Meet the performance artists using their bodies and tattoo guns to create art that challenges ideas of race, gender and identity. By Katy Kelleher
Since the 1800s, when tattooing was ‘reintroduced’ to Europe and the US by sailors and soldiers, there has been an understanding that the tattoo world was a space created by men for men. The only women allowed are taboo-breakers, transgressors, sex workers and victims. Tattooing was a trade, a craft, but not really an art. Sometimes, the tattoo would be made into a performance, but again, that wasn’t considered to be art. That was a spectacle.
However, in the 20th and 21st centuries, this paradigm began to shift as outsider art entered the mainstream. Tattoos started to enter the discipline of fine art. Sometimes this happened through the work of male performance artists, though sometimes it was the tattoo itself that entered the market (in 2006, a man named Tim Steiner sold his back to an art collector, who will someday harvest the piece placed there by artist Wim Delvoye and, potentially, hang it somewhere). But something slightly different occurs when the tattoo happens to the body, or by the hands, of a female-identifying artist.
‘There’s this idea that good girls don’t get tattooed, nice girls don’t get tattooed. Everyone has an idea about the female body and what is acceptable,’ explains Dr Gemma Angel of the University of Oxford. When women tattoo their own bodies (rather than paying a man in a parlour to tattoo it for them), it can be viewed as a way of ‘reclaiming that site for your own sense of self and identity,’ she explains. It’s a place to resist cultural beliefs and labels.
When Swedish artist Linnéa Sjöberg walked into a New York plastic surgeon’s office in January 2013, she had already been thinking about issues of control for quite some time. She was in the midst of a performance piece – titled GTD4S810 – in which she was playing the part of a businesswoman, shaping her body and appearance to fit the typical mould of a blonde, well-groomed career girl. She worked out regularly, and she changed her hair, make-up and clothing, but that wasn’t enough. She knew there was further to go. So Sjöberg flew from Sweden to visit a doctor who specialised in altering the body with plastic and saline. She explained to him that she had no interest in actually getting her breasts augmented; she wanted to understand the process.
‘I was very curious to have this experience with the male gaze. I wanted to know, how can I become more symmetrical in his eyes, more attractive, more perfect?’ she recalls.
She handed him the permanent marker she brought, disrobed, and bared her breasts. ‘I stood there, and he made drawings about where the cuts should go,’ she says. Using a mirror, Sjöberg went home and tattooed over the curves the doctor had imposed on her torso, etching the corrective lines into her skin permanently, desecrating her supposedly once-pristine skin with marks that were never intended to be aesthetically pleasing.
When tattooing enters the world of performance art, it often becomes about something other than aesthetic mastery. Australian artist Illma Gore knows that many people find her tattoos, applied to her body as part of an ongoing performance titled Human Canvas, ‘scary and repulsive’. But, she asks, ‘Is it? For them, sure. But I find it beautiful.’ To create this work, Gore asked 3,000 people to contribute financially and to send her their messages, which she then had tattooed on to her back, her thighs, her body. (All proceeds of the performance went to an organisation that helps homeless youths in Los Angeles.)
For Gore, the act of being tattooed with other people’s names, dreams and memories helps her feel tied to the world, and linked to a community. It was her way of giving something of herself; but she also asserted control over her body by relinquishing it. She loves watching her body change and evolve, wrinkle and smudge and fade. ‘I can only liken it to when you’re on a highway and looking at every other car,’ she explains. ‘You see that each person is going somewhere. Someone is going to work, someone is going to the hospital. It’s like that – this inertia.’ The most rebellious component of her piece is that it dares to imagine a world where bodies can be given freely, loved temporarily but fully, and afforded respect, no matter what they look like or how the person identifies.
In a similarly performative act, in 2005 MC Coble tattooed their body with the names of 436 LGBQT individuals in the US who had died as a result of hate crimes. The process, which took 12 hours, linked Coble to the victims through pain, while allowing viewers to symbolically see the hurt that had been inflicted on those individuals. And in 2017, non-binary artist Sally Rose staged a series of performances (titled Out of Body) that involved audience members tattooing anything they wanted on to the artist’s body. Video footage of the performance shows the artist with their head covered but all else bare, undergoing a physical transformation. It is difficult to watch – to see that kind of trust given over to strangers so absolutely. Yet it feels powerful, too.
The fact that tattoos require pain to exist makes it apt to draw parallels with other forms of performance art involving suffering. Marina Abramovic has been hurting herself in the name of art since the 1970s with performances such as Art Must Be Beautiful and the most controversial of her works, Rhythm 0, in which she allowed audience members to do whatever they liked to her body as she remained frozen in place, submissive and silent. Yoko Ono’s 1964 performance Cut Piece had a similar structure, in that it allowed viewers to take away items of her clothing one by one with a pair of scissors. However, the tattoo artists of today are going a step further. They’re committing to wear the badge of their art forever; and not only to use their bodies in their work, but to allow their bodies to become their work.
This year, Doreen Garner took the concept of tattooing as performance a step further with Alternative Modes of Penetration, which was staged at MoMA PS1 in New York in early March. In collaboration with Anderson Luna and Tamara Santibañez, she set about challenging ideas of gender, race, dominance and power. Garner, a black woman, had pre-selected six white men to stand in front of her audience. She then asked black audience members to select three men to receive a tattoo of a red letter. It was an A turned sideways: a design that mimicked the map of the transatlantic slave trade. Instead of using ink, she used water, so that the tattoos would later heal and fade. The images rose on their pale skin, bloody and raw.
‘I’m interested in the body and how it works in submission and dominance,’ Garner explains. Much of her fine art work is about the mistreatment and trauma inflicted on black women’s bodies. Yet Garner also works a day job as a tattoo artist and the focus there is slightly different: ‘When I’m tattooing people, I think of it as a healing process or a means of self-healing,’ she says.
The full version of this article originally appeared in Icon 194, an issue about performance, space, architecture and art. Order your copy here, or subscribe and never miss an issue.