Friday, October 22, 2010

Written on the Body

On Wednesday night, I was fortunate enough to attend a party held in honor of the new book The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. I have been an ardent, albeit voyeuristic, fan of the "literary tattoo" phenomenon ever since a friend tipped me off to Contrariwise, an excellent website that is devoted to them.

I would venture to say that most people (even people like me, who have a hard time remembering things like ATM pins and computer passwords and sometimes conversations completed less than ten minutes ago) carry around with them a line from a poem, or a phrase from a novel, that they will never, ever forget; a sentence or a stanza that set their synapses ablaze, ingraining itself forever in the intricate passageways of the mind.

Some of these words will leave their mark through beauty, whether it lies in their rhythm and assonance -- the way they roll off the tongue -- or the image they evoke; others remain indelible because of the deeper meaning they contain. Sometimes the association is indirect, related more to the context. A phrase, perhaps innocuous in itself, can be powerfully symbolic of an experience or a personal relationship.

However, it is a big leap to have these beloved, iconic words indelibly inscribed on your flesh. Permanently inking something onto your skin is a serious statement, and choosing to get a tattoo is a very conscious, and often deeply-pondered, decision. What spurs someone to get a line from The Satanic Verses etched into their flesh? Or, for that matter, a Charles Bukowski poem? Choices are drastically varied, as are the designs; some are straight calligraphy, whereas others incorporate illustrations.

You can while away many afternoons scrolling through the photographs on Contrariwise and also on the book's blog. Often, the featured tattoos are accompanied by an explanation from their proud wearers, each an illuminating glimpse into someone's deeply private interior life. The Word Made Flesh is also structured around this pairing of tattoo and essay, but the editors' thoughtful curation of its entries leads to bigger and broader inferences that makes the book almost anthropological in scope. It manifests a staggering breadth of human emotion and experience; it also provides incredible insight into the way we read, and the relationship that we as a society have with the written word.

For instance, some authors and quotations appear very frequently. At the event on Wednesday, the editors -- Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor -- described the process of choosing what to include in their anthology. They received many submissions inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, e.e. cummings, and Sylvia Plath; Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling are apparently also popular writers in the nation's tattoo parlors (as an observer, this trending is more apparent on the blogs because Talmadge and Taylor made a deliberate effort to avoid repetition in the book).

This leads me to what I consider to be a major issue regarding literary tattoos. Would you be pissed if you got "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" etched on your shoulderblade, only to discover on some blog that at least fifteen other people have that same tattoo? Would it tarnish the special relationship you have with Slaughterhouse Five? Or would knowing you belong to a community of Vonnegut fans somehow it enhance it?

I'm not quite sure how I would feel. People seem to have mixed reactions; some of the people in the book clearly got intricate and obscure tattoos as an expression of individuality, whereas others seem to have wanted more to signify their fandom, their inclusion in a larger reading public. As I don't have any tattoos, I can't really claim to understand what it's like to select a design, get it done, and then live with it -- you know what I mean?

However, I have been thinking about the possibility for a while. I had back surgery earlier this year, which left a vertical scar about two-and-a-half inches long on my lower back; although it's perilously close to "tramp stamp" territory, I'm intrigued by the idea of disguising, or incorporating, it somehow with a tattoo. I even know what I would get (I think), but I haven't quite yet made the plunge into certainty. It wouldn't be a text tattoo, but it certainly would be literary-related... if I get it, I promise I'll show you guys a photo!

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved the idea of a literary tattoo, but have hesitated to get one because I question whether I am cool enough to do so... However, should I get another tattoo, I have a lovely quote from Emily Dickinson (which shall be kept private, as its meaning is rather personal) that I think is most fitting both due to the content and the fact that my mother, in her infinite love of literature, named me after her. (A fact of which I am quite proud - how many people have a great literary namesake?!)