MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Over this Memorial Day weekend, Americans commemorated our fallen servicemen and women in many ways: parades, somber ceremonies, family picnics. Iraqi-born visual artist Wafaa Bilal is turning his body into a memorial for those who have died in Iraq, and he's doing it with tattoos.
Lara Pellegrinelli visited the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York City, where Bilal started getting his work done.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: At 8:47 p.m., Wafaa Bilal stepped up to the microphone and read the first name out loud:
Mr. WAFAA BILAL (Artist): Samir Aziz.
PELLEGRINELLI: Removing his sweater and tying his keffiyeh around his waist, Bilal took his place, face down in a black, leather massage chair.
Names of Iraqi cities had already been permanently mapped out across his back in Arabic script. Over the next 24 hours, they would be barraged by dots of ink, thousands and thousands of them.
(Soundbite of tattoo needle)
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).
PELLEGRINELLI: The idea for Bilal's latest project, titled "...and Counting," is to represent each casualty since the invasion of Iraq with a dot tattooed near the city where the person has fallen: red ink for the American soldiers, ultraviolet ink for the Iraqi civilians, invisible unless seen under black light.
Mr. BILAL: We are talking about 100,000 Iraqis died and 5,000 American soldiers, and they are not visible. Many people don't even know the number.
PELLEGRINELLI: As we quietly passed the seventh anniversary of the Iraq invasion on March 19th, the number of American soldiers killed hadn't quite reached 5,000. But at least 95,000 Iraqi civilian casualties have been documented. Estimates based on polling exceed one million.
Bilal hopes to rescue these numbers from the realm of the abstract. The objective for "...and Counting" is to trigger a visceral response in those who see the project in the gallery or via webcam.
Mr. BILAL: The idea of receiving a single dot for each death, you feel that pain as much as I feel it. You kind of putting yourself in my place as well.
PELLEGRINELLI: Onlookers visibly flinched at the rapid-fire motion of the needle, which made the part of the map on Bilal's lower back around the city of Basra look like a blistering sun. Volunteers from among the dozens of gallery spectators took turns reading the names of the dead.
(Soundbite of tattoo needle)
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).
PELLEGRINELLI: Hearing the names helped Bilal focus on the emotional pain. His own brother Haji was killed by an air-to-ground missile in 2004, more than a decade after Bilal fled Iraq for his life.
Although he officially studied geology at the University of Baghdad, Bilal was really a painter. The political content of his work placed him under scrutiny by government-appointed campus officials, and his exhibitions were shut down. It wouldn't be the last time.
(Soundbite of music)
PELLEGRINELLI: For a residency at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, two years ago, Bilal came up with the idea for "Virtual Jihadi." It began with a video game in which American soldiers battle Iraqi fighters who all look like Saddam Hussein. The game had been hacked by people claiming to be associated with al-Qaida and transformed into a hunt for then-President George W. Bush.
Bilal took this version and inserted a character based on himself, who could be recruited as a suicide bomber. The artist's intention was social commentary on the use of technology to sanitize war and the use of video games as military recruiting tools.
Mr. BILAL: Being in the middle of the war, it's completely different experience than being in a video game. And what the United States Army adopted more and more is that video game mentality because they wanted that disconnection between the reality and the soldiers, to have them disengaged.
PELLEGRINELLI: Rensselaer students didn't get a chance to engage. University officials shut down the show before it could open. The school's president, Shirley Jackson, responded to student questions about academic and artistic freedom at a town hall meeting.
Ms. SHIRLEY JACKSON (President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): Everything can't be swept under the blanket of free speech all the time.
PELLEGRINELLI: "Virtual Jihadi" opened off-campus amid protests, both for and against the artist, at Troy's Sanctuary for Independent Media. The building was shut down the following day, ostensibly for code violations. A lawsuit has been filed against the city by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The idea that technology creates a comfortable distance between the self and others was also at the core of Wafaa Bilal's previous project called "Domestic Tension." It had him living for 30 days in a shooting gallery. Participants could log on to a website and aim a paintball gun at Bilal. He was shot at over 60,000 times by people in 128 countries.
Unidentified People: Three, two, one.
(Soundbite of applause)
PELLEGRINELLI: The results for his latest work have been more modest, but for those who have seen it, the project puts a face on an issue that seems distant for most Americans. And that's the point, says Bilal.
Mr. BILAL: It is for one simple issue. I have a family who are or whove been under bombardment for so many years. And I think they deserve other people to hear their voice.
PELLEGRINELLI: Back at the Elizabeth Foundation, Bilal hadn't succeeded in getting all 100,000 dots that he'd hoped for. He'd withstood the pain, but his back was already covered at 25,000. He vowed to continue once his skin had healed. He asked somebody to hit the wall switch to see the work under black light, to see the invisible Iraqi deaths. His flesh no longer looked like its own raging battle scene. It lit up like the night sky.
Mr. BILAL: Whoah, do you see that?
PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.
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