40,000 crosses. Two months of daily sessions. 100 hours under the needle.
When 52-year-old Alfredo Meschi learned about the wrongdoings of the dairy industry in an internet video, he made a choice that would alter his life completely. Meschi went vegan the following week and then turned his whole body into a work of art, a non-stop installation for the voiceless.
We invited Alfredo to Berlin for a photo shoot and to sit and talk about the intersection between activism and art, mainstream masculinity, the grueling tattoo sessions he endured to make his vision a reality — and about how freeing it was for him to dedicate his time and effort to his cause.
March 23, 2021
Words - Eric Mirbach
Photography - Brix & Maas
Hi Alfredo. Let me start with this: How do you explain to someone you’ve never met before what it is you’re doing?
Well, I call myself an artivist. So I explain that I’m doing contemporary art, mainly performance art, but with a goal in mind. That goal is animal liberation and furthering anti-speciesism and the intersectionality aspect of this struggle. And that is artivism. ‘Art’ and ‘activist’ become ‘artivist’.
Who coined that term originally?
We don’t really know for sure, there are different theories to that. But it most likely was M. K. Asante, an Afro-American artivist and author. The official introduction of the term I think goes to Eve Ensler, the Vagina Monologues activist. She mentioned Artivism for the first time in 2008 I think. So it is something quite new. And vegan artivism is even younger…
”I knew what was happening. But I suddenly understood way deeper.“
Would you consider you’re one of the first?
No, I’m one of the few, not one of the first. Maybe also one of the first, yes, because there are so few. It’s quite difficult to define what artivism is because if you’re a good painter and let’s say you start painting pigs, that doesn’t make you an activist. If you are an activist and you start painting pigs that doesn’t mean you are an artist. So it’s a very interesting term.
What makes you an artivist then? The mindset?
Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of artists out there who do amazing, important work, but they’re not activists in their art, so I don’t consider them artivists. I don’t mean any disrespect to their work, it’s just a matter of calling things by their name, you know?
This is a pretty staple question, but when did you go vegan?
I was vegetarian and vegan maybe in the late 80s but that was for rebellion more than ethics. Not really rooted in my soul.
What did you rebel against?
My father probably. But I lost my way quite quickly with being vegetarian and veganism. I went back to eating everything and everyone for most of my life. And I was influenced by my family in both a good way and a bad way. Meaning that my uncle was the Italian champion of spear fishing.
”What did I rebel against? My father, probably.“
And my father was going for the world record in scuba diving. They were both hunters. My father took me hunting and killing when I was five years old. So I had a very strong, very early influence from them. I had been going fishing all my life. Hunting, too, but luckily very little. And that’s the bad things I inherited. But the good parts with my uncle and my father were that I got to experience nature very intensely through those activities. For example, we went to Kenya. I collected very beautiful memories of the wildlife and the wilderness there. Then, when I lived in Sardinia years and years later, all of that came flooding back. Finally, after 30 years or something, I could reawaken my senses thanks to the powerful nature of Sardinia.
In the beginning, I did it in the wrong way, the way my family taught me, so mostly by going fishing. But I could go a whole day without fishing anyone but spent eight hours watching dolphins and tuna jumping and seagulls and on beaches where I could run around naked because there was no one around, just me and the kayak and swimming and beauty, pure beauty. The coastline and the flowers, paradise. And this reawakening of my senses in my adult age was something really wonderful, because I felt blessed to be alive but at the same time if you are alive, you open up to things around you that you didn’t let in before. And it’s not only the beautiful nature around you, there’s other stuff coming in as well, things you’d rather not think about.
And one day, I saw this video on the web, very cruel. It showed the separation of calves from their mothers in the dairy industry. I wasn’t looking for it, it just popped up. But I was really open to what was around me. It made me stop eating cheese, and cheese was my absolutely favorite food. Yeah. I felt everything so strongly!
Did they explain what was happening in the video?
I was over 40 years old at the time and grew up around animals and nature, I knew about it. But suddenly I understood way deeper. I wanted to be honest with myself and with those feelings and for that, I had to change my ways from one day to the next. I went vegan the following week.
There’s a lot of things that go into such a fundamental choice, would you agree? Openness, willingness to learn new things, there’s empathy…
It’s very difficult. Because I think that was a path I had been on my whole life, but if I would try to choose one word to describe it, I would say ‘freedom’. I was always trying to find freedom. Even if it was at a high cost. I did it when I changed my career path and stopped working for my dad in his business and then I did it again and again when I moved to different countries.
How did your father react when you said you didn’t want to work with him anymore?
Not very well… Not very well.
”Sardinia is a different world and it freed me.“
Would you agree that a lot of this is about the masculinity we learn from our fathers and our struggle to free ourselves from their concept of it?
I started freeing myself. Because we could say that I became really free when I went vegan. I think Sardinia was a turning point, it’s the right place for it. It’s a different world in a very strange way.
For example, they do not recognize Italian laws. They have their own laws, centuries old and actually very brutal. But for me, I think it was the landscape. I felt very alive in Sardinia. I think that this place has a very special power because of how close you are to nature.
So you decided to go vegan. Then you decided to do even more. How did you come up with the tattoo idea?
I didn’t think of tattoo art at first, but then I found a Mexican/Argentinian collective who were using their bodies to raise awareness for a student massacre that went down in Mexico. I thought using the body was a good idea. So I started to explore that more and I came to tattoos.
What was the process after that?
I visited one of the most artistic tattoo conventions in Florence. Most conventions are quite ordinary but this one is still very artistic, they tattoo with sticks, very traditional.
And it became clear to me; that might be the right thing. Then I went back to Sardinia and there is only one tattoo artist in my village, so that was easy.
”I couldn't believe how fast it was… the number of killings.“
Indeed. But when and how did you come up with the concept of it all?
The concept came up when I discovered the adaptt counter for the first time. I saw this animal kill counter on their website, and it was so fast! I couldn’t believe how fast it was. The number of killings.
I wanted to show people at least one second of this, to reduce that huge number into one that was still huge for the tattoo, but at least…
You needed to actually fit it on your body. Makes sense.
Yeah, so I went for one second.
I think that the whole time-aspect of your work is really interesting. Do you like numbers?
Not at all. In school I was really one of the worst with numbers. I still suck at math. It’s just these numbers that I have been concentrating on.
Still, you introduced that aspect in your work from the get-go. Tattoos are forever, so that’s a time concept right there. Then you tattooed 40,000 crosses on your body, one for every animal killed for food per second worldwide, right? So that’s the second time layer. And then the third thing that is a bit underneath it all… I feel a lot of urgency here. You went very fast with all of this. You rediscovered veganism and got tattooed right away.
I didn’t want to waste a second.
”I’m soon to be 52 — every second counts.“
Did you feel like you have something to make up for?
No, I don’t blame myself for the years I didn’t see all of this.
That’s good, that’s what I was hoping.
No, no. Not at all. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, like everybody. But I’d go my path again, I don’t blame myself. At the same time I’m 51, going to be 52, so every second counts. Absolutely.
Why did you choose an X?
Because in Italy it is a check mark. They use it when you have done something or when you have killed something. Maybe you have killed 20 chickens, it’s just 20 Xs.
And it’s also crossing out something.
Also crossing out, yeah. So it can be a cross, as well.
And then it’s also like every cross on your body came into existence as a placeholder for a life that ended.
Yeah! There are 40,000 lives that are no more. But at the same time, I’m inspiring people to stop participating and I inspire people to get Xs tattooed, as well. So more and more lives end, but more and more people are aware and are helping to reduce the number in the long run. It’s like balancing life and death better.
Alright, so you were sure it would fit.
No, I wasn’t sure for a very long time. And I was really scared that I would have to use my neck, my face, my genitals. I didn’t want to use all of my body. I wanted to reach 40,000. And yes, up until three days before we finished, I still thought: Oh no, it’ll not be enough space.
Damn. Okay. Your tattoo is a piece of art on its own, but you also do performances?
My main performance is myself. People are stopping me on the street constantly to get a picture. And they ask questions: Oh, why this, why that? And that is the way my performance work. People approach me, and I invite them in to have a conversation, to share thoughts.
The important thing is, they are coming to me. If you’re coming to me, you want to talk. Otherwise, you wouldn’t approach me. Even if you don’t expect it to be about veganism, about animals, about injustice in general, you now have to accept it because you came to me.
”You now have to accept it, because you came to me.“
It’s like this extra layer of sensory information that you give them before you start communicating through language.
Yeah, sometimes you ask them how many crosses do you think they are? 5,000? No, more. 20,000? No, more. What could they stand for? I don’t know. Animals killed in one second. No! Just for food. I didn’t know! Goosebumps. And yeah, it works.
So that’s the main performance. That’s what I do. And then I have this new project called ‘In the Blink Of An Eye’, which is another very powerful performance. I work with a photographer and a tattoo artist. People come into a museum, a gallery, or a festival where I put up the performance.
And maybe they already know me or if they don’t, they can read up on what I do and if they feel it’s right for them, they ask for a drawing of an X. I’m not good at drawing, but I can do an X. It is then turned into a permanent tattoo on the spot. And then we take their portrait.
We do this, but there’s also an informal ‘In the Blink Of An Eye’ community of people getting crosses tattooed on their own.
Are they sending you photos?
Yes. For example, there has been a ‘Project X’ in Cape Town in South Africa, and I didn’t know anything about it. I discovered it when they sent me a message and photos; Look what we have done. And something in Chile…
That’s a goosebumps moment for you then, huh?
Yes, the first time, I was really like: Wow. I didn’t expect that!
So cool! How do you look at tattoos as an artform? Do you feel they’re seen as legitimate art enough?
It’s not seen as legitimate art, but I think it is. I do think we’re getting there, though. If I think of people like Little Swastika for example, do you know him? He’s a real tattoo artist. He’s using maybe seven different bodies for one tattoo.
“We all have friends. Some are gone, some are growing, some are pigs.”
I will have to look into that! We also have to talk about the cattle tag you wear in your ear. I mean I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. But if people approach you on the street and ask you about it, what do you tell them? And do you ever take it off?
I could take this off, but I don’t.
Do you sleep with it as well?
No. But for example at the airport it could be wiser to not wear it. But I keep it on. And it’s not a problem. Sometimes they ask about it. The first thing that I say is that it belonged to a friend of mine.
Oh shit, I know where this is going.
A cow named Terra, earth. And that’s the first thing. ‘What, you have a cow as a friend? Why?’ And then I explain.
The police rescued those two sisters so Luna, moon and Terra, earth. Because they couldn’t move, they had been on a chain for all of their lives. And they were given to an animal shelter friends of mine run. Now they passed away because they were very old.
I took Terra’s old cattle tag when it broke and fell out. You cannot take these things out of a cow’s ear normally, it’s permanent. But hers was broken, so I took it. I now wear it in my ear, and it starts conversations and reminds me to my friends at the same time. We all have friends. Some are gone, some are growing, some are pigs. There is one pig in that sanctuary named like me: Alfredo.
Thank you so much for your time, Alfredo.