top of page

The Forest of Ink & Skin

There was a moment just as I began my durational storytelling performance ‘The Forest of Ink & Skin’, when I turned on my stool and knocked over a bottle of water. Out poured the liquid all over one of my stories and across the floor of Tartu Uus Teater. I scooped up the bottle pretty quickly, but a puddle formed that I would spend the next four hours trying to avoid. The story that took most of the water was called ‘The Dream’. It’s a fable that imagines a post-apocalyptic future of dwindled humans, referred to as ‘the changeless ones’, who then have a collective dream about a chaotic-demonic spider that eventually helps them to restore a sense of community. It was one of eight tales I’d written for the commission that had been directly inspired by the trifecta of Estonian forests, folktales, and tattoos. I was imagining ‘The Dream’ as the penultimate tale in the eight-story sequence, the whole of which would take four hours to perform twice. But in that moment, as it was drenched by the water that I’d anxiously prepared to help keep my throat soothed, I assumed the tale was ruined and would not be readable. Ninety minutes later, that proved not to be the case. The paper had quickly dried out and the ink hadn’t run. The Dream was dreamt; the spider got its moment in the shadowed sun.


I’m often going to think about this moment. Not because it ruined things; quite the opposite, in fact. The toppled bottle was the little mistake that was needed to burst the bubble of anxious perfection that swells around big performances like this. It was a little visitation from the chaotic god of theatre, Dionysus, who had popped by to remind us that whatever else might be happening on a grand theatrical-metaphysical level, we were also just a bunch of people in a room with flailing legs and poor coordination. It brought me back down to earth just when I needed it. In a sense, it cleansed both the space and my mind, like a spill from a baptismal font. The show was born, and now it was alive.

It had been a long time coming. My commission with Tartu City of Literature & Manchester City of Literature had officially begun two years prior, in June 2022, when I’d first found out that I’d got the gig. I’d subsequently visited the city three times in three different seasons to work closely with my creative collaborator Henri Hütt, and back home I’d been obsessively reading about Estonian history and culture and mythology while fishing around for creative ideas. Our final outcome, ‘The Forest of Ink and Skin’, was scheduled to be a major part of the final day of the 2024 Prima Vista Literature Festival and, just as that bottle toppled, the first audience members were making their way inside. Across the two hours, we would perform those eight stories to over 100 torch-bearing people as they wandered through our living forest of tattooed Estonians. There would be no more toppling of the bottle, no other visits from chaotic gods. By the end, the show would be a total triumph.


We had been briefed by Prima Vista to ‘bring our own utopia’, and that remit was as deliberately wide as possible. We were told we could do an installation, a performance, a book, a tour; whatever we wanted as long as it met the theme and was in some way literary. I’d never experienced such creative freedom from a brief before and had a tantalising sense that I’d just managed to step outside of the fussy and fund-strapped boundaries of the UK literary arts scene into a European orgy of ‘anything is possible’. It was giddying and thrilling, and just what I needed after four years of the slightly stifling world of academia. I’d actually stumbled across creative freedom, and it was a strange new landscape.


There were four other international commissions within the ‘Bring Your Own Utopia’ banner, each of which situated pan-European contemplations within imagined and imaginative spaces. These included boglands, a humble pedestrian crossing, a claustrophobic underground shelter, a long-abandoned swimming pool, and our own ‘living forest’ of tattooed people. Our artforms spanned poetry, folktales, creative non-fiction, sculpture, live music, installation, soundscape, and body art, and many of us found ways of pulling in more collaborators beyond our official partners. Collectively, the utopia we’d found and presented was one of creative togetherness and expressive friendship that spanned disciplines and nationalities and genres. The wetlands of Estonia and Norwich found themselves tangibly overlapped, the pedestrian crossing linked people from different sides of different roads, the underground shelter merged shared traumas of oppression from the Soviet era to the current terrors in Ukraine. As a representative from a Euro-sceptic UK still reeling from the suckerpunch of Brexit, this whole thing was much-needed balm for the soul. Utopia is only possible when we adventure outwards, not when we shrink inwards.


For our collaboration, Henri and I recruited around 45 tattooed people (and, by extension, the ghostly presence of the artists who tattooed them in the first place), a magnificent lighting designer in the shape of Rene Liivamägi, and it was my personally great pleasure to ask my little brother Rickerly to create a soundscape. He absolutely pulled it out of the bag (as he always does) with a sweeping, haunting, rolling piece of deep chords, birdsong, rustling leaves, and mechanistic samples that echoed on in my head long after the show was done. And in a final flourish of fraternal fabulousness, little Ricky turned up in Tartu the night before in a surprise flying visit. I showed him the city as the sun set over the river, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

I entered a strange, heightened state while performing The Forest of Ink & Skin, which is why it has taken me a good couple of months to fully absorb and analyse it. I had to sustain my voice and my performance abilities across four straight hours inside a hypnotically lit black box theatre, surrounded by a thin haze of stage smoke, and a breathing woodland of slightly perplexed volunteers who were wearing very few clothes. The set-up was as follows: each story took around 13 minutes to read. An audience group of around 10 people would enter holding torches and would explore the Forest looking at the tattoos, while also listening to me read one of the stories. The idea was that I might mention, say, a raven, and different audience members would in that moment be looking at a feather tattoo, or a different bird, or, if they were lucky, a raven. Or they might be looking at something completely at odds: a face, or a rose, or a viking rune, but an association could still be made with the raven in the story. In that sense, each audience member got a slightly different symbolic experience within their rhizomatic story-stroll.

It was a lot to ask of the audience members, of course. By their very nature, audiences are typically passive and distant from the action, and famously reluctant to get 'on stage' and get involved. But we were trying something new here, something that disrupted traditional theatrical set-ups and blurred the lines between audience & storyteller, participant & actor, theatre show & exhibition. Ultimately, they had no choice: they were handed a torch and ushered inside. It was quite the spectacle; their searching and seeking beams merging with the flickers and pulses of the lighting design; a bit of trepidation here and there as the invitation to look at bare flesh conflicted with discomforts around voyeurism. But the bodies on display were also performing. The tattooed were acting out their roles as canvases, and so an art exhibition of sorts was also in full swing. Perhaps it was then a lot to ask the audience to listen to an entire short story, but I tried to make my tales folkloric enough that even a half-listen would be enough to get the essence of what was going on. Once a full story was completed, the doors would re-open, the audience would leave, and the next group would soon enter. And on we went in this organic narrative cycle.


Most curiously, I began to realise that it was the tattooed people who became my main audience. I hadn’t completely thought of them in this way, as they had been recruited to be more like set dressing (in the nicest possible way). But this was also their first exposure to the stories I’d written about their tattoos, so of course they were listening, many listening hard. Two different audiences emerged: those briefly enveloped in the atmosphere of the dappled lights and the rustling leaves, and the more permanent residents who had time to get deep down into the roots and mycelium of the stories. At the end, eight of the tattooed asked to take the printed stories away with them. I’m not sure who took The Dream, but I hope it’s still alive, gently crinkled from the spillage.

In the end, I was also not the only performer. The transient audience were playing the part of the forest explorers and had to map out their pathway through the strange space while making their symbolic connections. The tattooed trees were also performers, given freedom by Henri to move around and change position. Many lay down, some leaned against the walls, some splayed over chairs, and one particularly athletic woman with a phoenix on her back pulled off a handstand. They were still trees of course; felled trunks, chopped stumps, feeble saplings, sturdy oaks, but so too were they humans in statuesque poses with neutral, deep-feeling facial expressions. The long contemplation of life found its natural expression in the evocation of trees, while my folkloric tales swept from epic eon-spanning wide-angles to small intimate human details; from the vast spread of the canopy to the love-hearts carved in the bark. Perhaps even the spilled water was its own performance. A brief rainfall seeking soggy capture in the sphagnum moss.


After four hours the event was over and The Forest dissolved. One of our trees, Johanna Roos, managed to capture some footage before it all swept away, which you can view here. And if you’ve made it this far through this blogpost, I feel like you deserve a little reward from our magical woodland. You can listen to the eight stories and the soundscape over on Bandcamp by hitting this private link. I hope you enjoy the offerings.

What comes next for The Forest of Ink & Skin remains to be seen. It may be that it was a one-time only occurrence never to be resurrected, or perhaps it will sprout again in a different place and different time with new tales and fresh tattoos. In the meantime, to mark the occasion, I decided it was high time to get my own permanent piece of ink. I opted for this twin fern, flanked by a traditional Estonian symbol. They have sprouted from the earth of collaboration, watered by the spillage of creative chaos, reaching forever upwards towards new horizons. This Tartu residency has changed me; creatively, spiritually, and physically. I think it may be my greatest artistic achievement to date. But it would not have happened without a vast army of collaborators. Huge thanks to all of you, but especially to Henri.

Behold, Henri! We did it!


bottom of page