I’m kind of a sucker for good tattoos, especially very graphic (design-wise, folks! get your minds out of the gutter!) ones and literary ones. I have the Contrariwise blog in my google reader, and I’ve been known to do the occasional Flickr search for typographic tattoos. A number of my friends have very cool, yet simple designs, from a connect-the-dots tattoo to a falling leaf to a bird with a keyhole to various other symbols. The Siren Music Festival down on Coney Island is one of my favorite cool tattoo-spotting places every summer.
Recently, a friend who has a few typography/literature-inspired pieces got a new one– “stet” on the back of her neck. To stet herself, as she is, which I think is such a neat idea. And another friend shared this photo that she came across. Both made me start wanting a third. (I have a Garamond italic ampersand and the lamppost from Narnia.)
When I was growing up, it seemed that tattoos were a very “badass” thing to do. But now it seems like they are so much more prevalent–and nerdy tattoos have just as much prevalence as any other. Maybe I’m totally making this up, but it seems to me that they are becoming more and more accepted. Not necessarily “mainstream” but not a much bigger deal than getting your ears pierced or your belly button pierced. (At least, my mom’s reaction to “I got another tattoo” was exactly the same as her reaction to “I didn’t fold my laundry at the laundromat.”)
And I think that is really interesting for a time when things are moving more and more to digital. Something involving ink and physical, tangible marking is just as popular as ever, if not more so. It makes me think that print isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. While the internet is has permanence (you can find anything and it could be there forever), it’s also so impermanent (the next new thing is always washing away the old). Digital is all ever-shifting pixels and light.
Ink has power. It soaks into the surface it’s used upon. It becomes part of the paper, of us. When I looked up definitions and history of tattoos as I started to think about this post, many used the word “indelible” to describe them. Indelible means “that cannot be removed, washed away, or erased.” A tattoo grows with you. Writer Michelle Delio said, “When designs are chosen with care, tattoos have a power and magic all their own. They decorate the body but they also enhance the soul.” When you hit on the right choice for a design, even though you will change and your focus will shift as life moves on, that design will always hold something special for you. (Which is not to say that people don’t get bad tattoos for ill-advised reasons. That definitely, definitely happens.)
So many novels use tattoos in powerful ways, too. In Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, they are spells, and they can shift and move. There’s Melissa Marr’s books, too. Sometimes it isn’t good, as in The Diary of Pelly D by L.J. Adlington, when everyone must be marked with their genetic line. But back to the good, in Amanda Davis’s novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, the “painted” young man in the circus says, “Tattoos are weird, you know. They’re, like, addictive. You fall in love with them and then you want to cover yourself. It’s like you’re reclaiming your body or something. Marking it up just for yourself.”
Who knows whether I’ll have the lightning strike “OH!” idea for a new design anytime soon. Or ever. Maybe rather than being addictive, it’s more that once you have one tattoo, you’re more open to that lightning striking. The ink’s become part of you, and the permanence is no longer scary. But you’ve got to be selective about it.
Anyway. This is all just to say that I wonder if there’s a connection between people of my generation getting more tattoos and the move to digital. Even while we are smitten with the technology and gadgets, and see how they will be important to our futures, are we also grounding ourselves in something real, something that can be touched? Something indelible?
“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille.” –Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body