Last October, Russel O'Brien received a letter from a New York writer he'd exchanged a few e-mails with but had never met. "Dear Russel," it began. "Your word, should you choose to accept it, is: fuse." So O'Brien went out and got fuse tattooed on his back, just below his neck.
He'd contacted the writer, Shelley Jackson, in September after seeing an ad for her "mortal work of art" in the quarterly Cabinet. She had written a story--a story she conceived of as a living, breathing thing--and was seeking people to offer up their skin as paper.
"Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body," the ad said. "The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium. The full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another."
"I like ideas I'm pissed off I didn't think of," says O'Brien, the visual arts curator at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He already had six tattoos, and as someone who says he feels a deep connection to the written word for the "sense of liberation" it provides and for "the sensuality of reading, the light dark light dark light dark as my eyes move across the page," O'Brien had long wanted to have text on his skin. But with two tattoos he regretted already covered over with a large square he calls "hideous," he was paralyzed by the fear that he'd choose a word or words that wouldn't appeal to him as he grew older. He'd once considered getting Molly Bloom's stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in Ulysses tattooed on his back. He now cringes at the thought of such grandiosity. "Oh, God," he says. "We are what we loathe."
Jackson's story, "Skin," provided an out: if he surrendered himself to a greater good--to someone else's project--he wouldn't need to feel connected to the text itself, which, after all, would not be of his choosing but randomly assigned. "Even if it was awful I could choose the placement on my body, and it wouldn't have to be something I would have to look at," he says.
Jackson's ad explained that the participants would be known to her as her "words," and that when they died she would attend their funerals (though she didn't say how she'd know they had died) and then delete them from the master copy of the story. When Jackson herself died, the story, with its disappeared words, would be complete.
O'Brien thought that execution was key. He didn't want to be part of a confessional or "politically overwhelming" story, so he went to Jackson's Web site, ineradicablestain.com, to find out what kind of writing she did.
The body is a recurring theme for Jackson, a short story writer, novelist, and children's book author and illustrator, and she's used nontraditional canvases in her work before: her novel Patchwork Girl, a feminist reworking of the Frankenstein story, was published in hypertext. Anchor Books put out her story collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, in 2002. O'Brien read excerpts from it on Jackson's Web site and liked the flow of her prose and the overall tone of the stories. "Then I knew for sure that it was something I wanted to do, regardless of the word," he says.
He sent Jackson an e-mail. He answered her questions, signed some legal documents, and then waited for her to send him his word.
Fuse arrived in a letter dated October 19, along with instructions to respect any capitalization or punctuation. The letter also referred O'Brien to a previous communique detailing the complete guidelines, which included the mandate to get the word done in black ink in a classic book font such as Bodoni, Times Roman, or Garamond.
"While I am fond of all my words," Jackson wrote, "I understand that some may have unwelcome associations for you. You may choose not to accept your word for any reason whatsoever. Remember, however, that you cannot request a different word later on."
Upon seeing his word, O'Brien says, "I was really pleased immediately. It suited my sensibilities." He looked up fuse in the Oxford English Dictionary and was surprised by some of the definitions. The first was "the track of an animal," which he found "more romantic" than the meaning fuse had initially conjured for him--the joining together of metals or objects. Even if he hated the final story--which he'd get to read only after all of the words were assigned--he decided he was happy to have fuse on his skin.
"I feel fortunate," he says. "I could have had a or the, which would have been funny and playful. But this is nice. This feels right. It's a good thing."
O'Brien sent Jackson two photos as she'd requested, one of the tattoo and one of him. He has no idea what, if anything, she plans to do with them. According to Jackson's Web site, which hasn't been updated in a few months, 1,600 of the 2,095 words of her story have been assigned. (Jackson didn't reply to calls or e-mail for this article.) O'Brien wonders if there are any other words wandering around Chicago, and if he'll ever bump into any of them. He also wonders about Jackson.
"I hope she's not a freak," he jokes, "or this could be another black square."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.