September 30, 2008

“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”

When Herman Melville created the tattooed character of Queequeg in his 1851 novel Moby-Dick, he helped introduce skin art to American literature. I was reminded of this at an author's reading at a local bookstore. But forget the presentation; I was busy trying to read the back of the woman’s neck in front of me.

There was a sentence tattooed there, but I couldn’t quite make it out. The words “yes” and “will” were visible, but her hair blocked the rest, and she left before I understood what statement her neck was making.

I was left pondering how one-in-four U.S. adults has a tattoo, including nearly 40% of people between the ages of 25 and 29. Once linked with risky behavior patterns, tattoos are now common even among mild-mannered literary types. (No doubt a librarian somewhere is getting the phrase “Live to Read, Read to Live” inked on his or her arm at this very moment.)

With its legions of readers, Portland is a place where words frequently leap from pen to needle and from paper to skin. But since a human is a difficult manuscript to edit, due care must go into choosing a literary tattoo. What words get under a person’s skin to the point where they have to be on top of it as well? And what authors are particular favorites?

Wordy authors are disqualified as tattoo sources. It would take your entire back to do justice to someone like Virginia Woolf or Umberto Eco. A website devoted to readers who get inked, Contrariwise, reveals that a particular tattoo favorite is the Kurt Vonnegut quote heading this blog entry (it’s from Slaughterhouse 5). Also notable is the preponderance of selections in Tolkein’s Elvish, and quotes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, and my own The Pocket Guide to Mischief.

Herman Melville described Queequeg’s tattoos as “mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them.” That’s why a poet’s brief, vivid lines provide such excellent material; there’s more to the words than meets the eye.

I did eventually discover the source of the neck tattoo I spied at that book reading. It’s from the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it relates the character Molly Bloom’s train of thought. The quote reads “yes I said yes I will Yes [sic].” (If you’re wondering what Molly was so positive about, leaf through Ulysses yourself; don’t worry, It’s a quick read.)

But for genuine self-expression, why use the words of another? Why not self-publish? For one thing, the writer gets to know his or her readers quite well. And there is another particularly satisfying bonus to self-publishing on your own skin: You probably won’t go out of print anytime soon.
As for me, I’m holding off until I find the perfect quote to extract from this year’s best book.

Other links of interest: A recent Oregonian piece, and a less-recent Telegraph article. (The latter will give the literary sources employed in the above photos.)
My sources are here.
Photo credits (from the top): Colleen AF Venable, smallestbones, mass romantic, Jun Cruz Na Ligas, poetnicole, unknown.


TattooedProfessor said...

I have many literary tattoos. One of Cosette, a character created by Victor Hugo in Les Mis. I have Jean Valjean's prison numbers tattooed across my stomach and on the back of one calf I have the word "READ" and the other calf says "BOOKS", both in very large typewriter font! I wish I could upload a picture.

Bart King said...

Color me impressed! I love the sound of these.