“Arms and arms and chests and hands of Morrissey messages inked in for life – tattooed across nakedness, each one an essay, and it's all I can do to take deep breaths. A tattoo means I am always there.” - Morrissey, Autobiography.
During the encore of his concert film 25 Live, Morrissey croons “The Boy With A Throne In His Side.” Released by The Smiths three decades earlier, it is during this song that the crowd's frenzy at Hollywood High School finally gives way to pandemonium. With the concert almost over, it's time for the fans up front to battle security, risk injury and dignity for a chance to brush the hand of an idol—or better yet, get on stage. One fan wipes out, falling head first into the stage. Morrissey briefly looks concerned, but the show must go on. This fallen fan's devotion has been noted and hopefully that makes his suffering worthwhile. Yes, Morrissey fans are nothing if not devoted. The level of loyalty shown at a Morrissey concert is something most adults reserve only for God, country, and possibly football. But here's Morrissey—English, soft-spoken, now about to turn 57, constantly reminding you that eating meat makes you a murderer—and Morrissey is beloved. It's a phenomenon that can be difficult to capture or adequately explain. Because how do you possibly explain how so many people love someone they do not know?
It should come as no surprise that tattoos and Morrissey fandom are a well suited match. Both represent a flair for the dramatic, deep feelings of commitment, and a sense of permanence that quickly becomes morbid. A new photography book, To Me You Are A Work Of Art, catalogs this intersection of ink and seemingly irrational passion. It is the brainchild of Julian Chavez (from Los Angeles) and Anthony Amor (from Miami), two friends brought together by their passion for all things Moz. Naturally, they met at a Morrissey concert. And, of course, they both have numerous Morrissey tattoos (“Probably enough to fill up Volume 2,” they say). After years of traveling far and wide to Morrissey concerts, and befriending other fans who do the same, they decided to document this unique aspect of fan culture. To Me You Are A Work Of Art compiles photographs by Patrick Moore, Nicole Kuntz, Jared Polin and Skully Smith. It is no small feat. The project was two years in the making and spans eleven cities, including Chicago. Over 300 fans showed up for photoshoots. The scope of the project is particularly impressive considering it is Chavez and Amor's first book.
I asked them why they thought Morrissey inspires his fans so deeply:“The lyrical content and his ability to write directly to the person listening and tap into their life experience really stays with you,” they told me. “Especially if you’ve gone through a rough time and something like “I Want The One I Can’t Have” or “How Soon Is Now?” hits you at the right time - you never forget that.” (It appears that The Smiths songs “Still Ill” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” have left the biggest mark, as they are honored in tattoo after tattoo. Chances are someone, somewhere is getting a “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” tattoo while you read this. It's a long song title. Imagine each one of those letters being etched into your skin.)
“Wrap it all up into a person who isn’t a afraid to speak his mind and do things on his own terms and [we] think you have this artist who people can really identify with and relate to.” Which makes sense. Morrissey is Morrissey precisely because of his uncanny ability to connect with his audience. He is permanently hard to know. Even his Autobiography left questions. But that doesn't matter – or perhaps it's part of the point. We don't need to “know” him. We understand him. And, more importantly, he understands each of us, uniquely, as no one else can.
Tattoo artistry isn't really the focus here. This is a book for Morrissey fans, about a shared, hard-to-quantify passion. It does as photography should; it captures something difficult to adequately explain in words. In To Me You Are A Work Of Art we see Morrissey's name, his face, his lyrics, and even his autograph rendered in ink, creating a lifelong bond between the singer and the listener. A tattoo means you are never alone. Each tattoo is a symbol of commitment, not unlike a wedding. Each tattoo is a physical manifestation of the belief that their love for him will never waver, that Morrissey will never disappoint them. Each patch of patterned flesh reads:“Morrissey can do no wrong.”
I was surprised/impressed/bemused to learn that ever-elusive Morrissey himself penned the book's introduction. It came a surprise to Chavez and Amor as well – he gave it to them after seeing a final proof of the book. “I feel a great responsibility,” Morrissey writes, “when I look at these photographs because here is the listener answering back, and we shall now be close for the rest of our lives.” We love Morrissey and he knows it. Surely that makes all the pain and blood worthwhile. But does that mean he loves us back?
You can order one of only 2,000 copies of To Me You Are A Work Of Art by visiting www.tomeyouareaworkofart.com.