It was the late summer of 1993 and I just knew it was going to be an epic school year. I was finally starting to feel like I was “growing up.” You see, the third grade was a big year at my school. Our recesses were segregated; the playground divided into the “little kids” side (K-2nd) and the “big kids” side (3rd-5th). By what was likely coincidence—but I saw as design—this big step forward coincided with the first year I was allowed to pick out my own wardrobe. I donned torn up jeans, vintage t-shirts and even talked my way into a red dye job. With three older sisters, I was aware of the grunge movement brewing and envisioned myself not just a “big kid,” but a badass in the making.
Beginning the first week of class, a kink was thrown into my newly rebellious image: our class was trying out an “incentivized discipline” program. Throughout the week, students could earn tickets for good behavior: one ticket for pushing your chair all the way in, for each perfect spelling score, for volunteering to help out, etc. Tickets were taken back for bad behaviors like an incident of talking out of turn, line cutting, name calling and all things deemed unacceptable.
On the first Friday, we were introduced to the store. A tablecloth was spread across the floor, dotted with sparkling treasures paired with post-it note prices. There were shining metallic pencils topped with pristine erasers, heart shaped pencil sharpeners, holographic rulers with dinosaurs hatching from speckled eggs, novelty smiley faced erasers, and miniature note books with glittering covers. It was a veritable orgy of gratuitous paraphernalia and it made my hand-me down supplies with old chew marks, crossed out names, and smashed flats of useless erasers seem all the more embarrassing and inadequate. The best items were priced at 15 or more tickets. It would take weeks to earn even a single bobble, and I needed, like, everything! I felt my options were slim. Becoming the class suck-up would destroy my new reputation. It would also take forever.
Over the next few weeks I devised a plan. I bartered chores for a set of scarcely used Pentel® markers from my older-but-artistically-disinclined sister, collected some printer paper, and started my book of flash. At one ticket a piece, students could purchase a temporary tattoo of a star, heart, or four leaf clover. For two, the designs were a more complicated butterfly, dinosaur, or rose. At 5 tickets, designs were “awesome” and included faeries, skulls, or eyeballs sprouting wings. During recess I set up shop atop the coolest big kid fort on the playground, and business was soon booming. Within three weeks half the student body was dotted with fresh or fading tattoos. Meanwhile, I was pacing my purchases to remain inconspicuous. Still, I was amassing tickets and was getting nervous.
What brought down my miniature tattoo empire was the last thing I expected. Parents began to complain that the markers might be toxic, or at least that they couldn’t know for sure that they weren’t. I might have been able to defend myself had I kept the packaging, or had there been access to the yet unknown to me “internet.” My operations were shut down, though I was surprisingly not penalized for my entrepreneurship. It was my earliest venture into marketing art, and perhaps my last of a strictly commercial nature. However, it was the first experience that brought becoming an “artist” onto my radar.
Ryan Feddersen is a Seattle-based Native American mixed media installation artist. Her upcoming show “TAG! You’re it.” at Capitol Hill’s Joe Bar (July 16-August 5) will begin with a participatory, crowd-sourced forum on personal expression in public spaces on Thursday, July 12 at 6 PM. Documents collected from the evening will be used to saturate Joe Bar progressively over the period of the show.