Individual Work
Skin: A Mortal Work of Art

ELD Entry: Skin by Shelley Jackson
In Skin: A Mortal Work of Art, the author, Shelley Jackson, explores a different type of canvas other than paper, in which she displays her artistry; on the skin of her fan’s and reader’s body. Shelley Jackson has written an ongoing story in which she, instead of writing words down on paper, assigns people certain words that they must tattoo on their body, then compiles pictures of each tattoo (word) into a story. Recently, Jackson has created a video of her project thus far including her “words”, the people sporting the ink, reading their respective word on camera, then organizing the words in order to complete the manuscript. Every volunteer has full freedom in decided where the word is forever placed on their bodies, thus giving each word a different image than what is seen on paper; but there are guidelines. The tattoos features in the piece are found in different places all over the participant’s bodies; some chose places such as on their arm, while others chose places more obscure locations such as behind their ear or places not visibly seen on a day to day basis. The only catch Jackson had was that if the word was a body part such as “leg”, then the tattoo could not be placed on the participant’s leg. Shelley Jackson also requires each participant to have the tattoo inked in black only and in a classic book font; this means no fancy fonts or italics. Jackson also mentions that she has to be able to tell from the photo if the tattoo is real or not, and warns participants that she can differentiate a real tattoo from sharpie or henna; if the tattoo is not real, it will not be featured in the story.
Skin: A Mortal Work of Art, literally, only exists in the flesh. There is no other way to hear or read the story other than to just watch the video of all the words. As of present, the video containing eight-hundred and ninety-five words, takes about ten minutes to read. Words are reused, therefore no two people have the same words tattooed on their skin. Any reader or listener interested in the piece must allow themselves to have an hour to fully digest the material and watch the video more than just once. The video includes the voices and skins of all ages and adds to the diversity of the piece. When watching the, Skin: A Mortal Work of Art, video, which features the story in pictures of all the participant’s skin, along with their voice saying their respective word, is actually incredibly confusing to follow; due to the different tones, pitches and overall voices of each individual “word”, the story does not seem to flow as well as if only one person had read the piece. The actual story tells a classic story about immortality versus mortality, constantly referring to things of that nature, such as the tattoos themselves. The story written is not so much about the writing but the medium chosen to present the story, which in turn explains the thoughts behind the project.
Jackson refers to her willing, tattooed, volunteers as “words” and somehow they are not only okay with this, but delighted to be just that to her, “words.” Thousands of volunteers from around the world have bombarded Jackson with emails, begging to be a “word,” to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It is only the “words” themselves that are allowed to read a copy of the finished project written on actual paper, but even then the participants must sign copious amounts of paperwork to ensure the project stays in the flesh.
Simply put, Shelley Jackson is a pioneer in her craft. She refuses to settle with one type of medium to express her stories, therefore she is constantly searching for different ways to expand her stories beyond just pen and paper. Jackson focuses a lot of her attention and work on that of bodily issues, and teaches about it as well. She is a professor based in San Francisco educating students on creative writing… on another level.
The presence of a deeper meaning within the piece is obvious. Shelley Jackson knows just as well as everyone else that writing down any thoughts or feelings one might have, inevitably makes these words permanent and irrevocably, well, immortal. But what if words could die? Although the work focuses on the “life” of a word, it is hard to not recognize that every life, must come to an end. By using human skin as her canvas, these words written in ink will unfailingly cease to be one day. This living story that Jackson speaks of will most certainly die one day, when the last “word” passes away, leaving nothing behind. Unlike in today’s digital age, every word typed or written, is documented; and even if the word is deleted, it remains forever in the vast digital “cloud.” The concept that words can die is something that does not make a lot of people comfortable; the idea that something as seemingly permanent as a book, has an end, throws people off and that is exactly why Jackson’s project is so colorful and different, making her a pioneer of the concept of mortal writing.

"Shelley Jackson - Biography." The European Graduate School. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2014.
"Skinquilt.html." Skinquilt.html. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2014. .