INTERVIEW: MARYAM PUGH | PHOTO: DOREEN GARNER

Sculptor and performance artist Doreen Garner is challenging the typical images of white and male or sexualized representations of busty white women seen across American tattoo shops.

She’s doing this through her pop-up tattoo shop titled “Invisible Man Tattoo“. The tattoo shop has currently found a home at Recess Art Gallery, an inclusive creative space situated in Brooklyn, NY. Doreen is offering free flash tattoos to people who identify as Black in return for a brief video diary entry discussing the historical and social relevance of their selection. When we first heard about this project we were blown away. And, as the best ideas normally do, it just made sense. We sat down with Doreen and asked her a few more questions about her project and the things that she’s exploring as an artist.

Philadelphia Printworks: It’s really, really hard to find vintage photos of African Americans getting tattoos. I know because I looked, lol. Why do you think that is?

Doreen Garner: Lol, I actually have no idea.

PPW: When I first met you, I think, your primary medium was glass blowing. How did your artwork evolve to this point? What made you decide to get into tattooing?

DG: Yes, glass blowing was my primary medium and has since incorporated silicone as well. I think what it comes down to is my interest in transformative materials. Both glass, silicone and a few others have the ability to transform from liquid to solid, pliable to stiff, so does the human body. I’ve been incorporating the body in my work for a few years now but there has always been this separation between real flesh and the flesh that I recreate in my sculptures. Tattooing as allowed me to experience mark making, skin and healing systems in the body in new ways. I guess in some ways, I started tattooing so that I could understand more about the body.

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PPW: Your work has also consistently focused on the “exploitation of Black bodies at the hands of medical and political institutions within the United States.” How does this iteration of your work continue to explore these themes?

DG: Tattooing has allowed me to reconsider archiving and methods of preserving history in new ways. The research that I do on these tragedies are typically illustrated/depicted through sculpture. But I also think about the ways history is maintained through word of mouth, passing through multiple generations. Sometimes details of events are maintained through physical or emotional trauma. I think the physical act of receiving a tattoo could leave a strong enough impression in one’s life where the history associated with the tattooed image would never be forgotten. I’m trying to combine the tattooing experience with education.

PPW: “While the American traditional style of tattooing can be seen on the walls and in the portfolios of tattoo shops across the US, rarely are Black figures or Black culture included in these renditions of American life. What is instead most often portrayed is a mythology of a rugged “resilient American,” typically white and male, as well as sexualized representations of busty white women.” This is a very astute and thoughtful observation of something that I think a lot of us take for granted. How did you select designs for your flash sheets that would counter this narrative? What did that process look like?

DG: Well I think in that way I’ve been really inspired by you guys at Philadelphia Printworks. Of course, the images are most important but its also about how those images can potentially convey crucial events and actions that have taken place throughout American History and the Black experience. The flash that I initially created for the shop includes black panthers, both the animal and the movement, black inventions, scientific illustrations of cotton plants, Black Seminoles, Freedom quilt symbology, etc. There are so many other images to include, I’m hoping that the project can continue after February in some form.

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PPW: This project officially launched on January 13th. So, you’re now about 1/3rd of the way through. Is there anything that you’ve found surprising about the project, so far?

DG: I think I’ve underestimated how much admin goes into maintaining a tattoo shop. Right now there are 150 appointment forms filled out. Of course, not everyone will be able to receive a tattoo before the end of the project but there is additional programming at the shop that people can take part in, including film screenings and the Black Panther Party.

PPW: While tattooing do you have conversations about the themes of the shop with the people getting tattoos? Has anyone had any interesting perspectives? 

DG: Yes, I think for the most part people are just excited and down. I’ve tried to create a really comfortable environment for black artists and thinkers and from what I hear people are really appreciative of a space that was created with that in mind. Sometimes we elaborate on the themes of images in the flash sheets. It’s a sharing and educational experience for myself and the person getting tattooed.

PPW: Final question, what tattoos do you have?

DG: I have a portrait of my sister over my heart from when she was five with calla lilies and skulls. My sister’s nickname “Candy” on my thigh. A strawberry on my ankle the first tattoo I’ve ever done. A figure from a Painting by an Ex with roses 1/2 sleeve. A blurred butterfly from when I was 16 on my shoulder. Name Ye Ohene symbol on my nape. A portrait of the girl that downs a 40oz at the Barbeque in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking your Juice in the Hood on my other arm. Black Excellence in script across my chest.

You can check out the collection inspired by this project here.

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