lexington tattoo project book review

Permanent ink

A review of the Lexington Tattoo Project book

by Steve Pavey | photography courtesy of Mick Jeffries

The Lexington Tattoo Project continues to grow, now into a book that documents an artwork by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova featuring a living love poem to the city of Lexington tattooed on the bodies of 253 community members.

The Lexington Tattoo Project book is a 160-page hardbound coffee-table-style publication with a complete collection of participants’ tattoo portraits, stories of individual tattoos, and essays that contextualize the artwork, including a short essay by Gohde and Todorova. The book is more than a final documentation, it is an invitation to join them in the art of community making. And if one looks beyond the connections of skin-deep tattoos, we are invited to imagine building the deep soil with the humus of our own stories and shared human connections to nurture deep roots of love for one another in this place called Lexington.

The book is the culmination of a much larger project, a kind of public ceremonial ritual that cleverly cleaves the personal and the communal with tattoos. It is hard to imagine a more collaborative artwork. A poet was asked to write a love letter to Lexington. She began by listening to people’s stories and humbly shares, “this piece truly is written by you.” Social media was used to invite people to get a phrase from the poem tattooed on their bodies. Word spread like wildfire and the project quickly had its skin canvas. Three tattoo artists inked the images. Many more community members volunteered time and resources. There was a public celebration of music, video, poetry and story telling. Photographs were taken. Stories were collected. Essays were written. And the Lexington Tattoo Project book would best be described as one component of this collaborative artwork, a final shout out that captures some of the highlights.

I am fascinated and inspired by this project’s ability to “cleave” the personal choice of a tattoo with the larger community ritual of a shared tattoo that reveals an image of Lexington. The book succeeds in capturing the personal stories behind individual tattoo choices and why participants wanted to join this collaborative artwork. The photographs beautifully focus attention on the tattoo and the embodied context of each individual. As an anthropologist I wanted even more ethnographic detail and more story telling. The ultimate success of the book and this project goes beyond capturing an individual’s connection to their tattoo, but rather to the connections made to each other and Lexington. As one participant shares they did this because it “connects me to something larger than myself.”

The poet featured by this project, Bianca Spriggs, reminds us that love is complicated, especially in a place and time in the universe where our soil to grow deep roots is thin. The love story here is with more than a geographic place called Lexington. It is love story with the people of Lexington and people are complicated. We are too often divided by differences of race, sex, gender and class. Our shared practices too often produce the thin soil of inequality across these differences.

I’m left asking questions with how art making might bring more of us together across our differences and more importantly how we might make community to resolve the inequalities between us. While the participants certainly embody difference, I’m wondering about those left out and what that means. While it is wonderful for those included to share in the community making that a tattoo brought, what about those of us who didn’t get one? Is this simply the bounds of an artwork that breathes collaboration and inclusion? What about a city or the larger political-economy? Is this the reality we must accept? This is not a criticism of the project, but rather critical questions this project generates. This is the point of art. “Art reminds us of what is not – and thus makes us discontent with what is.” This project inspires me to imagine what would it look like for the people of Lexington to go beyond skin-deep connections, to embrace tattoos of the heart?

Our modern world is marked by the restless search for meaning, a quest for identity, and need for belonging. The Lexington Tattoo Project provides an ongoing dynamic response embodied in art, story telling and value of relationships. Who I am is deeply connected to who we are. My story is part of a larger story of us. If we listen well, we might discover in all of our messy and complicated stories of self a larger common human story. This is the stuff of a love story in Lexington at “The ______________ of the Universe.”
To learn more about the project visit http://lexingtontattooproject.com/