As planes took off over Boston Harbor one summer evening, artist Liz LaManche was bent at the waist, outlining a 50-foot dragon on the concrete surface of an East Boston pier. “Holy smokes, it’s amazing,” said a resident as she walked home to her houseboat, docked at the pier. She pointed at the dragon’s mouth. “Great teeth,” she noted.
LaManche’s dragon looks like a tattoo. And it is a tattoo, one that adorns a long and narrow pier, rather than a bicep or calf. On Saturday, the entire length and width of that pier at 256 Marginal St. will be tattooed for East Boston’s annual HarborArts Festival. It is the centerpiece exhibit of the daylong event, and LaManche has been out there working on it three evenings a week for three months. By Saturday, 19 tattoos, representing 19 countries or cultures, will cover the dock.
LaManche said she wants to include “all of the different cultures Boston has been connected to by sea.”
Her dragon, for example, is an amalgamation of images she found on the plates and dishes that once arrived to Boston on trade ships from China. Because sailors learned tattooing in the Pacific Islands, she collaborated with a Maori artist from New Zealand to design a Maori tattoo, which is also complete.
She made a 9-foot paper stencil to draw the middle portion of an intricate Irish knot tattoo, perching a projector on a ladder one evening to trace its edges.
Outline complete, fellow artists started volunteering their time to help fill it in with black cement stain.
“This is my chance to get out,” said Joseph Rodgers as he painted the Irish tattoo this summer. Rodgers, who works inside most days as a finishing carpenter, lives in a boat at the pier. He got to chatting with LaManche in the evenings when he passed by and soon offered to paint. He is moving this fall to Maine, where he will design and build his own house. He said he might install a concrete dock-inspired patio as well, a place to enjoy the evenings.
A few Boston-area artists came out to help each evening, getting free beer and grapes in return. “You couldn’t ask for a better studio,” said Jenn Zawadzkas, who organized the FIGMENT arts event on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in July.
After all of the administrative work that comes with organizing a festival, she was happy “just to do something so concrete, you could say.”
LaManche, like her volunteers, received no payment for her work on the dock tattoos. She launched a $4,373 Kickstarter campaign to meet her costs.
The Somerville resident, who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Yale and a master’s in social work from Smith College and has her own computer graphics and software interface design business.
She said she got the idea for the tattoos over a year ago and did a test tattoo, titled “New England Sailors,” at last year’s HarborArts festival.
Though dock managers and festival organizers had been enthusiastic about the idea all along, LaManche said seeing the public respond to that first tattoo was the moment the project crystallized for her.
“I love doing big art because you reach more people,” said LaManche.
She spent the winter researching traditional symbols, such as the Celtic knot, from different cultures, and then started drawing. The final tattoo designs represent New England Native Americans, Basque fishermen, West Africans, Brazilians, Russians, the English, and the French, among others.
LaManche got a tattoo herself just last December. It is based on a vision of a swirling black-and-white design she said she had when she was 9 or 10 years old. She has considered it her signature ever since, and on her birthday, Dec. 29, she had it tattooed on the back of her neck.
She hopes that when the East Boston dock is done, air travelers will be able to see the designs as they take off and depart from Logan Airport. She will have a few years to book a flight and see for herself, as she expects the tattoos to last that long.
But the water-based cement stain she is using does not last forever.
“There’s sun and salt, and trucks driving back and forth,” said LaManche, “so like a tattoo, it should fade out over time.”
Alexa Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.