How much do you love your hometown? Enough to tattoo a few words of adulation on your body? For more than 200 residents of Lexington, Kentucky, the answer is yes. Arts administrators, city officials, and even a family of five—two parents, three children—braved the tattoo artists’ needles for the Lexington Tattoo Project, a community-wide artwork that was honored by the Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network 2014 Year in Review.

Spearheaded by local interventionist artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, the project was inspired by ideas and observations gleaned from their eight years of artistic collaboration.

One key trend they observed through working within various communities—from Lexington’s vibrant drag community to motorists making their daily commute along one of the city’s major motorways—was a growing sense of pride about living in Lexington. “People had this growing commitment to Lexington that in some ways mimicked the same kind of commitment to a tribe, or tribal markings, which is where tattoos come from,” Gohde explains.

With the seeds of their community engagement project in hand, Gohde and Todorova approached local poet Bianca Spriggs in May 2012 and asked her to write a poem—a love letter—to the city of Lexington. The poem, “The ______ of the Universe: A Love Story,” was then broken up into words and phrases, each to be claimed by a different project participant. The artists wanted broad participation, so they sought private funding to cover the cost of the tattoos.

Along with a snippet of the poem, each tattoo included a unique pattern of tiny, specially placed circles that, when put together, created a larger image. Gohde and Todorova selected an image that they felt people in Lexington would have a personal connection with—steering clear of clichéd Kentucky associations such as horses, basketball, and bourbon. Instead, they designed a stylized representation of a street sign for New Circle Road, a Lexington ring road that is both a landmark and a conversation piece.

Neither Gohde nor Todorova could have anticipated the widespread interest the project would generate. At the outset, they wondered if they would be able to find 100 people interested in participating. By the end, 253 devoted Lexington residents
—including Gohde and Todorova—had signed on. And there was a long waiting list.

Participants embraced the project, forging new connections and deepening old ones as the project progressed. “There was a tremendous sense of ownership, which is another thing we didn’t expect,” Todorova says.

This sense of ownership helped the project to evolve in unexpected ways, as members took it upon themselves to connect with one another. Among the members’ initiatives was a hefty book brimming with photographs of participants posing with their tattoos; a meet-and-greet event where members swapped stories; and a blog where participants could share the inspiration behind the words or phrases they chose for their tattoo. “At every juncture in this project, it was really surprising and humbling to us how people embraced it and made it their own in ways that people often don’t do with artwork,” Gohde says.

After the success of their project in Lexington, Gohde and Todorova were invited to launch a similar project in Boulder, Colorado; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Detroit, Michigan. And in September 2014, they launched a global version of the project titled Love Letter to the World, which centers on a poem written by Kentucky’s poet laureate, Frank X Walker. As with the Lexington version, interested participants can select words or phrases to have tattooed on their bodies. Once their tattoo has healed, people are encouraged to share stories and photos on the project website, building a global community that transcends cultures and borders.