I’ve had a long-standing plan to work with a number of collaborators who’d agreed to be tattooed with images produced by me from ideas supplied by them. The original plan was to make an exhibition of my scale-drawings, together with ‘selfies’ of the collaborators being inked. The final part of the exhibition was to be a series of small, intense portraits I planned to paint of my subjects and their completed tattoos.
The exhibition was always going to be a logistic nightmare of scheduling, in part because of the number of subjects and the availability of the ink artists. It was to be down to each ‘collaborator’ to research and then book an ink artist of his or her choice and to manage the process of the inking. As it became increasingly clear to me that it was going to be almost impossible to make a stab at a project completion date in order to bring on board a gallery committed to an exhibition, I found myself drifting away to other, less problematic subjects. In time I realised that, good idea though it had been, I’d effectively ‘set aside’ the exhibition, moving it into the lumber room at the back of my mind labelled ‘Future Projects’.
Alone of all the collaborators, Nick Yarr was the one who persistently enquired about his design and when it would be finished. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that we’re friends and see each other regularly, so the subject has often come up in conversations. I’m afraid I kept him waiting a long time because of other commitments, though I can’t discount my hesitation as being in part down to the anxiety that whatever I produced could not, once transferred to Nick’s skin, be walked away from in the same way as he might walk away from a painting that he grew tired of. I guess that ink artists are familiar with the responsibilities inherent in their practice. But for me all this is new, and it has made me slow. Though the design has been on the go for some time, it’s now been finished, making it my first completed work of 2017.
Nick wants a full-sleeve inking. He’d requested a design featuring a clematis ‘orientalis’. It’s a beautiful plant that I’ve painted several times, and Nick and his partner Martin own a small still-life featuring an orientalis that I made in 2006.
Here, then, a detail of Nick’s design, with the the bell-shaped flowers and silky, fronded seedheads of clematis orientalis and a scattering of oak leaves blowing through. The drawing references the stylised, foliate diapering of Elizabethan embroidery and the botanical decorations found in Books of Hours. I’ve laboured long over it. I wanted the drawing to be as beautiful as I could make it.
I’ve heavily shadowed the design to add illusory depth to the intentional flatness. To make sure my made-to-scale drawing would exactly fit when transferred to his body, I instructed Nick to bandage his arm with kitchen wrap until a flexible shell was formed. The shell was sliced through in order to remove it, then boxed and delivered to me. Flattened out, it’s provided the template on which to create the design. (See image at top of post.) Nick did the work well. I guess what I requested was a little like plastering a broken arm, and so as a GP he was well placed for making a neat job of it!
Nick will now take the design to the tattoo artist of his choice so that the process of inking can begin. I’ve frequently been asked to design tattoos, but to my knowledge, this will be the first artwork of mine to make it onto skin! The responsibility weighs heavily and I don’t expect my underlying anxiety to let up until the work of inking has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
Of course there’s some possibility this might reinvigorate the tattoo project. Some of the original collaborators may return, or new ones emerge. But I think that I’d defer commitment to an exhibition until a group of the designs had been completed and executed, and in this way remove the scheduling pressures that had dogged the project in its earlier incarnation.