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Experiment: Hieroglyphic tattoo

This experiment picked up a significant single phrase from the text of the letters and explored how it could be subverted, translated and skewed into a new life. I was curious as to whether a more potent meaning could be generated from a single phrase that had come to signify the entire set of letters in a nutshell. This was a sideways move from my initial thought of trying to condense all the data into a single outcome. My interest was in the question, “Would more potency result from a single phrase rather than a summarised mass?”. Effectively I’m interested to explore whether the straw could break the camel’s back more effectively than the whole crop.

Initially, I tried to create the phrase in a literal sense. Various crude retro bitmap fonts were used below to represent the phrase but these were too simplistic and offered nothing beyond a possible 1980s video game reference. Translating the phrase into German has a personal relevance and the meaning is now blurred so we find ourselves trying to decipher the intent. The words now seem more of an interrogation and seem to shout out at us. Overlaying multiple different translations of the words may be worth looking at, as well as a game of multi-lingual Chinese whispers where words are translated to another language and back again until the meaning is totally lost. I like how this replicates a two way conversation that is a power struggle of repeat and answer. How the conversation deteriorates into visual white noise mirrors how many real life dialogue can sometimes end up.

There is also potential to replicate the bitmap format in a whole host of different mediums, for example, cross stitch, bread, ice or other 3D forms but I parked this idea for the time being.

Things got more interesting when I discovered a newly released hieroglyphics translator. The same text created an abstract sequence of simple graphics that entirely hid the meaning but also created a comic appeal and this idea was pursued.

Hieroglyphics were painstakingly carved into stone as the stories of a generation that could be passed on. Unlike the spoken word, these recordings would never be misunderstood and would never change. Could this be that single powerful phrase that is carved on to our brain? That game changing utterance that changes the path of our life? Hieroglyphics are not letters, but represent sounds that can be placed together to represent other things. Psychology tells us that we remember language better when it is accompanied by images so we are seeing a powerful way to represent the past. It was well worth taking this further.

So where to take this idea next? I thought about a canvas onto which to record these symbols. Using my own body was not something I was immediately comfortable with but felt compelled to pursue. It seemed like a pertinent place to put the symbols as historically they had been thrown at me in some form or another :-/

I have experience with emulsion transfer and a test proved that the words could be transferred to skin, albeit in a fairly crude manner. This then became a larger transfer onto my torso. The quality was again fairly poor but I pursued it to take photographs in various poses.

The crudeness of the transfer was initially disappointing but unexpected imperfections can often reveal better outcomes. This is less of a branding and more of a shedding of skin, a rebirth or reincarnation. The Christ-like pose was a spur of the moment idea and I think it is quite striking. I’ve included a couple of shots in black and white as I thought colour may be distracting. I do think the black and white version lifts the texture of the paper into focus rather than the body. The paper seems to be more part of the skin rather than being crudely stuck to it.

I wasn’t sure about the excess paint around the outside of the paper but in retrospect this makes it very clear that the paper has been transferred rather than being a pinned sign. The symbols really have been embossed onto the skin in a forceful and intentional way – whatever the reason for this, the perpetrator meant for this to leave a lasting mark.

Summary & next steps

I’m not convinced about the use of hieroglyphics as I think there is much more exploration of language to be done, particularly on the philosophy and meaning language in art. But the use of a human figure, particularly mine, has created a new level of personal relevance. I’ve taken quite a serious line above, I look like the wounded soldier, and this isn’t necessarily how I want to be portrayed. Words impact us, some permanently, but time is a healer so I’m also interested in telling a richer story than how I felt at a specific point in time.

I considered whether putting the ‘brand’ on my back would be more potent – this instantly makes it clear that this mark could not have been made by myself, it was imposed upon me. Slave trade references come in here. This would take things to an even darker level and as mentioned above I’m not sure this is either relevant or desired – it doesn’t fit in with the potential humour in all of this which is constantly knocking on the door of my serious self.

The religious symbolism was an accident but I wonder whether there is more scope here to make martyrdom a theme of this piece. My mind stretched to a stained glass window showing key phrases represented visually and in text, or a Bayeux tapestry telling the story – the scope for a ‘bitmap’ sewed experience would be quite an innovation. There have been many very entertaining Bayeux tapestry spoofs commenting on contemporary issues, so this very appealing as further research.

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