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Trust Tattoos? Here's What Happened When an Artist Had Total Control

'Whole Glory' at Milk Studios recasts Scott Campbell’s tattoo practice as performance art.

by Sophia Callahan
Feb 28 2018, 6:11pm

This article originally appeared on Creators.

You could feel the nerves in the room as if it was Christmas morning when I entered Milk Gallery. Over the course of a three-day exhibition, Scott Campbell's Whole Glory drew hundreds of attendees, curious of the performance and dying for a free tattoo.

Anywhere from 50-100 people all sat along the gallery floor waiting patiently for the 3 PM lottery call that would determine the three lucky people who would get inked by Campbell. Being in the gallery room brought to mind the various power dynamics that happen in avant-garde performance art, from the anticipation to the experience and the frenzy it creates.

Santiago Sierra shocked people when he tattooed his infamous 16cm line on four people in 2000 and Marina Abramovic did the same when she performed Rhythm 0 in 1974, where she laid out 72 objects, from feathers, to a loaded pistol, and allowed the audience to have complete control. These artists and their works are obviously different from Campbell's Whole Glory, but they still have the ultimate underlying factor—blind trust in others. When the trust lies almost completely in either the participant's hands or the artist's, there is no compromise but the work is still a full collaboration between the two.

Campbell is an artist of all kinds, but he's most widely known for the monochromatic, intricate tattoos that decorate a wide spectrum of limelighters. The context of Milk Gallery walls allowed him to experiment with his practice. Campbell tells Creators, "I think every tattooer has at some point wondered what it would be like to tattoo if you removed the other person from the experience. It's not as easy as other mediums to be free and inspired in your work, because you are constantly aware of the fact that your canvas has an opinion."

With a large 40' picket fence painting separating the participant and Scott Campbell only by what Gothamist appropriately called a "glory hole" in its center, the stakes are only amplified.

In an interview with Milk, Campbell wondered if this experience would be more freeing. After the fact, we ask the same question to see if he finds it to still be true. Says Campbell, "The freedom that came from people handing me such complete trust was amazing. I have had clients come to me with 'do whatever you want' before, but i think the wall also helps me claim the freedom they extended. I was really surprised at how, even though there was no communication, the tattoos that I put on them were still in a way a reaction to the person on the other side of the wall. I knew nothing about them, but as soon as I started touching their arm, shaving and preparing the skin, I couldn't help but imagine who they were, and the idea of who they were influenced how the tattoo unfolded. It had a sort of palm reading/ fortune telling dynamic to it. Often I would prepare a design ahead of time, thinking to myself 'next arm that comes through, i'm going to put this on it.' And every single time, I would hold the arm and look at it, and change course. It wasn't right for that arm. My gut said 'no, this arm needs something else.'"

To see more of Scott Campbell's work, visit his website or his tattoo shop, Saved.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.