Lexington Tattoo Project Brings Poetry to Life

  It is not unusual for Bianca Spriggs to be reading her poetry on a Saturday night. But something is different this evening at Lexington’s West Sixth Brewing: A lot of people in the audience have portions of Spriggs’ poem, “The _______ of the Universe,” written on their bodies. It’s a Magnetic Poetry party for the Lexington Tattoo Project, the latest community involvement art project from Lexington artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova.

“Like most of the work that we do, what we were trying to do was find a way that we could make something people could become actively involved in and experience before they realize it’s an artwork, so they don’t put up all the walls they do for visual art,” Gohde says. “And Tattoos seemed like a good way to do that, and also to involve a part of the visual community that is not often embraced in the visual arts world.”

So this was the plan: Gohde and Todorova decided to commission a poet to pen a love letter to Lexington. Then, they would solicit a hundred or so area residents to have words from the poem tattooed on their bodies. Within the tattoos was a visual element, in the form of dots. When photos of the tattoos were put back together, they would form a single image.

So, they approached Spriggs.

“I’m usually game for almost anything; I’ll see if I can pull it off,” Spriggs says. “So they said, ‘Can you write a love letter to Lexington?’ I said, ‘Well, my feelings about Lexington are complicated. I’m not sure love is the right word.”

Spriggs took a shot at the project. But first, she went to Facebook and Twitter, asking questions like what places people love in Lexington and ...

“I asked people to fill in the blank, ‘Lexington is the blank of the universe,’ and people would say, ‘the truck stop’ or ‘the underrated wine,’” Spriggs says, hence the title, “The ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­___________ of the Universe."

For Gohde and Todorova, the project grew quickly. Spriggs turned in a much longer poem than they expected. Fortunately, they had attracted far more prospective participants than they expected.

“Over 200 people agreed to do it before the poem was even written, so that was really surprising to us,” Gohde says. “Part of it was just that people loved Lexington, or loved tattoos, or were fans of Bianca’s words … ’”

One distinctive aspect of the project was it attracted a lot of tattoo virgins.

Charmed Life Tattoo artist Jay Armstrong, who teamed up with Robert Alleyne to ink most of the tattoos, said the first timers did very well.

“Lots of time, first timers will have anxiety issues,” Armstrong says. “It may be spur of the moment, not really thinking about it, and that translates into once they sit down being shaky, not sitting real well. Everyone in the project did real good.”

Participants say that courage was in part because they felt like they were in the project together. Morris Bookshop owner Wyn Morris says that with the approach of his 50th birthday, it seemed like a good time to get a tattoo.

“I’ve thought about it probably since I was of more appropriate tattoo getting age,” Morris says at the Magnetic poetry party, where people were encouraged to mix and match their words and phrases for photographer Mick Jeffries. “But I could never really focus on what would be my first tattoo. In this case, the decision was sort of simplified for me.”

Many project participants say they chose their words or phrases outside their context in the poem. Allan Courtney and Alison Kerr Courtney went to get their tattoos together.

“Her word is ‘risk,’ because she took a risk in coming to live with me in Lexington, and I like the fact that she took a risk, and my word is ‘like,’” Allan says.

Like many participants, the Courtneys say their participation was an expression of their love for the city of Lexington.

“People get words or phrases from literature inked on their bodies, and I thought that was a great idea,” Alison says. “But to have something original from Lexington and professing a love for Lexington was even better. That made more sense to me, had more meaning to me.”

Spriggs wrote the poem in a contrapuntal form, with two parts that could be read separately, and then put together to form a new poem.

That musical form will work well with the video that will reveal the image all the dots in the tattoos form. Lexington-based roots cellist Ben Sollee has agreed to write music for the poem. The video is expected to premiere in the fall.

Scott Shive is the arts and entertainment editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader and a project participant. He says the success of the Tattoo project is indicative of a growing creative community in Lexington.

“There is a core of people that care enough about the city that they’re willing to participate in a creative community project that they will be inked for the rest of their lives with something that ties them to the city,” says Shive, who is my colleague at the Herald-Leader.

For Todorova, that community is the whole point.

She says, “If all the people who got a tattoo as part of the Lexington Tattoo Project know for the rest of their life, remember it fondly as this really fun experience they had with an artwork, I think that’s tremendous.”

Rich Copley covers arts and entertainment for the Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.