Kiki Smith On  Tattoos and Making Your Own Art

The combination of the beauty marks and the ink on her body, I thought I could tattoo them onto me. ... I could take a mark from somebody else’s body and put it on my body as a reminder of somebody. Then I started getting constellations.

Tift Merritt

Interview by

2011. Smith's kitchen/studio in NYC.
Digital recorder

Hear the entire interview on The Spark

Get Our Newsletter



Tift Merritt: There was a moment in time where you were hesitant to become an artist. What were your reservations?

Kiki Smith: Well, I grew up with artists (Laughs).

David Gerlach: That reluctant artist is actually quite a famous sculptor. Her name is Kiki Smith. Her can see her work at museums across the country. And she’s speaking with another artist, a Grammy-nominated musician named Tift Merritt.

[Music: Tift Merritt – “Mixtape”]

David Gerlach: Now I’ve known Tift since the University of North Carolina back in the mid-1990s. Back then she was playing in small bars near campus, had a band called The Carbines. And one thing I always remember is that she loved to hear and tell stories. So I wasn’t really surprised to learn she had a monthly interview program. It’s called The Spark; it airs on Marfa Texas Public Radio. She records her conversations with interesting people who create art, who create something. So she sat down in Kiki Smith’s kitchen, and we’re bringing you part of that conversation. Our theme today is making your own art—whatever that may be. Even if it’s tattoos. This is Blank on Blank.

[“Mixtape” continues]

Tift Merritt: Oh my gosh. Kiki has the cosmos tattooed all over her body.

Kiki Smith: (Laughs)

Tift Merritt: Can you tell me why or what it means?

Kiki Smith: There’s a younger artist that I know named Jenny Bornstein and she has really beautiful beauty marks all over her, and she’s also one of those people who writes notes on her hand.  I have a couple of friends of mine who do that.  But somehow the combination of the beauty marks and the ink on her body, I thought I could tattoo her beauty marks onto me.  And then I was at another artist’s house and they had a little bit of paint on their fingers.  And I thought, I could take a mark from somebody else’s body and put it on my body and then I would remember. That way you would have this weird little reminder to them.  Then I started getting constellations.  Just ones that I liked, or I asked the astrologer what would be good for me to get. And then I started getting them as a pattern, stars as a pattern.  But then I got allergic to the ink and I had to give in to reality for five seconds of my life.

[Music: Tift Merritt]

Tift Merritt: I was thinking about how you really love the process of what you’re doing and want to be in the middle of it. That’s the hardest place in the world to be, in the process where you don’t know where you’re going and don’t know what you’re doing. And it seems like you don’t doubt yourself very much in that place.

Kiki Smith: I do in every other aspect of my life; I’m insufferable. But in that one area…maybe it comes from growing up in a family of other artists. But the point isn’t to know what you’re doing. The point is to have an experience doing something. If I look back on my work, my work has taken care of me. It’s very fulfilling, working and making something out of your own being. Being able to apply your energy. I’m not saying one always likes what one’s doing or anything like that. You’re just who you are and there’s not a lot you can do about that.

[Music: Tift Merritt]

Tift Merritt: How are you insufferable in the other aspects?

Kiki Smith: I’m not the easiest person to be around. I’m not the most endlessly interesting, pleasant person to be with.

Tift Merritt: You seem lovely to me.

Kiki Smith: That’s because you’re a stranger. (Laughs)

Tift Merritt: I was so surprised when I read that you thought about being a nun.

Kiki Smith: You know, I still think about it. I think to have that orderly life of devotion, which is sort of like being an artist, where it’s for the greater community. You don’t always have to be putting yourself first. When you’re on your own, you’re putting yourself first often and sometimes that’s burdensome. I’m someone who’s lived alone my entire life and have no aspirations of living with other people, but in my fantasy life I would live in a more communal aspect. But now I think you need a college degree to become a nun. I don’t think they just take any old body anymore. So I think I would have a hard time becoming a nun now.  I was just in France, and these abbeys were these people are growing lavender and having honeybees and they’re singing and praying and stuff and I thought that doesn’t seem like such a bad life.

Tift Merritt: No, that sounds pretty great.  Can you give me the address? (Laughs) If I were your student, what advice would you give me?

Kiki Smith: For students, I just tell them to work, because you don’t get from one place to another by thinking about it. You have to do the physical work, because the physical work is where things are revealed to you. When I was younger it was much harder to distinguish between thinking about something and the thing. To me, it’s the journey between those two things where you actually accumulate that information. And then also looking at other people’s work. Looking at what people have done in the past, because you can see that people, in some weird way, are working in continuums. And it’s nice to know your history and it’s nice to know that you’re a part of that.

[Music: Tift Merritt]

David Gerlach: Many, many thanks to Tift Merritt for allowing us to bring this conversation to you. Check out her show at Tift is also working on her fifth album; it comes out October. It’s called “Travelling Alone.” Amy Drozdowska produced this Blank on Blank with me. Our sound logo comes to us from Jeffrey Alan Jones. And for all the journalists, interviewers, non-fiction authors and documentary filmmakers listening: bring us your unheard interviews. We want to hear them. Drop us a line to Blank on Blank is distributed by the Public Radio Exchange,  That’s all for now. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.

Music: All songs by Tift Merritt