundtrack by Ben Sollee.”
“Though we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to make this video, there was never really a way to share our complete vision until the video was done—and we hope that people love it as much as we do.”
At the video premiere, one other element of the Lexington Tattoo Project was unveiled — the secret image (in hiding for months) — the entire layered artwork had been tattooed on one particular Lexingtonian. And, the night of the premiere was the big reveal: an image of a crescent moon shining over a symbolic “Circle 4” on the thigh of Hendrick Floyd – Bianca Spriggs’ husband.
With pieces of the poem all over the city — on Kremena’s back, the words “deep roots.” On the poetic body of Mecca Dance’s Teresa Tomb, the words “of the universe.” The phrase “the Secret Identity” was inked onto the back of project sponsor, Dr. Kouns. Spriggs’ poem echoes the tangible (Tolly Ho) and intangible (gravitational pull) terms of endearment that embody Lexington. On its bodies.
Kurt and Kremena say that the biggest surprise of the Lexington Tattoo Project has been, “from the spontaneous flood of tattoo-selfies on Facebook to the suggestion of events like the Magnetic Poetry Meet and Greet, the many ways in which all the participants have made this artwork their own while also sharing it so generously with the larger community.”
Burris said, “Well obviously projects on this scale are a kind of civic boosterism…in decades past this sort of thing was limited mostly to grand philanthropic gestures created to benefit a community but also in particular to recognize the benefactor. Initiatives such as the Lexington Tattoo Project are community rituals which encourage and depend on participation by a large part of the community for their success. The scale of the project and the community’s enthusiasm for in participation in it was a great accomplishment. “
Kouns says “open source public art projects are an idea whose time has come. He says, “On an international level, models abound. Some of the poorest international communities have public art projects that cost communities very little in terms of hard resources. There is a disconcertingly broad misperception that really great art has to break the bank. I think you will see more projects that are emblematic of true private/public partnerships, all looking to make their worlds a better place. This is all with an overriding respect and esteem for the artists involved, reflected by artists being paid a fair living wage. Lexington has quickly established itself as a city with which to be artistically reckoned. This has been in spite of the disparate factions comprising the public arts scene around town. While all cities across the country face similar challenges, there is no one clear face or institution advocating for endeavors like The Tattoo Project. The truly innovative projects will still be ‘what’s next’ five years from now.”
The duo says their artistic heroes and role models include Tyree Guyton, creator of The Heidelburg Project in Detroit. “His his long-term artistic commitment to his neighborhood, his community, and his city is profoundly moving,” they said in our recent interview with the two. They also greatly admire JR – “the scope of his vision is humbling.”
“Guyton’s and JR’s artworks reveal these artists’ belief that art can change not just the minds of a few individuals but also the world. This is very powerful for us,” the two said.
The changing the world thing may become part of the Lexington Tattoo Project’s legacy as well. Kurt and Kremena say that their next goal for the project is “going global.”
“Because of an invitation we received and because we were asked what a love letter to the world might look like written in poetry and tattoos. At the same time, we will continue to make sure that Lexington is recognized as the place where the Tattoo Projects started, a community that is not simply ‘The Sunday Drive,’ ‘The Armpit,’ or ‘The Wishbone,’ but the very center ‘of the Universe.’ (Thanks to Bianca Spriggs for these words).”
But it’s not all about the theoretical. Sometimes there are practical matters, in the, er, studio. Kurt and Kremena related one of the funnier moments in the production of the work.
“One participant arrived for his tattoo appointment not quite knowing where on his body he would put his tattoo. After consulting with the tattoo artist, he decided to put it on his leg and asked if it would be okay to just wear his underwear for the tattooing.”
“On finding out that this would be fine, he went into the bathroom to take his pants off, only to come out still dressed: it was his laundry day and he had no underwear on. In a moment of incredible (to us) comfort with each other, three men in the tattoo shop offered to let this man they had just met wear the underwear that they had on. He ended up wearing a skirt, which he borrowed from a friend who was there with him. She happened to be wearing two layered skirts and easily shared one with him.”
And, for font fetishists – the ultimate practical question: what font is that? “The Lexington Tattoo Project is made from the words of a poem, inked permanently on skin in a font called Dante. The letters are surrounded with circles and dots.”
“The Boulder Tattoo Project also uses Dante, but boasts stars and dots. Other cities will have their own distinct shapes while staying true to Dante and to love. We look forward to hearing stories about seeing participants from the other cities in airports, about impromptu conversations about where people come from. We trust that Dante and affection for one’s community will bring people together for a brief moment before life—or the moving walkway—takes them on their way again.”
For people too shy to go to the pool or bare much flesh on the moving walkway, the Lexington Tattoo Project will also be a book. Pre-orders for the book are being taken at The Morris Book Shop in Chevy Chase, with a pre-order price of $45 (retail price will be $49). The book will be available in February.
What will the impermeable permanence, so to speak, of the Lexington Tattoo Project be? If this was Year One, what might Year Five look like?
“We imagine some participants spotting strangers’ Lexington Tattoo Project tattoos at the city pool and realizing that there is a conversation waiting to be had, a conversation about Lexington and how it is changing, about how they decided to participate and what it has meant to be marked as someone who loves Lexington. “
“There was a time when it was less typical to hear people say that they love Lexington. We hope that this will never be the case again, that year five will see many, many people declaring their affection for the city.”
Kouns adds, “I see Tattoo Projects springing up with themes both large and small. The art of tattoo has been around since Neolithic times. Why have we historically marked and adorned our bodies through the centuries? What defines community in a globalized world? These are the same sorts of questions that will still be tickling our brains five years from now, as they have for the last ten thousand. In the end, isn’t that what all great art projects really do? Tickle our brains?”
THE LEXINGTON TATTOO PROJECT
WHO: Transylvania Professors Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova; Affrilachian Poet Bianca Spriggs; tattoo artists Robert Alleyne and Jay Armstrong of Charmed Life Tattoo; 253 Lexington residents as live canvases.
WHAT: A project to tattoo the lines of a poem about Lexington, in phrases, on the bodies of 253 Lexingtonians, along with a pattern of dots and circles that, when relayered and assembled as a poem, create a “secret image.”
WHEN: Forever, if you are a participant.
MILESTONES: All tattoos completed in January 2013. Video made of photographs of tattoos, with score by Ben Sollee and poetry reading by Bianca Spriggs, premiered on Nov. 15, at Buster’s. Also Nov. 15: “Secret Image” of moon shining in a Circle 4 on Hendrick Floyd’s thigh revealed.
WHAT ELSE: A book project is planned on the work. Advance orders are $45 at Morris Book Shop. The book will be available in February 2014 and will retail for $49.
WEB SITE: http://lexingtontattooproject.wordpress.com/
THINK LOCAL, TATTOO GLOBAL: The project might go large. Deep roots here in Lexington.
This article also appears on page 6 of the 12.12.13 print edition of Ace.
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Project Sponsor Dr. Nick Kouns gets his Lexington Tattoo Project tattoo: The Secret Identity. January 2013.