A short little essay on art and courage.
It was just another day in grade three and the teacher was waiting patiently for someone to put up their hand. As usual I was one of the first to raise mine. I gave the answer: “seventy-six”. The teacher looked at me strangely. “No, the correct answer is seventy-seven.” A few students giggled, one of the boys guffawed and the boy sitting next to me whispered smugly, “haha, not so smart after all”. I felt relieved, I knew very well the answer was seventy-seven but I would no longer be the ‘smarty-pants’ in the class. To ensure this I put two or three wrong answers in the written math test that the boy next to me would mark when we swapped books. Ah, sweet childhood angst.
This seemingly small decision in grade three was how I found myself circa twenty years later lying flat on a black wooden table in Galerie Wagner + Partner in Berlin with Natascha Stellmach poised over my bare stomach, her tattoo gun in hand. Certainly a different kind of therapy. No, not therapy, this was art.
Natascha Stellmach’s exhibition and happening entitled ‘I Don’t Have A Gun’ explores “courage, surrender and renewal after burnout”. Every Friday for the shows duration Stellmach invited people to have a word tattooed on them with her gun. They were inkless tattoos, blood tattoos, not designed to be permanent. The concept was one of catharsis and letting go. In discussion with the artist a word is chosen that represents something you wish to be rid of. As the tattoo heals it signifies what this word represents leaving your life.
I had my hesitations about having the tattoo done. It could look to others like I was self-harming or, the usual fear, that I was weird. My vague idea was that the tattoo would have something to do with my need to please others and fit in so the whole point was to stop worrying what others might think. Plus, having no tattoos, I was curious to know what it felt like.
With Natascha and the help of a thesaurus we discussed a suitable word that would embody my need to please and be liked. ‘Assuage’ was what we decided upon.
It immediately struck me as a word that was both beautiful and meaningful. It means ‘to lessen the intensity of something, to satisfy, to appease or to pacify and calm’. It’s the habit of making yourself smaller, not appearing disagreeable and avoiding speaking your mind in public. It’s being overly self-conscious. It’s a way of hiding. It is not serving me.
The problem with acting within your idea of how others want you to be is that you come to embody your own smallness. It’s a self-built cage.
I chose my stomach as the place for my tattoo as it is where I hold my fear. I couldn’t help giggling nervously once I was on the table. What if it was more painful than anticipated and I had to stop halfway through? I would end up with ‘ASS’ written across my stomach! What if it never healed properly? The horror!
Fortunately, it wasn’t a particularly painful experience, more like having an annoying buzzy bee slowly crawl across your stomach. Natascha was like a gracious doctor or shaman specializing in demon exorcisims. I was given antiseptic and care instructions and told to reflect on the word over the coming weeks as it healed.
It’s been four weeks now and only a shadowy ghost of the word remains. I think it will vanish completely within the week. Like most change, it’s slow and you don’t really notice it until much later. I’m sure my twenty year habit hasn’t magically evaporated with the disappearance of the tattoo but what I have is gained more self-awareness and a shift in my decision making process away from fear based choices and towards courageous ones.
I am grateful to Natascha and her gun. Through the experience of her art I am reminded that the opposite of playing small is to act boldly.
<– Image from day one, courtesy of Natascha Stellmach.
You can see more images from Stellmach’s ‘I Don’t Have A Gun’ art happening and other interesting works on the gallery’s website.