Why artists use guns to make ink


This February, artist and ink maker Thomas Little loaded up his van and traveled around North Carolina, painting 20 delicate and lonely vignettes of the American landscape, each one representative of his home state. A city that has experienced at least one mass shooting in 2023.

In their subject matter alone, the paintings of water towers, street signs, and brick facades are subtle but harrowing visual records of American violence, depicted through a sense of absence and loss. But Little’s unexpected source of color makes his scenes all the more powerful: The paint was made from compounds from guns that were no longer in circulation and dissolved in Little’s studio.

For more than five years, Little has been performing this alchemy, buying handguns and automatic rifles from pawn shops and partially dissolving heavy iron in acid to form iron sulfate, which is used in writing ink and a deep black, rust-colored artist’s pigment. Foundation. As the son of a gunsmith, this practice is a birthright for him, yet utterly subversive as he transforms violent objects into expressive materials.

Thomas Little

In February, Little went on a road trip through North Carolina, visiting all the areas that had experienced mass shootings in 2023, rendering American landscapes and cityscapes with materials made from guns.

Little explained over the phone that ink is a nebulous material made from just about anything rich in pigment and gum arabic.It can be made from picked berries, leaves and minerals, but Little was interested in making iron-based ink (the standard for centuries) from the iron-containing parts of firearms. By mixing iron sulfate with tannins (which Little obtains from the steamed plant sumac), the ink takes on a dark hue that darkens the surface of the paper once exposed to oxygen.

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry, I really liked the history of ink, and (because) my father was a gunsmith, there were always a lot of gun parts around,” Little said. “So using the parts was a matter of practicality. But then it was realizing how powerful it could be to make weapons into writing materials or works of art.

As an illustrator and animator, Little often felt as if his creative goals were evading him. But turning a gun into ink gave him a sense of purpose.

“To me, this feels like a remedial process for society and has a wonderful, magical, transformative (aspect),” he said.

“Haunted” scenery

While traveling in North Carolina, Little felt as if the scenes he was painting, each rendered with gun remnants, were haunted. (Little did not delineate the specific locations of each shooting, calling it “so horrific.”) Last year, there were 33 mass shootings — a term defined as at least four victims — in these 20 cities Shootings that injured or killed people — just a fraction of the 656 homes across the country. Nearly 43,000 people died from gunshot wounds in the United States in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Thomas Little

Little’s van serves both as a means of transportation for art-making and teaching workshops, and as a mobile studio for ink-making.

The ink maker has felt the profound impact of gun violence on his life. One of his close friends and mentors in the animation industry, Helen Hill, was killed in New Orleans in 2007 when a stranger entered the home she shared with her husband and young son and opened fire in the middle of the night. The gun killed her. Her murder was never solved.

“It left a huge hole in her whole family and me…her community,” Little recalled. “It was just a huge shock. It took me years to really deal with it.

For him, making ink is not only a refuge, but a small way to help balance the scales of lives ended by guns.

“Ink is a form of necromancy. The dead speak to us through the ink…through documents from hundreds of years ago,” Little said. “It’s a form of poetic justice to use tools that silence people, to take[their]voices from the world instead of preserving them for the future.”

Little’s ink creations remain a one-man show in Sampson County, an agricultural, rural part of the state. Most recently, he fired a Beretta .45 revolver, Smith & Wesson .38 revolver and an AR-15. He produces standard liquid inks that are sold in high volumes – about 2,000 cans sold in total since the end of 2022 – and takes on commissions to produce more time-consuming black, yellow and red powder pigments that require additional processes and ingredients. For example, red requires baked iron sulfate; yellow, a more vivid hue, is the result of mixing iron sulfate with a base like baking soda. Everything requires patience.

“I really don’t have a direct formula for (yellow),” Little said. “Sometimes I just happen to do it and it works. A lot of what I do is look at old jars and see what happens inside them after a while.

Thomas Little

Little ordered his writing ink, which was made from iron sulfate, tannins and gum arabic, at the store.

Thomas Little

The black, yellow, and red pigments used for the paintings were highly variable and time-consuming, so Little worked directly with artists who requested them. (The white paint in the picture is chalk.)

The strict use of Little’s pigments meant working with a limited palette – what he called an “iron rainbow” of black, red and yellow. Blue would involve cyanide gas, which Little admitted he wasn’t ready to try yet (“I’ve been tempted,” he laughs), and while he could make white out of dissolved bullets, it would be a Dangerous lead-based white, so he used white tempera paint or chalk to highlight.

Because of the time and labor required to make paint, Little only produces “special batches” of paint for artists looking for it.

One of those creatives is Christina Kwan, an Atlanta-based painter and muralist who often works with acrylic ink, creating meditative works involving pours, splatters and calligraphic strokes. Kwan reached out to Little directly on Instagram to inquire about purchasing much larger quantities of gun-based ink than he typically produces; so far, she uses his standard ink in her practice and is considering its impact The impact of her work was experimented upon. Like Little, she is drawn to the process for its ability to transform objects made for violence.

“I had a child in 2020, and ever since I became a mother, I’ve been worried about the day I have to talk to him about preparing for a shooting… in a public place or at school,” Kwan explained over the phone. “No matter what you do, it feels like it’s beyond your control. Maybe there’s an element of that feeling that I can control,” she adds of working with gun ink, “and hopefully create something out of it.” a meaningful art.

Aram Han Sifuentes, a Korean-American artist living in Chicago, expressed similar anxieties about how to keep children safe, especially as hate crimes against Asian Americans increased in 2020 and remain a concern. Han Sifuentes, whose work is primarily fiber-based, has spent the past year studying the impact of gun violence and asked Little to create red paint from an AR-15 for an upcoming exhibition at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. exhibition. Han Sifuentes explained over the phone that it takes just two ounces of material to dye a massive 9-by-35-foot piece of fabric, and there’s still some left over.

“That just goes to show the power of this material,” she said. “But I also love this metaphor. It’s like gun violence, this little thing can make such a big difference and be so powerful.

Thomas Little

Little provided numerous inks for artist Christina Kwan, who had been experimenting with his material. It’s made from AR-15.

Christine Kwan

Kwan said she felt anxious about gun violence in the United States, especially after her child was born. She became interested in trying Little’s inks because of her calligraphy brushstroke-based practice.

Few credit the artists he worked with with helping him understand the importance of ink painting, as he said he was often immersed in the daily creative process without much time for reflection.

“I often just have to make another batch of ink, you know – just throw this gun into acid,” he said. “So it’s nice to hear what artists think about what I’m doing and why it’s important to them.”

He also received letters from people who had lost loved ones to suicide and wanted to modify the weapons they used to end their lives. Since Little is also limited by the firearms he can accept (especially for out-of-state requests), he’s willing to teach the process as well. That includes workshops he’s been invited to, where he blithely calls himself an “open source wizard” when it comes to making ink from guns.

“I don’t have a corner in this market…I will guide your hand, I will show you the way. I have absolutely no problem with that, and I love teaching people,” he said.

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