The Lexington Tattoo Project: A Unique Expression of Hometown Love

Story by Julia Travers and Photos by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova

Have you ever felt the need to communicate and commemorate your love for a place in a creative and deeply personal way? Lexington, Kentucky-based artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova invented an ingenious way to do just that with poetry, tattoos, video, music, and many loyal members of their community. Through participating in The Lexington Tattoo Project, 253 residents of Lexington, Kentucky, USA had lines of a love poem to their hometown inked onto their bodies. The poem, “The _________ of the Universe: A Love Story,” was written by Lexington-based poet Bianca Spriggs and the tattoos were commemorated in a video and a book. The tattoos also held pieces of a hidden, Lexington-specific symbol. As well as being active community artists, Kurt and Kremena are both teachers, which may explain in part how they are able to orchestrate the complex group dynamics required for these kinds of multi-player creative initiatives. Kurt teaches Studio Art and Kremena teaches American Literature at Transylvania University. We got in touch with Kurt and Kremena and they were open to answering questions and generous in sharing information about their project.

Kurt and Kremena had “many ideas and conversations, for at least a year,” before conceiving the Lexington Tattoo Project (LTP). They explain how their love for Lexington and a desire to “highlight the abundance of local pride” were at the core of LTP, saying Lexington is a place both of us have come to call home, though Kremena is originally from Bulgaria and Kurt is from Upstate NY. By the time we began work on LTP, Kremena had lived in Lexington for 7 years, Kurt—for 14. Although we had come from elsewhere, both of us felt welcome in the small Kentucky city and we weren’t the only ones. Many people — both folks born in Lexington and those who had relocated here from elsewhere — were proud to call Lexington home and were working to make our community stronger, more accepting of difference, and more open to everyone. The two of us wanted to make an artwork that used the love of Lexington as its basic material.

They were also motivated to create LTP by “an awareness that many Americans are dismissive of places like Lexington—because of their size (small), geographical location (the South), and/or proximity to one of the country’s poorest regions (Appalachia).”

LTP officially began in May of 2012, when Kurt and Kremena commissioned Lexington-based poet Bianca Spriggs to write a poem as a love letter to Lexington, “a poem that would eventually be tattooed on the bodies of people who call Lexington home…Though Bianca responded that her relationship with the city was more complicated than love, she wrote a beautiful poem, titled ‘The _________ of the Universe: A Love Story.’” At this time, they also began raising funds so that tattoos, which they knew were expensive, could be free to participants. They “didn’t want anyone to not participate because they couldn’t afford a tattoo.” They also created a Facebook event as a way to recruit participants. Kurt and Kremena collaborated to design the tattoos and the overall layout for the poem. Each tattoo was based on one or more words from the poem and contained a piece of a secret background image, made of three kinds of dots, that was revealed in 2013. They say the background image “makes each tattoo distinctive and recognizable.”

When tattooing began in early January of 2013, over 240 people had signed up and there was also a waiting list. Most of the final 253 tattoos were completed by early February by Robert Alleyne and Jay Armstrong of Charmed Life Tattoo Studio in Lexington (Armstrong has since opened his own tattoo shop). After the tattoos healed, Kurt and Kremena photographed participants and began to work on a video that synchronized Bianca’s reading of her poem with the poem-segment tattoos. Lexington-based composer and cellist Ben Sollee was commissioned to write a score for the video.

The finished tattooed poem and the hidden image made of the dots and circles included in each tattoo were unveiled in the video in front of 700 people at PRHBTN, Lexington’s 2013 annual street-art festival. The hidden symbol, not surprisingly, references a local landmark: New Circle Road or Ky. 4, and it was tattooed in full on Hendrick Floyd, husband of LTP poet Bianca Spriggs. View a lovely preview of the LTP video on YouTube and learn more about the hidden symbol in a Lexington Herald-Leader article. The LTP book a coffee-table book of photographs and tattoo stories, was released in 2014 at a Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning party. So, from start to book publication, the entire project took them about 21 months. LTP was recognized as an outstanding public art project by the Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network 2014 Year in Review.

Local residents were quite keen to participate and connect with each other throughout the project. Kurt and Kremena still experience many positive ripples and ramifications of LTP: As soon as we created a Facebook event for LTP (announcing our new artwork and outlining it briefly), people started joining. We had had no idea if anyone would be interested in participating, so we were amazed, thankful, and humbled…We didn’t expect that so many couples (same-sex and heterosexual, married or dating) would participate together. We didn’t expect that grandmothers and grandsons would be part of it as teams (ok, we had one grandmother—grandson pair). We had no idea participants would own this artwork and keep giving us ideas (for example, we published a book only because two of the participants told us that we had to and that they would help raise the money for it)…We meet people who tell us how much they wish they had known about LTP, that they would have been part of it. We didn’t know we would end up organizing one meet and greet after another because participants wanted to meet…There are still people who post on social media about meeting others with tattoos and the instant feeling of connection; because so many in Lexington know about this artwork, they are very comfortable stopping strangers with tattoos to ask them questions…Most of all, we didn’t expect that this would become an artwork about stories—some personal and private, some public and communal—the stories of folks who call Lexington home.

Soon after launching LTP, Kurt and Kremena were contacted by a resident of Boulder, CO who was interested in engaging them for a similar tattoo project. Although they had conceived of LTP as a “highly local artwork,” they “liked the challenge” and undertook the Boulder Tattoo Project (BTP), in which they were the only non-local participants or “imports.” BTP included a local poet, musician, project manager, tattoo artists, and participants. It was followed by the Cincinnati Tattoo Project, which “stretched to include lots of public art in downtown Cincinnati.” Kurt and Kremena are now carrying out a global companion to the city-based tattoo projects: Love Letter to the World. Check it out here — translations of the poem, including text and audio, are at the bottom of the Home page.

Kurt and Kremena’s most recent public art project is Unlearn Fear + Hate, which was conceived in 2015 and launched in August of 2016. Unlearn Fear + Hate is their most overtly political artwork, “where political means participating in social relations.” This is how it aims to promote public dialog: …through temporary and permanent activations of the words “Unlearn Fear + Hate” in Lexington’s urban landscape. Inspired by a need to address growing national tensions, Unlearn Fear + Hate invites everyone to work to diminish the fears we all live with by acknowledging our shared humanity and fostering community. The words “Unlearn Fear and Hate” come from the commissioned poem by Frank X Walker [for] Love Letter to the World.

Given Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova’s proven passion for, commitment to, and skill in carrying out community-oriented, deeply personal, and inventive artworks, it’s safe to assume they have many more creative feats on the horizon. You can explore more of their work on their website and follow their Unlearn Fear + Hate initiative on Facebook and Instagram.

Julia Travers is a writer and artist in Virginia, U.S. You can check out more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.