UT art professor to fly to Germany to tattoo senior citizens

Matt Douglas

On a warm summer day, town elders will gather outside a parlor, waiting to have needles dot their bodies with characters, images, commemorative messages and public statements. 

Studio art professor Michael Smith will take part in the fifth iteration of Munster Sculpture Project. Established in 1977, the event takes place in Munster, Germany, only once every decade. This year from June 10 to Oct. 1, Smith will set up a tattoo studio for seniors aged 65 and up. Smith said tattoos are prevalent now but were once taboo. The result is placing a theme associated with youth, such as tattoos, on a canvas associated with age, the elderly.

“I had been working on the idea of finding youth, discovering youth,” Smith said. “I came to the project with this theme and proposed the idea of a tattoo parlor, and then came the idea of targeting seniors. They liked that hook.”

Branching out in the concepts of art is something Smith not only teaches and showcases, but a lesson he’s undertaken for decades. He started out as a formal painter, but in the ’70s, performance art was beginning to gain popularity. He tried his hand at it and has stuck with it ever since. 

“I wanted a social life, and I knew I needed to get out of my studio,” Smith said. “So, I started looking, and then it took.”

One of Smith’s former students, studio art junior Vivek Sebastian, found out about his involvement in the event through word of mouth in the Art Building. He said she’s excited to see the tattoo designs featured in Munster.

“It’s an interesting way to take agency of one’s body and questioning the time and its signifiers,” Sebastian said. “Wrinkles and its connection with age and tattoos with immaturity.”

Since its establishment, the Munster Sculpture Project has evolved into a meeting ground for artists to display social and political messages. This emphasis on expression has opened the door to genres of performance art outside of sculpting, such as tattoos.

To Smith, performance art is a very open-ended term, because there are so many ways of performing to convey a message. He said it can be used to discuss subjects such as identity, society and politics, while incorporating dance, music, images and other media.

“It’s kind of a catch-all term, a hybrid,” Smith said.

Smith has taken somewhat of a complex role in the art department, providing an auxiliary to other visual arts or conceptual classes by supplementing, magnifying or expanding upon another focus area of the arts.

“I teach it where there’s no one way of going about doing it,” Smith said. “The students sort of develop it or think about how to use it.”

Studio art graduate student Ryan Hawk has been Smith’s teaching assistant for the past three years. Hawk said he came to UT’s program specifically to work with Smith. He said Smith’s take on performance art starkly contrasts with his undergraduate training.

“Mike has a way of emphasizing the nuances of everyday life through his work as well as his teaching practice, which has ultimately inspired me to embrace concepts of absurdity and humor in my own work and in unconventional ways,” Hawk said.

Unconventional expression is within the nature of performance art, and the Munster Sculpture Project is a platform for it. It’s a comprehensive practice that has taken Smith from studio art to tattoo design.

“The tattoos were just an idea I had,” Smith said. “A lot of my work comes from these concepts that I get. The tattoos developed gradually from this idea of
looking for youth.”