The Boulder Tattoo Project puts poetry in motion

The Boulder Tattoo Project puts poetry in motion

Anne Waldman's love letter to Boulder is drenched in water references. They seem fitting, since the city just suffered through the worst flood in its century-and-a-half existence. But the poem, which was commissioned by the Boulder Tattoo Project, is copyrighted Memorial Day 2013, and the first public reading of "Boulder Zodiac" was held weeks before unprecedented amounts of rain started falling on Boulder.

"I have felt prescient about some of this," says Waldman. "It is the poet's job to investigate and be a kind of prophet and witness. I have had scary water dreams."

Waldman, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, author of more than forty collections of poetry, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and director of the Naropa summer writing program, was at Innisfree Poetry Bookshop on August 18 to read "Boulder Zodiac" to a heavily inked crowd. But first, Chelsea Pohl, founder of the Boulder Tattoo Project, explained why she'd commissioned Waldman to write a "400- to 500-word love poem to the city of Boulder." Back in her home town of Lexington, Kentucky, artists Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde had posted a Facebook request for residents willing to have words from a poem by Bianca Spriggs tattooed onto their bodies — and ended up getting 253 participants. Pohl, who'd moved from Lexington to Boulder fourteen years ago to attend Naropa University, was one of them.

Vinny Bachert and Chelsea Pohl.
Darian Simon
Vinny Bachert and Chelsea Pohl.

Today she manages and co-owns Boulder's Claw and Talon Tattoo with her husband, tattoo artist Vinny Bachert, and she thought Boulder would be a perfect place to do a similar project. The Knight Foundation agreed, and provided $20,000 for the Boulder Tattoo Project through the Boulder Community Foundation and Pohl's company, Lochart Arts. Five hundred dollars of that went to Waldman for her sixty-line, twelve-stanza poem, which Pohl parsed into 200 segments. Next week, Bachert will permanently ink the bodies of 200 Boulderites with those words from "Boulder Zodiac," surrounded by stars.

The design was created by the same artists who did the Lexington project, but there they used circles. After Waldman finished her poem, Todorova and Gohde visited Boulder last June, looking for a way to maintain the minimalism of Lexington's look while creating a design that was unique to Boulder — and Boulder's starry night sky, dense with constellations, along with Waldman's title, provided the inspiration for the background.

The reading was part of Pohl's recruitment drive; she also pushed the project on Facebook. While donations and grants cover the cost of the tattoos themselves, participants who paid a $250 sponsorship fee got first dibs on words and phrases they wanted; the deadline for assignments was September 15.

Then, on September 9, a slow-moving cold front stalled over Colorado and clashed with warm air moving in from the monsoon season down south.

A Boulder Tattoo Project Facebook update that day announced: "And just like that we are at capacity! BOOM! 200 participants and counting. We [will] have a wait list."

The rains continued through September 15, and Boulder County was designated a federal disaster area. The Boulder Tattoo Project's next Facebook update, posted that day, read:

"Can't stop thinking about the lines in the poem:

'at canyon mouth,

flood warning

crises at the gate!

move to

higher ground'"

Pohl wasn't sure whether this was the right time to continue with the project. Would people who had lost homes, friends or even family members be ready to deal with such highly personal content? She says she "debated and debated, and then I decided it might be a nice reprieve for people who are dealing with the flood," so she dove right in.

After all 200 participants were assigned their words, Pohl announced that the tattoos would be done the first week in November, during an event called "Run the Marathon" — a name taken from line 55 of the poem (an actual marathoner laid claim to those words for his tattoo). It will start with an October 31 kickoff party at the Laughing Goat, 1709 Pearl Street in Boulder, that is also a fundraiser for Colorado flood victims, and then Bachert will get to work.

"I know what a hectic day is like when you do ten or twelve," he says. "This is going to be more like fifteen or twenty." To help with the work, he's brought on two more tattoo artists. "Time will be of the essence," Bachert adds. "I'm expecting it to be a lot of work, but I'm ready for it."

The participants can choose where to be tattooed, but "I think we'll pass on the face tattoos — steer people toward legs and arms," Bachert says. "Chelsea tells them you have to be comfortable with us doing it and taking a picture of it."

As part of the project, the tattooing process will be photographed and filmed for a future documentary. At the kickoff, a video of Waldman's August reading will be shown. While in Boulder, the poet got a chance to meet a few of the Tattoo Project participants, and says she was "impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment to this project and how personal it becomes."

Waldman doesn't have a tattoo herself, but told the Innisfree audience that she has "respect for (the) tradition and lineage." That respect grew when she was working recently in Morocco and fell in love with the henna tattoos that women there were wearing. "Adornment and scarification are rich and noble traditions, with deep multicultural underpinnings the world over," she notes. "I have always been interested in the complex relationship between language and the body. Adorning the body with words and images is like reading the body as a poem or painting. The tattoos are like maps one wears to claim and reclaim poetic spaces — as well as desires and deeper identities."

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Losers with tats are unemployable, and I for one thank them for making their low IQs so easy to identify.