"Revealing the Hopes of Adolescents through the Art of Tattoos"
                            by Michael Gerrish
                            all rights reserved
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"Revealing the Hopes of Adolescents through the Art of Tattoos" was designed as an extension of a project on communities and how they work, with special focus on how each individual fits into his or her community. Students from ages 14 to 17 participated, but the project is age adaptable and suitable as an enhancement for other curricula as well.


Because most adolescents have a keen interest in anything that is both fashionable to peers and objectionable to adults, many teens in our society have a favorable view of Body Piercing Art and Tattoos. Some teens engage in these activities to represent solidarity with an alternative lifestyle or attitude; others do so to express a sense of personal uniqueness. They can see that their actions challenge our expectations of them as kids.... by departing from our culture's childhood norms, they show us that they are looking forward to a new status as adults.

Co-teacher David Young and I decided to use the idea of Body Art as an attention-capturing device to help students explore their past history, present interests and personal goals through the media of painted PARISCRAFT casts. Our goal was to help students discover and internalize their interests and talents, thus fostering the understanding that they, too have an intrinsic value worth celebrating.


The project began, as is our custom, with a preparatory discussion. Elements of the discussion included questions about each student’s experience and ideas about tattoos and body piercing art. Students were shown photographs of people from various cultures whose bodies displayed visible tattoos and/or marks of scarification. Questions such as, “Do any of your friends have tattoos or body piercings?” led to inquiries between peers such as, “What do you think about the whole idea of body decoration...are ear rings and jewelry that different from nose or navel rings and colored ink tattoos?” We had definitely captured their interest!

Although few students would have thought to put their remarks into such terms, they were participating in a debate on a variety of issues relating to how adolescents are treated in our culture and how they choose to express or deny their individuality to adults and one another.

Dave and I then explained that each student would be making a cast of his or her arm with the idea that each would then use acrylic paints to “tattoo” a series of three images on the cast. The three images would be designed to show the past events, present interests and future hopes of each creator. Designs could be realistic or abstract as long as they complied with the aforementioned guidelines.


We then demonstrated how to make a PARISCRAFT cast. The person whose arm was being cast was given a latex glove to cover one hand; his forearm was then wrapped in plastic wrap from the wrist to just past the elbow. After deciding on how to pose the wrapped arm, our “castee” sat down and placed his arm over a tub filled with warm water. Dave and I cut strips of PARISCRAFT (plaster impregnated gauze) to size and, after wetting the PARISCRAFT strips one by one in the tub, we began to wrap the “castee’s” arm.

We carefully overlapped wide strips on the upper forearm, building up the cast to four layers thick. We avoided encasing the arm completely at the narrow wrist area to ease the cast’s removal. Extra care was taken to preserve the cast’s strength by overlapping the fingers and thumb in a crisscross pattern. As the PARISCRAFT strips were applied, we smoothed the surface of the cast so that it would more realistically resemble skin. When completed and smoothed, the cast was removed and set aside to dry.

After the demonstration, students were partnered up into teams of four to create the casts. Each team member took part in all areas of cast making; some were more capable than others, and so some teams had to repeat a cast or two, but at the end of the process all were satisfied with the completed casts.


Students were given the option of painting the casts to match their skin tone, or just priming the cast’s surface. Most chose to duplicate their skin color. After a series of mini lessons on color matching and dry verses wet brush techniques, they were off. Base skin tones, highlights, birthmarks, freckles and even “hair” were painted on the casts. Our art room soon began to take on a macabre look as dozens of dismembered arms were lined up on the window sill to dry!

We instructed the class to use tempera paints for the skin/primer because tempera’s characteristic dull look resembled the natural sheen of skin. We reserved the bright and shiny acrylic paints for our tattoos. While the casts had been drying (first the plaster, then the tempera paint) our students had been busily sketching their designs on paper. We spurred them on with questions: What do tattoos reveal about the people who wear them?...How do they tell a story?...What symbols, shapes or colors might help you tell your story better? Various presentation methods were discussed: circles enclosing all three designs, a connecting triangle, perhaps even a time line format winding down or up the arm in serpentine splendor. They were really getting excited as their ideas began to coalesce.


To further promote discussion and comprehension, we brought in the media. David Lightfoot, an actor who teaches Social Studies, role played the part of a news reporter interviewing our students as they worked. We dressed Dave up in a reporter’s trench coat and gave him a dummy microphone. With me playing the part of his trusty video man, Dave did a taped interview with each student about his or her cast.

The students reacted in a variety of ways: some saw the taping as an intrusion, but most of the others were thoughtful and attuned to the humor of the situation. In responding to his questions, students were able to practice giving answers to questions about their project; in effect they modeled for themselves the skills and behaviors that they would need during the group’s critique!


Every Art project ends with a group critique. Each person is given time to introduce his or her project to the group. Information is presented in a structured way at first; students share how they feel about the project and its outcome, then talk about either what they would have done differently or how they problem-solved a troublesome situation. After each presentation the student listens to comments from classmates. Only positive comments or questions are allowed. Lastly, if a person is unwilling to share information about his/her own work, he/she must listen to the positive comments of others about it. Some might believe that the critique is an invitation to disaster, but violations of the format are extremely rare.

After 12 or so classes, the casts were ready to be “unveiled”. It seemed as if everyone wanted to address the group. The “arms” were placed in the center of the table around which we gathered; all could see each cast. When a student rose to speak about his or her work, the class was attentive, respectful. They all knew that something important was happening; history was being told, private hopes and dreams revealed for all to see.

Some students combined each life phase into one geometric emblem which featured separate faces for each time era. Musical instruments, logos and favorite possessions adorned many casts. Other students connected their separate time zones thematically. A basketball dressed in a diaper bearing the birth year ‘78 dropped through a net and was transformed first into a yearbook and then finally into a pro team jersey hanging from an arena rafter. An elephant baby rattle’s trunk changed into a computer cable and meandered past a computer terminal and the US Capitol Building before “terminating” at a signet ring. It was all so wonderful!


We finished with a viewing of the videotape. Laughter and groans echoed in the room as we watched our amateur documentary. Chris saying, “Go away, I’m busy”, and meaning it. Brad, looking at his own cast as if for the first time and seeing how marvelous it really was. Their faces and the faces of their fellow students eloquently expressed the idea that regardless of their level of artistic competency, the project had offered each one a tangible method of acknowledging and revealing their hopes while enhancing their self-image.

I will never forget the video’s last interview. Becky had come to school with a severe reading problem and this third year would be her last year before returning to district. She held her cast up to the camera and explained her tattoo’s design. She was a gifted artist, and her pictures were excellent, as always. But this time she included words in her design...words she spelled and read alone with assurance and poise. And when she was asked whether she liked her cast she smiled and said, “Yes, it’s a success. Yes!”

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