Knot Your Typical Public Art: Road Tattoos at Gallery Plan B
Though the name "Road Tattoo" lacks eloquence, it is an exacting description of the work currently on display at Gallery Plan B. With the idea that streets are public skins open to acts of commemoration and ritual, Steed Taylor's works of black latex paint on asphalt resemble Celtic knots and tribal tattoos. Like a page from the book of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Taylor's preparatory sketches, site-specific drawings, photographed outcomes, and even a template of Road Tattoos hang salon-style in Plan B.
Road Tattoos possess many of the same functions as the icons of the Byzantine and Early Renaissance. Though the scale of the tattoos is much larger than their gold-leafed ancestors, the materials of each reflect an inner light intended for prayer, meditation, and remembrance—to manifest an emotional resonance.
Taylor created his first "Road Tattoo" during a summer residency at Skowhegan, where his concept had a chance to coalesce. "It wasn't planned before I got there," Taylor admits. He says he felt like the odd man out—because he was older than other residents, and because his AIDS status excluded him from the randy love-in typical of summer residencies. "Everyone had tattoos, and a story about their tattoo," he says. "And I was thinking about being from New York and then being up in Maine. Suddenly there are big open spaces, big long roads. And I was trying to reinvigorate the way people see a public space." He conceived three road tattoos, one for each road leading into Skowhegan, yet, despite the support of some people passing by who were kind enough to bring him Cokes on the hot summer day, the police received a call about a skinhead painting swastikas on the road. This attracted the attention of a reporter in Pittsfield, Maine, who wrote a story on the only Road Tattoo the police would let him finish.
A short time later, the reporter asked Taylor to make a Road Tattoo for her friend Evelyn, who had died the previous year from breast cancer. "Evelyn's Knot" was placed in front of the home of her friends Royce and Trudy, who had adopted Evelyn's two children. "All of Evelyn's friends helped to make it," says Taylor. "That is when I got the first… meaningful nature of the work," he added. "But the work has to survive on their own; they have to be beautiful and evocative on their own."
Prior to the Road Tattoos, much of Steed Taylor's work centered on AIDS-specific themes. In one series of work he blocks his image out of childhood photos. Another series involves blood prints. The first Road Tattoo included his blood mixed into the paint. Some subsequent tattoos have included personal references, like "Birthday Knot," created on his 40th birthday in 1999. As a whole, however, the series of work is not about him: "One thing I have to be conscious of is that I am invited to your back yard to do the public art work, and it is important for me to honor that."
Though the exhibition at Plan B is overwhelming, and leaves little breathing room for deeper contemplation in the gallery, it is possible the D.C. audience will soon be able to experience a Road Tattoo first hand. The gallery is working with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Department of Transportation to realize a Road Tattoo along Vermont Avenue NW between H and I streets, in front of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "The piece as it is now is called 'Daughters and Sons Knot,'" Taylor says. Between Lafayette and McPherson squares, the space is already steeped in the memorial of war. "I was thinking about bringing it forward to the present day, commemorating the soldiers from the D.C. area that have died, to honor their lives, and to maybe emphasize the sense of loss felt by their children. So it will be the names of their sons and daughters who will be entered into the piece." Plan B is currently seeking volunteers for the project. For now, the work in Plan B suggests what the District should expect once Taylor adorns it with his ink.
“Portrait of a Road Tattoo” is on view noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday to July 25 at Gallery Plan B, 1530 14th Street NW. Free. (202) 234-2711.