In March 2011, five people volunteered to be part of an art project involving some of the biggest, most revered names in the contemporary art scene. Its stated aim was to ask serious questions about what, exactly, constitutes art.
The five volunteers – Jack, AJ, Leaf, Shauna and Conrad – gave their skin as a canvas for the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon. They were to become a walking original; a permanent, mobile gallery piece from the hands of artists who routinely charge hundreds of thousands for their creations to hang in a frame or sit in the corner of a room.
Along for the ride was Stamp London founder and director Ryan Hope. The result is this achingly stylish documentary film. “What the film asks is how you classify fine art,” Hope told i-D. “Who decides that? Damien Hirst is probably the best known fine artist in the world, and he considers that tattoo his work. The guy at Christie’s told me that, even by making the film, we’re affecting the value of the tattoos. What he was ultimately saying is that there’s no distinction between art, advertising, production and product. But the thing is, these tattoos have no value, because they can’t be sold.”
Skin is the first film from a clearly talented, occasionally audacious director. It’s seamlessly cut, frequently inventive, with a throbbing score from Amon Tobin. But, for every flash of beauty, there’s a scene that feels posy and preening, unsure of when to hold off and when to show off, when to be serious and when to slyly laugh.
“Our body has its shelf-life, but so does everything else,” Jack says as he stands under a hose, beads dripping down his inked torso as he stares off into an imagined future – like the off-cuts of a Take That video. He talks of working hard to leave dead-eyed suburbia behind, to move to London and be around like-minded people. “Because everyone moves to Hackney don’t they?” he says dejectedly. AJ talks of being “uncomfortable in the suburbs. The death of a comfortable, conformist life moving in on me. I knew I would have to escape before it was too late.” “No-one else will ever give birth through a piece of Damien Hirst art,” Shauna says proudly. Leaf, an American-Chinese dude, is in a band called Drug Dealers “which I’d guess you’d describe as chill-wave.”
Skin invites criticism – no doubt. It almost wants you to accuse it of a Nathan Barley self-emulation. But it stands tall, rides the punches, keeps on going and eventually stays standing. It succeeds because it refuses to bow to the artists behind the inkwork. Pettibon, Koons et al never appear on screen, and Hirst only fleetingly. If Skin deals in hagiography, it’s for those who chose to be a canvas.
“I let their characters dictate the visual style,” Hope says. “I interviewed the people first off and then I hung out with them, and whatever came to the forefront led the way for the film. I wanted a snapshot of their lives that was true. That was the most important thing to me. That was the vibe, the point, the idea of the film.” And that core authenticity is the source of its strength. Because this writer has a tattoo from David Shrigley on the inside of his left bicep. He’s had his card declined on dates in restaurants, more than once, because he decided as a kid that the process of sharing art and creativity was somehow worth the effort and the sacrifice. For all its faults and sometime pretensions, Skin invokes that feeling, that excitement, that determination.
As Conrad says to sum up the film: “I think the fine art scene, or the gallery scene, or whatever you call it, has become annul and somewhat incestuous. Do you think the average person gives a shit about a $750 million piece of art? But tattoos aren’t like that. Someone looks at a tattoo and it’s direct, experiential and understandable, even if they don’t know why you got it. People are able to understand it by common terms, because the tattoo was made for common people.”
Text: Tom Seymour