The project aims to take visitors on a walk down the main pier at HarborArts at the Boston Shipyard. A response to the place itself, where people are drawn to leave the land and walk out onto the pier — where they can experience the water all around them and view the Boston skyline in a unique and complete panorama. Ships have been built and maintained on that spot for hundreds of years.
Boston is full of palpable history. Taking this walk out into the harbor, and thinking about where Boston is now, a city basically put on the map by the worldwide shipping trade, I can almost see the ships coming and going to places all over the world. This way, England, Europe. That way, the Pacific, China. That way, Africa and the Caribbean…
Our canonical view of Boston history seems to focus on a few white, Puritan & Revolutionary tales. But really we grew as a city by being a port for worldwide trade, by traveling and having commerce around the world, and by the efforts, input, ingenuity, prosperity and suffering of many other nations and peoples. This project is an effort to document some of that connection.
The surface of the piers at Boston Shipyard are actually weathered cement. I’d originally thought to paint, but reconsidered. Part of the mission of the HarborArts space, and its founder Steve Israel, is to promote awareness of marine ecology. The whole area there is a study in the weathering of manmade items in harsh and changeable weather. In my mind paint is something that would eventually flake off and become pollution in the water. So I turned to dyes and stains- something that would sink into the pier surface and color it, and then gradually become weathered and faded.
This concept worked well with the idea of tattooing as a sailor’s art form. Sailors would get tattoos to commemorate important events in their lives or important ideas. That was how the art form started in this country and in England: Sailors learned it from the Pacific Islanders, and from there it spread to the upper classes (quicker than you would think), and throughout our society.
So the idea of the project became: Creating tattoo designs for the pier, that point out the different places and peoples we have been connected to by sea.
These various cultures are represented by their art motifs from the period of the last 400 years, the time of our connection. Tattoo motifs from some of the peoples who lived, sailed, or landed here, ceramic and fabric motifs from the cultures who sent us wares and ideas over the sea as part of our trade history… with some words of description and compass arrows to show the general direction of their land.
The walk takes visitors on a perceptual journey, orienting is in the world and in history, making people aware of our great interconnectedness in the world.
This could counter the even-now common approach to Boston history which tends to be inwardly focused on the achievements of local, white, men. To do this responsibly, I’m happy to have gained input and collaboration from other artists and cultural historians of the cultures we’re referencing.
According to the owners of the space, the tattoo designs on the pier have been very popular with both workers at the shipyard and with local residents, both from East Boston and those who live at the marina on small ships. After an initial test design in 2013, which was well received, we got permission from the marina owners to decorate the whole pier surface.
The connected series of 17 designs was completed in October of 2014 with help from a Kickstarter campaign, the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, and a crew of about 25 hands-on volunteers. Covering the length of the thousand-foot pier and extending into the parking lot, we believe this could earn the record of “World’s Largest Tattoo!”
- Responding to and capitalizing on the powerful sense of place one feels when there overlooking the harbor and city;
- Taking that great blank canvas and using it to create a more inclusive story for Boston;
- Creating a message of peace and goodwill that everyone can relate to;
- Acknowledging that we’re all in this together, and always have been.
- I think the celebration of that is what Boston needs now and what we need as a species.