Posted by Michael Woolley on December 18th, 2017
The whining buzz of quivering needles penetrates the air. It reverberates in my skull someplace behind my eyes and between my ears. Meanwhile, fall leaves, impelled by a cool wind, skitter across the concrete in a staccato arrhythmic rush, and the warmish sun cuts between the surrounding buildings and projects lengthening shadows. People around, passing by, waiting for busses, or maybe eating a hotdog, seem to pretend not to notice. This scene, unfolding before them on that wooden park bench, might as well be the most banal thing they’ve seen. But, some people do take care to notice, sit down, perplexed, intrigued, or curious, and start asking questions or telling stories of their own.
Ivan Lupi is tattooing himself. He sits on a bench in a park downtown, hunched over and tracing lines on his belly with fresh black ink. The lines resolves into letters and words, spelling out W E T P A I N T on two lines. Underneath, letters in faded red read ‘PEINTURE FRAICHE’. The stems and arms of the new letters are thick, and the word ‘WET’ is exaggeratedly stretched out to completely cover its French counterpart. He works left-to-right, starting with his left, filling in the ‘T’ before moving along to the ‘E’ and the ‘W’ respectively, working his way down his abdomen to the letters skirting his waist. The vibrating stylus he holds gingerly between his thumb and middle- and forefingers is connected by a snaking wire to a transformer in a bag behind his feet, which is itself precariously connected to an outlet several meters away through a long green extension cord.
Lupi is conspicuous here, sitting shirtless amongst these office buildings and office dwellers. He is difficult to ignore, but some manage to nevertheless. Others steal quick glances from what they presumably deem to be a ‘safe’ distance, well within earshot but far enough to avoid being implicated in whatever might be going on. The artist is like a shaman here, flaunting convention and calling into question what is acceptable decorum. Some people are less apprehensive, or lacking in timidity or have an abundance of temerity or are just completely unfazed by the artist. They approach him to sit and chat. They ask questions about ‘why’ and whether this is sanitary and safe or they tell him their own stories or listen to him talk about things otherwise unrelated. Meanwhile Lupi hunches over and traces the letters on his skin. He takes frequent breaks, leaning back with his elbows propped on back of the bench and legs stretched out in front of him.
Later, I find the artist on a bench in the gallery. He has moved his performance inside to escape the quickening autumn cold. I sit next to him and we talk—about talking, about him, and his work and tattoos and my own work and our lives and love and the weather—and I examine him and his work in closer detail. The bench and the floor around him are covered in a fine halftone pattern of sprinkled black spots of ink. His skin sheens with a slick of sweat, and the wet ink on it wicks into otherwise imperceptible lines and creases like fine black capillaries webbing away from the letters. It’s tender, he says. This is now the third day in the past four of tattooing over the same lines again and again, slowly building up the density of ink embedded in the his skin. I don’t doubt that it’s swollen and raw, but the pain is layered away beneath a gloss of ink.
There is something evocative and symbolic, Lupi tells me, about tattooing one’s own skin, transferring a thought directly from your mind onto your body with no intermediary—like a closed loop. But this public process of self-inscription opens the artist up at the same time, to criticism and dialogue and conviviality alike. He is approachable and disarming, in spite of or because of being layered from head-to-toe in various tattooed markings and inscriptions, indices and records of previous performances and life events. This performance itself is not one of exhibitionism or masochism, and is rather one of creating a space for conversation and exchange. It catches people off-guard with a bit of absurdity and makes them just uncomfortable enough to consider why they might feel comfortable or not in the first place. A half-naked man, sitting on a bench scrawling a caution into his skin, might not seem like the most obvious choice of conversation partner. But, Lupi is transparent in his kindness, warmth, and generous willingness to listen and talk, and he models a kind of caring engagement, albeit belied by a wet, sticky warning on his stomach.