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Skin Deep

LET ME SAY IT RIGHT UP FRONT: I've got a tattoo. I never show it off and if anyone happens to notice, they point and say, "Hey, did you write on yourself?" 

I did, in 1970, draw an arrow that got tattooed there in all its spreading bluish glory, on the outside of my right foot, curving around the heel and pointing up toward my head. It couldn't be less attractive.

A young guy I knew from the street who'd been named after a motorcycle and was "into leather" was about to try home-tattoo as his new career. I agreed to let him "sock it to me." The idea seemed romantic, and I wanted to see firsthand the actual operation and its accoutrements, to have the adventure I'd been privately mulling. More curious than cautious, I booked the fifth and last appointment of Harley's first all-tatting day hoping that by then he'd had enough practice. 

I was 15. I still knew pretty much  everything.

 

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I grew up in the 60's and 70's in Greenwich Village, when it wasn't unusual for some man at a party to "offer" to literally paint your nude female form. (Yes, even my underage one.) At least two of my parents would have been okay with it but I wasn't. I was made to feel "uptight" for not wanting some stranger to "Goldfinger" me. Getting a single tattoo from someone I was familiar with was harder to resist. My inspiration wasn't the bohemian culture I saw all around me, but a quieter, more bookish one that started when I discovered Ray Bradbury's  The Illustrated Man. I found the book on top of one of the garbage cans behind our building. I dumped our trash and began reading on my way back up the stairs. 

The book begins with a prologue that casts the wandering tattooed man on a hill at dusk with another traveler and ends with an epilogue that finds that traveler running away from the Illustrated Man at dawn. These two pieces are the frame for the 18 classic stories of science fiction that follow. The prologue draws the narrator (and reader) into the artwork on the skin of the Illustrated Man; art made by a female tattoo artist (a rare phenomenon at the time) who is possibly a witch from the future, and who has marked our man with her choice of "Illustrations." This art comes to life, tells tales of the future, and finally threatens the narrator. In no other part of any of the stories in-between do these two men or our woman from the framing device appear.

Prior to becoming Illustrated, our Man was a carnival worker made unemployable by a broken leg. On a walk (presumably on crutches) he spots a sign. He tells the narrator that he was drawn in by one word:

"Illustration."

"SKIN ILLUSTRATION! Illustration instead of tattoo! Artistic!" 

"Illustration" is also the provocative promise of his story. It hangs on that word and throughout the "I" in "Illustration" is capitalized. The Illustrated Man is Bradbury's symbolic embodiment of the lure and connection of story and picture. 

The stories that take place between the prologue and epilogue are widely taught and well known. Though there are no actual pictures of any kind, Bradbury's word paintings imaginatively and eloquently reveal his thoughtful concern with the possible (often grim) future:

Things grew upon him in layers. Drops fell and touched other drops and they became streams that trickled over his body, and while these moved down his flesh, the small growths of the forest took root in his clothing. He felt the ivy cling and make a second garment over him; he felt small flowers bud and open and petal away, and still the rain pattered on his body and over his head.

He depicts men torn between home and work and between religion and science, children pushing parents' boundaries with technology as their weapon, the tendency of power to move toward censorship, frightful acts of nature that cannot be contained. He expresses the preoccupations, passions, and brutality of humankind, draws ties between virtual and authentic landscapes, and most of all, examines our hope of cheating death. 

The story of  The Illustrated Man might seem to only add to the debit column for anyone considering a first tattoo. He tells the traveler "sometimes at night I can feel them, the pictures, like ants, crawling on my skin." But my affair with tattoos began with Bradbury's literary device and was fueled by his ideas and language. Despite anything I might have divined from Bradbury (hey, it's fiction) and reservations I had of my own (pain, bleeding, risk of infection, and a tattoo that might wind up looking like rubbed-in dirt), I went ahead and got one. No other girls I knew had one. I would seem brave. I'd have a story to tell.

I showed up for my tattoo as planned, at the end of Harley's first day. As I suspected, I was the only female on the list. The apartment was dimly lit by red bulbs. I tried to focus. Three of the newly tattooed guys were still hanging out in the small living room where Harley had been plying the needle. "Regulars" from the neighborhood: Brick, a rippled bench-presser who wore a wife-beater even in winter, Donny, a slight cook from Pennyfeathers (our local breakfast hang), and a drag queen named Oral who had taught me how to put on lipstick. There were glowing pink pets everywhere. They were actually all white; two white shepherds, two white rabbits, a white-ish snake. A couple of white rats and many white mice were in cages. I sat in a dark, velvet-covered wing chair and put my foot up on an old leather hassock. Harley took a look at my arrow drawing. I explained that it was meant to be a visual representation of Oscar Wilde's quote from  Lady Windermere's Fan: "We're all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars." There were a few appreciative noises of recognition. The needle touched my flesh, stinging flooded my body, blood put on brakes at my brain and I promptly lost consciousness.

 

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The Western world of tattoo has always been filled with unsavory characters, sailors, soldiers, and crazy-ass carny-types with wild drunken stories. Tattoos have historically been the property of the lower-class, visually oriented male, more about pictures (many of which were considered "risqué") and artwork than words (with the exception of proper names of loved ones' especially the ever-popular "MOTHER") and literature. It has not long been associated with the literate, articulate and highly educated, and until recently certainly not with women. 

But times change. I'm not sure that anyone from the 40's through the 70's (including Bradbury and his peers, whose stock and trade was writing about the future) could have predicted the wave of diverse body art that is now a permanent feature of a large, voluntary population, some of whom are even sober when they get them and many of whom are writers and readers. When crafting narrative, authors search for the perfect word just as artists seek the perfect line. Word and line can marry enticingly in the art of tattoo, and this is the premise of  The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor, a book about words told with pictures, and, true to that idea, it is mostly photographs of tattoos and the parts of people that they're drawn upon. The photographs are randomly presented, some with a bit of context provided by the tattoo-ee. The tattoos can be (but aren't) grouped into several categories: illustrations copied from books, quotes from literature, portraits of authors, celebrations of word and font, and various interpretations and combinations of the above.

Most of us start our literary lives with picture books, and a number of the tattoos in  The Word Made Flesh are re-creations of illustrations from childhood classics: Where the Wild Things AreThe Runaway Bunny and — my personal favorite here — The Story of Ferdinand. With tattoos that elicit such warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings, it becomes clear that this subculture is moving closer to the mainstream. Women have been a help in making it so: Becky Quiroga's "Very Hungry Caterpillar," drawn on her arm by Eric Carle himself, is a piece of body art that soccer moms from Sandusky to Timbuktu would find it hard to disapprove of. 

Of somewhat more artistic and literary interest are the photos and descriptions of the people who compose the short story  Skin by Shelley Jackson. Skin is written in one-word tattoos on volunteer participants, each of whom are thereafter known as "words". Together, they form a living story that will someday along with the last "word," also die. 

Talmadge and Taylor's book is at its most substantial in the tattoo-ees' brief, individual stories. Many of the tattooed (but not all) explain why a certain phrase or illustration touched them enough to make them commit it to their own skin, to experience the written word more palpably than most of us ever will. Those who are readers and writers might be expected to be more articulate about their tattoos than the average person. It's therefore a waste of good Jonathan Lethem to have his entry be made up of a mere two photos on a black background-one of Lethem waist-up showing his tattoo (a can of UBIK spray on his bicep) and a close-up of it on the next page — without any words about it from him. Those who are aware of Lethem's passion for Philip K. Dick, and who have read Dick's  Ubik, will easily decipher the significance of this tattoo, but you won't get any of that context from The Word Made Flesh. (For those who are interested, I refer you to Lethem's website — you'll find the story of the tattoo on page 9, a story which really makes clear how a flesh illustration can connect to a life story.) This is the kind of detail I wanted to find in The Word Made Flesh. The authors seem to have compiled whatever they happened to acquire from their crowdsourced internet queries and done little more. 

On the short list of the latest pop descriptors that make me squirm is anything described as being "like a mix tape." Editors Talmadge and Taylor push that button hard in their introduction. I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads that sentence fragment as: "I want to exploit a particular demographic-you." They were practically guaranteed the healthy niche market of the literarily tattooed, but they could have played to the world at large. They acknowledge in the intro that the phenomenon of the literary tattoo is significant but they don't take the time to give the book what it needs to connect with the wider audience: organization and context, the written word, story. Without classification or contextualization for the uninitiated, many of the tattoos seem to say not much more than  I bought a reproduction/plagiarized a favorite author/illustrator and put it on my body, er, permanently. 

The book's overall design (credited to Aline C. Pace) bears little connection to the concept of making the literary visual. It's made up of tattoo clip-art derived from the standards of the drunken sailor along with a few distracting filigree-type accents repeated overmuch. The photos, too are of disappointing quality. This may be because they were cadged from the tattoo-ees rather than shot professionally. The credits give little clue whether the name listed is a photographer or a tattoo artist. 

These things compound into a missed opportunity or three. Any book, any work of art, any human being can be doomed by lack of care. The building pressures of technology, the economy, ecology and population are forcing us to rethink how and why we purchase goods. The book as object must be ever more worthy of its price, worthy of its own version of permanence.

 

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Los Angeles, thriving international capital of exhibitionism and voyeurism that it is, is all about the cover. It's therefore inexorably linked to tattooing, thanks in part to TLC's show  L.A. Inkand its sexy tattooist star, Katherine Von Drachenburg (better known as Kat Von D), another conduit to the mainstream for contemporary tattoo culture: she could be the Illustrated Man's woman from the future. Von D is not easy to dismiss. Her first book, High Voltage Tattoo reached #6 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2009. Her latest, The Tattoo Chronicles, contains a year of journal entries extracted from what she calls her "blood books." These pages are packed with all the passion you'd expect from that description, proving tattoo to be about our cultural/tribal narrative and human connection. 

I can testify that  The Tattoo Chronicles aren't just for fans of Ms. Von D, either. I wasn't one. This book just gets it right: it's a loving and meticulously made object that fetishizes word and picture alike. It's full of personal detail about Von D and the people she painstakingly practices her art upon. A curious, intense, perceptive, and talented young woman struggling with more than her share of the familiar questions of life, she shares not only her account of the tattoos she creates during the circumscribed year, but also her photographs of the people and the art (KVD is best known for her painstaking black and grey tattoos). The book includes pretty pictures of her many collections: taxidermy, globes; nun dolls; keys; and celebrity clients. Will Staehle has created a dazzling design with typographic savvy that keeps us easily surfing the components. Together, they've crafted a product that amounts to more than its packaging, true to its school while reaching out to a far wider world.

The people Von D tattoos (a plethora of romantics and idealists keenly interested in the concepts of forever and world without end) willingly let more than blood. As she pierces them with needles, clients often work their way into her heart with their stories. She writes well of that. When KVD returns a dead mother or son to someone's arm or chest in effigy, she often gleans more than she expects. Some of these stories are so personal that it's hard not to wonder if the people signed off on their retelling. An occasional fool for love herself (with, at the time of her writing, Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx) Von D is also unafraid to divulge unpleasant, uncomfortable revelations about her own life. The entries in  The Tattoo Chronicles were written during her early sobriety, and "by retelling these stories and sharing some of the crazy rants that have saved me from myself in these blood books of mine," she writes, she hopes "those things in life and love that were the hardest for me to overcome will become a little bit more understandable for those going through similar experiences."

The last time I passed one of the many offices of the famous tattoo removal service "Dr. Tattoff" they were doing a brisk business. Today's illustrated bodies can become blank slates again. The fictional Illustrated Man might find a sequel in his becoming un-illustrated. The very real Kat Von D has had tattoos removed to replace. (Removal no longer requires invasive surgery. It's difficult and expensive, with no guarantee there won't be scarring or infection. Pulses of laser light break up the pigment and some colors take more treatments than others to get rid of. For weeks after, the body's scavenger cells remove most of the residue.) Kat von D has said that the tattoos she carries on her person are the ones she still wants. "When you look at my body, you can see my memories." Selectively, of course.

Despite the presence and popularity of a Dr. Tattoff, judging from the stories in  The Word Made Flesh and The Tattoo Chronicles, people still get tattooed with an aim toward permanence. These days it's more like marriage-easy to get into, harder to get out of, still an expression of connection, of meaningful personal experience that longs to stay that way. Both books validate what Bradbury knows and tells best; that the only thing permanent is change. His main riffs are consciousness of mortality and fear of loss. Story is how we live the examined life. Story is everything. In his most famous book Fahrenheit 451 men and women are forced to memorize, internalize their beloved books. 

The narrator of the prologue and epilogue of  The Illustrated Man is told to resist looking at the Illustrations. He cannot. At the end of the prologue he is having the experience none of us can resist, that of being told the good tale. The epilogue returns the reader to the hill at dawn, just as the narrator comes upon a blank patch of skin which begins to show his future. In it, the Illustrated Man is choking him. It's a clever way of tying these stories together. But Bradbury tells us the future isn't set in stone. The narrator rouses himself and escapes his possible future. We know this because he's telling us the tale. He lives to tell the story.

 

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When I woke up in the glowing red room, in the red velvet wing chair, Donny was fanning me with the bunch of peacock feathers that had been sticking out of a tall vase, Oral was holding my hand, singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." Brick brought me a glass of water. Harley finished the tattoo. I went home and took care of it as ordered. The tattoo didn't turn out as I'd hoped; maybe it was my drawing, or the fact that Harley was a novice. Still, I never regretted having it. 

Sometime near the end of the eighties, I became aware that some of the people who'd been tattooed in that living room had met the reaper. It prompted me to get tested for AIDS and to recall, for the first time in years,  The Illustrated Man. I was never more aware of this picture on my skin. I held my breath. The test came back negative. The story of my tattoo continues to unfold. I think I'll keep it.