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"Might I put it on record I'm disappointed I'm not on mullet.com?" — Bono

U2 Tattoos Show Fans' Passion In Unique New Exhibition


U2 Tattoo Project exhibit 1

(All photographs by Chris LeClere.)

"Only love can leave such a mark," Bono sings in "Magnificent," which goes a long way toward explaining an already significant, and still swelling, sign of affection in U2's fandom culture: the U2 tattoo. And, only love has gotten Beth Nabi through the last few days of preparation for the opening of the U2 Tattoo Project's first exhibit on Aug. 15, 2016, at the University of North Florida's Gallery of Art. Nabi, who co-created the project with visual anthropologist Chris LeClere, couldn't be a happier -- or more relieved -- curator. "It's been long days of getting the show ready, but I've been so fortunate to get to combine my academic pursuits with my personal passion," Nabi said.

An assistant professor of graphic design and digital media at UNF, Nabi started collecting photographs and stories of U2 fans' tattoos with LeClere on U2's 2015 Innocence + Experience tour. Now, 19 concerts, seven cities, three countries, nearly 150 fans and more than 300 tattoos later, "Ink, Icons, Identity: Exploring U2's Brand Through Fan Tattoos" gives a multi-faceted look into U2's fandom culture.

Much of the exhibit juxtaposes fan tattoos with the U2 artifacts that inspired them -- album covers, T-shirts, tour programs, magazine photos, and more -- and includes personal narratives illuminating why each person was compelled to make these images into permanent icons.

Nabi points out that U2 has a rich history of changing visual identities but no consistently used logo, so fans are free to pick an era of U2's history that resonates with them, or make their own U2-inspired art to mark their bodies in a way that identifies them with the band.

U2 Tattoo Project exhibit 2

Some of the most frequently tattooed graphics are a heart-in-suitcase, a Joshua tree and the ZooBaby face, while popular logotypes are the Achtung Baby grunge script, the block lettering of U2 from the No Line On The Horizon album and the sans-serif type used on the War album. The exhibit also includes fan-designed logotypes of the letter U and the numeral 2 as tattoos that don't relate to any official graphic in U2's history.

Video content in the gallery shows lyric tattoos combined with the songs that inspired them ("Dream out loud" is the most frequently tattooed lyric, from "Zooropa"). Narrative features filmed by LeClere share "Bonographs" -- when Bono signs a fan's skin and they immediately go have it tattooed -- and interviews with a nurse and tattoo artist describing the physiological processes involved in tattooing.

"Early on, I assumed tattoos were declarations of fanhood: 'I love this band so much, I got them permanently inked on my body,'" Nabi said. "But I think that's a common misconception about what fandom is. It's not simply admiration and idolization. It's a way for us to process our own lives, and fan tattoos especially demonstrate that. Tattoos have played so many roles historically. Often they indicate inclusion and belonging, but they've also been used to mark our passage into new phases of life. While the people we document are definitely U2 fans, their stories about why they got a tattoo usually come back to something they were going through. For some, it was the loss of a loved one; for some it was marking a milestone birthday; for some it was wanting a permanent memento of a joyous time in their lives."

Nabi calls U2 a filter for her life, too, but as to why she does not yet have her own U2 tattoo, she admits, "I'm horribly indecisive and noncommittal. Almost everyone we talked to had a moment when they just knew it was time for a tattoo, and it usually coincides with a desire to assert their own agency. I haven't experienced that yet."

As a fan and graphic artist, she said she's drawn to the heart-in-suitcase image, calling it "a sublime mark. It's minimal and understated in form, and open-ended enough for anyone to lay their own personal meaning on it."  She's never had Bono sign her skin, but he signed her Achtung Baby cassette liner notes in 2014 with "13 is the begginning and the end." Nabi said, "Maybe I'll get that tattooed, misspellings and all!"

U2 Tattoo Project exhibit 3

The exhibit at UNF is a personal project for Nabi in more than one way. Not only is she studying the visual culture of her own fan community, but she is also sharing items from her personal collection of U2 memorabilia.

"The gallery is filled with dozens of my own pieces, which are now serving as artifacts that contextualize Chris' beautiful photos of the fan tattoos," Nabi said. "The space has turned into a combination art show, museum, merchandise stand, and peek into my own childhood bedroom, complete with the April 1993 Rolling Stone cover of Bono as The Fly hanging on the wall."

Since Nabi and LeClere started their study over a year ago, they have looked forward to taking some of the results from their website archive and sharing them in a live, physical space.

"When your research involves your fandom, there's always a little concern about how a general audience will receive it," Nabi said. "But in working on the study and putting together the exhibit, I've realized it's about so much more than U2. It's about how we interpret and appropriate signs and symbols and it's about how we identify as individuals and within communities. You don't have to be a fan of U2 to appreciate it."

The exhibit is free and open to the public on the campus of UNF, and runs from Aug. 15 – 26, 2016, with lectures by Nabi, LeClere and UNF colleague Dr. Linda Howell scheduled during the course of the show. A full schedule is here.

If you can't make it in person, you can at least catch a live-stream of a fan getting tattooed during the opening reception on Aug. 18. Follow the U2 Tattoo Project's Facebook page for more details.

After the exhibit closes at UNF, Nabi and LeClere will install a new exhibit next month at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that showcases tattoos representing the history of U2's 40-year career as part of the Rock Hall's and @U2's #U240Cleveland celebration on Sept. 24-25, 2016. The event celebrates the 40th anniversary of the band's first practice in the home of Larry Mullen Jr., who is, as far as we know, the only tattooed member of the band.

(c) @U2/Calhoun, 2016.