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Linked by ink: Tattoos mark a city's pride

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 9:15 AM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
Poet Bianca Spriggs' 496-word poem "The ___________ of the universe: A Love Story" will be tattooed onto 248 Lexington, Kentucky, residents. Poet Bianca Spriggs' 496-word poem "The ___________ of the universe: A Love Story" will be tattooed onto 248 Lexington, Kentucky, residents.
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Poem unites Lexingtonians
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 248 Lexington, Kentucky, residents will be tattooed with lines from the same poem
  • Poet Bianca Spriggs says she crafted the poem as a love letter to Lexington
  • The Lexington Tattoo Project is being overseen by two local university professors
  • The entire project, which includes a documentary, will be unveiled in the fall

(CNN) -- How much do you love your city?

Enough to write a love letter to it?

So much that you'd tattoo that love letter on your body?

The Lexington Tattoo Project, which will leave hundreds of residents branded with an ode to their town, is the brainchild of artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, professors at Transylvania University in Kentucky's second largest city.

"For years to come, this is a commitment to Lexington," Gohde said.

Their fascination with tattooing as an art form started a few years ago when they co-taught a class called "Creative Disruption," a course built around understanding -- and challenging -- the cultural and social conventions that dictate our lives.

One of their most thought-provoking assignments asked students to place temporary but realistic-looking tattoos in a visible place on their body. They were then asked to visit a business and apply for a job. Gohde and Todorova said students came back with mixed responses; some felt like a conversation piece, others felt discriminated against.

Gohde and Todorova acted as canvasses along with their students; Todorova chose to wear the fake tattoos off and on for two years.

"What was interesting to us, as well, was how our gender would affect how we are perceived," Todorova said. "People were a lot more interested in my tattoos, but they looked at Kurt like he was a criminal."

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This go-round, they decided to take it one step further, using the words of a local poet for an installation of permanent tattoos to be inked on Lexington residents.

Poet Bianca Spriggs crafted a contrapuntal work -- a three-part piece in which the reader can view the left column as one poem, the right column as another poem, and both columns together as a third poem.

The title: "The ___________ of the universe: A Love Story."

"It didn't start off as a love letter," Spriggs confided. "I've been off and on in Lexington for about 20 years. Like any relationship, you have your ups and downs with the city. I tried not to think that people were going to have it tattooed on their body."

Spriggs enlisted social media to fill in the blank: "Lexington is the ___________ of the universe."

Some of the responses were poetic, others were downright bizarre -- read "errant nipple hair" and "B-list cult movie." Still, Gohde and Todorova found someone to agree to be inked with every phrase and punctuation mark in the 496-word poem (including the title).

Apparently this matters: Face tattoos

Participants submitted their top three phrases and Gohde and Todorova narrowed it down from there; they say only about 15-20 people had to resubmit phrases because they weren't available anymore.

Spriggs participated in the project, too, choosing the phrase "gravitational pull" for a permanent spot on her left foot.

"I got that one because every time I tried to leave Lexington, something pulled me back -- as if my work here is not yet done," said 31-year-old Spriggs.

In all, 248 participants will put their love for Lexington in ink. More than 60 people were first-time tattoo recipients (including the professors themselves). The oldest participant is 65.

Tattoos and piercings: How young is too young?

The tattoos were done by Robert Alleyne and Jay Armstrong at Charmed Life Tattoo, gratis, thanks to local sponsors.

"I loved the idea of a small part of the city that I call home coming together and using tattooing as the medium for the sake of a community art project," said Josh Weinel, 36, a participant in the project.

Weinel chose to put the phrase "Signal Flare" along his left forearm. It was his 25th tattoo.

Weinel's twin brother, Jason, also decided to participate in the project after learning about it from his brother.

Opting for the phrase, "The Roadside Attraction," Jason said the decision to partake was a no-brainer.

"I have left here many times, moving to Cincinnati, Chicago and Naples, always ending up back home in Lexington," Jason said. "I wanted to be a part of something that was local and also original -- this was it. Lexington is one of the few consistencies in my life and will call it home for a very long time."

While tattoos have infiltrated popular culture, to some they will always remain taboo.

"I think the stigma, at a very base level, is because the Bible tells us not to," Gohde said. Much of the project's backlash comes from people quoting the book of Leviticus: "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord."

On the flip side, the artists say the project has galvanized pride in Lexington.

"What we hope for is to create a community of people who are connected to each other but also to Lexington," Todorova said.

The Lexington Tattoo project will premiere in the fall with a short film that highlights each tattoo; it will also unveil a hidden image built within the circle patterns surrounding the tattoos.

The final tattoo will be completed in the coming weeks.

The poet's mother-in-law will get a tattoo that says "by Bianca Spriggs."

Would you show pride for your hometown with a tattoo? Let us know in the comments.

Follow CNN Living writer Sarah LeTrent on Twitter

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