This week as I was sorting through my papers, I came across this interview I did with artist eX de Medici as part of a postgraduate research project I was working on around ritual in art. At the time (which was the late 90s) I was working with performance art, blood, ritual and art as process and documenting a lot of these performances via text.
I stumbled across eX’s work when I was at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) visiting an exhibition called Transmissions: archiving HIV/AIDS, Melbourne, 1979-2014 curated by Michael Graf and Russell Walsh in 1994. Having experienced at the time a number of close friends contracting HIV and dying of AIDS, this exhibition was a poignant and raw insight.
It was eX’s work in the show that caught my interest. She was a well known (underground tattooist) in addition to being an artist and her work was a series of cottonwool patches with blood prints of tattoos on them. These were the bandages that she had placed on people following tattooing them, and like a potato cut, the imprint of the bloodied image ghosted onto the cottonwool.
Years later I went to a print symposium at the NGA and she was once of the speakers/exhibitors. She presented a man, a man covered in tattoos on almost the whole of his body excepting his face. He was another component of her life’s work. This standing, breathing work of art presenting to an audience of hundreds of people. I raised my hand and asked, “What will you do with your skin when you die?” The man was happy to answer this as he’d already been working with the Curators at the gallery to ensure that upon his death, his skin would become part of the collection.
I wanted to find her, to talk with her, to have her tattoo me. I never did find her personally, but I tracked down her address and we had a mail exchange and she was happy for me to interview her. Here is that interview.
MD: How Do Your Ideas Come to You?
As tattooing is a collaborative form, the ideas are and must inherently be, those of the individual whose tattoo will (eventually) walk with them for the rest of their days. If there is a requirement for refinement or research of the person’s ideas I will pursue the idea further. I tattoo a lot of artists who have their own drawings and quite often follow those drawings to as close a truthful rendition as possible. I try not to be too influential in the process of choosing unless the person is stuck, or in a quandary about how an idea could be executed.
MD: Once you have an idea, how do you process the ideas and work them through into the ‘art’?
As part of the initial consultation, quite often I will photograph the place on the body where the tattoo will reside, take notes, quite often from word associations, preference in ‘taste’ or specific ideas from the person (the tattooee!).
While designing, I work at home where I can concentrate and live with the design myself. I will quite often want to make changes after I have drawn something up. If the image requires research, I will consult my own resources, which are quite extensive, the National Library can be invaluable at times particularly for Australian flora and botanical references. Very occasionally I use the Internet, as sources are often questionable at best.
When I feel comfortable with the design, it will either be faxed to the tattooee, or they will view the completed drawing to ensure that our ideas and execution are running parallel.
MD: What compels you to a certain medium/process?
I am compelled to ensure that where we go with a tattoo is not a regrettable place. The fact that the image we arrive at will exist with the wearer for their lifetime (a relatively short time by the way!) and that it is true to them makes the consultative process imperative.
MD: If your art involves working with other people, how is this incorporated into your ‘personal’ ritual?
Work itself is the ritual. Whether as process (ie. meeting > preparation > design) or the actual point of application of the tattoo (which comes with its own specific agenda). The rituals associated with executing/performing a tattoo have become part of my practice as an artist, not different or isolated from it.
I tattoo a Murri woman from the Northern Territory who believes that gubbas separate life and ritual, instead of everything being part of a ritualised life, ie. Breath, eating, getting out of bed, preparation of food etc…
MD: What happens once your art is made? Who is it for? What is it for?
When the tattoo is completed, it gets out of the chair and walks away, into its own life.
I maintain my original drawings as a point of reference, and a kind of ‘proof’ that the brief moment of collaboration actually existed.
Each design is for that specific individual, their unique experience, quite often encrypted with layers of meaning. The full implication of those layers known and understood only by the wearer. It is an impossible task to homogenise any of the vast and diverse group are the ‘tattooed’. As to the whys and what fors, it could even be as untested and outrageous to suggest that the desire to be tattooed is inherited through the genes, as much as it is to suggest that the ‘untouchable’ classes of all races are the tattooed class, ie. criminals, bikers etc…
MD: Are you conscious of any ritual taking place in the whole process?
The tattoo act itself is heavily ritualised in both antique and contemporary terms.
The tattoo is recognised as a prehistoric action, by early archaeological finds and data, a nomadic inscription of place, time, food sources etc…It exists through a moment of realisation of the self, of change and of mapping human, cultural experiences, of personal mythmaking. It requires a relinquishing of the body to another’s care (albeit briefly) to discomfort (and at times agony), our most precious inheritance, the blood, is let.
The other aspect, as contemporary ritual is somewhat more banal, but necessary, that of careful and sterile preparation of instruments to ensure a healthy arrival of the mark.
Because you sometimes work with the human body in a highly symbolic and permanent way …
This is a thought which regularly terrifies me, but I take the greatest precautions to ensure that our collaboration is true. It is such a powerful and empowering medium, it indicates our very morality, our humanity, and inner lives. It must be true to the person.
MD: What gives your life/or your art meaning? Living.
You can find out more about eX here: https://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/artists/ex-de-medici/