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8 Artists Who Poured Their Heart and Soul Into Their Work (Also: Their Blood and Urine)

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All artists put a little bit of their soul into every piece. But these artists put their soul – and a whole lot more – into their art.

1. Hair and Nails

When Hananuma Masakichi learned he was dying of tuberculosis, he wanted to give his girlfriend a way to remember him. So he constructed a life-sized and startlingly realistic statue of himself using thousands of strips of wood – some reports say between 2,000 and 5,000 strips, others say as many as 20,000. The strips are held together by glue, dovetail joints, or wooden pegs, and fits so precisely that no seams are visible across the whole figure.


During the construction, Masakichi even sacrificed pieces of his own body to help his wooden doppelganger come to life. He not only pulled out his own fingernails and toenails to attach to the statue, he also allegedly yanked his own teeth for the figure's mouth. He then painstakingly drilled tiny holes, one for each of his pores, and plucked the corresponding hair from his body to glue it into the same pore on the statue. Yes, he even did this with the hairs under his loincloth.


Masakichi finished his statue in 1885 and put it on display. He stood next to the statue in the same pose, and many viewers couldn't tell which was the real man and which was made out of wood. Sadly, it was all for naught. The girlfriend left him, he never made any real money from the statue, and some reports say that when he finally died 10 years later, it wasn't even from TB; apparently he received a bad diagnosis.

When Robert Ripley began collecting the world's oddities in the 1930s, Masakichi's statue was one of the first items he acquired, paying a San Francisco saloon-owner $10 for it. Among the hundreds of items Ripley owned over the years, Masakichi's statue was one of his favorites, often displayed in his museums and even in his own home.

2. Bloody Good Art (#1)

Van Gogh painted some famous self-portraits. Frida Kahlo painted herself into many of her own pieces. Even Leonardo da Vinci drew a nice rendition of himself. But none of those artists have taken self-portraiture to the extreme of Britart star Marc Quinn, with his series of sculptures known as Self. Starting in 1991 and continuing once every five years until 2006, Quinn took a mold of his entire head and then cast it in nearly five liters of his own blood, which he drained over a period of about five months. The blood sculptures are quite fragile and have to be stored in special refrigeration units that keep each head at 10°F (-12°C) to prevent melting.

The first Self was purchased by one of the Britart movement's biggest early supporters, Charles Saatchi, who paid £13,000 for it. There were rumors that the sculpture had melted in 2003 while Saatchi was having his kitchen remodeled – probably to please his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. He proved those rumors untrue when he sold Self for £1.5 million in 2005 to an American collector. The final version, Self IV, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

3. Bloody Good Art (#2)

All artists suffer for their art, but Lani Beloso has made her suffering into art instead. Beloso has menorrhagio, a condition that causes her to have very heavy, very painful menstrual cycles. Wishing to make her suffering worth something, she began collecting her menstrual flow every month and used it for a series of 13 paintings, representing a year's worth of menstrual cycles, which she called The Period Piece.

For her follow-up, 2nd Period, Beloso has encased her art in two sheets of plexiglass like a slide ready to go under the microscope. The painting is then hung away from the wall so that light shines through, casting an image, creating a second work of art.

4. Urine Trouble

Few pieces of art have evoked emotions like Andres Serrano's 1987 Immersion (Piss Christ). The photo depicts a plastic crucifix that is submerged in a glass container filled with what Serrano claims is his urine. Serrano intended the piece to be a statement on the commercialism of religion and a reflection on the way Christian symbols are treated in America. Of course this is not how everyone – especially Christians – interpret the work.

After the photo was unveiled in 1989, it was met with a flurry of controversy. The heat grew when it was discovered that Serrano had received $15,000 from the publicly funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Politicians were outraged that tax dollars had paid for art from Serrano and other controversial artists who many of their constituents found blasphemous. They moved to have the NEA's funds revoked, but were ultimately unsuccessful. As a compromise, the NEA no longer provides money to individual artists, but instead supports art projects that take into consideration "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

Since its debut, prints of Piss Christ have been occasionally attacked by protesters. In 1997, after a failed attempt by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, to have the photo removed from an exhibit, the photo was smashed by two teens with a hammer. Most recently, in April 2011, members of a French Christian group also took a hammer to the piece, and then used a sharp object to deface the photo. Instead of taking the photo down or closing the exhibit, the gallery reopened the next day with the damaged photo in place "so people can see what barbarians can do."

5. Really Crappy Art

Many artists find family members are their harshest critics. Such was the case for Italian artist Piero Manzoni, whose father declared, "Your work is shit." With his father's words as inspiration, Manzoni decided to make a statement about the art world's willingness to buy anything as long as it's been signed by a famous artist. To that end, Manzoni filled 90 tin cans with his own excrement. This must have made the old man proud, considering the senior Manzoni owned a canning factory. The artist then sealed the tins, signed them, and printed a number on each one, indicating its number in the limited series. The tins were called Merda d'artistal, or Artist's Shit.

Manzoni sold each tin, which weighed about 30 grams (or just over an ounce), for the going-rate of gold, allowing the price to fluctuate with the precious metals market. At the time, in 1961, his tins sold for about $37 each; in today's market, they'd go for about $1800. But, as if to prove his point, the tins currently sell for many times that at auction. The Tate Modern Art Museum in London spent £22,300 for one of the tins in 2000. Just seven years later, one sold at Sotheby's for €124,000.

Merda d'artista was part of a series by Manzoni, including Fiato d'artista, or Artist's Breath – balloons filled from his own lungs. He also planned to make Sangue d'artista, or Artist's Blood, but that project never got off the ground. Maybe he just wasn't willing to bleed for his art.

6. Is That Hair Gel?


Marcel Duchamp is best-known for his "Readymade" art projects, as well as a definitive Cubist piece, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. However, he is also well-known for Paysage fautif, or Faulty Landscape (some prefer Wayward Landscape), created in 1946 as a gift for Maria Martins, a woman he loved but could not have. The piece (at left) consists of a Plexiglas-like sheet called Astralon, backed with black velvet, and mounted in a simple wooden frame. It wasn't until 1989 that the art world's suspicions were confirmed by genetic testing: the "paint" used for the piece is in fact Duchamp's own seminal fluid.

7. Nope. Not Hair Gel.

Although Duchamp might have pioneered this most unusual medium, he was not the last. German artist Martin von Ostrowski's most ambitious (and undoubtedly tiring) work to date has been a series of 30 self-portraits that he has painted with his own semen.


This isn't Ostrowski's only example of using his body for artwork – he is also famous for using his own feces to paint portraits of Hitler and other German leaders.

8. Limited Edition DNA

For many artists, the most personal stamp they put on a piece is their signature. Barry Freedland, on the other hand, uses his identity to create most of his art. Freedland has designed, built, and programmed robots that can draw beautiful, complex shapes by repeatedly stamping out a copy of his thumbprint. He has also equipped bots with a plaster cast of his own hand holding a graphite pencil, so even though he's not technically drawing the artwork, he still has his "hand" in the proceedings. But perhaps most interesting of all is Freedland's work with his own DNA.

His Battle of Barry Pills is a large pharmaceutical container filled to the brim with small plastic pills. Inside each pill is a photo of the artist, as well as a sample of his DNA. If you want something more collectible for your money, you can also buy not lithographs, but "lickographs" – small cards that Freedland has licked, thus passing on his DNA. The cards are sold from a stamp vending machine (at left) and are available in three different versions: 25 cents buys you a simple DNA sample; 50 cents buys you a signed DNA sample card; and for 75 cents, you'll have your very own signed, limited edition sample.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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