Photograph by Max Eicke

“This is peculiarly painless.” 

“That’s because you have to really want it,” Yvonne, with unblinking dark-lined eyes framed by elongated, arched eyebrows, concentrates as she combs cross-hatched lines of ink under my skin with the vibrating tattoo gun. 

We talk about Yvonne’s artistic evolution from an abstract tattoo artist in the 90’s to her current figurative approach informed by the Old Masters, and my development from making naturalistic figure paintings to a more abstract style of work. Paint is paint. I love how graphic works – etchings, manga, graffiti, and even instructional manuals – act on my eye. Particularly the crisp delineations from the surrounding space to the subject, which activate a primal reaction in my brain, perhaps indicating that a form is suddenly in very close proximity.

Reclining on a pleather table surrounded by Renaissance and Gothic artbooks, my back is to Yvonne. I am blind to her activities. My arm radiates heat as it oozes blood mixed with black ink, and I start to get a lightheaded high. I watch a burly man receiving a full-frontal piece wince as his nipples are inked black. 

“You’re taking it very well,” Yvonne says to me as the Massive Attack and Soundgarden playlist loops again.

Photograph by Max Eicke

Since I was 16 years-old, I wanted a sleeve piece. I tend to jump head-first into icy lakes and new experiences. Almost straight out of my graduate program in New York City, I moved to Berlin on a Fulbright Research Grant. My project was to create a techno-futurist intaglio portfolio in response to the tumultuous compositions of Albrecht Dürer’s engravings, particularly his Book of Revelation series. This engraving portfolio was his direct response to zealots’ warnings of the apocalypse, the Black Plague, and landholders’ tyranny over the peasantry. Dürer’s ideas echo today in the ways we think about climate change, cancer, and gentrification. 

For years, I searched for a tattoo artist who could capture the tension and delicacy of a Dürer piece. I knew I wanted to be physically intertwined with Dürer, but could not find the right person with both the skill and emotional intensity to translate a genius’s work onto my body permanently. I knew the piece would require both technical finesse and gestural understanding.

In the spring of 2019, I walked past a tattoo studio in Berlin and saw photographs of Yvonne’s Dürer master copies through the front window. I was in Germany to study the tactility of Dürer’s mark-making, so it seemed like the right time to have it inscribed upon my body. 

“I can’t fit The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on a woman’s arm. Maybe as a full backpiece,” Yvonne said eagerly on the phone as I weaved through Berlin traffic on my bike. Yvonne was usually completely booked and would call me at random points during the day whenever she had a sudden cancelation. Perhaps she also found my strong desire intriguing. “If it’s your arm, it has to be one figure.” 

This sounded like an impossible decision, considering Dürer’s graphic works are defined by the dramatic push-pull movements of his multi-figural compositions. I thought of Roald Dahl, who shared my deep passion for both Francis Bacon and Chaim Soutine, and his short story Skin. In this narration, a young, drunk Soutine gives a man a free back tattoo so powerful and beautiful that all the Parisian art collectors want to flay the man for his body art. And they do so. Ergo, my irrational fear of ever receiving a full-back tattoo.

Albrecht Dürer, Nemesis (The Great Fortune), 1501-2, engraving, sheet 13 1/8 x 9 1/8 inches

Then I recalled the winged silhouette from Dürer’s engraving Nemesis: The Great Fortune (1499-1501), which was etched in my memory during a period of researching Gothic art in graduate school. Dürer completed the engraving at the age of 30, the same age as I am now. He referred to the engraving in his diary as Nemesis, but the public more often titled it Fortune. Nemesis was the Ancient Greek goddess of justice, divine retribution, and the balance of life. Dürer depicted her holding a gold goblet for those deserving of good fortune and a horse bridle to restrain the headstrong. She has idealized Renaissance proportions – the muscular, curved anatomy of both a man and a woman – and is precariously balanced on a sphere and adorned with flowing drapery while towering over the panoramic Italian landscape of Klausen in Eisack Valley.

This is a description of the piece that I might write for a German High Renaissance art history test. But, as a contemporary viewer, I see less historical specificity in this work than in other Dürer engravings. Dürer and I both share a worldview shaped by biblical tales, while Greek and Roman deities are the relics of a long past history. In Dürer’s Book of Revelation series, the imminent expectation of an apocalypse, whether through disease or hellfire, demands an urgent read and specific narrative. But, in Nemesis, this lack of reference to a specific story allows greater consideration of its form and craftsmanship. The emphasis on the stark figure herself and the wild linework of her dramatic stance, allows the work to carry different contexts and the viewer to adopt their own narrative.

Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Rhinoceros (1515), had greater influence than he probably anticipated. Before photography, engravings were one of the main methods for circulating information. Dürer never actually saw a rhinoceros, and therefore based his depiction on a written description and another artist’s quick sketch. Utilizing a somewhat literal interpretation of the writing, he gave the animal scales, a rigid back, armor, and even a breastplate. The image was so powerful that it outgrew more accurate representations of rhinos in Western Europe and was included in textbooks as scientific content until 1930. If one were to verbally describe Dürer’s construction of a rhino, it could rival a firsthand account from a live spectator on safari. Despite the lack of factual anatomy conveyed by Dürer’s rhino, the engraving provides a convincing and evocative experience.

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, 1515, Woodcut, 9.3 x 11.7 inches

I am intrigued by Baldwin’s confidence in determinist meaning, but his iconic biohazard design has already mutated in subtle ways. The biohazard symbol has been adopted as an ironic tattoo by the gay community to communicate when one is infected with HIV or AIDS. The symbol has also been integrated into sci-fi and cyberpunk aesthetics as a trendy piece of graphic imagery that often lacks a distinct warning, perhaps undoing its initial purpose. Scientists and anthropologists worry about the biohazard symbol’s future. Specifically: how will we tell future generations or alien species about our nuclear toxic waste sites? Once the skull and crossbones was a serious warning sign for poison and pirates. Now this death symbol  – that is still used for electric currents, poisons, and radioactivity – has been diluted by Hollywood adventure movies. Because this basic and vital visual symbol is difficult to pin down, it highlights the impossibility of building images that communicate consistently across time. Humans cannot help but mold and manipulate the meaning of symbols, even ironically. Eventually Durer’s Rhinoceros shifted meaning over time from the ideal form of the animal to a whimsical chimera. The meanings of figures and symbols mutate over time within different groups, regardless of the maker’s intention for clear communication. An extreme example of this is the biohazard symbol. In 1966, DOW Chemical’s Charles Baldwin designed the hieroglyph-like signifier to be graphically memorable, yet abstract enough in meaning that hazardous material regulators could apply specific information to the ideogram depending on particular environmental conditions. It was an ambitious task: to manifest meaning in a symbol that would convey invisible dangers, such as toxic air or polluted water, but in a universally comprehensible way.

With the Internet’s globalizing effect, the United States has also recently witnessed accelerated reappropriation of signifiers in a time of post-facts, post-truths, fake news, and 4chan memes, which have arguably influenced our elections. Matt Furie, creator of the online comic Boy’s Club, has his anthropomorphic frog character, Pepe, appropriated within blog posts and internet forums as an in-joke meme for different scenarios, reactions, and emotions. Various Alt-right websites also employed Pepe the Frog’s face as a logo and Furie successfully sued Infowars for using the image as a hate-symbol. Even Trump was caricatured as a Pepe the Frog meme, which he retweeted during his 2016 campaign to win over a younger audience. The interconnecting complexity of visual media, especially in our digital age, affirms that images develop their own connotations. Similarly, the Nazi party appropriated Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death and the Devil for depictions of Hitler, who deemed modernism and abstraction as degenerate, in nationalist propaganda, equating their leader with this fearless knight. Dürer, long gone, could not comment on the appropriation of his art for an ultimately negative representation, but his compelling, exquisite artworks fortunately withstood this dark chapter and are still revered.

When I am asked about what my Nemesis tattoo or my abstract paintings “mean”, I prefer not to give a straight answer. This year, I have found that I have much less control over “meaning” and my life path than I previously thought. I acknowledge the historical significance of Dürer’s engraving, yet, the winged Nemesis tattoo on my arm took on new roles that I did not forsee. I received the tattoo at the end of my Fulbright year; a few weeks later I successfully received a German artist visa to stay and continue my work. 

Committing to a life in Berlin post-research project, I went through a dark phase. I mourned the loss of the career, friends, relationships, and paintings (now in storage) that I built in the United States over the first 30 years of my life. I became my own nemesis when I sacrificed the life I worked hard to create in order to test myself and evolve as an artist in Berlin; it was psychologically taxing. Some mornings I awoke, unable to get out of bed, and felt the impossibility of starting my life over in a place where I could not adequately express complex ideas in the local language. When I eventually approached the mirror to throw water on my face, I caught a glimpse of Nemesis striding forward in the same direction. She reminded me that I was the badass bitch who got that tattoo and I could then dive into the studio.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the chaos in my life, I am driven to make strong, energized paintings that evoke a bodily experience. Tattoos and paintings allow us to converse when words fall short. People tell me that I look like Dürer’s Nemesis. It’s true that I have a muscular, curvy body, but I believe people are responding more to the posture’s energy. Nemesis’ form has dynamic weight and complexity, and through the Renaissance principle of contrapposto, appears to balance. People respond viscerally to the formal acrobatics of Nemesis’s complex shape: despite the weight of life, she’s floating.

Gabrielle Vitollo, In Limbo, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 56 inches

Gabrielle Vitollo investigates paint as language for corporeality, the abject, and the sublime. She holds an MFA from New York University and is the recipient of a German Fulbright Research Grant for Painting & Printmaking. Vitollo presently resides in a borough of Berlin that is surrounded by lakes formed by the last Ice Age glacier retreat. In her free time, she teaches screenprinting to Extinction Rebellion activists.