Skin/Skôra: Painter Nicky Arscott writes about art and the prospect of a Mari Lwyd tattoo.

I first came across Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ work a couple of years ago. I’d had this idea for a project that was going to involve the Mari Lwyd. While researching the tradition I came across Clive’s paintings and laughed out loud at the prospect of attempting anything quite as powerful, as meaningful or as beautiful as the images I saw in front of me.

I met Clive at a talk he gave in Aberystwyth, and subsequently took part in the Artlog ‘Puppet Challenge’. (I made a mother and baby, attached to each other by a woollen umbilical cord.) When I saw Clive ‘recruiting’ for Skin / Skóra, I immediately thought YES! I tried to leave it a few days before getting in touch, so that I had time to consider seriously the implications of the project (I think I managed about 3 hours) and then I e-mailed Clive to see how he felt about designing a Mari Lwyd tattoo.

Understandably he had reservations. I think, in fact, he was quite puzzled. Why would I want a tattoo of his Mari, with all it represented within the paintings, and with all it meant to him? We arranged a meeting for two weeks later, and during those two weeks I tried to work out what the Mari, and indeed the tattoo, might represent to me, because I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I love the Mari Lwyd celebrations. We go up the road to Dinas Mawddwy and take annual turns to get drunk and dance. I love the Mari song; the voices of the singers get stuck in my head for days. My daughter Lisa is obsessed with the clackety horse’s skull: skulls are one of her passions. Here’s a painting of her with a cow’s skull.

Besides enjoying the event itself, I also love horses. Here are ours: one large (Sid) and one small (Tinkerbelle).

I asked myself whether a love of the Mari Lwyd could possibly warrant the sudden and inexplicable longing for a Clive Hicks Jenkins tattoo of it. The conviction wouldn’t go away, and I was concerned that if people asked me to explain myself… as they almost certainly would… I wouldn’t have a very eloquent answer. I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve never wanted any design long enough to have had one permanently inked onto my skin. How could I be sure of the permanence of this particular desire?

I spent a long time talking with Clive about his work. I feel privileged to have had some of his thought processes and personal history explained as we looked through images of paintings with his Jack Russell terrier sitting between us on the sofa. We discussed the bed sheets that often appear in the Mari series: how sheets aren’t just sheets, but intricately connected to life itself: birth; death; love. One thing Clive said that has really stuck with me is this concept of creating something concrete as a way of coming to terms with a terror that can’t be named. In order to even think about dealing with this abstract ‘nothingness’, we need something physical to hold on to. A conduit; an agent. And how for me that’s what the Mari Lwyd represents on many different levels.

I mulled this over for a while, and then I started noticing something. Here is a poem I wrote a long time ago, when I was about twenty, after reading the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s tragic play, Yerma:


It was hysterical to wake in cicada-shrill dark

with my sheets ballooning up and down


dead grape stench hanging without within

because she’d opened my shutters in the night again.


Nena rubia she said let me tell you tall stories

how the sheets will always smell of apples

because I was not afraid to sleep with him.


When I was fifteen she got sad because

that was the age she got married.


Pobrecita mia. Now you will grow tetas let me see them.

She said they looked like little grapes anyway

and would not get me into trouble


but what a drama when I woke up

with la abuela’s dried flower arrangement

sewn into my hair!


She lied.

I was a virgin.


One summer she said she could smell the baby in her gut.

My feet were wet with her wailing spitting puta puta puta.


I slept in twisted bedsheets. On purpose

she made me dream apples falling from the ceiling fan.


The hottest night I woke to her nailscrabbling the stony floor,

knickers off, a knitting needle in my bed.

I was re-reading the poem and noticed the ‘twisted bedsheets’ and thought how, in a way, there’s something else of the Mari in there: a non-physical presence (in this case, a ghostly echo of the barren heroine in Lorca’s play) given a name. So I started looking at other things I’d written, and realised that these ‘presences’ surface in a lot of my work (including, weirdly, a poem with a strange, chain-smoking, horse-riding alter-ego called Mary) usually as a metaphor for something Other that is also inextricably linked with the Self; some manifestation of the unknown that surfaces within a poem or an image. I imagine that was what got me thinking about undertaking a Mari Lwyd project in the first place.

Here, also, is a painting from around 2010. I honestly don’t think I was trying to say anything in particular with it at the time (shortly after having a baby and moving to the middle of nowhere, amongst other things). The painting looks, in retrospect, like an attempt to harness control in some way, at a time when everything felt a bit chaotic. Funnily enough, it’s called The Mare.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the Mari figure, for me, is a myriad of contradictory ideas; not just ‘Self’ and ‘Other’, but also anarchy and order, fear and hope. It’s an empty vessel; a fluctuating metaphor, cropping up again and again in all its various forms. It’s an agent of change and possibility, and given that, I think the tattoo Clive designs will alter in meaning throughout my life: an ever-shifting symbol, reminding me of the permanent fact that nothing ever stays the same.

Nicky Arscott. January, 2015

16 thoughts on “Skin/Skôra: Painter Nicky Arscott writes about art and the prospect of a Mari Lwyd tattoo.

  1. At last I have found some time to sit and read Nicky’s post, I could see it was not to be skim-read, and I wanted to read it quietly and without rush. Her thoughts are beautifully conveyed, and it’s interesting that the Mari Lwyd represents, to her, fun and gaiety….well perhaps not exactly that, but she refers to enjoying the celebrations. Her paintings are incredible, I really like her style. I am looking forward to the tattoo you design for her. I still think she is brave to think of having one, but it must help to know that the design will be uniquely hers, and uniquely yours.xxL

  2. Fascinating to get an insight into Nicky’s journey so far with this project and to see some of her beautiful paintings. A Mari tattoo sounds very exciting, and totally unique, I’ve not ever seen one before!

  3. I found this another really interesting post on the Skin/Skôra project. I love reading why the participants have chosen their tattoos and I like the picture Peter has conjured up of everybody sitting round a camp fire sharing their stories.

    The choice of tattoo is a fascinating one, given what the Mari Lwyd has represented in your work and the different meanings the grey mare has for Nicky, which she so eloquently describes in her post.

    I look forward to seeing how Nicky’s views of the Mari Lwyd influence your interpretation of the subject for her tattoo design.

  4. Oh! I thought the paintings in this post looked familiar, I remember Nicky’s bull from the Tabernacle art competition a couple of years ago 🙂 Really interesting to have an insight into why the participants are choosing the images they are for their tattoos and to read more about the Mari Lwyd.

  5. I really like the painting of Lisa and the cow’s skull.
    And I’m almost persuaded myself by Nicky’s reasoning to have a tattoo!

  6. It’s a real privilege to be allowed access to the contributors thought processes as they hone in on their final designs.

    I keep imagining all the contributors around a roaring camp fire, swapping stories and comparing tattoos, like ancient tribespeople who have undergone some rite of passage.

    I’m still a little rueful not to be taking part in this project.

    • You’ll be pleased to hear that in my WordPress stats analysis for 2014, you came up as the most consistent presence in the comment boxes. I should probably send you a prize!!!

      I thought of you the other evening during a rather scary tv programme about facial tattoos. A young woman had her heart set on two, one of an hour-glass, and the other of a spider. (No explanations, and she had them inked despite eloquent pleas from a young man, who’d had facial tattoos and hated them, for her to think again.) As the tattooist inked a rather large and ugly spider onto her left temple, I thought to myself…

      ‘I wonder how Pete’s ‘Spidey’ is?’

      • Yes, please send me a prize! ha ha 🙂

        It’s nice to be noticed for my consistancy.

        Do spiders hibernate do you know?
        because Spidey has not been sighted for a while now,
        i’m just hoping he hasn’t left home, as I would miss him terribly if he has.

        • I will send you a prize. I have decided.

          The spiders here definitely don’t hibernate, though that may be because they’re warm and cosy and don’t need to conserve energy against the cold. But I have no idea what they’re eating! Maybe they just slow down. I have noticed that one just above the cistern in the loo doesn’t move at all for days at a time, though he wriggles a little when I blow gently on him, just to check he’s OK!

          • I’ve never won anything before, so that’s very exciting!

            When Spidey does emerge again, he’s in for a nice surprise as I’ve grown an unruly beard to match my hair – so he now has a nice new playground to romp in!

            • I like the idea of an unruly beard! I think I need pictures, please! I’ve re-cut mine to be detached from my moustache, while the tache itself has gone all twirly at its ends.

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