Even as American soldiers mount a new offensive in Afghanistan, Wafaa Bilal is planning an offensive against his own body meant to commemorate and call attention to all those who have died since the beginning of the war in Iraq. In a 24-hour live performance titled “…and Counting” at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York next month, the 43-year-old Iraqi-born artist and NYU professor will receive a massive tattoo on his back containing one dot for every fallen soldier and civilian.
The dots will be arranged in a borderless map of the country, based on a visualization created by artist Kyle McDonald. The more than 4,000 dots representing American military casualties will be rendered in red ink that’s visible to the naked eye, but the 100,000 dots that correspond with civilian deaths will be applied with green ultraviolet ink that will become visible only under a black light. Bilal, whose brother died at a checkpoint in 2004, chose the strategy as a symbolic statement about the invisibility of his countrymen who have died in the war.
The video below (not for the squeamish) of Bilal getting city names etched in his flesh communicates the painful tedium of the project, offering a secondary message about the painful tedium of war itself. The project also serves as a reminder of the rich and complicated history of the tattoo as a communication tool, used to send messages by everyone from Maori chieftains to Russian prisoners. Indeed, tattoos are one of the oldest forms of infographics we have.