Black to green to gone: the tattoo as form and subject

Andrew David King
July 9, 2012
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To encode the past into one’s skin is both recursive and prophetic: recursive in that it makes the past a continual part of not just the present but the vehicle of the self in the present—the body—and prophetic in that it alters that present, forges it into a different future. In every tattoo is a bit of the Ouroboros, that snake that swallows its own tail; the line thought to be straight bends circular after a period of time and loops back onto itself. In “The Illustrated Man,” a short story by the late Ray Bradbury, a carnival worker-cum-Tattooed Man visits a woman who covers his entire body with artwork; two of the areas, she claims, will show the future. The first shows the man harming his wife. When this happens, he’s accosted and thrashed by the other workers, who then uncover the second area: a precise depiction of the beating they’re carrying out. Bradbury’s story disturbs because it conjures a world in which not all tattoos are memorials, and not all memorials are backwards-facing: the idea of being tethered to something—and pulling or being pulled by it, swallowing or being swallowed by it—no longer takes place on the ribbon of a unidirectional timeline. The inked image is a-temporal, outside of time; it bears forth its own existence while standing at the portal to other universes of memory. It clings, but warps what it clings to—both the human body (vessel) and what the lines and colors call forth (what the vessel carries).

The sort of Romantic irreducibility that tattoos toy with has been of interest to poets and writers for some time now; a handful of projects in the literary community have been dedicated to investigating what these ever-spreading phenomena of chemicals scraped into flesh mean. To use “mean” in terms of tattoos, though, is to both conflate and deflate the capabilities of tattoos. Any tattoo, whether explicitly textual or not, can match any poem for its role in certain performances. Both can be explained teleologically: certain marks are gotten to commemorate births and deaths, weddings and comings-of-age, milestones and tragedies. Both can mourn in perpetuity. The tattoo, like the poem, can be an act of remembrance; a bookmark glued to a particular page, and then the book glued to the hand (or the thigh, or the forearm, etc.); it can facilitate remembering, and if not of things in their actualities, then the semblances of things in their imagined actualities. The tattoo can also be, as is the case with Bradbury, an act of predication: an oracle that can forsooth the future or manipulate its hues. Or—even more terrifying—an inevitability, an already-connected part of the body that, in being drawn on, only becomes visible; it was always present.

Courtesy of beau-foto (Flickr/Creative Commons); the tattoo’s text is adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

And both can be the catalysts for discoveries and acquaintances, the lit filament between two metal prongs. In Kim Addonizio’s “First Poem for You,” the tattoos worn by the speaker’s lover take on new lives as the volt dancing in its arc: “I like to touch your tattoos in complete / darkness, when I can’t see them,” says the speaker, who goes on to confess how the tattoos have become not unlike Braille, shapes and locations of the body able to be perceived by touch and memory alone. The tattoo takes on a second life—its first being its existence as an aesthetic object—as an orchestrator of familiarity, the sort of familiarity so ineffable and mist-like it doesn’t require allegiance to sight or strict interpretation but creates its own language to be recognized by instead. For this weird midnight lexicon, as with the speaker in Addonizio’s poem, light is a triviality; it’s so much a triviality that its opposite is what’s desired for the speaker. The lack of visibility is what’s desired precisely because the images etched into the skin of the lover don’t need to be seen to exist: like the dead they memorialize (or the endless incarnations of other tattoo embodiments), their existence—if they still have one—is detached from the physical world. This isn’t to say that it’s not material; dead bodies are still bodies, and tattoos live on skin. And so another kinship to map in addition to the poem and the tattoo: the memento mori—the reminder you will die—of a funeral. Like the body of the once-person, the poem and the tattoo are both portals into the not-now, into somewhere else. Addonizio’s speaker ends the poem (because nothing here is concluded) with an attempt at reconciling how the permanent and the fleeting might inhabit the same space:

…They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.

Trying—to last, or at least to be remembered. This realization of mortality unites the inked-on text and the text of the printed page. Both are efforts at speech between two people (Rukeyser’s ghost, echoing her poem titled with that phrase: “Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?”) Both are attempts at dog-earing reality, at reinforcing neuronal pathways that, like the art the body carries on its surface, will one day fade. And here note the colloquial import of “fade”: what’s faded isn’t dead, not exactly, but dying. What’s fading takes as its residence that unspecified no-man’s-land between signifier and signified, tenor and vehicle; it is no longer either the carried or what’s being carried. Not a hologram, per se, but not the mass-filled item either. What’s fading is being lost, is committed to being lost—whether some cessation in this deterioration occurs now or at some point in the future, the fading-faded thing has taken irreversible steps toward self-obliteration. There’s a paradox, too, in that what expedites the thing’s obliteration is also crucial for its preservation; light makes what’s faded visible, but also further erodes it into the jungle of the illegible and the foreign. Exposed to light, tattoos begin the process of fading, just as skin cells die and rub off. Printed text fades, becomes moldy, and grows sunburnt until it reaches the point where it, too, begins that odd cycle of regurgitation. The materials for representation don’t come from any other world than that of the represented, and at one point, they loop together again into an absolutely necessary Möbius: soil to seed to sapling to fiber to ink-filled paper to mulch to soil. And so with skin.

No other art form has its destruction date so indelibly linked to human mortality. Whether public or private, tattoos disappear with finality only when their wearers do (if this subjugation is acceptable; if the person wears the tattoo and the tattoo doesn’t wear the person), only when the material of the body, however delayed, re-enters its cycle. The trajectory of books is much more varied; it can both outlast and fall short of the human timeline. Chapbooks and collections and broadsides appear and, if lucky, persist in existing decades after the author stops breathing—else, they’ll vanish before then, or be resigned to purgatorial existences in the backs of used bookstores. So the tattoo, like the poem, has a schizophrenic shelf-life, though the tattoo has no chance besides the case of photographic preservation of outlasting its “creator”—or the person who, at least, called it into existence—in its original form. (Though it can, like a bad poem caught early, be “zapped off.”) Many of O’Hara’s poems were left in drawers and in piles, and many more were never found; the ones that were found outlive him on the terms of the materials they were composed with. But what’s written on the body follows it through space and time from the point of attachment via needle to the grave or incinerator. The speaker in Addonizio’s poem knows this, and is thrilled by it—but more so by the temporary permanence of the tattoo while it lingers on the body, an oxymoron only inasmuch as we understand permanence to mean temporal infinity. But permanence can have a duration: it can mean an indisputable existence for a set period of time. And this is what terrifies Addonizio’s speaker: the idea of being ephemeral and thereby being replaced, whether by another relationship, the written testimony of the poem itself, or “the blue / swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent / twists, facing a dragon.”

If a sense of permanence as infinity is a lost cause, that doesn’t mean a sense of it as finite but immutable is, too; inscriptions in skin serve as rivets in fabric, hooks that bind their bearers into pulleys. They tie bearers to others, to themselves. The tattoo can be representative or represented when viewed from the monocular of clinical aestheticism, but the motivations are doubtlessly more complicated for undergoing the hours-long (if not days-long) process of the alcohol swabs, the repeated poking with a sharp piece of metal, the beading blood and the towel that wipes it away. In a poem from his 1998 collection Sweet Machine, Mark Doty’s speaker talks of the ritual of selecting that which will mark his skin, ostensibly, forever. “My Tattoo” begins “I thought I wanted to wear / the Sacred Heart, to represent / education through suffering…” before the speaker himself has a change of heart in this semi-religious, semi-mystic induction:

…What noun
would you want

spoken on your skin
your whole life through?
I tried to picture what

I’d never want erased…

What one would never want erased: at least for the time being, as long as the blood beneath the skin and the ultraviolet light permit it to stay. To stay—and, if we take the speaker seriously, to speak as a human would. The speaker, already tattooed, flees the parlor for a time before returning, but contemplates before his departure:

What once was skin

has turned to something
made; written and revised
beneath these sleeves,

hearts and banners,
daggers and flowers and names.

This is the language of both paper and epidermis. What begins as materials, as an un-made thing, metamorphoses into a made thing—and not a thing created by a single Zeus-like stroke of lightning but a thing re-made, revised, and revisited. And the pun on “sleeves” (“jacket sleeves” working equally well for human arms and hardcover editions) only heightens the surreality these doppelgängers share. Skin, being a natural element of personhood for this species, hasn’t yet entered into its post-Eden phase for Doty’s speaker until it becomes “made”: until it is recast in the particulars of the speaker’s life. But what else is full of particulars in this melding of anecdote and anecdote telling than the poem and the tattoo itself? It is titled, after all “My Tattoo”—but who or what is the title’s referent? When the speaker questions as to whether or not he “already bear[s] // the etched and flaring marks / of an inky trade,” there’s no concrete indication that the experience is being testified to by the writer of the poem, just as there’s no proof that the poem is channeling another, more disembodied voice. The common critical penchant for ad hominem conflations of poem-speakers with their authors (a fallacy I’ve partaken of extensively in the past) prompts a consideration of Doty as both the speaker of the poem who wears the tattoo and the author of the poem, in which case the idea that the tattoo is applicable in both senses is made more interesting. Here a differentiation must be made between flesh-tattoo and poem-tattoo for clarity’s sake, but at the end of the day each is the other. If an argument had to be made, though, for one at the expense of alternative possibilities, it would be hard to dispense with the knowledge that the poem on paper, as brought to life in paper materials, is all we have to go off of: here is an epigraph (or epitaph), an engraving, an object and a voice that proclaim “My Tattoo” is the tattoo, the writing that stays until its materials necessitate its alteration. The poem itself is the mark. The writer and the written are both material and message—or, as Doty’s speaker says near the end of the poem, “It’s too late // to be unwritten, / and I’m much too scrawled / to be erased.”

Courtesy of pixajen (Flickr/Creative Commons); the tattoo’s text reads, in Latin, “know thyself.”

To have the text one bears erased, or to the entity of the self erased—wholly gone, eradicated? These are questions Doty ponders well into later collections, including Source (2001), which includes a handful of poems that engage them. “Paul’s Tattoo” starts with that statement of the obvious that still shocks because of its constant repression, that static spark of lucidity: “The flesh dreams toward permanence…” The speaker wonders at the wonders of a tattoo shop, at where the palette of testimony is being directed. A rough triangle is hewn between Doty’s speaker, Paul, and the tattoo artist; we’re left to speculate as to what other angles might be produced by the “freshly shadowed corazón” on the arm of the poem’s eponymous subject. Here are endless permutations of duration-bound permanence: the lines drawn between individuals, which are erasable and resistant and as much prone to dissolution as they are to congealment. But the sense of the tattoo, as with the poem that also marks materials and also carries something into that passageway between sender and recipient(s), as a communicator between people has not left contemporary consciousness—might not ever leave it. Its blips and beeps are often chance-addled, more often binary static—but they do connect. And sometimes they even impose. Take, for instance, a few lines from Rick Barot’s poem “The Gecko,” from his 2001 collection The Darker Fall:

…And more endurable by far
than the odd late call or a stranger’s glance,
what was the creature but another
design the world had on you?

Earlier I asked the open-ended question of whether or not the standard wearer-worn hierarchy was acceptable; I fear it’s not, or at best it’s insufficient. This bears consequences for the poem, too, with its typical model of writer-written: the author forges the poem, and not the other way around. The wordplay Barot’s speaker exhibits in “design… on you” calls for the conceptualization of the tattoo as a physical manifestation of deterministic force, one whose wearer may or may not break free by acknowledging that force, by bringing it into some sort of agreement with his or her body. And it is hardly “permanent” as much as it is “more endurable”—not more durable, but more bearable: it is what’s wearing the speaker, not what’s being worn; what’s kept with the body at all times outshines the measurable strain of other events, namely those painful interactions with others. In Barot’s poem, the tattoo both interrupts the vector between the speaker and the “you” as well as preserves it. Immediately after, the speaker imagines “a Blakean sun / on your pec, a blue snowflake on each bicep…”, another design imposed not just by the world but by the specific narrative presence of the “I”-voice. The tattoo is a projection of sight, a foray into that world where images both describe and become the objects of their description. Too often forgotten, though, is the role the vision (both as biological and imaginative apparatus) of the tattoo artist, which like a radio antenna both receives and irrevocably alters the wavelengths it taps into. Every tattoo paid for and gotten at a tattoo shop has another, more underground history besides that constitutes the linear story leading up to, and following, its acquisition. The tattoo artist consultant, prophet, and oracle all in one. Or, as Stephanie Elliot writes in her poem, “What the Tattoo Artist Said,” “I always remind them, / saying, you’re choosing what you never have to let go, / what you’ll feel closer to, what you might become.” As if realizing this himself, Doty’s last poem explicitly dealing in the arena of sterilized needles and bared thighs in his collected poems, Fire to Fire (2008), takes as its focus the line between the creator of the tattoo and the person who will wear that drawing for the rest of his or her life. “To the Engraver of My Skin” opens with the legalese language of waivers: “I understand the pact is mortal, / I agree to bear this permanence.” This is perhaps the most concise and rending summary of the territory, but the speaker in the poem continues his imperatives:

…I’m here
for revision, discoloration, here to fade

and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me!
This ink lasts longer than I do.

It does, and it doesn’t; fading is the landscape of lasting. There’s a property to this gorgeous dichotomy that plays both bullet and fishhook: bullet in that it pierces something apparently universal—as made clear in the worldwide phenomena of injecting ink into subsurface layers of skin—and fishhook in that it snags, that there’s something about both the notion of the image and the sacrament of turning it into a living hieroglyph that is both barbaric and lyrical. The ink that Doty’s speaker in this poem receives as an addendum to his body dies with it, but stays in those moments between death and the disposal of the body; the archetypes of the tattoos, though—sun, moon, sacred heart—continue to transmit uninterrupted. In “Lace” by Michael Waters, the speaker doesn’t remember the individual whose torso he saw trailed with a tattoo of lace, but does recall the image. And the speaker he remembers his remembering, how the residue of the picture remains stubborn in its perplexing work: “I don’t know why this story / stayed with me through cheap whiskey…” For Waters’s speaker, the tattoo of lace stands in as the quintessence of all tattoos: a substance light and malleable but present, something not quite there but nonetheless tenacious. The lace, like the poem, transforms into one of the many “ephemeral attachments… / between one person and the next,” a self-destructive vector that erases itself until the distinction between the “I” and the “other” is no longer tenable, until the story embedded in the artwork flees the cage of the personal and bounds out into that place of Jungian significance: fashionableness aside, is it any wonder why the catalogs of tattoo parlors are filled with the redundant menageries that they are?

Courtesy of Pink Sherbert Photography (Flickr/Creative Commons).

But the infidelity of materials is superseded by the purposes those materials are bent toward, whether paper or flesh humming with pulse. And it might be wrong to call the sailor’s swallow on a woman’s neck a living image; it might be more correct to say that it exists outside of the human constraints of life and death—a memorial to her, perhaps, but an thing unto itself that isn’t constricted by the parameters of the living. “The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species,” Nietzsche remarks in The Gay Science; tattoos, like poems, enter further into the concentric circles of the labyrinth than we can, decipher echoes there that we never could. At one point they, too, will disappear, will get lost in their own noise, but for now they wander on—carried by, and carrying, their bearers (because now “wearers” seems a failed descriptor), illustrated torches burning outside of the leash of temporality. Like Bradbury’s fated carnival worker, they predicate and reveal as well as provide witness. And they wait to be encountered in any environment, even the most mundane: in Brenda Hillman’s poem “The Y,” a speaker tells of the tattoos she sees at the gym, and Doty, in his poem “At the Gym,” notes the sweat stain left by weightlifters on their padded bench: “Here is some halo / the living made together.” Like the other marks, it is permanent for a time. And then the light from each nimbus fades, begins fading. The Virgins of Guadalupe that preach from between shoulder blades shed their rainbow glory. New poems are written not beside the old poems, but atop them—on paper that will likewise adopt, for a time, the hue of human complexion.

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