On Sept. 2, at around 6 p.m., the atmosphere inside Conner Contemporary Art is more operating room than art gallery. Artist and George Washington University photography instructor Mary Coble sits in the stark white room with her T-shirt pulled over her head; tattoo artist Leah Smith hovers behind her, wearing green surgical gloves and wielding a motorized needle. One by one, Smith tattoos, without ink, the first names of 438 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals—all hate-crime victims who have been murdered (most of them in this country) since the mid-1990s.
As Smith finishes each name, she slaps a plain white card onto Coble’s skin and collects a mirror-image blood impression. Smith then hands the card to Barbara Watkins, Coble’s partner, to be placed on view at the gallery. A handful of people stare at the artists, or off into space, in near-silence; the high-pitched whir of the needle echoes in the room. The ordeal is being webcast live, and people from all over the world, including Australia and Israel, have tuned in.
Before this performance, titled Note to Self, Coble said she was willing to have every possible surface on her body tattooed, although some locations, such as her face, would be last resorts. “It shouldn’t leave a permanent mark,” she said. “Probably in six months you won’t even know it was there at all.” She also emphasized that “it is important to have it done in one stretch,” only stopping for something to eat. If Coble falls asleep, Smith will continue her work.
The artist has built a career out of escalating self-harm. Two years ago, for Labels That Heal, the 26-year-old Northwest resident had the words “boy” and “girl” scratched onto her back and then documented the healing process in a series of photographs. That led to last year’s Binding Ritual, in which she bound her breasts with duct tape and then ripped the tape off—over and over, for the length of an hour. The idea for Note to Self arose when Coble started searching for information about murdered GLBT hate-crime victims.
She found that no single organization keeps comprehensive statistics about this kind of violence. She started Googling and calling around to different agencies, hoping to compile her own list. It didn’t take her long to notice that “slurs like ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ would be engraved on [victims’] bodies.” Coble points out that this branding doesn’t commonly happen to hate-crime targets from other communities—a point that she wanted to emphasize in her performance piece.
During Note to Self, Smith works from Coble’s printout of names; when one comes up several times (there are 15 Roberts), it is tattooed repeatedly. Coble is especially interested in impressing upon people the sheer number of names. “This isn’t a memorial,” she says. “I did want [it] to be a little more universal.”
Only the first two hours of the performance are open to the public (though the webcast continues until completion), and it takes about an hour just to get through the A’s. As her shoulders and back turn red and raw, Coble jokes around and makes small talk with her audience—she claims that it helps her get through the pain. Note to Self wraps up at around 5 a.m.; Coble’s back, her neck, and the backs of her arms and legs are covered in fresh cuts. Her face has been spared the needle.
The day after her performance, Coble sounds as energetic as usual. She says she is mostly lying on her couch and has learned a lot about her body. For example, the crack of her knee was one of the most painful areas, though she claims, “it’s not horrible at all.”
Coble’s blood impressions will be on view from Friday, Sept. 9, to Saturday, Oct. 22, at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 588-8750.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.