New exhibit at UNF explores U2's brand through the tattoos of fans

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'Ink, Icons, Identity' suggests rock band often provides messages for 'love, loss and life,' says exhibit curator

By David Crumpler, The Florida Times-Union/

The idea for the U2 Tattoo Project, which can be seen in exhibit form starting Monday at the University of North Florida's Gallery of Art, came together last year.

It was mid-May. Beth Nabi and her friend Chris LeClere were at the first of two concerts launching U2's Innocence + Experience Tour in Vancouver.

Nabi had encouraged LeClere to join her to experience the thrill of seeing the celebrated Irish rock band perform live.

He turned out to be the right choice for a traveling companion.

Nabi is an assistant professor of graphic design and digital media at UNF and a longtime U2 fan. LeClere is a photographer and visual anthropologist.

She had given presentations about the band's "visual identity" -- images associated with U2 such as the Joshua Tree, the photo of a disturbed looking Dublin boy on the cover of the "War" album and the "Zoo baby" drawing from the album "Zooropa."

One thing that struck Nabi was the lack of a dominant iconic image of the band. There was no official logo, like the Rolling Stones' lips and tongue, the elongated "T" for the Beatles, the protruding arrow in the "o" in the Who.

It begged the question of how U2 fans brand their love for the band.

Still, "There was no project in mind when we went to Vancouver," Nabi said.

But as she noticed fans with U2-inspired tattoos coming in and out of the concert arena, "it clicked."

She pitched the idea of documenting the tattoos and telling the stories behind them. Nabi would do the interviews, LeClere would take the photos, and their project would showcase U2's visual identity as it passed onto the bodies of fans.

"Chris didn't know what he was in for," Nabi said. What started out as four shows in two cities became 19 shows in seven cities in three countries, ending in Dublin, Ireland.

The result: The "Ink, Icons, Identity: Exploring U2's Brand Through Fan Tattoos" multimedia exhibit at UNF.

Curated by Nabi, it will be on display through Friday, Aug. 26. In late September, the exhibit will travel to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland as part of a fan celebration of the band's 40 years together.


She and LeClere have used several methods to collect information for the project, which they consider to be ongoing.

The most hands-on approach was to stand outside concert venues -- in Canada, the United States and eventually, Dublin -- holding up a sign along the lines of "Have a U2 tattoo? Can I take a photo?" while wearing their "U2 Tattoo Project" T-shirts. They've also used social media -- Facebook and Twitter -- to get the message out.

The most frequent tattoo, Nabi said, has been the "Heart in a Suitcase," an image associated with the U2 song "Walk On," from the 2000 album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." (The song is commonly interpreted to mean that love is the only baggage that you can't leave behind.)

A Joshua Tree was the second most common tattoo. A photo of the tree appeared on the cover of the band's 1987 album "The Joshua Tree." Not only is the album a fan favorite, Nabi said, but the image itself has become for many a "symbol of discovery" inspired by four young Irishmen coming to America.


U2 song titles, lyrics, and even whole songs, are reflected in tattoos. "Beautiful Day" and "Dream Out Loud" are among the most popular, Nabi said, and arms (where the images can be most easily shared), shoulders, backs, chests and ankles were the most likely places to bear the tattoos.

Part of Nabi's pursuit was to find out "why it is important to have a tattoo on your body and not just have something like a hat or T-shirt that you can wear."

She found stories of "loss, love and life" behind many of the tattoos. "I learned that U2 has given their fans a way to process life," she said.

Nabi met a woman in Toronto who had the lyrics "I know that this is not goodbye" from the song "Kite" tattooed on her back, as well as the image of a heart in a suitcase.

Some years before, the woman had given birth to twin boys, one of whom died weeks later.

Nabi learned during the "very poignant interview" that the woman has listened to "Kite," along with other songs from "All That You Can't Leave Behind," as she struggled to cope with her loss. The tattoos were also part of her effort to heal.


Nabi doesn't have a U2-inspired tattoo. She has no tattoos at all, for that matter.

"I don't feel like I need to be tattooed to study them," she said. "If I were to get a tattoo, it would no doubt be U2-inspired."

Nabi fell in love with U2's music when she was 13. Her introduction was their 1991 album "Achtung Baby."

"I found someone who gets me, and I get them," she said. She said some of the songs were "a little dark, but when you're that age, you're a little angsty."

She then turned to the band's previous records, and has stayed with their music ever since. "Unconditional love," she said.

Nabi met Bono, the band's singer, about nine months before embarking on the U2 Tattoo Project, in a boutique hotel in Miami Beach. She was one of the winners in a contest allowing a small group of fans to attend a live radio interview with members of the band.

"It was one of the best days of my life," she said. "It also allowed me to transition from fan to researcher."

When they traveled to Dublin in November, Nabi and LeClere met with two members of the U2 creative team -- Steve Averill, who started as U2's graphic designer in 1978, and Shaun McGrath, who has been a graphic designer for the band since 1990. They asked them what they thought about fans expressing their devotion and inspiration through tattoos.

"They were surprised, amazed, amused, and a little shocked to see their work in this medium," Nabi said. "They didn't think about human skin when creating images associated with the band and its music."

Averill, who is also credited with naming the band, told Nabi creating a logo for the band never occurred to them.

"He said the band is about change, and new expression with each album and tour," she said.

"Ink, Icons, Identity" is a reflection of "fans taking the U2 brand and personally appropriating it," Nabi said, but it's not strictly a U2 exhibit for U2 fans.

"It's about pop culture, personal identity, graphic design and anthropology," she said.

David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164

© 2015, Florida Times-Union. All Rights Reserved.

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