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kathy acker gets a new tatToo

Kathy Brew
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Kathy Acker was a singular figure in late-20th-century Western literature who moved between the avant-garde art and literary scenes of New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Paris and London. In her provocative, performative writing, she confronted many issues -- sex, patriarchy, the body, war, colonialism, and much more -- that remain critically relevant to this day. 

Kathy is one of the many people I connected with during my San Francisco Art Institute days when she was teaching in the Humanities department while I was Manager, under Ray Mondini. 

“Kathy would tell her students at the Art Institute, 'Don’t let anybody tell you how to write …' Kathy apparently didn’t criticize student work, she just gave them permission … The Art Institute was too sterile for her methods, so she held her classes at a bar -- the appropriately gothic Edinburgh Castle. Bob Glück theorizes that students didn’t learn from Kathy, they absorbed her.”

Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff From WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. Semiotext(e). © 2015 by Dodie Bellamy

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SFAI is an important part of my history; I was on the staff earlier as Director of Public Relations and Publications, from 1984-85, just after Acker had been teaching in the Performance Video Department where she was Karen Finley’s teacher.


Acker was my teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. She offered a way out of traditionally paternal pedagogical structures, providing me a profound and inspired female mentor. Her approach to language chaos, text appropriation, and collage released nontraditional methods of art-making and narratives of splitting -- an intensity that became part of my working vocabulary.”

From SHOCK TREATMENT City Lights / San Francisco Copyright © 1990, 2015 by Karen Finley

Flash forward. While both at SFAI in the 90’s, we lived near each other in the Haight and developed an interesting friendship. Kathy was getting a large tattoo done on her back. The process was not a one-time, one-shot deal, but took several sessions in its creation. Kathy would come down to my office from those sessions and ask, “Hey, honey.  Can you put some lotion on my back?” this became an ongoing ritual after each of her inking sessions.

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One day, Kathy and I decided to go out in front of 800 Chestnut and take some photos of her on her motorcycle and of her tattooed back. The tattoo took up the whole of her upper back, bleeding onto her left shoulder, which was bulked up, revealing that she was a big work-out woman, as she went regularly to Gold’s Gym. It felt like two girls playing dress-up.

Flash forward.  Sadly, Kathy died of cancer at the age of 50 in 1997. And further flash forward.   Since her death, and in more recent years, there has been a resurgent interest in Kathy and her work. In the past couple of years, there have been two exhibitions in Europe focused on Acker and the influence of her oeuvre. And in both exhibits, my photos of Kathy taken that day in front of The Art Institute have been featured. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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All images © Kathy Brew

Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020.  Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy and was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

SFAI Archive: Kathy Acker 1980s-1990s

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