Steed Taylor is a New York City-based artist who created “Road Tattoos.” What are road tattoos? They’re exactly what you think they are. Steed has lots of samples on his website http://www.steedtaylor.com/index.html. He says they’re not only about art and design; they’re commemorative and they celebrate people, institutions and times gone by in addition to life itself.
“… Body tattooing and road tattooing aren’t all that different. If you think of roads as the skin of a community, then a road has a similar relationship to the public body as skin does to the private body ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Steed, Your work is quite intriguing. But first, how do you define, "Road Tattoos"? What's the point of them? Where did you get this idea?
STEED: Thanks. I define my road tattoos as commemorative, site-specific, community-based, tattoo-inspired, public artworks on roads.
There are two key points about road tattoos; one is what they are and the other is what they are about. They are public artworks using a familiar, if unexpected, public space for art and are participatory as they are scaled and made to be walked, biked or driven over for maximum enjoyment. They are about commemoration by honoring people and topics in need of additional consideration, remembrance, appreciation or awareness.
I’ve honored soldiers killed in our recent wars, victims of domestic violence, community activists, specific groups of children, the ideas of native verses invasive, comity, patriotism, blended families and many other people and topics as seen in this video: https://vimeo.com/76732426.
The idea came to me when I was at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine. At that time, I had been chewing on ideas of public commemoration, body modification and the sense of private ownership of public space. These disparate ideas coalesced into an “aha moment” when I was looking at the long, straight roads up there and how the locals related to them.
MICHAEL: Private ownership in public space? That can actually apply to how we navigate throughout the world. What does it mean for you?
STEED: The way I’m thinking about it is similar to what you mention, but more within our emotional relationship to public space, the private connection to the communal. As a capitalist society, we’re very aware of the black and white idea of private ownership - what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. However, this idea can become a bit gray when we think about public space. Although we know we don’t own it, we have the right to use it, so our emotional relationship to public space can become blurred.
It’s fairly common to speak of certain public spaces - a park or park bench, in ownership terms as saying, “Let’s meet at our bench for lunch.” It is this emotional connection resulting in a sense of ownership of public space that intrigues me. It’s almost the anathema of capitalism. This is also a popularly debated topic about commemorative public art. Can/should the manipulation of personal experience to the public artwork result in one cohesive sense of moral unity? Are all of the varied contemporary experiences in this relationship valid and how does or does not, the look/presentation of the public artwork achieve these goals?
When someone sees a World War II memorial, is the desired outcome for the viewer to feel pride, shame, join the army or something else? Does the memorial need to be figurative, symbolic or neither? If figurative, who does is represent? It was an epiphany when I realized that we have this relationship with roads. Doubly good for me, roads are the backdrop of American car culture and a tangible element of our contemporary sense of independence. We are very connected to roads, literally, metaphorically and emotionally.
MICHAEL: Given all of that, isn't it one thing for an individual to tattoo his or her body, but quite another to tattoo a roadway ... even if it's temporary? Also, what's the difference between road tattoos and graffiti?
STEED: Body tattooing and road tattooing aren’t all that different. If you think of roads as the skin of a community, then a road has a similar relationship to the public body as skin does to the private body.
People mark their skin as a means of commemoration, communication and/or ritual; then a road can be marked for the same reasons. I’m reusing design patterns already appropriated to make skin so this helps the viewer understand what a road tattoo is. Another interesting connection between the two is the need for the tattoo. When someone is heavily tattooed, it can be sign the person felt a loss of control of their body and tattooing is a way to retake possession of their physical self. Tattooing the skin becomes a metaphor for healing whole body. Road tattoos are also fairly aggressive, usually several hundred feet long. They are about a specific issue or group, within the community where the art is located so they become a metaphor for healing the community.
Another unusual connection between road and body tattoos is who can see them. Body tattoos can be public or private depending on where they are placed. Road tattoos are very public, but the meaning and content that deals with the meaning of the road tattoo is fairly private. Only the people who attended the dedication when the names or other information that the road tattoo is about (and written in their design), know the full meaning of the road tattoo. Later, during the dedication, a non-denominational prayer written for the piece is officiated and this information is painted over, sealing it in the piece.
MICHAEL: And are road tattoos graffiti? What’s the difference?
STEED: Graffiti is usually illicit and done quickly. Road tattoos are the opposite. They take municipal approval, financial support, lots of planning, lots of help and several days to make. As graffiti becomes more like a mural, not requiring the support needed for a road tattoo, this difference fades, however, they still remain different animals to me.
MICHAEL: When we're told to keep our eyes on the road, I don't think public safety officials mean road tattoos. Do they? Are they safe for drivers and pedestrians to look at?
STEED: To see a road tattoo while driving over it, it has to be at least 200 feet long and you can’t drive faster than 35 miles an hour. Even then, you’ve got about 6 seconds to see it. The experience usually goes something like this, “Huh? Fuck!? WOW!”
It’s a quick, but mighty sweet six seconds and one of the best drive-bys the art world has to offer. Also, I’ve never heard of a problem with people crossing the street or any other safety concerns about a road tattoo. It’s probably because of the scale of the road tattoos. They’re so immense that a person can’t really see the entire artwork - just some elements of the design and they’re looking at the road and ahead of them, so they are aware of vehicular traffic.
The one group I've come across that has an overpowering desire to engage in road tattoos are kids. They love running on the lines of a road tattoo as the lines braid and travels down the road. It’s really sweet to see, but even kids are aware of traffic and only do this when the road is blocked from traffic.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Where do your artistic impulses and inspirations come from?
STEED: No one in my family is artistic, but I would say creativity is a common thread and manifests through career and avocation activities.
Hmm… I have this idea about being an artist that it is something you’re called to do. So, I'd say I have the calling. Years ago, someone made this great comment about artistic creativity. They said that it’s about loving something so much you want it to be in reality. Love that idea, kind of sums it up for me. For inspiration, I’d say it’s all around me, particularly strong when I'm in nature. I’ve always loved being in the deep woods with no people around. I also do a lot of investigation into topics of interest to me, so research is a part of my process.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. When you get inspired to create, what happens next? What do you actually do to bring your thoughts of something into concrete reality?
STEED: I do a lot of thinking and researching. Then, I begin to plan out the process and get started. Once I start, it’s just create and adjust. I know this sounds kind of corny, but I’ve gotta find that kernel of love about the artwork or project. That keeps me motivated and focused for the long haul.
On the other side of this equation, I’ve got such a warm and fuzzy feeling about each of my road tattoos that I save almost everything from the process - all the studies, diagrams and detritus. A one point, I was saving paint can lids but, eventually, common sense prevailed!
MICHAEL: How long do these works last? Does the temporary nature of the work ever feel like a waste of time ... or do they last?
STEED: How long they last depends on a few things: installation conditions, traffic and winter road salting. Warm and dry for the first, light for second and no for the third means it will last five to ten years. Heavy traffic and heavy salting means it will last a year or two.
Some of the road tattoos I did in Florida years ago are still in great shape. A waste of time? Ouch! Michael you're killing me!
MICHAEL: I meant that in terms wear and tear. Haha!
STEED: Have you forgotten what I said about loving something enough to bring it into reality? There is certainty and bliss with loving something, without it maybe effort can feel like a waste. Also, the backbone of this work is commemoration and there is a burn rate to it. It is most effective when the need is strong.
I’m from the South and almost every town has a Confederate War memorial that was once displayed prominently, venerated and honored annually. As time passed, the memorials were often moved to a less prominent location and largely forgotten. It was important and necessary when there was personal knowledge of the soldiers who died. Once they became distant relatives from the past and the country moved on, the importance of these memorials waned. Temporary isn’t always a bad thing; it depends on the context.
MICHAEL: What do you use to make road tattoos? Paint? And I assume you've created them mainly in New York City?
STEED: I develop a design to fit the specific site, do a scale drawing of it on 2” by 2” grid. I enlarge the grid to 4’ by 4’ in chalk on site, layout the design to the grid, clean up the design still in chalk and then, paint the design using traffic paint or other durable exterior paint. When completed, I wash away the chalk marks. It’s fairly straight forward.
In New York City, I’ve made road tattoos in Riverside Park and Washington Heights in Manhattan, York College in Queens and Mott Haven and Kingsbridge in the Bronx. I’ve made 45 or so road tattoos, so there are quite a few other locations as varied as Beijing to Chicago.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Finally Steed, where do you want this to go? We're living in a world that doesn't really value art in the same way it values sports, technology or consumer pursuits. What's the point of this and what’s the point of art?
STEED: I kind of disagree. Art is valued in the world today, but maybe not as you might think. Art as we know it began as ornamentation for the homes and religious institutions of the wealthy. I still get a kick out of very old religious paintings that include the family who commissioned it painted next to the saints and angels in the narrative. It’s like the original selfie, me, my wife and God waving hello from the nativity...wish you were here, God says, “Hi!”
As wealth became more distributed, art became a common, luxury good and a more common signifier of taste and class. Mass production allowed art to become a standard, commercial item for everyone. In the last hundred years, the idea of “what art is” has exploded. Is photography art? Sure. Can porn be art? Sure. Can fashion or craft be art? Sure. It’s a very diluted concept; everything and anything is welcomed. Probably every sofa in America has an artwork over it, whether it’s a de Kooning painting, a thrift store painting or found object. Art is a valued and a common part of life today, it just varies greatly in economic value. I’d say this is true for other things you mentioned.
MICHAEL: And the point of art?
STEED: What is point of art? You sure aren’t making this easy! The purpose of art is to examine and develop and better understand of ourselves, our culture, society and the issues we face, does that sound lofty enough? I’d even say art and the quality of art are here to stay.
MICHAEL: Thanks Steed. Cool chat. Love the road tattoos.
Check out Steed Taylor at http://www.steedtaylor.com/index.html.