The last thing Loren tattooed on my stomach were the words “We don’t know what is true but let’s dream the same dream,” around my navel and across the top of my womb. It seemed beautifully fitting and we tried to assign certain verses to specific body parts, like tactile verses on the arms, voice/speaking verses on my throat, heart verses across the chest etc. This was the first time I asked how long we had ‘til our planned 20min lunch break, my composed mind set was slackening a little. It was 12:45pm and I had just over an hour to go before I could hop off the tattoo bench and we could allow ourselves a rest and food. We flipped me over onto my front and started to do the back of my left thigh which felt like a doddle after my ribs/stomach.
I hadn’t realised before but from my forehead, across my chest and down to my waist I had hardly made any eye contact with anyone in the room and hadn’t even registered who had been coming and going. I’d been mostly staring at the light fittings and beams on the roof of the annexe or looking at Loren and having the backs of my thighs done meant I could sit up and make eye contact with the people wandering in and out. Jamie Price had been there for some time, he arrived just as we started my throat, taking pictures inside our circle of music stands. I was aware of his presence but I hadn’t realised that there were now three more photographers and about 8 people either sat watching around the edge of the room or circling the perimeter. Everyone I made eye contact with seemed so warm and open and respectful which was a huge relief. Loren and I weren’t exactly sure how people were going to response, worst case scenario they would be disinterested, walk in and then straight out because it seemed too unsettling or didn’t interest them. They could have been appalled, they could have been squeamish or simply not be able to get past the nudity and inferred “violence” of somebody literally carving into the body of another person (the least creative way of interpreting our piece I think). In a knee jerk survival mechanism of expecting the worse, the best case scenario we hoped for was that they’d be politely bemused. Luckily, in reality, people are much more intelligent and respectful than you give them credit for.
It was so lovely to see that people were open and genuinely curious about what we were doing. Some people came in and sat for hours and some people kept popping back in all day to see how the work was progressing. Some people brought their very young children to see what was happening and I made sure that I gave them the biggest smiles I could so that knew I wasn’t really suffering too much and it was all ok. I really felt like it was my duty to let everybody know that whilst I may have been grimacing and squirming at some of the harder parts I was actually fully in control of the situation and I was a willing participant. It was completely up to me to make sure people didn’t think that I was in some kind of passive wide eyed position of objectification and that using my body as a canvas was a symbolic statement rather than just a tool used to tease and shock.
Just to clarify, we were using my body because we all have bodies and I wanted to become a symbol of anyone, male and female, that was open and made vulnerable by love (or any experience) to the world. The literal pain inflicted by the bloodlines that built momentum over the six hours was representative of the pain everyone goes through whenever they experience anything and get it wrong for the first time. We must learn to suffer without accumulating resentment, through suffering we learn. We are all human and fallible, we all feel pain and we all crave love and using my skin as the medium was perfect because of how Loren and I met (he gave me my first tattoo) and also how I navigate the world. I feel things intensely, everyone does, but as a woman I am particularly governed by forces I do not control, cycles of my body that shape my mood and ripple through sequences of events that made me who I am. I rely on my feelings more than my intellectual reasoning, I often have no logical explanation for why I am doing something I just know that it is intrinsically right and honourable and feels noble in my skin. I don’t think first then respond, I react then consider. I’m ruled by my instinct, by unexplainable gut feelings and visceral responses to people and situations, everyone is to a certain extent, we are all defined by our bodies but women tend to internalise our experiences and use a language of touch and the flesh to navigate the world. I remember feminists writing that if woman were going to over throw the phallocentrism of our current language systems they would have to create a new language, one written by the body, Écriture féminine.
To clear up another matter I am not a feminist per say (although some one quite rightly pointed that being a feminist just means you are supportive of womanhood, which of course we all should be and in that sense Loren and I are both feminists!) but I do not believe in engaging in a power struggle with masculine energies. I have strong principles against the mistreatment of women but I have the same principle about men. To bring sex up constantly as a point of debate just widens the divide and I’d rather get on with proving myself as an empowered person rather than a woman who can equal a man, you cannot define yourself by co-ordinates beyond your experience, only align with a central truth internally. I think women need men as much as men need women, more to the point people need people regardless of gender. As the comedian Jackie Hagan wrote in her submissions to Written in Skin, “The struggle for sexual equality is not between men and women it’s between people and dickheads.” I couldn’t put it better myself. I think language is phallocentric yes, that is a fact. It’s a system that developed over centuries to privilege a male world view and if we really want to change it we will slowly over time. Nothing happens until you make it happen and the world will not change its habits over night, these things take will power and patience. So if the body is truly the terrain of womanhood, and tactility and flesh is our realm of meaning then Loren tattooing poetry onto my skin creates the perfect equilibrium between male and female perception. We were using two systems of meaning, feeling and thought, to harmonise our distinct voices.
Last, but certainly not least of all of my points as to why we choose to use my naked body as the canvas (which should be glaringly obvious to you all), was that I have been raised to believe all bodies are sacred. That divinity dwells within us. In the wonder that we are alive and this conglomerate of tissue and sinew sheathed in skin breathes and feels has the power to affect others. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our naked form and keep it covered in case of offending other people, it is one of the common grounds we all share as human beings, even more so than skin. It should be celebrated and revered as the temple it always has been in enlightened cultures, then so much insecurity and detrimental obsessiveness would be nullified.
To about turn from my tangent…
A lot of people commented about the playlist at Written in Skin, saying how much they loved it and requesting I send them lists of what was playing. The playlist consisted of songs that I have loved listening to since I was a teenager and luckily Loren and I have similar tastes. There was a mixture of dark, progressive rock like A Perfect Circle, the bawdy bar room brawling off Tom Waits and some of his lighter sentimental ballads, the glorious glitched up rhythms of LAMB, Credence, the swooning ‘Planets Suite’ from Holst, Fiona Apple, Pusifer, Tricky, Justin Timberlake, CocoRosie, Nina Simone, The Doors, Joan Osbourne, Type-O-Negative, Bjork, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Queen Adreena, The Tiger Lillies and Massive Attack – anything that dealt with the many faces of love and its expression. The playlist was on shuffle so we purposefully had no idea what would come on next and often the track would perfectly emphasis the mood. Memorable shifts include just as Loren was about the start my throat, a particularly intense bit requiring a lot of mental preparation, Holst ‘Jupiter’ came on, which is incidentally my planet. That made me smile. Another time when things were getting quite intense on my stomach Justin Timberlake “Love You” came on and made me giggle enough to forget to register panic. Every time anything by A Perfect Circle came on I found this deep well of concentration and strength rise up in me as they have been my favourite band since I was 12 and have a deeply residual effect on my psyche. I think Maynard Keenan is an absolute genius and the harmonies and penetrating emotional depth of albums like Mer De Noms (Sea of Dreams) and The Thirteenth Step are unparalleled. I found myself singing or lip syncing to all of these tracks just to block out the pain. Jim Morrison as always crooned me through when my focus was waning. I think he would have been into Written in Skin. He’d have probably wanted me to drop some acid first though.
Just to let everyone know (as I’ve received a few concerned emails) that the day after Written in Skin, Loren and I went to Lindos, Rhodes Island for a wedding – hence the website not being updated yet. I will take your correspondences of concern as the greatest compliment – some people seemed to think that something had gone wrong, I can assure you nothing has, I’m healing rapidly and I feel super human, but thank you for caring.
The plan was always to convalesce and assess the project whilst my skin regenerated in a quiet and unfamiliar landscape with the beneficial aids of sea and sun (and a ton of aloe vera!).Where we were staying was very remote and I could have carted my laptop back and fourth to the village to seek out wifi but it felt against every fibre of my being to be in such a beautiful place immersed in nature and be glued to technology. I spent most of my time swimming, scaling cliff faces, finding old ceremonial sites hidden in the rocks under the acropolis and fawning over Loren. You can forgive us, right?
I have loads of people sending in pictures from the event and they will all be put up on this site and catalogued properly. There are some brilliant ones! I also have official shoot photos from Jamie Alun Price, some images from Lydia Roberts and the personal photo diary of the healing process we took whilst away. There’s some absolute corkers. I’ve also been writing a day to day account of the whole experience including people’s reactions to a woman wandering the streets of Greece covered in calligraphy.
Again, thank you for you patience. There’s much more to come.
Love Stef x
So, you’re probably wondering how it felt during and after. I can honestly say after a somewhat cocky and painless start on my face, which really didn’t hurt that much at all, it descended into the most intense six hours of my life and opened us up in ways I could never have anticipated. We started on my face as we thought it would be the most challenging with the biggest risk of me going into shock. Such was Loren’s prep talk before we started, a simple “When I start on your face – don’t go into shock.” Ha! I should point out he had got up very early that morning and made me a massive breakfast, hydrated me and prepared me a tuna and lime salad for lunch, accompanied by my favourite raspberry yoghurt. He really does look after me. He’s just very honest.
We’d discussed doing my face last, then there was always the option if we were running out of time (which we did) we could leave it and I wouldn’t have to go the wedding full of strangers the following week looking like a Voodoo Priestess. I felt very strongly from the start that I needed to have my face lined because I wanted people to realise how serious we were. I felt like stopping at the neck or chin line would be a huge cop out and send the wrong message. This is a piece about love, pain, the reality of suffering and regeneration and the death of pride and I needed that to be apparent as soon as you walked in. We didn’t want the piece to come across like S&M titillation, always a risk with nudity and needles in a gallery with red flood lights obviously, so it was important we cut through that immediately. My bloody gruesome face certainly did and set an instant tone (which was instantly subverted by the pendulous musical shifts between Mayfield, Hendrix, Tom Waits’s caterwauling and Justin Timberlake’s warbling).
Under the needle my forehead tickled, a lot, I found myself giggling and naively thinking “Well if this is really the worse part I should breeze through.” Wrong. It felt utterly surreal having my temples lined though again not too painful, the vibrations quivering through my lobes manifested the nervous energy I’d been building all morning and the electric hum skipping across my sinews felt like a welcome release for that. Having an industrial tattoo gun vibrate against the tip of your nose is the most weirdly intense feeling I will EVER have and made me want to sneeze (a terrifying thought in itself), my eyes were streaming but I held it together well. It was still early so there was nobody in the room except my marvellous ushers. It was a quiet, calm way to ease me in.
We’d anticipated my neck and throat being quiet a tough area as I’d watched our friend Steve have a tat on his neck saying “Never Too Old.” It looked like medieval torture for the modern world. Steve’s a hard ex-army Dude and sat for four hours being inked in the same area and he was seriously going under. The second Loren stopped vibrating against my wind pipe (he’d been on my neck for no longer than fifteen minutes) all I could think was Poor Steve.We anticipated that would be the worse over with early on and the more conventional areas should be easier. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
My chest was fine until we got below my breasts and started on the ribs, then it dawned on me things were going to get a lot harder as we were only one and half hours in and the edge between my bottom ribs and the soft fleshy upper torso was excruciating. I knew it was going to hurt the closer we got to my sides and over my ovaries, I was due on and already hyper sensitive. It wasn’t so much the individual parts that hurt but more the increasing momentum of pain on pain, going straight into one area after another, you’d think it would be easy to work your way down and not go over the same areas but different parts of the body have different sensitivity scales and you can’t anticipate anything. I’d only had to consciously breathe through my ribs but as soon as we started on the fleshy areas of my upper stomach I was struggling.
We had to move fast to try and fit all the verses onto my body so there was no recovery time between areas and we had to flip and do my leg half way just to give me a break from the front. Loren had set himself the challenge of twenty minutes per verse with fourteen verses in total and we had spent over an hour on my face and neck alone. Usually when people get tattoos (Loren’s done thousands he’s an authority) it’s the bony parts that hurt more and the fat fleshy parts that take it better. I’m completely the opposite and I’m quite buxom from the waist down, there’s a lot of meat on my lower body and I knew from having my Promethea Suns (from Alan Moore’s comics) on my hips how much that was going to hurt. I love having the tattoo needle on my bones, particularly the little hump at the top of my spine and the base of my neck, it makes my eyes go cross eyed and my brain melt, like all those tiny oscillations are surfing my nervous system and letting everything happily disperse. I hate the glutinous wobbling of buzzing fat, it bleeds more and it makes your muscles hurt from the tensing that comes whether you want it to or not.
(More to follow :: After waking up at 4:00am (my sleep patterns are destroyed) I’ve actually managed to lull myself sleepy again writing this. I’m going to catch some Zzzzzs whilst I can. TBC)
Stef 21/05/2013 4:30am
Now the dust is settling I must say a massive and profound THANK YOU!!
Everyone at Cornerhouse was amazing particularly Gemma Richardson and Sara Ellis, my fantastic watchers who kept the space a safe environment for Loren and I to work in. Bren O’Callaghan you were missed and we owe you such a lot. Rosie Stuart, our micro-commission correspondent, who helped us set everything up and staying right until the very end, David Petty for capturing it on film (there’ll be time lapse footage to follow), Filbert Bean for being the King of Men and helping us get the tattoo bench from Ancoats to Oxford Street and of course Jamie Alun Price and Lydia Roberts for getting snap happy and being such lovely people (pics to follow!). You were all integral to this piece and I’m amazed after so many years of knowing how much stuff *can* go wrong in a performance, especially with such a sensitive piece, that nothing did – I’m taking that as a thumbs up from the Universe.
THANK YOU to everyone who came and supported, all my friends and loved ones throwing me distracting smiles, stupid faces or perplexed brows as I winced and lip synced my way through the rougher parts. Mum, David, Mollie, Laura, Andy, Leann (who appeared in front of me like a glowing vision at a particularly sore point and spurred me on), Charnelle (you get bonus points for free-styling to Massive Attack – you cracked me up – I really needed that) , Marie (a herb alchemist/wild woman who brought me almond oil to stop me from scarring – now why didn’t I think of that???),Simon, Kat, Mark, Nemonee, Zsuzsa, Elaine, Jonny, Petch, Mike and Miranda – you were all radiating molten beacons of warmth and support on the perimeter of our magic circle.
For everyone else who came to share the experience THANK YOU for your positivity, respect and understanding. I could feel it just as much as the words on my skin, it was manna. There were children and adults of all ages, some who stayed for hours and some who kept popping back in all day. It meant so much that you were genuinely interested in the project and that you saw through the obvious interpretations to the real love and honestly at its core. You are all Beautiful Souls and thank you to the photographers who have been sending in their shots. This piece is so much bigger than Loren and I, it was made from your words and thoughts and it is truly moving to see it through your eyes.
I LOVED reading everyone’s poetry when I got home on Sunday night, thanks for throwing yourself into that too – Exquisite Corpse never fails to spurn some potent flowetry. The visitor comments book was beautiful.
Oh, and last but certainly not least I have to thank Loren who did an amazing job of holding it (and me) together, especially when things got a little scary. As an artist and tattooist he astounds me and as a person he overwhelms and inspires me. I love him beyond words and without him I wouldn’t have the strength to do any of this.
I love you x
I want you to think about love
This little hope that’s all there’s left to feel.
A mystery invites investigation,
A centre in a world of unending unreal.
I find myself mesmerized by words,
Words on buses, and packaging, and people’s skin.
I’m confused about what I was reading and why,
In meaningless scribbles there hides a religion.
I fill the silence with perfect words,
I’m wondering without allowing conclusion.
We don’t know what is true but let’s dream the same dream,
Of silver in the warm blue sun’s diffusion.
In the darkness, our little world
Stretches no further than the tips of our duvet.
Awake in the shadows of beginnings and ends,
Are you scared? I am. We’ll be okay.
Did you hear that?
At night this ghost slips into your room.
Ripe young flesh passes through your fingertips,
A fitful vision of love in bloom.
I turned to look at you
You’re weird and you’re short and yer Mam tells me you’re gay.
My glittering friend, tender stranger
A dying planet, far, far away.
A beautiful fluency flows in your secrets
I allow my mind to follow the rhythm.
Deadly to the foolish, tender to the brave,
I looked so deeply I breathed you in.
The effects are a bit like LSD,
You’re brain processes faster and makes new connections.
Romantic shuddering now in a brighter place,
Rotting my flesh and sucking my senses.
Beneath the desert on the outskirts of sanity,
Mortality melts as I decompose.
I have fought mutation by freezing maggots
In space and silence. In silence alone.
I scan my eyes over many Medusas
Before me like carpet spread out on the floor.
You might have no business sleeping with virgins.
Why do my dreams always feel like a war?
I’ve run out of reasons to ever turn back.
The time is right now, this dark night takes hold.
Within hours I knew the secrets of the stars
That haunt and guide us, from young to old.
My adolescent longing lies demolished,
Reduced to horizontality –
I wonder if they are really asleep,
Or confronting imagined morality.
A girl in my class once told me
With such conviction, it had to be true
That if I misbehaved then Jesus would know…
He interrupts – I fall out of time with you.
Surprises unfurl their cinematic wings
Confusion reigns, frogs can fly
When you don’t make them feel self conscious about it.
Challenge what you think and why.
I want you to think about love,
This little hope that’s all there’s left to feel.
Allow your fingers to touch without purpose,
A centre in a world of unending unreal.
– May 2013 –
Absolutely blown away by this! Much respect and love 🙂 – Leanne xxx
Amazing! Brave girl! – love Nemonee xxx
Totally excellent, such varied subjects. Beautifully drawn. An inspiration! – Sharon x
Really great show, great work and nice sound tracks – U.V. Warrior DJGumpy
Wow! I keep popping fown for 5 mins every so often and the noise and the poem is lovely! Very inspiring – Charlotte Emily
I cannot pretend to fully understand this work yet but I will think about it for some time to come – John Lynn
Amazing loved it – AG
Great to see love described without cheese! – like xxx
Brilliant and evocative. Looking forward to following up the rest of the work online – what a great way to work across different media – Mary
Very brave artist! Brilliant exhibition – really enjoyed it! Well done Loren & Stef – x
Incredible to watch; thought provoking and beautiful. Thanks to all who have organized this – x
Brave! – J Laiks x
Rum on my tongue – M x
Very thought provoking Madame Elrick! – Chris Boules
Enjoyed the proximity to the audience. Interesting body canvas. Maybe could incorporate the audience involvement?
Really cool, guys. Felix will be telling us about the man drawing on Stef for a good while, I imagine.
Great show – simultaneously hopeful and heart wrenching.
Felt very emotional – had the urge to put a one pound coin in your hands for you to spend in any way that you feel would spread love around the world – Iris
Captivating – the music was the cherry on the cake!
Such and honour & priviledge to be part of this. Your grace, dignity and strength during the process were astounding. Such beautiful human moments, watching strangers connect with you, and each other, through your pain. – Jamie
We live in a society that is against abortion, but looks down on teenage pregnancy.
Very inspiring, creative and brilliant. Love your music too! Tim sends you kisses – Nemonee xx
An amazing exhibition. For it to be written on the body requires pain; but seeing this pain towards the end of the exhibition is hard. But I think this is itself part of the process –
Beautiful. Thankyou. Such a thing to make, and such a thing to share.
Just ditto the above, Thankyou xx Well done Loren and Stef xx
An incredibly moving/ witty performance, I feel honoured to be able to document for you. I hope you heal well! – Lydia x
The healing will be the most beautiful part of this piece. I hope you don’t mind you inspired me. – Zsuzsa
Great job guys! Very tender/raw and representative of various aspects of love. Felt like a voyeur on your relationship – the little gestures, whispers between you two really brought out the ‘love’ dynamic of the performance. The whole space/ experience was well thought out, warm & inviting (avoiding the typical sterile tattoo environment) – great choice of music (obviously!) DO MORE! – Marie x
How long can stars shine…forever
I saw the world through a changing light
Unfurl their cinematic wings, take flight
I’ve run out of reasons to turn back.
The time is now I’m right on track
Dream a better ending keep me up all night
Don’t cut off you face to spite someone else’s face.
I’m in a world where reality is whatever my mind can think of
It’s OK. Always . The Romantic.
The ocean calls its sons, deadly to the foolish, tender for the brave
Who drown in the green allure of my kiss
– Leanne x
Come here for a cuddle
Promises: This love
This is all I’m asking you.
And a horse.
I love you.
– The Dram
I want you to think about love;
Each dreaming breath
To see where I end and you begin
A mystery invites investigation.
A secret laid bare at a terrible cost.
A pound of flesh paid.
A tiny heart of glass,
Protecting you from the dark.
– Chris Boules
He was witty
For humility. For a wholesome eternity.
I wish to thank you. For serenity.
And we are infinitely heavenly.
– Wing Li and Fiona Li
I want you to think about love,
Far too many of my waking hours. each dreaming breath.
I can’t dream without you being there. Do you dream of me?
I’ll learn to sleep in this bed I’ve made, from my
Dreams your face will fade away.
I exposed their lies
And I made my way back
One pill and within minutes
Paranoia has taken me
Into blissful harmony.
You grow a mouth, you taste it. You weep.
And so I turn from you as ripe, young flesh passes through you fingertips.
Protecting you from the dark
A tiny heart of glass
To see where I end and you begin.
And then it stops.
I breathe – I evaporate ‘mmmm…’
Love – exquisitely, it invalidates your everyday, offering and escape, enchanting, fleeting, and unpredicted. We lose ourselves in its frosty promise. We live with it and without it.
The life I live can only be seen by God and for him to judge, this world is a mere mirage to distance yourself from a chemical nudge. I wish I could live it in a way which makes him proud, Sadly desires take over and prove I’m just another Khalifa in the crowd.
I want you to think about love:
Will you pave your way to death in solitude?
Whoever said ‘we all want love’ was a
I knew it could never turn out the way we had planned it.
Let him fall This Romantic.
– Dave ‘Shabbleshaft’ Driver xxxxx
After completing the ‘Master Poem’ (to be revealed at Cornerhouse on the 19th May), Loren finalises the design for the front of the body. 14 verses in total all assigned to specific parts of the body depending on their relevance (i.e. thought based verses on forehead/face – tactile, touch based verses on arms and hands etc).