Author Darcy Steinke and her heart tattoo
Authors just don't spring to mind as the most likely people to have tattoos. But authors are showing their tattoos in publicity shots, they are arriving at award ceremonies with tattoos clearly visible, and they are loud and proud about the words and images that adorn their bodies.
Get that stereotyped picture of tattooed sailors and truck drivers out of your head. Tattoos are mainstream and have been for several decades now, plus the literary world actually has a long tradition of wearing tattoos and also writing about them.
Herman Melville wrote with humour about South Pacific tattooists and the tattooed in his 1846 novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and George Orwell, who rarely conformed with the British establishment, had blue spots tattooed on to his knuckles. In 1951, Ray Bradbury published a book of short stories called The Illustrated Man – all the stories were linked together by a tattooed vagrant. Each one of the character's tattoos had a story to tell. America poet and writer Dorothy Parker had a star on her elbow. Sylvia Plath wrote about The Fifteen Dollar Eagle, while Franz Kafka wrote about a nightmarish tattoo machine in his short story In The Penal Colony.
The list goes on.
In fact, the book Dorothy Parker's Elbow – edited by the tattooed duo of Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil – reveals how writers have addressed the issues surrounding the needle and the ink including the actual process, the tattooists and their work, the reaction of friends and family to the artwork, mirrors, meanings, and even the tattoos forced upon prisoners in German concentration camps.
Tattoos are no longer the symbol of rebellion they once were but for many people, including plenty of authors, they have deeply personal meanings and, sometimes, there is a story behind the writer's artwork.
Elizabeth Hand with her Boy in Tree tattoo
The inspiration for this article is a Maine-based writer called Elizabeth Hand – the author of Generation Loss - who was interviewed by AbeBooks several months ago. Flick open Generation Loss and there's her publicity shot on the dust wrapper – she's leaning against a white wooden post with her hands in the pockets of her jeans and tattoos clearly visible on her bare arms.
"I've got a bunch of tats - two huge ones on my left arm, a ring of fire on my right arm, and a really beautiful tattoo on my calf that's based on an illustration of The Boy in the Tree (a recurring figure in my work) from the Japanese edition of my first novel, Winterlong," explained Elizabeth.
"The Boy in the Tree is the most unusual and most striking, probably. They're all original works - not flash art, which is stock imagery from a book or catalog - and all by the same artist, a woman named Julie Rose who lives here in Maine. We really hit it off when I got my first tattoo in 2001. My novella The Least Trumps, included in my short story collections Bibliomancy and Saffron and Brimstone, was also inspired by that first tat.
"The really big tattoo, almost a full sleeve, that's on my forearm, has a quote from Arthur Rimbaud embedded in it, in French; the English translation is...
"My eternal soul
hold fast to desire
in spite of the night
and the day on fire.
"The big tat on my upper arm is an old-style tattoo of a phoenix in flames with the motto TOO TOUGH TO DIE - this is the tattoo my protagonist has in Generation Loss. Anyway, I love tattoos. I'm fascinated by tattoo artists, too."
Elizabeth recommends two books about tattoos - Tattooing A-Z: A Guide to Successful Tattooing, by Huck Spaulding and illustrated by Ted Naydan ("self-published but highly professional - a great how-to manual covering every aspect of the art") and Pierced Hearts and True Love: The History of Tattooing by Hanns Ebensten ("an early work on the history of tattoos with emphasis on English and European variants, 19th and 20th century, back when having a tattoo was still tres outré.")
Cookbook author and tattoo shop owner Sarah Kramer
Elizabeth is not the only author devoted to ink. In fact, they are easy to find. On the doorstep of AbeBooks's headquarters in Victoria, BC, is cookbook writer Sarah Kramer – author of The Garden of Vegan and La Dolce Vegan. As the co-owner of a tattoo shop, she has gone a step further than simply acquiring a few tats.
"I have been collecting tattoos since 1986, when as soon as I turned 18 I ran down to my local tattoo shop and got a little quarter-sized peace sign on my chest," she explained. "It's since been covered up, but I can remember getting my first tattoo like it was yesterday.
"We have a lot of clients visit the tattoo shop I own with my husband, Gerry, to get words or phrases tattooed. Most of our staff has tattooed something literary like 'carpe diem' or 'To thine own self be true' or sometimes just a single world that gives the client a sense of power or is used as a reminder.
"I, for example, have the word 'unforgiven' with a dagger through it (Image right). Its genesis started with the lyrics of a Go-Go's song about unforgiving someone. For me, this tattoo gives me strength and reminds me that the choice I made to unforgive a certain person and remove them from my life was the right choice.
"There are lots of books I like about tattooing, but one that stands out for me is Until I Find You by John Irving. Not only is it a great story but Irving's attention to detail regarding tattoo history is phenomenal because I don't think there is a single false note in the book. Most fiction books I've read that have tattooing as part of the story will portray a cheesy version of what it's actually like to be in a tattoo shop and receive a tattoo.
"Another fantastic book is Tattoos of the Floating World by Takahiro Kitamura and Katie M. Kitamura. It's a beautiful picture book and I could look at it 1000 times and still find new things to look at."
Irving, indeed, has two tattoos. A maple leaf can be found on his left shoulder - the author of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire is an American but he married a Canadian, and the leaf is for her. On Irving's right arm is a wrestling mat - of course, wrestling is his great passion and a recurring theme in his novels.
He became interested in tattoos while researching A Widow For One Year. Irving then conducted extensive research into tattoo culture for Until I Find You, visiting dozens of tattoo parlours. The central character, Jack, in Until I Find You has a tattoo artist for a mother and a tattoo addict for a father.
The list of inked authors goes on and on.
Alissa York with gecko tattoo
Photo by Ricardo Sternberg
Alissa York - whose latest novel, Effigy, was recently short-listed for Canada's 2007 Giller Prize - has one tattoo.
"I have a single tattoo of a gecko on my left upper arm. I got it when I was 22 (15 years ago)," she said. "My mother, an Australian immigrant, wrote two books of poetry, the first of which was entitled, In This House There Are No Lizards, so the lizard image is a tribute to her as the source of my writing blood."
Colorado-based horror writer Mike McBride - who is, ironically, the author of a book called The Infected - has three tattoos inspired by football and teenage camaraderie.
"I have the old Atlanta Falcons logo on both shoulders and a red bull with a nose ring on my lower left leg," he said. "(I got tattooed) pretty much as soon as I left for college in 1991. I suppose that would make me a teenage rebel, but the decision was less for rebellion's sake and more to explore the freedoms offered by the adult world. I had always planned to get tattooed as soon as I turned 18, so I knew exactly what I was getting and where it would go when the time finally arrived.
"The Falcons logo is pretty straightforward. I've been a Falcons fan since I was a little kid. I made that decision so long ago that I no longer remember it. They were strategically placed on my shoulders to cover up the homemade needle and India ink jobs I gave myself when I was 15 or 16. If you look closely enough, you can still see the scarred outline of the Queensryche logo on one shoulder and a heart with a big 'X' through it on the other.
"The bull was a little different. I had a good group of buddies through high school, and they hung the nickname 'Raging Bull' on me. They had other similar nicknames that I no longer remember. We went into Skibbo's in Greeley together as kind of a final act of commemoration and are now linked beyond mere memory."
Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and soon-to-be-published Wit's End, has a remarkable story behind her tattoo.
"It's on my left ankle - three stick figures dancing in wild celebration," she said. "My daughter drew it. She had a chronic and undiagnosed illness through most of her college years and she said if she ever got better she was going to get this tattoo to mark the occasion. When she finally did improve, we were mad with joy so my son and I went with her to the parlour and we all got the same tattoo. The stick figures are us - me and my children, dancing to celebrate my daughter's good health."
Darcy Steinke (left) - author of four novels, Up Through the Water, Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves and Milk – also has a tale behind her tat.
"My tattoo was designed by the artist Judith Schaechter," said the Brooklyn-based author. "It is a sacred heart with flowers and barb wire. It is not a cartoon heart but a real one like out of a medical book. I got the itch for it eight years ago. I was at a point of real desperation in my life, martial problems, I was a new mother and I just knew a huge shift was coming and I wanted to make a demarcation on my body, almost like a scar."
New York-based novelist T Cooper – author of Some of the Parts and Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes – has eight tattoos.
"I have an anchor with my girlfriend's name in a banner; one for my dog who's been with me for almost 14 years; some red and blue flames; and a bunch of words/names - mostly in English, but there's a Hebrew phrase as well. I also have a line drawing of plans for a 1920's-era airplane on my right arm.
"I started getting tattooed when I was about 24, right after moving to New York City. Tattooing was still illegal then in the city. It had been banned for 30-something years before being lifted in 1997. But ever since, I've just been adding over the years when the bug bites and I can't ignore it anymore.
"Some of my tattoos are about balance, some about completion, providing a subtle reminder that I can and will finish the things I set out to do, no matter how difficult they may be. Some are memorial, some are just decorative. My plane is an odd story: I got it in 2005, and then in 2007, I saw a jpeg of the paperback design of my second novel (Lipshitz 6, or Two Angry Blondes), and the designer had unknowingly used the exact line drawing of the same plane from my arm for the cover. It was sort of spooky, since I hadn't suggested it or anything like that. Though it wasn't totally out of left field, as a plane figures heavily in the book; I've also always had a deep, abiding fascination/fear of airplanes."
Aaron Gwyn, an assistant professor of English at University of North Carolina Charlotte and an author of several books including Dog on the Cross, has a kanji (a Japanese figure) on the inside of his right forearm.
"It's taken from a piece of calligraphy in an edition of Musashi Miyamoto's Book of Five Rings that I was reading at the time," he revealed. "I started out doing martial arts as a kid, kind of came back to it in my early 30s, and so my reasons for getting that particular tattoo had a lot to do with that. The character means, literally, 'nothing' or 'emptiness,' and can also be translated as 'heaven' or 'sky.' There are some Buddhist implications I like (though I'm not a Buddhist), but mostly when I'm out at the coffee shop or gym or whatever and have my shirtsleeves up and someone asks, 'what's that mean?' I get to say 'nothing,' and then we go through this Abbott and Costello routine. I've taken to keeping it covered up, actually."
Horror writer Brian Keene - the two-time Bram Stoker award-winning author of Jobs in Hell and The Rising - is taking literary tattoos perhaps further than most....by having his book covers tattooed on his back.
Brian Keene with his 4x4 tattoo
"The intention is (when I'm finished) to have an entire back piece with four or five book covers and original text running in between them, so my back will look like an open book complete with my spine as the book's spine," said Keene, who started the process in 2004 when he covered up an older tattoo.
The image shows the cover artwork from his book 4X4 – published in 2001 and now out-of print book except, of course, the book will always be in print on Brian's back.
The most experimental approach to tattoos in the literary world comes from artist and writer Shelley Jackson, who is publishing a story on the skin of volunteers. Her on-going 'Skin Project' involves 2095 people each being tattooed with a single word – each word makes up her story. Jackson allocates a word to each new volunteer but the participant can choose the location of their tattoo. If they are really lucky, the word comes with punctuation – perhaps a period or quotation marks. Jackson's website reports 1403 words have been distributed so far – let's hope she doesn't get writer's block.