July 22, 2005

Belgian Artist Goes Wild with Pig Tattoos in China

BEIJING -- Tattoos of mermaids and roses, cherubs bearing crimson hearts, Lenin's head and the trademarked pattern of French luxury brand Louis Vuitton stand out against bright pink skin soaking in the sun outside Beijing.

This living gallery of skin art is not on display for a tattooists' convention or a Harley-Davidson fan club meeting. It is an everyday sight in Chenjiatuo village and is borne on the flesh of some unlikely subjects -- big, fat pigs.

The idea was cooked up by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who has hired a small staff of local farmers and tattoo artists to raise some 20 sows and use them as canvases for skin art at his rustic China base, Art Farm.

"I decided to do something in China first, and I realized tattooing pigs would be a good introduction to the country. It's low-tech," Delvoye, 40, told Reuters.

The pigs get sedatives before they go under the needle and are carefully raised until their natural deaths, normally well past the six-month mark when farm pigs are slaughtered.

Collectors can buy the pigs live and pay for their keep as "foster parents" or simply purchase their tattoo-festooned skins for display after the pigs pass.

"The Art Farm is a real enterprise and by selling, eventually, the skins, the whole thing gets financed and I can go on," said Delvoye, who has pushed other artistic boundaries with previous works.

Mortality is a primary theme in the porky "paintings."

"Tattoos remind you of death. It's leaving something permanent on something non-permanent," he said. "Even when tattooing flowers, there is a morbid side to the activity."

He has tattooed pigs off and on in Europe and Indonesia for a decade, but in booming China Delvoye sees a perfect environment for steady production.

In turn, he has been unexpectedly inspired by the country -- from its burgeoning art scene to the rampant piracy of everything from DVDs to Paris's lastest fashions, which is behind the Louis Vuitton-patterned pigs.

"We saw all these fake Louis Vuitton designer bags. You always read in newspapers about other countries complaining about these fakes and then, as an artist, I'm interested in what's fake and what's real," Delvoye said.

"I like to play with ownership rights."


With fans and radiators in their pens and plenty of food and running water on the farm, the pigs enjoy better living conditions than millions of China's rural poor, even many people in Chenjiatuo, a situation he admits some locals find "crazy."

Still, Delvoye says he has been welcomed, in part because he has given gainful employment to several villagers.

"They love me here. They think I'm a funny gringo," he said.

Wang Chao, 20, followed his father to a job on the farm, which on a scorching summer day meant following several pigs and rubbing sun-block lotion on their sensitive, patterned backs.

"These pigs live very well," Wang said, admitting he did not really understand the meaning of Delvoye's work.

"He's part of the neighborhood now. It's good to work together and understand each other," Wang's tanned, thickly built father said.

For Delvoye, the pigs and the farm represent just the start of his China ambitions.

He is working on a new, larger Art Farm with the space to raise more pigs and crops to feed them. Typical for China's dynamic building boom, construction is set to begin around the end of July and the farm should be finished in September.

"I did a similar thing in Belgium and it took two years," he said.

The new farm will also have video cameras to allow collectors or anyone else to watch the tattooed pigs cavort and sleep live on the Internet, a program he has dubbed "Pig Brother."

For his next project, Delvoye plans to tap China's mighty factories to have 5,000 anatomically correct, Barbie-like dolls in his likeness made in Shenzhen, a southern manufacturing hub.

"I tattoo pigs here today, but maybe tomorrow I do something else. Anything is possible," he said.

"I'm only warming up."