In 2006, a group show was being organised at de Pury & Luxemburg contemporary art gallery in Zurich, Switzerland. One of the artists exhibiting was Belgian Wim Delvoye, who was preparing to display his infamous tattooed pigskins.
During the preparation for turning his section of the gallery into a macabre tattoo parlour, he was speaking to one of the gallery assistants and said, “For many years I’ve been setting up this project, but I’ve never actually had anyone to tattoo. I’d like to use the concept that I have with the pigs and project it on a human being.”
After a brief discussion, Wim queried whether the gallery worker knew anyone that would be interested. Her response was that she would ask her boyfriend, who had “a couple of tattoos on his arms, if he knew anyone that would be interested.
The boyfriend of the gallery assistant was Tim Steiner, a Swiss musician who would soon be known to the world as Tattoo Tim – and perhaps the only living, breathing piece of art in the world.
“So she gave me a call from work,” Tim explains to us from Hobart, where he’s preparing to be exhibited at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). “And she said ‘we have a crazy artist here and he wants to tattoo a person and sell them – who do you think would want to do that? And I said, ‘That would be me.’”
What followed was a two week discussion between Steiner and his girlfriend, who he tells us “wasn’t really into it”. According to his girlfriend, Steiner was “getting [himself] into something that’s going to have dimensions [he didn’t] really understand”.
But then after much discussion they agreed, and Delvoye travelled to Zurich and met the man who would become perhaps his most famous work of art. “Until the day that I met him I was very relaxed about it and the morning before, I thought I’ll Google his name,” Steiner laughs before his voice firms over the phone line – taking on a grave edge the affable Swiss-man hasn’t yet used. “Then I figured out who I was dealing with and I was very small again and a little bit terrified.”
Yet, as fate would have it, after meeting Delvoye, Steiner says he was “amazed and blown away by him and immediately agreed”. Next Delvoye showed Steiner the design and the two began their journey together.
Getting a massive tattoo across your back is a huge undertaking for anyone, but when the objective of tattooing you is to turn you into an artwork and sell you, the process is undeniably even more daunting. And like most tattoos, there was always going to be some pain.
“Well the tattooing process was horrible,” he reminisces. And it wasn’t going to be achieved without any complications. Though the actual tattooing would take forty hours, during the inking Steiner had a herniated disc in his back and needed to get an operation. This would delay Delvoye’s masterpiece for another two years. “Honestly, the back is really sensitive, and the forty hours were really, really [terrible],” he continues. “But… for me it was like me becoming art and I kind of had to suffer for it – you know how people say you need to suffer for art? Well I certainly did!”
With the ink drying and Delvoye’s tattooed signature carved into his flesh, the next logical step was to sell the piece. However, since Steiner is a person and “you cannot make a financial contract over the body part of a human being”, untangling the red tape took a lot of work. During the time that Steiner was laid off healing his back a German law firm worked out the legal ins-and-outs, finally coming up with a way to sell him.
“Then we took that contract and we put me in the boot of the car and went on tour,” he chuckles. The tour would include visiting prospective buyers that had already started collecting Delvoye’s work. “They loved the project and were very much interested in it,” he elaborates, “but they didn’t want to burn their fingers on this.”
But what did that actually mean? As you can imagine, Steiner has encountered a great deal of people who are either for or against the artwork tattooed across his back. The reaction he gets from people is “always… extreme, there’s no middle ground, people are either into it and say its great or they’re <i>really</i> against it and say ethically, you’re doing something that’s really not agreeable”.
And it’s not necessarily who you would expect that are either for or against this unique piece of art. The people in Steiner’s age group, “the tattooed freaks that… [he] thought would be really into it were very, very critical”, and it was a criticism that Steiner has since confronted many times.
The opposition, according to Tim is “because the tattoo is going to be removed after [he] dies” and framed, “just like the pig skins and they thought that was morbid”. Interestingly, on the other side of the coin were the older generation, people his parents and grandparents age, who said, “Oh this is a really, really exciting concept”.
So then who would be interested in such a gruesome piece? After touring around the country, Steiner returned to Zurich to work in the gallery where the idea was formulated. While immersing himself into the art world, a young German art collector from Hamburg visited named Rik Reinking.
If there was anyone that Steiner would’ve liked to be sold to, it was him. In Reinking, Steiner found someone that was of a similar age, had a similar artistic vision and their attitudes were aligned. Yet after Steiner proposed to Reinking that the German purchase him, the sale still required a lot of contemplation. Over a period of three months, Reinking wrestled with the decision. “One day he had a discussion with a lady,” Steiner tells us. “And she said, ‘Rik this project carries the signature of the Devil’ and he said ‘whoa! That’s pretty extreme’ and he decided to buy it.”
With the sale finalised for €150,000 ($205,500), Delvoye had achieved the first step in his vision for Tattoo Tim. The Belgian has always intended for Tim’s back to be treated just like any other piece of artwork. “That means to do the primary sale first, which we have achieved by selling to Rik,” he says, “but his big vision is that we make a secondary sale at an auction.” Delvoye dreams of a big auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, where Steiner is given a lot number and paraded before collectors who make bids on his flesh.
Quite an aberrant proposition, but it’s the exchange of capital and the process of selling Steiner that makes his tattoo more than just a tattoo. “It’s a tattoo, what makes it art?” Steiner says, again related reasons of people’s aversion to it. “There’s nothing special [about] a guy walking around with a bunch of ink on his back, why is it suddenly art?” To Delvoye, Steiner tells us, “this piece is art because it got sold and that’s an important aspect for him”.
Under the agreement with Reinking, Tattoo Tim is required to be exhibited four times a year and once he’s dead his back will be removed, framed and the property of the German art collector. At the centre of the contract is Steiner’s control over the deal. At any point, he can refuse to be exhibited, which you get the impression he finds relatively amusing. “I’m probably one of the only pieces of at that needs to be kept in a good mood,” he laughs. “If I’m not then I cancel it tomorrow and that’s it.”
Yet the question begs to be asked – who would allow themselves to be transformed into a piece of art? “I’m really open to all of the experiences that this can give me, I always believe that if you get the opportunity to do something, try it at least once,” he says. He also enjoys the idea of “possible permanence”, the notion that even after he has died, part of him will exist forever. There will be, according to Steiner “part of [him] out there that will survive much, much longer than [he] will,” which the man finds “fascinating.”
“I enjoy the possibility of me hanging in a little museum and people walking by saying, ‘Hey I knew that guy’”, he explains on his demise. But it’s not just about achieving posterity, which he explains when talking of being exhibited in Germany, there’s a will to share the experience with art lovers.
While standing facing a wall with his back turned to gallery-goers, Steiner overheard a father explain to his son what the artwork is about. “My view is if that kid comes in thirty years into a museum and sees an elder gentleman with a faded tattoo sitting there and says to his kid, ‘Hey I remember that guy when I was little and he was much younger’ – that’s when the project will become really exciting.”
Another exciting thing that Steiner enjoys is that he never knows when the project will be complete. Depending on how long he lives, he will forever be a work in progress, and the aging process is something that interests both Delvoye and him. “What Wim wants to show is how art does fall apart with time,” he explains. “If I fall off my bicycle and I get a scar… he wants that to be seen. The difference with me and other works is that I am alive and [Delvoye] wants that to be clearly seen”.
Where Tattoo Tim is seen is in art galleries. Having travelled the world being exhibited, he’s heading to Hobart’s MONA from December 10 to January 29. After hearing about MONA’s opening at the beginning of the year, Steiner had found a place that would be perfect to exhibit him. “If there’s any place in the world, whether it’s the Guggenheim or MoMa in New York, that I want to be exhibited… it’s MONA,” he tells us. “I’ve never read anything about a museum that I’ve agreed with so much and I thought – they think like I do”.
But we’re interested to know if he ever sees himself becoming sick of being a walking, talking exhibition. “My thought is if I managed to pull it off this long, then I’ll definitely continue enjoying it,” he says. “It’s still exciting for me… I’m nowhere near close to being bored or tried of it.”
In fact, Steiner can see himself enjoying being the exhibited for many, many years to come. “I’m really, really hoping that at eighty five they’ll wheel chair me into a place and there will be an old man sitting there [with a faded tattoo] – that would be the best. I’m always thankful for the experience, there’s no complaints on my part.”
For now though, Tattoo Tim tells us that, “the coolest thing… is to be here in Hobart now – it’s just blowing my mind everyday. The museum is nuts but when you add Wim’s show to it it’s the cherry on top.”