Inked forever on the bodies of 253 residents of Lexington, KY is a love letter to the city they call home. Many of them once-upon-a-time strangers to one another and “not the usual suspects” on the Lexington art scene, these people share one thing in common: the Lexington Tattoo Project.
The Lexington Tattoo Project is one of the latest collaborations between partners-in-art Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, professors of Art and American Literature, respectively, at Transylvania University.
The pair has collaborated on various projects for more than eight years and has previously used tattoos, and the stereotypes frequently associated with them, as a teaching tool in the classroom.
Tattoos had long been the subject of conversation for Kurt and Kremena, whose creative projects have taken them across the country.
The ideas behind the Lexington Tattoo Project came together when they heard Lexington-based poet Bianca Spriggs read at the Morris Book Shop.
“We both knew Bianca and had heard her read before,” said Kremena. “But hearing her words that one day – there was something different about them – they were so moving.”
The project quickly took shape. Kurt and Kremena would ask Bianca to write a love poem to the city of Lexington and then ask the people of Lexington to have words and phrases from the poem tattooed on their bodies.
The artists put out a call on Facebook in October 2012 to gauge interest and to announce that anyone who was interested could read the finished poem – expected to be about 100 words long – on Thanksgiving Day. But when the poem came in at 496 words, they wondered if they could find enough participants.
“Initially, we had planned to give away one word per person, but then we realized we could offer phrases,” said Kremena of the extra words in the poem. “We put the poem on Facebook on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and within 24 hours we had given away phrases to 160 people. Within a week we had assigned all of them.”
“People were so interested in the project, they said they would take any word, any phrase, it didn’t matter what, they just wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “All of this was a surprise to us. We had no idea our artwork would generate this much excitement.”
Additionally, Kurt said, they assumed they would know many of the participants.
“But then we had a meet and greet where people came together to get the designs for their tattoos,” he said. “There were 200 people in the room and we didn’t know very many of them at all.”
That quickly changed. The people who offered their bodies as canvases for the artwork – 253 total, including Kurt and Kremena, heterosexual and same-sex couples, a few families, and many parent-and-child pairs – are very committed to the work. Many of them now know each other well.
The project was privately funded, which allowed each of the participants to receive their tattoos at no cost. Tattooing took place at Charmed Life Tattoo in Lexington, with artists Robert Alleyne and Jay Armstrong completing most of the 253 tattoos in a matter of a few weeks.
The Lexington Tattoo project culminated with a book, which was released in February 2014. A short film that showcases each of the tattoos and unveils a hidden image was premiered in November 2013. Music by singer-songwriter Ben Sollee underscores Bianca’s reading of the poem.
Stay up to date with the project by visiting our blog page.