Galleries

An Artist Pricks Her Skin and Our Conscience Over Hate Crimes

The first names of as many as 400 victims of hate crimes will be etched into artist Mary Coble's skin using an inkless tattoo needle, and the beads of blood will then be transferred to sheets of paper that will form a gallery exhibit.
The first names of as many as 400 victims of hate crimes will be etched into artist Mary Coble's skin using an inkless tattoo needle, and the beads of blood will then be transferred to sheets of paper that will form a gallery exhibit. (Copyright Mary Coble -- Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art)

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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Tomorrow night, artist Mary Coble will subject herself to a marathon tattoo session that could make a career Marine wince. Beginning at 6 p.m. and likely continuing until dawn the next day, a tattoo artist will etch 400 names into the artist's back, legs and arms. And we're all invited to watch.

The 26-year-old Washingtonian's show at Conner Contemporary Art is a rare opportunity to see performance art locally -- not to mention the chance to witness an artist literally spill blood for her cause and craft. It's open to the public from 6 to 8 p.m., and viewable for its duration via a live Webcast at http://www.connercontemporary.com/artists/coble/webcast.htm .

Here's what attendees at the Dupont Circle gallery will see: Tattoo artist Lea Smith will prick Coble's skin to form the names of hate crime victims from the nation's gay, bisexual and transgender communities. (Smith and Coble have enjoyed a close friendship for years; Smith applied Coble's ink tattoos, a band of dancing figures around her lower right leg and a turtle on her right shoulder.)

Once the tattooist etches a name (she won't use ink), blood will well on Coble's skin. Then Smith will press paper against the welts to make mirror-image prints of the first names. As the evening progresses, her prints will wallpaper the gallery with victims' names written in blood. A selection of the prints will be on view at Conner from Sept. 9 to Oct. 22.

Such grisly business isn't news to the art world. Coble joins a long line of performance and body artists -- Marina Abramovic in the 1970s and Matthew Barney more recently -- who have subjected themselves to bodily harm while pursing ends both spiritual and political.

For Coble, a recent graduate of George Washington University's master of fine arts program, using her body in performance and photography has aided her work's explorations of gender and sexuality. In a conversation with Coble last week, she revealed what attracted her to such a painful project and why she believes it matters.

Q. What can visitors expect to see?

A. Tattoo equipment in the gallery's main room, maybe a chair and a table. I'll be sitting to one side so people can walk around me. Lea will have her tattoo gun and setup. We'll have someone wearing gloves to take the print from Lea and tack it on the wall. There will need to be some distance. I don't want people to touch me. But they can interact with me if they have questions. I want people to question.

I look at it like a performance. Basically, the piece consists of people coming into the gallery [to watch me get] tattooed and seeing the prints amassing on the wall.

At 8 o'clock we'll ask the public to leave, but we'll keep going. My partner and friends will stay to help me out. We're not going to stop to sleep, though we need to keep up our strength. We may stop to eat. But we won't go out to dinner or anything. [Laughs.]

Q. How long will it take?

A. We practiced a bit, and it takes about five minutes to do one [name]. To do 100 it'll take eight hours. But it may go faster once we get going. Now the list is over 400. I'm not going to consider the piece a failure if I don't do the whole list. But my goal is to do the whole list. It very well could take until the next morning.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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