Sally's Out Of Body Experiment
Sally looks dead, but instead of a morgue the artist lays rigid, chained away, in a white-walled room concealed behind a shop selling houseplants and botanicals in southeast London.
With a mummified head, modesty obscured by Hanes briefs, Sally looks like a cadaver prepared for a post mortem, or burial following a torture, for which the sterility of the room magnifies in the imagination.
But on a Wednesday night in East Dulwich, shortly before 6pm, the pain is yet to begin – and it’s all Sally’s idea.
Welcome to Out Of Body, a boundary-busting piece of performance art by a tattooist who is not so much living up to their moniker, Sally RIP, but embodying it.
The maiden show sees the 26-year-old invite the public to tattoo their body “without restriction” – no experience is necessary and there’s no stylistic or placement parameters – though Sally’s head is covered in a pillowcase, “that could potentially get a little too crazy for now”, and so is their crotch.
However, the latter concealment is not a cotton border not to be crossed: “If someone is really inclined to remove them, that is available to them.”
“I’m not looking to know who gives me what tattoo because I feel like that will create biases as well, based on my relationship, prior, to those people,” Sally explains to Parloir before Out Of Body begins.
“I would like to make sure I have an objective point of view on each tattoo I’m given.”
The Canadian’s lust for leaving permanent marks is not driven by subjugation to the trade’s much lauded traditions, or delusions of artistic immortality, but a love for the most pure of pursuits, that of making human connections. Sally has always been more interested in the “intimacy” shared between artist and client than the inked-outcome and the wider-culture.
“That is what I am most excited about. I think the outcome or the product of those experiences is secondary. What it is about for me is having this interaction with this person and giving them the opportunity to, like reify and dedicate themselves to their identity on their skin. I’m just a conduit of that.”
In a professional capacity, Sally never tries to sway clients’ design decisions, something the artist is taking a step further with Out Of Body – a reverse of roles, done blindly, with complete passivity, in the hope of subconsciously unlocking a higher plane of understanding about the exchange of blood and ink.
“I’m always interested in performance art and interactions and I think that over the course of my experience tattooing, it is what I have been most interested in this entire time and what has been most striking to me… the things that happen outside the actual tattoo, or the finished result… I often think in alternatives or opposites. So when I think of tattooing I think of what is everything, but the tattoo, and I think that’s what has eventually led me to this place now.”
Sally has an eclectic collection of tattoos so anti-aesthetic they’re cool in a way that could never be contrived – comic book-like doodlings collide with fine-line praying hands on the face and a noose on the neck. So, the tattooist isn’t worried about what the public will add: “I don’t exactly have what most people would refer to as a lovely set of tattoos, so I’m not exactly worried and I’m more excited about shifting my understanding of the aesthetic of tattoos as well. I’m very excited about what I’m going to get this evening.”
Supervised by Sally’s friend Ross Hell, whose head the artist recently branded with a skull and bulldog, some 18 viewers of Out Of Body stepped over the chain divider, picked up a pink tattoo machine, and for a good number of them, made their first permanent mark.
“So who is going to go first,” Hell announced, gazing at the then crowd of half-a-dozen hipsters, including his good-mate Dylan Proudfoot who was too occupied with swilling down a 500ml can of Stella Artois, to step-up.
The first participant told Parloir, “it was hard without a line (to go by),” as the Pearspring shop door chimed, signalling another guest to the hidden Marie Blythe Gallery behind, which was obscured behind rows of hanging baskets.
The next participant wrote her name on Sally, as though scrawling on a bathroom stall, “I couldn’t think of what else to do”.
“That was really cool,” she told her friends, animated as a child at Christmas, as Sally lay silent, hands at sides, feet upright, awaiting the next desecrator and their crude design with slow, shallow breaths.
Behind Sally a chain noose was displayed and at the opposite end a veiny cock with an inquisitive knob, curved as though its attention had been aroused by a scent. But the crowd that swelled to around 50-odd barely took their eyes off the performance, stepping outside only briefly to smoke, or open free Asahi.
Sam Radcliffe travelled 351km from Liverpool, to see Sally, though concedes “personal circumstances meant I needed to remove myself for a little while also”.
The 22-year-old, who has almost as many tattoos as years on the planet, has followed Sally online and came along because, “I wanted to support them, and what they do, and be apart of this”.
“The only regret of this trip is that I wasn’t able to get a tattoo from Sally. I would have liked to have stayed longer… but I feel very fortunate to have been able to see Sally.”
Sam’s experience with tattooing is a few stick and pokes “of no great success, in intimate situations where the person has trusted me”; none-the-less his comprehension of the essence of Sally’s performance was astute. He also unravelled the orchestrated elements with precision pointing out that the pillowcase Sally wore was as much for the participants as the artist-turned-canvas.
“It is brave, but I also think it is a logical expansion of the stick-n-poke culture that I think Sally has represented, sincerely represented, for a while. I think they are as commoditised as the machine tattoos and they are something to be shared with those who you know, or respect, or connect with.”
Tattooist Justin Fink, aka Justin The Bastard, said the artist was a trailblazer in an industry often obsessed with its roots: “That is the beauty of art it is a non-static thing. Artists shake shit up, you- know-what-I-mean? And tattooing was definitely in danger of becoming a stagnant thing.”
Fink said that he shares a lot of the “same sort of feelings about tattooing as I imagine Sally does”, but while he would never cover his face and let his clients take over, he loves the steez of spontaneous tattoos: “Some of my favourite tattoos are the crazy things my girlfriend did… they just look awful. But I’m not looking for the most beautiful tattoos ever. And I think this thing (Sally’s show) is throwing up a whole new dynamic when I think about how I feel about tattooing in general.”
“We are in a really interesting climate,” Fink opines.
“I’ve been tattooing for a few years now and I’m now making the effort to get out there and chat to other tattooers and I get told what people think of me all the time… it’s so interesting how some people are so angry about how some people are undermining the industry, and its kind of like, ‘when did it get fetishized into this supreme art form, where you book this appointment, then wait six months and then pay 500 pounds?’ The reason I got into tattooing and the thing I love about Western tattooing, is sailors and prisoners… sailors used to get off the boat and get quick and easy flash and I love that people come into my house, and I’m like, ‘choose a picture off the wall and I’ll put it on ya’.
“And Sally turning it into this art thing, this performance, it’s great, even Maxime (Sang Bleu founder Maxime Plescia-Buchi) said, a while back, that tattooing has become this backdoor into fine art I think that’s great. I consider myself an artist and I think it is great going more in that direction, rather than say, being a craftsmen, to create this technically wonderful thing on the skin. So I think it is going down that road and I praise people like Sally for doing that.”
The day after the show Sally, while in transit to Peckham for a flash day with Hell, was yet to fully comprehend the tattoo machine mauling endured on Wednesday.
“I haven’t really had a moment to reflect on them,” the artist said.
“I’m still kind of waiting for that moment to sit with them and reflect on them and really take them in. But from what I can see, I am so, so excited. And primarily I’m excited to reflect on them over the course of my life, because I do think, that a lot of these people I wont meet again. I don’t know who they are and I don’t know which tattoo they gave me… but I just get to have a relationship with the tattoo.”
Sally said the three-hour inking was “definitely not like any other session I’ve ever had”. Some moments the tattooist was “spacing out, just because I was desensitised to my environment. I was living mostly in my head”, while other times, more practical and mundane things came to mind, like the future of the show.
“What was really interesting is that, without any visuals, I was really just, while getting a tattoo from someone, just picking up on the energy they were bringing to the session. I could sense if someone was nervous, or more excited, or more familiar with the process. But regardless, it was just amazing just to experience receiving a tattoo from someone completely pure of intention. It really felt like someone was giving me a tattoo because they really wanted to, you know, develop some sort of intimate exchange with me. There wasn’t a specific intention, or design, or goal that was trying to be achieved, it was just an opportunity for someone to intimately relate themselves to me through this tattoo and that’s really what I felt each time someone was tattooing me and I’m really excited about how it went.”
Sally’s legs, back, ribs and chest were inked, but the tattooist believes the uniqueness of the experience overshadowed the agony: “It was quite cerebral and I felt like I was almost being carried through it by that intention, or something, it wasn’t as painful as I thought it was going to be.”
Sally continued: “There were definitely moments I just went blank which was pretty exciting but I was also thinking about just the project in general, how it was going, what I wanted to do with it once I was done. Mundane things like that. And then, just considering and reflecting on the emotions I was going through as well, that I was having these exchanges with complete strangers, feeling that I couldn’t see what was happening, that I was sacrificing my body and that I didn’t know what it was going to look like when I got up. Just reflecting on those things as they were happening. And then there were moments too where I would be curious as to what was going on. Like it would get really quiet for a while and I would think, ‘am I just in this room alone’?”
Despite that, Sally never felt lonely, or exposed on the bench in just briefs.
The tattooist did feel vulnerable, but that was the point:
“I don’t think that necessarily I relate to vulnerability in the same way that most people do because I’ve found in my life, through other experiences, that when you truly make yourself vulnerable you actually have nothing to lose. So you’re not in a position where anything can be taken from you, you’re actually just being 100% honest with the people around you, and then whatever happens, happens.”
Sally added: “So yeah I felt vulnerable, but that was the opportunity that I had, and that I was giving to people to really get that honest experience, that honest relationship that we could develop in that moment.”
The performance mirrors how Sally approaches every day life, always lingering to wait for a spark of conversation to congeal into a connection.
“This was a perfect opportunity for that (human connection) and it definitely went into the design of this project. We collide with each other on a daily basis in moments that can span a few seconds, a few hours, or a few years and the level of intimacy is always pliable. It can always be increased or decreased, and I think tattooing has always meant that for me. I don’t relate to it in the same cultural sense as maybe the culture, or the industry, or the community at large would suggest. For me it is a lot about the intimate exchange with the person I’m tattooing. I think it is important for me to encourage that in my daily life because if we don’t have each other, then really what do we have?”
Sally, who is due to leave London for Toronto this weekend, plans to take the show on tour, something that will further blur the “lines of ownership and credit for each tattoo” collected during the performance.
“I love what I can see already. There’s so much character and personality and story beneath them, but I personally don’t know what they are, so that’s the fun for me, to consider what they could be, but ultimately know, I’ll never really understand.”