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A Tattooed Story: Shelley Jackson’s Skin

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I like tattoos. I always have—I used to draw them on myself when I was in middle school—and I will probably never stop getting them. Tattoos are not just for Harley dudes or sailors anymore. Some people get tattoos for fun, or on a whim, but I think most people get tattoos to document important events in their lives. All of my tattoos have significant meaning to me, and I love the idea of using my skin as the canvas for a visual journey of my life.

Now, someone is taking that idea further.

Writer Shelley Jackson has embarked on a unique and fascinating mission for her new work, Skin: A Mortal Work of Art. She has already written the story, but instead of taking the traditional publishing route, she has asked volunteers from all over the world to be the pages in her book.

Volunteers must get one word from the story tattooed on their bodies. For a few years now, people have been writing to Jackson in order to be considered for the project. So far, 1850 of the 2095 words have been assigned and about 500 words have been tattooed. All words must be tattooed in a classic book font, in black ink, and can be put anywhere on the body, as long as they are visible to the naked eye. Since the project began, she has had nearly 17,000 requests to be in the book.

The story will only be published on the bodies of the participants. Jackson says she will not permit “it [the work] to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium.” Interestingly, only participants will be able to read a physical version of the completed work—she is giving a copy to each participant that follows through, and all participants have to sign mountains of paperwork protecting the work.

Once accepted, participants will only be known as “words.” Jackson says, “They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments.” If the word is changed in any way (tattoo cover-up, laser surgery, loss of body part), it is still a part of the text. Only the death of a participant erases the word from the story. Jackson promises, “As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.” Jackson has also promised to make every attempt to attend the funerals of participants.

She selects the participants herself, and according to her website, she still has nearly 10,000 emails to go through. Jackson says to interested participants, “I read your letters and choose the most interesting ones. There is nothing systematic about this process. My tastes are idiosyncratic, and I am not even trying to be ‘objective.’ However, I look for people who stand out, who tell me something surprising about themselves and what draws them to this project. Of course, I will have to turn down thousands of people, so don’t take it personally if I don’t choose you.”

Can you imagine being a part of a living, global story? It’s an incredible concept to me. And in case you are wondering, yes, I have applied. I wrote her in August of 2006, but haven’t heard anything yet. She tells people to be patient; it’s only her doing this and she licks every envelope. I still have my fingers crossed.



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