A Story Inked on Skin

Over the winter I posted about Shelley Jackson’s project called Snow, in which she wrote words in the snow and photographed them one by one to create an ongoing story. But that isn’t the first time she’s explored new ways of storytelling.

Skin is a project that Jackson launched in 2003. She wrote a 2,095-word story, and then put out a call in Cabinet Magazine for people to tattoo one word of the story on themselves. She screened the people who responded, and gave those she approved a word, a contract to sign, and strict guidelines (you may not trade your assigned word for another, the word must be tattooed in black with no embellishments, etc.). There are now over 2,000 volunteers with one of Shelley Jackson’s words tattooed on their bodies, collectively creating a narrative.

This project fascinates me for many reasons. First of all, its entirety is published solely in tattoo form. The author has a copy of the written text, and she sends it to people who have confirmed they got the tattoo they were assigned. But it has not been published for the public to see, except on people’s bodies.

But even then, the story is always dispersed. Unless all 2,095 people come together and line up in the correct order, there will never be a way to read the story. The story is not bound for consumption, and it does not inhabit one physical space. It inhabits thousands of places, yet there is only one printing of it.

And, most interestingly, it inhabits people. The words are a part of them and they become a part of the word. Jackson says that the participants should be known not as carriers of the words, but as their embodiments. And only death can remove the words from the story. Thus, the story dies when the last person with a tattoo dies.

This is interesting because the whole point of tattoos is permanence. They are supposed to last “forever.” So in theory, Jackson’s story would last forever. But she refuses that idea. She attaches the word to the person, not just their skin, making their soul and the story one and the same.

In a way, it can be seen as a metaphor for life: Each person is a story. And even though we all inhabit separate bodies and live different stories, we also intertwine to create one larger narrative.

On the Skin website you can see a map of all of the cities where the participants live. There are 3 people with part of the story tattooed on them, just in my smallish township! Perhaps I have run into them, or even know them somehow.

What do you think about Skin? I don’t have any tattoos, but I think I would do it for something like this…

You can watch a short version of the story below:


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