“he could resist”: The Lexington Tattoo Project and A Noosed Life
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center
A few months ago I saw an announcement by Transylvania University professors Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorva for The Lexington Tattoo Project. They had a dream of their own, a collective art project that would involve 250 participants tattooing onto their bodies parts of a Bianca Spriggs poem written to Lexington.
As an advocate of participatory and communal art, I was intrigued and read through the poem for tattoo options. We were told that we could make multiple choices, with the understanding that we may not get our first choice, that the tattoo would be donated by the artist Robert Alleyne (Charmed Life), and that we could choose where to place it on our bodies.
“he could resist”
Out of the 250 possible choices, only one word cluster spoke to me—or more accurately, seemed worthy of being inked onto my body. It was the phrase “he could resist.” These three words raised so many questions. What could I resist? Better yet, should I resist? And with no clear punctuation for the three words, the statement also seemed supportive, strength-giving even, telling me, yes, he could resist!
I knew this was the only choice that I would accept. It almost seemed as if Bianca had written the words for me, at this particular place and time, to prompt those necessary questions and to provide me strength in answering them. I entered just that phrase into the collective poetry/tattoo lottery and promised myself that if those words were not available I would not participate.
To my surprise, delight and trepidation, I was given my choice. Then the anxiety came. What was I doing? I’m 48 years old and about to get my first tattoo. I considered judicious body locations to have the tattoo placed—where would it easily escape notice?, I wondered—and settled on the back of my left shoulder where I could flaunt it when I wanted and cover it as needed.
But Bianca’s words kept reverberating in my head. I was in the midst of intense research for teaching a class on the contemporary global history of civil resistance. The histories of the incredible people and groups who put their lives on the line to resist oppression began to occupy my waking and dreaming thoughts. Always I would return to Bianca’s words: he could resist. Was it a challenge? And if so, what would be my response?
On the day I was to get the tattoo, I awoke from my dreams with the conviction that I could not hide Bianca’s words and still embrace the spirit of the project and/or my respect for their power as a guiding force. I decided that morning to place Bianca’s phrase on my left forearm, where it would serve me as a reminder and where, when people asked about it, I would be required to explain what it meant “to me.”
Through the tattoo, the poet’s words have begun to occupy a permanent place in my thoughts. They continue to affect me in ways I never expected and are shifting my understanding of art, creativity and language.
“A Noosed Life”
With all this on my mind I visited the Bianca Spriggs and Angel Clark art exhibition The Thirteen at Transylvania University’s Morley Gallery. I moved through most of the exhibition fairly quickly until I entered the video display for “A Noosed Life” (filmed by Angel Clark and Paul Brown, and edited by Paul Brown and Bianca Spriggs). I was creatively poleaxed; the imagery hit me so hard I had to sit down immediately.
“A Noosed Life” is a one and a half minute looped video of two actors displaying basic movements. The first (or the first that registered in my perception) is of a kneeling African-American woman touching slowly and intently around her exposed neck while gazing skyward. The image is overlaid with the white hands/arms of a man stretching and testing a rope.
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