by Christine Huskisson
I put my high heels in the back seat as I set off early that morning for work and then my date with Robert at Charmed Life in Lexington, Kentucky. I was going to remember this one whether I liked it or not, permanently, forever – and hopefully – happily ever after.
Swinging open the door of the tattoo parlor, my eyes widened. A couple of tattoo aficionados were lying on tables as if they were in some makeshift emergency room. My throat was dry and I could feel my heart beating in my ears. There was a dull hum. My commitment to our artistic community and incessant pleadings over the previous twenty years for real collaboration within the arts was being tested. But a tattoo. Really? I wanted to strangle Kurt and Kremena, the conceptual artist team with whom I had worked on many other projects. Had they lost their minds, or had I?
After careful thought, I chose a place on my body where no one would ever see the tattoo. ‘No one would see!’, I continued to tell myself, unless I chose to show it to them, which is precisely what all of Lexington seemed to be doing at the time: sharing inked flesh. Everyone I met was disrobing by either unzipping their pants to show me ‘the middle name’ recently inked on a hip covered in Saran wrap, pulling up their shirt to reveal the slightly irritated skin around ‘Bellybutton of the Universe’ or removing their shoe to show off the cleverest spot for a phrase like ‘gravitational pull.’
Most of the other 253 participants were far bolder than I, committing to have inked on their bodies full phrases from a poem written by Lexington-based, multidisciplinary artist Bianca Spriggs. Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, both professors at Transylvania University, commissioned Bianca to write, The _________ of the Universe: A Love Story.
And that was only the beginning. This project, very affectionately referred to as the Lexington Tattoo Project, received local, regional, and then national attention from CNN Living. It has come to be a source of immense pride for the Lexington participants, including myself.
It wasn’t a week or so before my date with Robert that I received a call from Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova asking me to participate. I agreed on one condition: that I could simply choose the letter ‘a’ and nothing more. You see, in my rationalizing about how much this was going to hurt, I had found six instances of the article ‘a’ in Bianca’s poem, and each brought to mind vivid memories of my life of fifty years living in Lexington.
– a ride through the back roads out past Elkhorn Creek
– a neon wig and her favorite leopard print heels but lost one at the Dame
– a careless night out with friends
– a stroll past Triangle Park’s cascading fountain
– a dance party for two as bottom shelf as the cheap seats at Keeneland, or
– a handful of lighting bugs backed by a choir of cicadas.
I loved each phrase enough to have them all tattooed down the length of my spine or along the inside of my arm or even on my upper thigh. I might have even considered this last phrase – the one about lightning bugs – for the inside of my hand because it represented my deepest connection, from childhood to present, between Bianca’s words and Kentucky.
For the last fifteen years in particular, a unique phenomenon occurs in the tall grasses on our farm just above the Kentucky River. It happens early summer, every summer: fields of lightning bugs – with tiny blinking lights like small worlds floating deep in the grasses and just above at the horizon line between earth and dark sky – are mirrored by a thousand stars in the sky. The two sources of light glow and dim with a similar cadence.
In those moments, it is easy to believe in harmony of the hemispheres. It is easy to believe in the words of another Kentucky poet, Frank X. Walker, who has been commissioned to take the tattoo project worldwide. In Walker’s poem titled Love Letta to de Worl’ he suggests that the world gives us such vistas, like those from the tall grasses on my farm, so that we can mimic them through art, dance, music, poetry, and architecture – because to do so is far more valuable than wallowing in ignorance and petty squabbles.
Beginning on September 1st, over 6000 participants will kick off the worldwide tattoo project. They will unite in poetry, tattoos, music, photography, spoken word, and storytelling and their contributions will come together on a website being constructed by Kurt and Kremena – envisioned as the world’s largest public art performance inked on skin.
Love Letta to de Worl’ by Frank X Walker
(audio recording by Shangri-La Productions)
I love you world.
Love your seven different faces.
Love your healing waters
wide and deep.
Love the thing you have
with the sun and the moon
and what it teaches us
Love the mirror at your navel,
how it shows off your hemispheres,
illustrating important lessons
about centering ourselves.
Love how much like little worlds
we are. How our earthquake
is your shiver, your sneeze a tsunami,
an avalanche, a mudslide.
When you have hot flashes
we call it drought.
You once covered your whole body
with ice to cool a fever.
When you weep, daily,
over our continued ignorance,
our epic failures and petty squabbles
—our every transgression,
break and we are born again.
Love your outreach, our mutual attraction,
your gravitational pull.
For every treasure we steal
from your womb
you send us hail and thunderstorms.
When we invent poisons and no antidotes
and build monuments to ourselves
you send tornadoes and hurricanes
to remind us of how small we truly are.
And yet, every day you continue to humble,
inspire, and move us to tears
with your natural beauty.
Our own efforts to mimic your vistas
are what we dare call art and dance,
music and poetry,
architecture and language,
It is the only thing we have ever gotten right.
We can’t pass the course on humanity
if we keep failing the lessons
and until we unlearn fear and hate.
Thank you, world, for this
open-book exam before us,
for still believing
we are worthy of your love.
We who love you black already know
that everything we do to you
we also do to ourselves…
Frank Walker is a teacher, poet and a native of Danville, Kentucky. He is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets and is the first African American writer and the youngest to receive the title of poet laureate for the state of Kentucky in 2013-14. His beautiful and haunting words essentially are an expression of love for the generosity of the world, which he describes in metaphorical terms as an African American female – referencing her different faces, her hips and navel, her sneezes and hot flashes, her natural beauty and her womb. Walker asks that all of humanity unite under the love of this world – a beautiful and all-giving nurturer.
If you shiver at the thought of ink under your skin, just ask any participant from the Lexington Tattoo Project if they would do it again. The resounding answer would be ‘yes’ or possibly even ‘hell yes!’. And a handful of them have already gotten the ball rolling in preparation for a Kentucky contingent heading to the Burning Man event on August 27th. They are: Jessi Fehrenbach, Lori Houlihan, William Coleman, Ashley and Guy Shochat, Ivy Shochat, Derek and Heather Wingfield, Carla Brown, Chris Jeffries, Esti Dorfling, Murphy Houlihan, Kate Noye, Jessica Walker, and Heather Auman. The local tattoo artists include: Robert Alleyne and Scott Updike at Charmed Life, Tattoo-Stu Pfost at Bleed Blu Tattoo and Piercing, and Charlotta Brunson at Tattoo Charlies of Lexington. But, it is important to note that this list will grow in numbers and across all boundaries as Kurt and Kremena are allowing participants to choose any phrase from Walker’s poem and even translate them into any language they desire.
Me, I’m happy knowing that I confronted my own misconceptions about tattooing and that none of us will end up appearing on the cult hit Nightmare Tattoos. None of us was tattooed as a gesture of rebellion or out of anger. We did not tattoo to broadcast to the world who we loved or who loved us back. It is not that we are non-conformist, but rather conforming to something new and exciting We chose to join because we are committed to Lexington, Kentucky – a place where artistic freedom thrives. We hope the world will follow in celebrating something far richer.
Frank X Walker’s words sum it up for me: we participate because we weep, steal, mirror, invent, build, inspire, dance and teach. We engage because we need to be part of something larger whether it be companionship, change, revolution, reflection or balance. We cooperate because it centers us in each other and brings some sense of harmony to our lives maddened by war, conflict, social injustice and hatred.
Through beautiful and permanent markings on our bodies regardless of how meek or bold they may be, we understand something much larger than ourselves. We – who are so small in our individual pursuits and our bouts with anger, envy, jealousy, or religious intolerance – are now in agreement. We commit to dedicate ourselves to understanding what really matters and acknowledging Walker’s final analysis: everything we do to each other and the world, we do to ourselves. To know that is to know our place forever and – hopefully – happily ever after.
Photos courtesy of Mick Jeffries