An art exhibit called Fear Into Fire: Reclaiming Black Male Identity Through the Art of Tattooing opens Friday at the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo. Fear Into Fire is curated by Nicole Harrison.
Reclaiming black male identity through the art of tattooing was the subject of her master’s thesis at New York University. For research she talked with black men on the west side of Chicago about their tattoos. During the interviews professional photographers took pictures of the men and their body art. Harrison says she was inspired by American rapper Lil Wayne, and his tattoos when she realized, as she puts it:
“If people really paid attention to his body rather than his music, his body may tell a more in-depth story than his music does,” Harrison says.
The exhibition Fear Into Fire was first displayed at Columbia College in Chicago early last year. Kalamazoo is hosting the show’s second exhibition. Harrison says for black males of the Hip Hop generation the body is often used as a space for archiving memories and telling personal stories through tattooing.
“I think there’s a kind of a need or a want for them to get these stories out. Because at some point I would just tell people about the project and they would jump on it and say you should interview me, I have tattoos, you should talk to me. Without me even knowing them, but just giving them the background of the research. They wanted to be a part of something, part of something they can feel positive about and that they know the intent behind it. When I talk to men, whether I know them or not, I’m very clear on what my goal is with this project. And, I think the idea of them knowing that by doing this interview they will be photographed in a very professional setting and really be admired and not over-sexualized or put in a position where I’m just using you for your body but really put them in a position where it’s like you’re powerful and beautiful and I admire that and I want you to see that for yourself, if you don’t already.”
Harrison says public response to “Fear Into Fire” varies depending on who she’s talking to.
“When I speak to members of my generation who are, for the most part, the people who are tattooed. And who have sleeves and understand what this culture, at this point, is for black men and women. Instantly they get it," Harrison says. "They say 'Oh my friend has 20 tattoos, he has a ton of stories, you should talk to him.' But when I talk to people who don’t sort of indulge the culture in ways that the men and women currently do, instantly they think it’s about the tattoo. The tattoo is an element of the project, but the tattoo is more, for me, a window into these individual lives and the stories.”
Harrison says her final goal for the Fear Into Fire project is to talk with and photograph 200 black males about their tattoos. She also plans to eventually talk with black females with tattoos. Fear Into Fire is at the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo this evening from 4-9 p.m., as part of the monthly art hop. The exhibit will spend the rest of November on display at Kalamazoo College in the Hicks Student Center.
Here's a video clip about the exhibit.