Two Kentucky Artists Launch A Global Tattoo Mural

By Ashlie Stevens

In 2012, Lexington, Kentucky poet Bianca Spriggs wrote a love letter to her city, and had it inscribed on an unlikely canvas: the bodies of 253 of the city’s residents. Four years later, that simple, radical act has evolved into a much-heralded international installation that’s using the art of ink to promote global community.

“At the time, the idea to have a group of people choose words from a poem as permanent tattoos — as an expression of their love for their city and community — was so strange that many were at a loss for words when talking about it,” says Kremena Todorova, who launched the Lexington Tattoo Project (LTP) with fellow artist Kurt Godhe. Yet for all its unlikeliness, the project was a success; some called the LTP “a city-wide mural on skin,” while a writer for a local magazine referred to it as “a group hug” that spawned a book, a video, and a celebration that drew Lexington together.

“Our purpose was to ignite community, creativity, the visual arts, design, music, and personal stories,” Todorova says. “And we succeeded.”

Soon, other cities began to take notice. The pair was invited to Boulder, Colorado, to do a companion piece fittingly called the Boulder Tattoo Project. While in the city, they worked with local tattoo artists, musicians, a photographer, and participants. Boulder poet and Beat icon Anne Waldman wrote the poem for the BTP.

“Boulder was a real test for us. Could we capture communal sentiment and love in a different city, a city that neither of us had any connections to? We thought we’d give it a try and it worked beautifully,” Gohde says. “In the end, we found out that Boulderites love Boulder as fiercely as we love Lexington.”

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The project then spread to Cincinnati, Ohio, and is upcoming in Detroit. Yet it wasn’t until an original participant in the LTP approached Todorova and Gohde that the artists considered expanding the project internationally.

“The day after we premiered the LTP with a big communal celebration, he asked us if we could imagine the LTP scaled to fit the entire world. His proposition was bold, for sure. And it was a huge challenge for us,” Todorova says.

However, they knew that if the same values of inclusivity and community pride could be spread internationally, the project could have a true global impact.

Todorova and Gohde had to figure out how to work without a local project manager and photographer, how to market the artwork, and how to pay for the tattoos (for the city-based projects, they had paid for each one, which wasn’t sustainable on a global level). In the end, they started a website and utilized social media to get the word out, and decided to have participants send photos of their tattoos to them.

That left only one question: what poem would they choose for this international project?

For the pair, the choice was simple — “Love Letta to de Worl’” by Lexington poet, and former Kentucky poet laureate, Frank X Walker. It begins with the stanza:

I love you world.
Love your seven different faces.
Love your healing waters
wide and deep.
Love the thing you have
with the sun and the moon
and what it teaches us
about companionship,
about change,
about revolution.

The poem goes on to engage issues at the core of our contemporary lives: the environment, sustainability, and world peace, among others. Divided into phrases and designed as individual tattoos, the poem’s words are available to read, enjoy, and ink through an interactive website, where users can see how many people have requested tattoo designs of particular phrases (for example, 597 users have expressed interest in a design for the line I love you world).

“Unlike the city-based tattoo projects, this one encourages participants to customize their tattoos. We also invite them to email us with a translation of their chosen phrase if they would like their tattoo in a language other than English,” Todorova says.“To date, we know of tattoos in 10 states, 15 countries, and 4 continents.”

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As cliched as it may sound, Todorova and Godhe share a simple, profound aim for the project: they hope that in reading the poem, people will realize that they need to be better stewards of our planet, and will commit to making the world more just, compassionate, and loving. Says Todorova:

“We do hope that some of the readers will choose to participate in Love Letter To the World by getting a tattoo. There are many beautiful — some of them challenging — words and phrases to choose from. We hope that folks will download the design of their chosen phrase, take it to their tattoo artist, get their tattoo, have their picture taken, or take it themselves, and upload their picture to the website.”

These photos are being assembled into a photo project, viewable on The World Tattoo Project website, that is debuting next week. Each time a user presses play, a different set of photos will be showcased.

Godhe adds: “And ultimately through this project, we hope that participants will feel less alone, knowing that their words connect them to many others around the globe.”

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