I experienced many of the same things you described, whenever I scratched my face people thought something major had happened! I embrace it now. I identify as an artist and I see my body as an extension of my sketchbook.
Nitasha and I met on Instagram. She’s an artist interested in skin, patterns, textures, and colors–all of these inspire her, as well as her everyday life. I think the best inspiration comes from things we are familiar with, things we find every day. Then within the familiar, we have the confidence to venture outwards and explore the unknown.
Read on for more insight into Nitasha’s creative practice, which kind of mirrors mine in some ways…
Ariana Page Russell (APR): Where do you live?
Nitasha Deogun (ND): Chicago and Detroit.
(APR): Please tell me a little bit about you.
(ND): I am so excited to be part of the community that you have created, I think it is fabulous. I work in all mediums, I am formally trained in textiles and jewelry metals but I primarily paint on fabric, work with photographers and do installations. I currently work in digital marketing and am learning how to code and design websites, so hoping to make some art that incorporates those new skills. I have had dermatographia since I was 8 or 9 years old, following a reaction to penicillin my parents noticed an increased sensitivity in my skin and took me to a dermatologist.
(APR): How long ago was that?
(ND): 24 years ago.
(APR): What are your symptoms?
(ND): Triggers vary widely. But once “triggered”, my primary symptom is itching. Itching and itching. And even more itching until it starts to make me feel a little insane. By this time, my skin is a mess of linear raised red welts. Then a feeling of heat and a mild tingling sets in along with more itching until I am wishing that I could literally UNZIP my skin like an uncomfortable dress in order to find some relief!
It becomes a matter of putting my mind over my body, almost a meditation/will-power thing to avoid scratching to the point of peeling off my skin. I rarely have reached the point of drawing any blood or causing the skin to break. There is a feeling of heat, swelling and expansion, but I feel no pain at the site of the welts.
I guess itching is technically categorized as a type of low-grade pain (my dad is a pain management physician) but my dermatographia never “hurts” me. My “skin-writing” also uses disappearing ink: Dermatographia has left no scars or traces of its existence on my skin’s surface in the 24 years I have lived with it.
(APR): Hmm low-grade pain–that’s interesting. It can be uncomfortable, so that makes sense. How do you treat the symptoms?
(ND): I don’t. No antihistamines since I was a child, I remember I used to take Seldane in the 90s and I often would hide or throw away the pill. Later the drug was taken off the market because of cardiac problems it was causing so I am grateful I didn’t take as much as my doctor had prescribed! I just found that the antihistamine pills didn’t really relieve or alleviate my symptoms.
For the last decade or so, I have taken a very mindful approach to my diet to reduce inflammation. I have tried all kinds of things, I was macrobiotic for a period of time, but I find that a pescaterian diet with low amounts of gluten works best for me. I try to get a lot of vitamin A, drink lots of water and I juice daily. I protect my skin with sunscreen and use very little make-up, scent-free detergents and only Cetaphil cleanser. I am obsessed with perfume and fashion, but I have to be careful about certain synthetic or metallic fabrics and stockings generally drive me up a wall. If I am trying a new perfume, I will only apply it to my inner wrists so that I can easily wash it off if it starts to irritate my skin.
(APR): I’ve also found that with diet (especially no gluten), my symptoms have lessened. Thankfully! How has skin inspired you in everyday life? As an artist?
(ND): I consider my art and my everyday life are one and the same, so in that way, my skin condition has moved me to examine patterns, textures and colorations that I may have otherwise found grotesque or disturbing. In my work I am visually drawn to imperfections and decay. A sculpture that I made in 2002, Skin Suit, reflects the feeling I described earlier of wanting to unzip myself out of my skin, about how my skin and body have often felt like distinctly separate entities. I read a passage in the Bhagavad Gita about reincarnation that also influenced this piece, about how our bodies are like garments and that death is really just like changing a dress.
(APR): That’s beautiful! What do you love about your skin?
(ND): Its resilience. Its creativity under pressure 😉
(APR): What do you dislike about it?
(ND): Its rebelliousness.
(APR): Is there anything else you’d like to know about dermatographia?
(ND): Anything really. I know so little other than what I have observed on my own body and it seems that because the condition is not life-threatening, it has not been researched in depth.
I would love to work with other artists with dermatographia to do a big creative project, perhaps creating a “visual dictionary” of sorts, documenting dermatographia in unconventional ways and putting together an amazing book.
I know that I would not want to be “cured”. Dermatographia is very much a part of who I am and how I look. Although it is uncomfortable to live with, I think I would be more uncomfortable living without it because I have become so accustomed to dealing with it and I do find it to be beautiful more often than not.
(APR): I’ve always wanted to make a book about dermatographia! Everyone I’ve encountered, from all over the world, does something a little different to make a drawing on their skin. It’s cool to see the variety. And I also do not want my condition to be cured. It has gotten much better, but then I can’t make photos of it like I used to. Anything you’d like to know about art?
(ND): EVERYTHING. All of the histories, mediums, techniques of preservation, techniques of installation… I would like to learn as much as I possibly can.
(APR): Me too! There’s just not enough time in the world to learn everything I’d like to know ;’) What else inspires your art?
Living my life. Observing the lives of others.
Also, just also wanted to forward you examples of the type of costumed collaborations I typically do with photographers, I have never done a series with skin writing, but I saw the texture a skinwriter made with a straw on Instagram and thought it would be cool to experiment with that in conjunction with my mermaid tail!!! 😉
(APR): Thanks Nitasha! These photos are awesome!
All images courtesy of Nitasha Deogun