First-person: Getting tattoo as part of art project is lesson in self-discovery

sshive@herald-leader.comFebruary 15, 2013 

What I have learned while being part of the Lexington Tattoo Project is that getting inked is a portal to self-psychoanalysis, or at least a lot of navel gazing. Ever since signing up late last year, I've been pondering me, myself and I a lot. Apparently, I have an impulsive streak and am uncertain about lots of things.

Why did I decide to take part? I'm not sure. But it happened quickly.

Having come of age in the 1990s, when tattoos became more mainstream, I'd be lying if I said I had never considered getting inked. I could just never decide on an image that I wanted hanging around on my body forever. It's comical that I made the decision to be part of the project, and get my first tattoo, on a whim.

In late November, right as the project was closing to new participants, I contacted organizers Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde in a professional capacity to ask them to keep the Herald-Leader informed of the project's progress so we could cover it. I added a postscript: If you need any backup participants, I might be interested in joining.

Todorova responded later that day on Facebook. Someone had dropped out. "In other words, you are in," she wrote.

OK, I guess I'm getting a tattoo. That was quick.

What words do I want? I could have ruminated a long time on what words to get emblazoned on my body, but again, I reacted rather unblinkingly. Late one night in December, Bianca Spriggs' poem, parsed into tattooable phrases, was revealed to the project group. We were instructed to choose a few phrases as our top picks. Within an hour, I had picked "the deep" as my No. 1 choice.

Why? I'm not sure.

Many other participants have a literal connection to their word or phrase or have found or ascribed significance to it.

John Ridener is a Lexington artist. He picked the phrase "Gallerie Soleil" for his tattoo. Why? He had a studio at that beloved, defunct art space on Short Street.

Wendy McCormick Turner, a teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and a former Herald-Leader staffer, got the words "on a Saturday" tattooed on her foot. She said that at first, she was a little disappointed that she got that phrase out of the ones she requested. Then she realized that she was married "on a Saturday" and her twin son and daughter were born, you got it, "on a Saturday." Her phrase seemed serendipitous.

All I can say is "the deep" spoke to me in some visceral way. Am I a "deep" person? Maybe. I don't know. If I had to apply a meaning, I would say that I picked it because I like delving deeply into things. I like to immerse myself deep in a topic and learn as much as I can about it. Or maybe I'm attracted to the unknowns that a phrase like "the deep" implies.

I could think about this for eons, and probably will.

Am I a wuss? In the weeks leading up to getting my tattoo in early January, I fretted over an obvious question: Is it going to hurt?

I had settled on getting the tattoo on the inside of my upper left arm. I wanted a spot that could be covered but viewable without looking in a mirror. Why that particular place? Again, I'm not sure. It spoke to me, perhaps?

Something I did know after doing some research: Anecdotally, getting a tattoo on a tender part of the body, such as the inside upper arm, can hurt like the dickens. Great.

I consulted with a friend who is a tattoo veteran and a fellow project participant, Emily Reed (her phrase: "she wore a neon wig" because, well, she's been known to wear a neon wig). She confirmed that it was likely to hurt worse than, say, having it done on a shoulder blade. Awesome.

When I arrived at the Charmed Life tattoo studio, I had Emily and my (uninked) partner, Marc, in tow. I was nervous as heck, but it was a kind of anxiety I hadn't had in a long time. Why am I feeling this way? I decided that at my age, there are few things that I have never done before and for which I have absolutely no emotional reference. Getting a tattoo is one of those things.

My tattoo artist, Jason Cameron Armstrong, was a pro and obviously was used to tattoo virgins. He talked me through the process, made me feel comfortable and never made me feel like I was weird or uncool for being nervous.

When it was over, I could say that no, getting a tattoo didn't hurt, per se. The feeling was more of discomfort. Imagine a sharp fingernail scratching you for a half-hour. Not bad at all.

Why haven't I told my mom? I'm not sure, but now that thousands of people, including my family, are potentially reading this story, that jig might be up.

What's the meaning of art? When I told Marc that I was getting a tattoo, he joked, "Well, if you're going to mutilate your body, you might as well do it in the name of art."

That's part of the appeal for me: This is art. Even though I can't determine a particularly special connection I have to "the deep," I have a connection to this project and am part of something bigger than me.

Until the day I die, I will be part of an organic, changing piece of community art.

The art created by Spriggs' poem and the illustration that Gohde and Todorova designed was complete for only a small moment. With the poem spread over 250 bodies, presumably clustered in Lexington, it is already evolving, and will continue to do so.

The art will change as we the canvas age and our skin sags, transforms and is scarred by life; it will burst out of Central Kentucky as some of us move to other places, but it will forever be rooted here; its image will blur and alter as we augment our tattoos, as some participants are already doing, or have them removed; it will fade as the ink dissipates in our skin; and it will be edited as we die and words of the poem are forever deleted.

Scott Shive: (859) 231-1412. Twitter: @scottshive.

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