FEATURE ARTICLEŚMARCH 2004
VALI, THE WITCH OF POSITIANO by Clayton Patterson.
Last year, the Grim Reaper stole two important women from my life, Daphne Hellman Shih and Vali Myers. The lives of both these women should be an archetype for generations of young tattoo artists struggling to be fine artists.
Daphne's grandfather originated and ran the Wall Street Seaboard Bank with the same spirit that his debutante granddaughter lived her life. An avid collector, Daphne amassed friends, pets and husbands, while playing her harp in Hong Kong, Paris, India and Madagascar during her yearly "world tours." Her favorite husband, Hellman, spent years as editor of the New Yorker, and, through Daphne, I met several notables like Norman Mailer, Charles Addams, William Boroughs and Ted Morgan, who wrote Literary Outlaw, the definitive Boroughs' biography. Daphne, on a number occasions, played at N.Y. Tattoo Society meetings, if she was in town. She said it was a real honor.
The second lady was Vali Myers, a/k/a Vali, "Witch of Positiano." "Vali at the Chelsea Hotel" was the first videotape that Elsa and I made in 1986.
Vali's unique journey originated in 1930, when she was born in Sydney, Australia. At 14, she left home, working as a factory worker in Melbourne, while trying to make a career as a dancer in the Melbourne Modern Dance Troop. The highlight during this part of her dance odyssey was a solo performance at Albert Hall in London. In post Word War II, 1949, 19 year-old Vali moved to Paris, France. Vali's chosen friends were orphan vagabonds who ruled the streets during the dreary post war days. She met Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Salvador Dali, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alan Ginsburg, but considered most of these celebrity personalities to be dilettantes striving to be too cool, too safe and too protected within the confines of Parisian Cafe Society. Vali preferred an extreme outsider position and the dangerous after-hour African Dance Clubs.
The artist who affected her most was Jean Cocteau, because Vali's boyfriend "cared" for Cocteau's opium pipe. After Cocteau had finished smoking, Vali and her boyfriend, a Hungarian Gypsy, smoked the dross left behind in the pipe and she became addicted. "I did not see the light of day for three years," she said, looking down at her tattooed feet. After living the addicted, hard, Bohemian street life, getting arrested and being on file with Interpol, it was die or leave. She left Paris in 1958.
George Plimpton was inspired by Vali, and wrote about her early years in Paris. In Paris Review #18, he wrote, "She is the symbol and plaything of the restless, confused, vice-enthralled, demi-monde that was the personalization of something torn and loose and deep-down primitive in all of us." Plimpton also included Vali's exquisite drawings in his Review. Ed van der Elsken, in his 1958 historic book Love on the Left Bank, captured Vali Myers as the self-absorbed drug addict.
With the help of Jean Cocteau, Vali and her new husband, Austrian architect Rudi Rapport, got Vali's legal papers in order and made their way to II Porto, close to the town of Positano, in southern Italy. Here they discovered a secluded valley with a small, Moorish monk's summer house, a waterfall, caves and hundreds of animals all protected by a menacing, sheer, 1,000-foot, high rock cliffs with a difficult-to-navigate goat path that afforded guarded entry to her hidden Garden of Eden.
Vali worked on her self-absorbed, highly illustrative, dark, brooding, mystical, psychedelic, animal-inspired sexy images, all done on handmade paper, sketched out with fine English ink nibs stuck in the end of a goose feather, using hand ground Chinese black ink to make the drawings. Vali sometimes worked several years on a single art work. Then, when it was time to make some money, she would put on her finest silk scarves, her flowing multi layered dresses adorned with large chunks of gold and amber jewelry, and head for the Chelsea Hotel in New York to sell her work and communicate with the outside world.
Slinking in a chair, drinking gin and rubbing thick black kohl around her eyes, she greeted guests to her Chelsea apartment, socialized and did business salon-style, with troupes of artists and interesting notables passing through. Her dark eye-socket lid and liner became a popular look during the 1990 Goth music period. Her dark eyes kept the evil spirits away.
Once, when Vali was in New York, local bad boys sneaked in to her secret valley and killed some of her favorite dogs. The town of Positano was strictly Catholic and Vali was a certified witch who belonged to an ancient coven in England. In revenge for her animals' deaths, Vali hand picked tattoos with the names of her dead dogs on her feet and danced barefoot around the town. With her flowing dress, her flaming orange-red hair, her tattooed face and her tattooed feet, Vali psychologically shocked all the town's people and a truce was drawn. They made peace.
Vali tattooed her own face, because she felt that the only person who should tattoo their face was the person who would wear the tattoo. Eventually, her pet fox and goat died. She memorialized them by tattooing their names on the back of her hands. All of Vali's tattoos were hand-picked, including a number of tattoos that she did on other people; Ira Cohen, mystic poet, photographer and publisher of the early beats for one.
After the recent death of these two fabulous woman, my universe is much smaller and the tattoo world has lost two original supportive lights.
Note: A rare book worth searching for is Vali Myers Open House, London 1980. There are three films about Vali Myers: "Death in the Port Jackson Hotel," "Vali the Witch of Positano" and "The Tightrope Dancer."