By Jessica Davis
I’d Rather Sink is a photo realistic portrait by Frank Oriti depicting a woman whose character and identity are evocatively communicated through her tattoos. She is wearing vibrantly red lipstick, belted black jeans, and a sleeveless jean jacket, with her chin confrontationally thrust forward. She has a nose ring, copper fingernails, dream catcher earrings, heavy eye makeup, and a small hole where a lip ring used to be. She is rendered so clearly and carefully that from a certain distance one might easily mistake this painting for a photograph. The background she is placed in front of is a white-wash blur revealing nothing about the figure or her past. Her posture confronts the viewer while her tattoos convey her identity and inner-struggles on the canvas of her skin.
On the woman’s right arm, her tattoos depict Roy Lichtenstein paintings from the American Pop art movement of the 1960’s. Located on her arm, is the work entitled, Drowning Girl (Fig. 1), sometimes also known as “I’d Rather Sink than Call Brad for Help,” from 1963. Oriti’s title, I’d Rather Sink, directly refers to these words in the speech bubble in Lichtenstein’s work, which suggests by transference a strong statement about the character of the woman in Oriti’s painting that she would rather sink and drown than call a man for help.
A tattoo referencing Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is seen on the women’s left arm. Moby Dick is the story of Captain Ahab, who vows revenge on the whale who destroyed his ship but whose quest ends in failure. The woman’s tattoo shows the great whale leaping up from out of the bowels of the sea to destroy Ahab’s ship. The rough waters and clouds above lend to the dramatic nature of the tattoo and the conflict found in Melville’s novel. In a suggestive coincidence, Ahab’s crew includes a South Pacific savage, a cannibal named Queequeg, whose skin is covered in tribal tattoos. The shocking sight of Queequeg in Melville’s Moby Dick supplies an analogy for tattooed modern punk in I’d Rather Sink. The reference to Moby Dick on the woman’s left arm meanwhile suggests something else about her character, perhaps some fatalistic inner struggle of grappling with her own identity.
Oriti’s figure also exudes physical self-confidence verging on aggression in her overtly masculine posture, echoing the contrapposto of classical sculptures of men such as the iconic Doryphoros or Spear-Bearer (Fig. 2). With unquestionable self-confidence, the Doryphoros stands with one foot forward, left knee bent, asserting the potential for action. This very masculine pose suggests qualities of strength and aggressiveness. The figure in I’d Rather Sink stands ready for confrontation, with her head thrust upward, her arms by her side, and her hips directly mirroring those of the Doryphoros. The figure disputes the submissive and graceful femininity with powerful, even intimidating examples of masculine contrapposto, which is an iconic pose found in American Western films. This is an archetypal pose, for instance, of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Fig. 3) from the now-classic Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. The woman in I’d Rather Sink gives a distinctly similar impression of a hard-edged, quick-to-draw, loner and outsider.
Oriti’s approach to the figure in I’d Rather Sink finds close analogies in the artist’s other works, for instance in Secondhand Plan (Fig. 4), a self-portrait, Oriti crops the figure similarly and portrays himself in front of a white-washed background, that conveys no insight into the subject. The viewer must rely solely on the figure himself for any indication regarding his character and his past. His hands are spotted with dirt or grease, hinting at manual labor, perhaps that of painting. He is wearing a black tire-like bracelet on his right wrist with a red bandana peeking out from his back pocket. Oriti allows his own, rather unrecognizable, tattoo to peak out from beneath the sleeve of a Chicago t-shirt, and stands facing but not directly gazing at the viewer. With his arms relaxed at his side, Oriti is less confrontational than the woman in I’d Rather Sink, but nevertheless, his depiction coveys his own personal history and identity.
In a video interview, Oriti explains how he paints his figures in front of plain backgrounds in order to present the figures free from their pasts. He attempts to convey through their representation how his figures have returned to a former life and are asking questions such as “What has my life become?” and “What will everyone think of me now?” Both paintings, I’d Rather Sink and Secondhand Plan, provoke related questions in the viewer as to who these people are, and more importantly, what they signify to us.
Oriti’s paintings are conceptualized by taking many photos of the individuals to use as a reference point while painting the figures. His photo-realism is reminiscent of pictures by the American photographer Richard Avedon. The woman in Oriti’s I’d Rather Sink, has much the same pose, for instance, as the man in Avedon’s photography, Billy Mudd (Fig.5). Mudd stands in somewhat more slouchy, swaggering contrapposto, reminiscent of the iconic cowboy pose. The photograph’s empty white background, characteristic of Avedon’s work, frames the viewer’s clear and direct access to the portrayal of the figure. For the woman in I’d Rather Sink, this photo-real attention to the figure allows the viewer a glimpse into the subject’s character and identity, through her expressive body art, clothing, and pose. Most importantly, the artist permits her inked skin to show – the same woman wearing sleeves or painted with less attention to detail would present a very different subject. Oriti thus paints a canvas within a canvas – the skin – which in turn reveals the woman herself.
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