"Skin" is the title of a new story by author Shelley Jackson, author of the seminal hypertext novel The Patchwork Girl. "Skin" will only be published as tattoos on the skins of participants, whom the author hand-picks from a growing field of applicants. Each applicant, once accepted, receives a waiver "releasing the author from any responsibility for health problems, body image disorders, job-loss, or relationship difficulties that may result from the tattooing process." Once the applicant returns the waiver, she is assigned a word (plus punctuation if applicable), which she must either accept or choose not to be part of the project. The participant must then have the word tattooed (in a classic book font like Helvetica) on her body -- any part, unless the word specifically refers to a body part, in which case it may be any body part but that one.

The tattoos will constitute the only publication of the story; a copy will be given to participants once all the words are assigned, but Jackson promises that she "will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium," and participants must pledge not to reveal it.

Once their tattoos are complete, participants will be known as "words." As Jackson explains it,

They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.
Jackson promises that she will try to attend the funerals of dead words.

The project has aroused great interest, partly but not only in the body modification community. As of September, 2004, Jackson had received 10,090 project-related emails and assigned 1780 of 2095 words. Participants bring their own sense of significance to the project -- The New York Times Magazine reported, for instance, that one mother/daughter pair requested consecutive words -- and to the words they are assigned. (A few words who have made themselves public include "the," "remember?," "eyes.," "blood," and "craning," and all of them, even the definite article, have developed personal interpretations of their tattoos.) As of December 2004, stories have not yet been mailed out.

As for the interpretation of "Skin" -- is it a story? A piece of performance art? A thought experiment unnecessarily carried out? -- that is up in the air. Certainly it makes people nervous, but the reasons differ (is it too much authorial control? Is it the invisible story that participants are being asked to embody? Is it the worry that you might get a word you didn't like>?). Regardless, it is a challenging (if perhaps too wanky) project and one that bears pondering. (To ponder further, check out http://www.ineradicablestain.com/skin.html and http://www.livejournal.com/community/mortalworkofart.)