Christine Huskisson had never been in a tattoo shop before, but there she sat in Charmed Life Tattoo on the afternoon of Jan. 31, newly inked.
"I've been initiated," she says with a gulp, "I think."
Her tattoo is small — a single lowercase letter "a" — and it resides in a mostly hidden but not unmentionable part of her body that she declines to disclose publicly.
Huskisson's tattoo was not motivated by a lost weekend or rebellious urge. The art teacher at the University of Kentucky was motivated by art, specifically the Lexington Tattoo Project, a monthslong endeavor that is spreading the words of a poem across the bodies of Lexingtonians.
"I've supported the arts in Lexington and Central Kentucky for a very long time — over 25 years," says Huskisson, who helped develop the Take It Artside app, a smartphone guide to public art in the area. "This, for me, is kind of what I always hoped would happen for Lexington, these kinds of contemporary, community-based projects."
The project is the brainchild of Lexington community-engagement artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, whose previous endeavors have included an exhibit of photos of area residents on their discarded couches and a project last year in which 1,000 dolls were placed along Limestone from the University of Kentucky campus north to New Circle Road.
This time, their project is spread across the bodies of area residents.
Gohde and Todorova commissioned Lexington poet Bianca Spriggs to write a poem about Lexington. Then they divided the poem into words, phrases and punctuation marks, and invited area residents to have a part of the poem, along with some artistic elements, tattooed on their bodies. The project's grand finale will be later this year, when an image made up of the poem and all the tattoos is revealed.
But really, as much as any art project, this one has been about the process and a journey into uncharted waters.
In all their research, Gohde, Todorova and other participants have not been able to find a project like it, save for several years ago, when a story apparently was published by tattooing it on hundreds of people, though it was not recorded in its entirety.
Tattoos have come into somewhat mainstream acceptance only recently. That can be attributed at least partly to TV shows such as L.A. Ink and tattoos' increasing appearance on the bodies of celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Adam Levine, and scads of college and professional athletes (many recent stars of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team including Nerlens Noel, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall have tattoos).
The project's origins
The inspiration for the project came from a class assignment at Transylvania University, where Gohde and Todorova teach, that explored acceptance of tattoos. The class was called "creative disruption" and asked students to actively challenge social norms to see what the responses would be.
"One of the assignments was to purchase very believable temporary tattoos, put them on a visible part of their body and apply for a job," Todorova says. "The idea was to see how quickly prejudices very quickly emerge, even if everything else suggests you are an educated, thinking being."
Gohde and Todorova tried it themselves.
"I really enjoyed it," Todorova says. "I kept wearing temporary tattoos. But whenever anyone asked, is that real?, I'd say, 'No, I can't commit to anything.'"
At the same time, Gohde and Todorova became aware of Philadelphia mural artist Stephen Powers who created a series of "love letters" to that city with words and stylized imagery.
"We talked about it and we really liked the idea of tattooing something on the bodies of people in Lexington as a way of expressing love for Lexington," Todorova says.
Everything came together at a reading Spriggs gave early last year at the Morris Bookshop. The next day, Gohde and Todorova sent her a note asking whether she'd be willing to write a love letter to Lexington in the form of a poem.
Love is complicated
"I laughed at them and said, 'Love is a very strong word,'" says Spriggs, who has lived in Lexington off and on since 1991. "I've been here a really long time, and I've had my ups and downs with this town. So it's a lot more complicated than just love. So I said, 'I'll try.'"
Spriggs' work became the first manifestation of the Lexington Tattoo Project as an art endeavor built on Facebook. She took to the social networking site, where she has more than 2,800 friends, to solicit places and things important to people about Lexington.
To Spriggs, Lexington has been "the waiting room of the universe," meaning she often felt it was where she was until moving on to somewhere else. "I wanted to find out what it was to other people," she says, "so I asked, 'If Lexington is the 'blank' of the universe, what would it be to you?' So then you start seeing things like, 'truck stop,' 'armpit,' 'sequined leotard,' 'errant nipple hair' — all of those showed up."
Spriggs knew she wanted to write a contrapuntal poem, meaning it had two columns that could be read as standalone poems or together, side to side, as one poem. She also knew she wanted to create a poem about young love played out in the beloved locales of Lexington.
The piece, titled The ______ of the Universe, was also a much longer poem than Gohde and Todorova expected.
Based on reading her previous works, Gohde says, he was expecting about 100 words. He and Todorova planned for that length when raising money to pay for the tattoos.
"Then I got the poem from Bianca, and it was 490 words," Gohde recalls.
The crowd gathers
While Spriggs was writing, the artists had amassed a Facebook audience of potential participants who were waiting to see the poem on Thanksgiving weekend and start claiming words. They quickly regrouped and broke the poem into phrases instead of individual words, assured by Charmed Life tattoo artist Robert Alleyne that the tattooing process would take roughly the same amount of time for multiple words as it did for one.
Although Gohde and Todorova initially worried about attracting enough participants, they ended up with 250 people getting tattoos — plus a long waiting list.
The tattoo sessions, which were free to participants, were scheduled for Charmed Life Tattoo in January and mostly organized on Facebook.
"It was seven days a week, 2 to 10, two every hour," says artist Jason Cameron Armstrong, who teamed with Alleyne to do the tattooing. "It was pretty impressive."
A lot of the participants, like Huskisson, were getting their first tattoos.
Kathleen Burke, a Transylvania graduate who now works as educational coordinator for the Fayette Alliance, says she had wanted to get a tattoo for a while but didn't know what to have inscribed on her body.
"A lot of people want tattoos but don't know what would be that meaningful," Burke, 25, says. "This project made it easy to do something meaningful, and it took care of the details like where to get it and paying for it."
Alleyne and Armstrong say that the first- timers generally handled the tattooing well and that it seemed to open up the art form to a demographic that might not have considered getting a tattoo previously.
Alleyne notes newcomers like Huskisson, "Wyn Morris (of Morris Book Shop), the people from Smiley Pete (Publishing), and LexArts and all of them — it's been pretty neat to see those folks come in."
The Charmed Life artists, both of whom got tattooed as part of the project, say they have had some first-timers return for more tattoos.
Of course, people who are well-inked participated, too.
Jonathan Stafford of Lexington was on the waiting list, but got a call on the last day of tattooing. "I just said, 'Where do you need me, and when?' I was thrilled I was going to get to be a part of it," he says. He got the word nothing tattooed on his bicep.
Hampton Fisher, 29, has more than 40 tattoos, but he found room on his right leg for the words fried delicacies (which is half of the phrase "the deep fried delicacies" shared by Herald-Leader assistant features editor Scott Shive). It is one of numerous Lexington-themed tattoos Fisher has, including a UK Wildcat and the logo for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.
"I love my state and I like to reconnect with it through my tattoos," he says. "When I heard about this, it sounded perfect.
The project's future
In coming months, Gohde and Todorova, who also got tattoos as part of the project, are arranging events including Saturday's Magnetic Poetry Meet and Greet at West Sixth Brewing to allow people who did not get tattoos, for whatever reason, to be part of the fun. In the coming months, there will be other events including a video shoot in the spring and the finale: the unveiling of the final image compiled from photographs of all the participants' tattoos joined together.
That is ultimately what people say they love about the project.
"This project has created a permanent bond between all the people that participated in it," Fisher says. "It's like you'll be out at Thursday Night Live and see someone with one of these tattoos, and you have an instant connection."
Burke says, "Before they even started doing the tattoos, I was in Third Street Stuff and heard someone talk about it, and I went over and said, 'I'm doing that, too,' and we started talking.
"Even if I move away someday, I will always have this connection to Lexington."
IF YOU GO
Lexington Tattoo Project Magnetic Poetry Meet and Greet
What: Event for project participants and the general public that will include a reading of The ______ of the Universe.
When: 6-8 p.m. Feb. 23.
Where: West Sixth Brewing, 501 W. Sixth St.
Learn more: Search for "Lexington Tattoo Project" on Facebook.com or click here.