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Inspired by art: Gina McLain’s tattoo pays to tribute to Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘Persephone’

It began with an otherwise unspectacular trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Gina McLain, having recently moved to Kansas City from Nebraska, wanted to take in some of her new hometown’s culture. She spent the afternoon wandering the museum’s spacious galleries before eventually finding herself standing in front of Thomas Hart Benton’s famous painting, “Persephone.”

The famous image depicts a contemporary vision of Persephone, a nude goddess, as she is being watched by Hades, lord of the underworld.

According to Greek mythology, Hades would abduct Persphone and drag her to the underworld to be his wife — though he’d later allow her to return home for part of each year. During that time, the earth became fertile. When she returned to Hades, the crops and vegetation dried up.

Before she left the museum, she stopped by the gift shop and purchased a poster of the piece, which she promptly tacked to her bedroom wall.

For years afterward, the first thing McLain saw when she awoke was Persephone. Something about the image calmed her, gave her confidence.

“Every morning I’d wake up and I’d stretch, and it just made me feel like a woman, in so many ways,” McLain says.

The poster is gone, passed on to a friend years ago. But in its place is a far more permanent tribute.

Last month, Kansas City tattoo artist Ben Alvarez put the finishing touches on a two-year project that transformed McLain’s entire back into Benton’s iconic piece. The project’s conclusion coincides with the 125th anniversary of the famous Missouri artist’s birth — an event being celebrated with a showcase that runs through June 8 at the Kansas City Museum in Corinthian Hall.

To McLain, “Persephone” is the perfect image, encompassing some of the most significant aspects of her life. The naked form of Persephone, for instance, serves as a kind of ode to beauty and the female form.

The mythology behind the subject — that the goddess’s travel between worlds dictated the growing seasons — speaks to her family’s farming roots. Her parents were raised on farms and one of McLain’s fondest memories of her grandfather was the vegetable cart that was parked in front of his home.

And, perhaps most notably, McLain’s tattoo is arts-related.

From the time she arrived in Kansas City in 1997, McLain has held a deep interest in Kansas City’s arts scene. Over time, her house became increasingly filled with work from local artists, and she became a regular at local art shows and museums.

So enamored was she with the Nelson-Atkins that once, during her days with the Kansas City Roller Warriors roller derby league, she’d clamored to have her team named “The Shuttlecocks.”

“I wanted to wear white dresses and orange helmets,” she says.

About five years ago, meanwhile, she began to seriously consider the idea of turning her back into a work of artistic expression.

She already had a small Chinese symbol on her right shoulder, which she’d gotten with her best friend when she was 18. A massage therapist, McLain considers the body a temple, and she always had been intrigued by the idea of covering her back with something meaningful. To her it was a blank canvas, a space full of possibility.

Over the years McLain had briefly considered a handful of options — a fairy with rainbow-colored wings and the word “Winnwood,” the name of the Roller Warriors’ practice venue. As she got older, however, her mind kept returning to “Persephone.”

“I’m kind of a ‘go big or go home’ kind of person,” she says.

Over the course of a year, she interviewed half a dozen tattoo artists, talking with them and going over their respective work to see if it fit the style she was looking for. Some styles didn’t fit. Some artists didn’t feel comfortable with the piece she wanted.

At the suggestion of a pair of co-workers, she met — and immediately became comfortable with — Alvarez at Done Rite Tattoos, who warned her that the tattoo she had in mind was going to be a significant undertaking.

“For a piece that size, it’s going to take an awful long time,” Alvarez says. “That’s something I try to stress to folks getting the big work. If they have a lack of patience, it’ll test them.”

McLain agreed, and over the course of the next two years — in what would amount to about 18 sessions for a total of 40 hours — her back slowly transformed into a work of art.

Session by session, Alvarez worked his magic, tweaking and perfecting, filling in outlines.

Though McLain’s family was a bit hesitant about the whole thing, they came to accept it after she explained its significance — and after it sparked conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.

In talking about the meaning behind the tattoo, McLain says, “(My mom) told me stories about the house that she grew up in, how they didn’t really have heat, and about getting up really early at the crack of dawn to work. And I talked to my dad about some pretty funny stories about his father — I always enjoy when he tells me stories about my grandfather.”

As for whether she’ll add to the piece now that it’s finished, McLain is still deciding. She’s considered more ink. “When you start getting tattooed, it starts getting addicting — you start feeling naked on different parts of your body,” she explains. Nothing crazy, but maybe expanding the “Persephone” piece down toward her waist.

And though it’s been years since she first fell in love with the Benton painting, the image remains a source of comfort, still providing the calming effect it did every morning for years.

It also serves, at least in McLain’s eyes, as a tip of the cap to the original artist.

“Thomas Hart Benton never really wanted his paintings hung up in museums, so I think he would have been tickled by it, that it ended up on some girl’s back,” she says.

“I like that it’s being shared and not just hidden away in the corner of some museum.”