Tattoos of mermaids and roses, cherubs bearing crimson hearts, Lenin's head and the trademarked pattern of French luxury brand Louis Vuitton stand out against bright pink skin soaking in the sun outside Beijing.I agree: tattoos do remind you of death. When I see someone with a tattoo, I usually think: you're going to have that as part of your body until the day you die. And then you're going to have that on your body in your grave. You and that tattoo are in a death grip.
This living gallery of skin art is not on display for a tattooists' convention or a Harley-Davidson fan club meeting. It is an everyday sight in Chenjiatuo village and is borne on the flesh of some unlikely subjects -- big, fat pigs.
The idea was cooked up by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who has hired a small staff of local farmers and tattoo artists to raise some 20 sows and use them as canvases for skin art at his rustic China base, Art Farm.
"I decided to do something in China first, and I realized tattooing pigs would be a good introduction to the country. It's low-tech," Delvoye, 40, told Reuters.
The pigs get sedatives before they go under the needle and are carefully raised until their natural deaths, normally well past the six-month mark when farm pigs are slaughtered.
Collectors can buy the pigs live and pay for their keep as "foster parents" or simply purchase their tattoo-festooned skins for display after the pigs pass.
"The Art Farm is a real enterprise and by selling, eventually, the skins, the whole thing gets financed and I can go on," said Delvoye, who has pushed other artistic boundaries with previous works.
Mortality is a primary theme in the porky "paintings".
"Tattoos remind you of death. It's leaving something permanent on something non-permanent," he said. "Even when tattooing flowers, there is a morbid side to the activity."
But aside from tattoos generally, this story raises some other questions. First, there's the whole placement of Lenin's head amidst mermaids, roses, cherubs, and crimson hearts. But maybe all these things, like tattoos themselves, remind you of death.
Then there's the paired image of Harley-Davidson conventioneers and big, fat pigs. Stereotyping the rider of the beautiful motorcycle again. Stereotyping the pig too.
And then there's the question whether we're outraged about the use of pigs or about going to rural China to do the project. And if we're outraged about both, which is worse? Maybe it's kind of a positive thing, though, both for the pigs and the villagers.
Surely, the villagers must be getting some laughs -- perhaps at the expense of Westerners generally. Maybe we Westerners should be irked that some egoistic artist is making us look ridiculous.
For the pigs, it's a nice life. They get to take sedatives, so they probably enjoy the tattooing experience. Then, they are "raised carefully" until they die a natural death. Think of the pig alternatives. These pigs are living like kings!
And what of the rich folk with tattooed pig skins hanging on their walls? I think the final artwork might look quite nice, and they're not exploiting poor Chinese any more than you are when you buy cheap leather shoes made in China. In fact, it's less exploitative, and the Chinese are learning tattooing skills. Maybe they will emigrate here and tattoo your ass for you as a memento mori.