“Deep Roots:” Poetry, Place, and the Lexington Tattoo Project.

Image by Gohde and Todorova.

All images by Gohde and Todorova.

The Lexington Tattoo Project is part living art project, part love letter, and part exploration of what it means to call a place home.

A project envisioned by artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, a total of two hundred and fifty Lexington residents have chosen to have the words of poet Bianca Spriggs tattooed on their bodies. All the phrases come from Spriggs poem entitled, “The _______ of the Universe: A Love Story.”

Inspired by hearing Spriggs read, Gohde and Todorva approached her, requesting she  create a love letter to the town. Her response was a 469-word  walk along Elkhorn Creek, Keeneland, Catalpa Street, and other well and not-so-well-known spots in Lexington. Spriggs reached out to the community to help create the poem, asking them about places they felt encapsulated what it means to call Lexington home.

You don’t need to call the city home to understand  how such a place can be, as Spriggs writes—filling in the blank of the poem’s title—the “Honeymoon of the Universe,” “the Sequined Leotard of the Universe,” or “the Sweet Potato vine of the Universe.” Spriggs poem is more than just a love letter to the town. It’s a cartographic examination of  everyday memory, a sweeping look at how place and story are so interwoven. “Something about putting down deep roots,” concludes Spriggs’ poem, “in the thin soil of their hometown.” ( Read the entire poem by clicking on the link at the bottom of this article).

Kremena Todorova teaches American Literature at Transylvania University; Kurt Gohde teaches Studio Art. Frequent collaborators, they’re both interested perceptions of body art in the larger community, especially the role this medium can play in perceptions of gender and class. They divided Spriggs’ poem into singular words and/or phrases, weaving a straightforward aesthetic into the tattoo designs. And then they asked folks to sign up to get the tattoos. The response, they explain, was overwhelming.

Purposefully fragmenting the poem, the  words become part of an ever-evolving public art project that speaks to concepts of place, story, physicality of expression, and human connection. One all the images come together, they explain, they’ll be like pieces of a puzzle. “The background image will be visible behind the text of the poem. This image is a secret.”

the Gohde and Todorova were kind enough to answer a few questions over email about the back story of this project, how this project dovetails with previous projects, and the future of this community-based art endeavour.  You can also read Sprigg’s poem at the bottom of this post.

  How did the idea for the project begin?

There are a number of experiences and ideas that coalesced into The Lexington Tattoo Project.

To begin with, in the spring of 2009 the two of us were teaching a May Term class at Transylvania University (where we teach) called “Creative Disruption.” One of the assignments for the class (which aims to increase students’ awareness of the social rules and expectations that dictate our day-to-day lives) was to first put on very convincing temporary tattoos on very visible parts of one’s body and then apply for a job. We wanted to test the social stigmas against tattoos. In the process of this assignment, the two of us (we do all the assignments we give to our students in this class) realized that individually we were getting different kinds of treatment though the two of us put on identical tattoos. While Kurt received hostile stares, people seemed to enjoy the large images on Kremena’s right arm. We began to talk about all the ways in which our bodies become more visible through tattoos, about how that visibility can be gendered.

A few years later, we became aware of the work of ESPO (Steve Powers) who created a series of murals in Philadelphia titled A Love Letter For You . The murals were created as abbreviated love letters along a single street in a part of the city considered dangerous because of the racial and class make-up of its population (mostly working-class people of color). ESPO’s love letter to the city, then, made a powerful claim that even “bad” neighborhoods are part of the community, that everyone should be included and loved.

Compelled by tattoos, by ESPO’s murals, and by the affection for Lexington we share, we wanted to create some sort of a love letter to our city through permanent tattoos.

We did not know what we were going to tattoo until we heard Bianca Spriggs read in the Morris Book Shop, a locally owned book shop that regularly hosts literary readings and community events) in May 2012. We had heard her read her poetry many times before, and had loved her words and her voice every single time. Back in May, however, both of us had the same thought: we would ask Bianca to write a poem–a love letter–to Lexington and have it tattooed on the bodies of Lexington: a permanent and very public work of art.

Bianca said yes to us–though she said that she could not write a straightforward love letter to Lexington –and we set out to raise money so that all the tattoos would be free to participants…

This is how it started. The two of us came up with the idea, asked Bianca to write, and “discovered” Robert Alleyne at Charmed Life by scrutinizing text tattoos we saw on people’s bodies. We looked for the best-looking text-based tattoos. All clues led to Robert.

 

Gohde and Todorova for LexTattooProj (2)

 

I understand Spriggs wrote a poem specifically for the project. How does it speak to the larger identity of Lexington?

We have attached the poem , along with Bianca’s letter to Lexington. Her poem not only mentions beloved locations in Lexington (Bianca chose these from many submissions she got to a facebook post that asked people to tell her about hidden gems in Lexington), but also relied on community input (besides the locations, Bianca got many of the phrases in the list-part of the poem from facebook submissions in response to a fill-in-the blank assignment: “Lexington is the ____________ of the Universe”). Like the bigger artwork, then, the poem was created with a lot of community participation.

 How did people respond to the project in its early stages?

It depends on what you mean by early stages. About 100 people joined the facebook event within 24 hours after we created it in October 2012. People were curious, if not entirely committed to getting a tattoo, right away.

I understand there were around 200 people who signed up. Can you tell me about these folks? Were they friends? People in the art community? Strangers? A little of everyone?

Though there were about 250 people who had joined the fb event at the time we began to assign words and phrases from the poem (in response to people sending us their top three choices), that number is now more than 450. Some of them, as we discovered, were friends with each other—people we did not know. There were a few people from the art community who got tattoos, but not that many. Most of the people who became participants were strangers to the two of us. Because we advertised almost exclusively on facebook, we had no control at all over who signed up. (We’ve met a lot of new people and made new friends as a result of this approach.) So it is a really diverse group of people, united by their affection for Lexington.

 What was the process of designing the tattoos like?

We knew that we wanted a fairly simple font and we went through all the free fonts, eliminating all but about 3 of them. Eventually, we decided on Dante—a font we had to buy—because we liked what the poem’s words looked like in Dante.

We knew we needed some design element to make the tattoos recognizable as part of our artwork. We decided to use three different kinds of dots/circles to create a background image for the poem. When all the tattoos are put together—like pieces of a puzzle—the background image will be visible behind the text of the poem. This image is a secret.

I understand you are working with a specific tattoo parlor. How did that partnership come about?

When we went to talk with Robert (of Charmed Life)  we were instantly won over by his love for community-based works, by his willingness to give us a discount on tattoos so that the project could more easily happen. He made every single hurdle along the way appear small and easy to overcome

  

Gohde and Todorova for LexTattooProj (3)

 

How does this differ from past community art projects you all have worked on?

Perhaps the biggest difference has to do with the level of commitment on the part of the participants. Neither DISCARDED (http://discarded-usa.com/) nor Passing (see this, for example: http://www.kentucky.com/2010/05/06/1254413/exhibit-shows-off-the-drag-queen.html) asked the participants to commit to anything longer than a 2-hour conversation with us.

What have you learned about the city in doing this project?

We have become aware of the tremendous love for it and pride in it that so many people feel. We have become aware of communities and people we did not know before (for instance, burlesque performers—we did not know there are 2 burlesque groups in Lexington). We have experienced amazing generosity from people who don’t have much money but have a lot of sympathy and care. We have, again, been reminded about the rich lives that unfold everywhere around us.

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that we didn’t ask about?

We also just connected with Ben Sollee who is going to write the soundtrack for the video we plan to make. So this is something else you should know: we plan to make a video that animates Bianca’s poem—while she is reading it—through images of the individual tattoos. Ben Sollee will work with Bianca to compose a soundtrack for this video. We are also in conversation with two project participants about publishing a book of all the tattoos

Since our email interview a few new developments have taken place. “We are about to give away 2 more tattoos—one to Bianca’s mother-in-law (who is taking “by Bianca Spriggs”) and one to a new sponsor—which will make the total number of tattoos here in Lexington 250,” they write. “We are almost done photographing all the healed tattoos and are currently working both on creating the composite image (which includes the text of the poem—spelled through tattoos—in the foreground and the secret image in the background) and a book that will include all the Lexington tattoos and many of the stories behind them.”

They have also been invited to do this artwork in Boulder, CO and in Miami, FL as well. The Boulder Tattoo Project has already begun and the Miami Tattoo Project will begin soon.

To learn more about this project go here. 

To read Sprigg’s poem go here: The ____________________ of the Universe (2).

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Biannca Spriggs is a multidisciplinary artist, a members of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem Fellow. You can read more about her here. 

Kurt Gohde teaches Studio Art at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY and makes art to invite conversations about contemporary social issues, from marginalized sexualities to the experience of homelessness. Recently, he has become newly invigorated by plans to reseed the clouds over Kentucky with meat, in loving memory of the Kentucky meat rain of 1876.

Kremena Todorova teaches American Literature as well as classes that ask students to meet and work with their neighbors face to face. Born and raised in Communist Bulgaria, she continues to draw inspiration for her art and teaching from Timur and his commitment to community. She became an official American on December 10, 2010.

In addition to drag queens, Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova like to photograph discarded couches, roadside attractions, and all things found on the peripheries. In 2011 and 2012 they traveled to Los Angeles, Indianapolis, New Orleans and San Antonio to photograph the people who live near the couches and easy chairs left on the these cities’ curbs. The resulting collection of images, DISCARDED: USA, is an ongoing artwork scheduled to be completed in 2014. Currently, Gohde and Todorova are working on The Lexington Tattoo Project, a public artwork that has already spread the words of a poem, through permanent tattoos, on the bodies of 252 Lexingtonians. They have exhibited their collaborative work in Lexington, KY; Venice Beach, CA; Indianapolis, IN; Oneonta, NY; and San Antonio, TX.