Ben Fasman didn’t have to look far for the subject of his art-book imprint’s first release. The answer was literally written on his arm, thigh, and buttocks, all of which have been tattooed by the artist Robert Ryan.
“I’ve been a fan of Robert’s tattoos and paintings for years, and he’s tattooed me a bunch,” Fasman says. “I flew out to Jersey to get tattooed by him years ago, and we just immediately hit it off.”
After Fasman returned to Chicago, he showed the tattoo on his arm to Tim Kinsella, the musician, writer, and current CEO of Featherproof Books. It so happened that Kinsella is a longtime admirer of Ryan’s work and has come to call the artist a friend. (Ryan designed the cover for Kinsella’s band Make Believe’s 2008 album Going to the Bone Church.)
Fasman and Kinsella’s mutual interest in Ryan led to discussions of a potential three-way collaboration. The result is The Inborn Absolute: The Art of Robert Ryan, a clothbound book out August 9 that features paintings, sketches, essays, and interviews. It’s the first art book Featherproof has published and the debut project by Fasman’s Mandible Projects. The book has also inspired a show of Ryan’s work opening August 6 at Great State Gallery, the West Town exhibition space of Great Lakes Tattoo.
Fasman first began tinkering with the idea of starting an imprint several years ago, as he was winding down as a freelance writer for outlets such as the Economist, Juxtapoz, and Stop Smiling. He and Chicago-based artist Cody Hudson envisioned a publishing company that would produce limited-run art prints and high-end book titles. But after Hudson’s first child was born and Fasman ramped up his commitments as a manager at the restaurant and bar group One Off Hospitality, the plan was shelved. When Kinsella was handed the reins of Featherproof in July 2014 and Fasman left his position at One Off soon after, the two quickly got to work on the Ryan book.
Though many art books about tattooing have been released—notably Taschen’s 1000 Tattoos (2005) and Powerhouse’s Vintage Tattoo Flash from earlier this year—The Inborn Absolute is one of the first retrospectives of a single tattoo artist. And while parts of the book touch on Ryan’s tattoo designs, the majority of the volume is devoted to his paintings.
Ryan’s artwork is heavily indebted to the spiritual realm, which the 43-year-old makes clear in the book’s introduction. “The paintings I am sharing . . . are distillations of distant cultures, esoteric cults, and ancient technologies. Most of these aspects are expressions of stories taught to me by shamans, sadhus, magicians, and fakirs.” Many of Ryan’s paintings and tattoos feature intricate geometric patterns that resemble astrological art, and Hindu deities frequently appear. Photographs in the book show the artist inside what looks like a small, makeshift ashram. Elsewhere, Ryan opens up about his experiences with LSD and the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, the latter of which had a major impact on his work.
The publication of The Inborn Absolute coincides with a recent surge of interest in tattooing as an art form and cultural tradition. In October, the Field Museum will unveil “Tattoo,” a wide-ranging exhibition of the 5,000-year history of the form. Yet the ubiquity of tattooing is a relatively recent phenomenon. The most illuminating section of The Inborn Absolute is a lengthy exchange between Kinsella, Ryan, and Genesis P-Orridge, the British musician, performance artist, and occultist. According to P-Orridge, tattooing and piercing were “very underground” in the 1970s. “Now there’s a tattooist or a piercer in just about every little village around the world,” P-Orridge says. “That’s what we call cultural engineering. . . . You start to realize that suddenly, all over the world, people are tattooing and piercing and modifying their bodies. Why? A sense of tribalism, of having like-minded people around you to support you.”
Challenging conventional narratives is surely a focus of Mandible, whose next collaboration with Featherproof will be a catalogue of “Making Niggers,” an exhibit curated by Project NIA that ran at In These Times magazine’s gallery space last fall. The show displayed postcards from the early 20th century that contain racist portrayals of black people; the intention wasn’t solely to shed light on America’s bigoted history, but rather to use the past as a means of demonstrating the foundational aspects of racism in American society and therefore the necessity of contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter.
Under the Mandible Projects umbrella, Fasman plans to put on more art shows and reissue out-of-print albums, among other creative endeavors, though he’s reluctant to say too much. “I just wouldn’t want to announce something and have it fall through,” he says. For now, he can rest assured that at least Ryan’s artwork won’t vanish. Tattoos may fade, but the book has made the artist’s designs indelible. v