Text & Lettering - The Word Made Flesh

Published: 23 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

It’s such a brilliantly simple idea, I don’t know why we don’t see more literary and text-based tattoo art. To some extent, textual tattoos always tend to be quite personal affairs and therefore, relatively private. Bearing that in mind, it’s a wonder Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor gathered enough material together to make this happen, but they did – in a moment of delusion, somebody thought it might be quite cool to fly out and investigate Eva further...

Whilst it’s certainly not the first book of its kind, it is one of the best that I’ve seen in recent memory. Having been through a similar experience with Tattoo Dynamite recently, I can sympathise with the biggest flaw in plans such as this – photography. 99% of the time, there’s nothing wrong with the images you’ll be using, technically however, they quite often leave a lot to be desired but we’ll come back to that – let’s get to the good stuff, starting with the how and why you’d want to begin a project like this:

“Justin and I have been friends since college – the idea for the book came up the way ideas between friends often do: sitting in a burrito shop, talking about stuff, sharing news. Anyway, one of my roommates came home with a stunning line from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury on her arm and one of Justin’s roommates turned out to have two literary tattoos – a portrait of Mark Twain and an illustration from Moby Dick. The idea to do a book was pretty much screaming at us from there on. I think it came to me first. I was also a literary agent at the time, actively trying to generate book ideas for a living, but I was immediately pessimistic. If it hadn’t been for Justin’s strong encouragement - and our subsequent decision to actually do the book together – The Word Made Flesh would have never happened.

“But from the start, we had zero expectation. We figured literary tattoos were “a thing” and getting popular – there was already a livejournal and a website, contrariwise.org, dedicated to them, but we really didn’t know what to expect when we put out the first call for submissions on htmlgiant, but the submissions came pouring in. Literary tattoos of every kind imaginable, Sylvia Plath, James Joyce, Philip K. Dick, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare and Shel Silverstein and maybe not that surprisingly, Harry Potter. The list goes on and on and on. 

“The sheer magnitude of submissions surprised us far more than any one tattoo – but there were some pretty surprising tattoos in the inbox I can tell you! Nothing totally off the charts – our submitters were a smart bunch and read all the guidelines before sending their pictures, but we did get one naked girl who our publisher tastefully cropped. But hey, nudity is good for you!”

Being no stranger to weird stuff in the inbox, we digress momentarily but did anything arrive that was head and shoulders above the others that made them lean back in the chair, causing them to sit back and think ‘wow – that’s a serious piece of work – this person isn’t messing around!’

“Tattoos are an art form, to be sure, and many of the tattoos in the book are works of art in and of themselves, just as much as the literature they’re referencing is art. So that’s a fun combination – art about art. Should I name some examples? Krista Grinovich’s Kafka sleeve is one, and there’s a pretty awesome Turgenev tattoo in the book as well.

“There were also a lot of Lord of the Rings tattoos, especially stuff in Elvish, and we’ve seen a couple Neil Gaiman tattoos as well, but we made a point of including a little bit of everything in the book, balancing the genres. We could have filled the entire book with JK Rowling tattoos if we’d wanted to, but limited ourselves to three.”

Did you expect to see more poetry than you actually did?

"Definitely. Two John Berryman tattoos came in early on, and I thought there was going to be a real flood, but what did show up instead in larger-than-expected numbers, were last lines of novels. Novelists get to be poets in the very last lines of their books, so maybe that’s part of it. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Personally, I find literary tattoos more inspirational than any other - maybe it’s the part of me that’s the book lover that appreciates how much a book can mean so much to somebody that they want part of it to be with them forever. Did they do the same thing to you?

"Well I started getting tattoos as a teenager, and have a half-sleeve now. Justin has zero tattoos, and will probably never get any. So our reactions have been pretty different. Seeing so many tattoos day in and day out - from conceiving the book to regularly updating its blog – satisfies my need to get more tattoos in a weird way, but I do indeed have plans for a certain quotation on my arm someday. I also got a tattoo for the book – two rectangles from a poem by Daniil Kharms. Justin and I made a video about the process: http://vimeo.com/14777337"

I would assume that you received a fair amount of song lyrics in collating the book - did you set them aside for the next book or was it always the plan to do a follow up on lyrical representations? 

"Actually, only one or two song lyrics came in – we made it pretty clear from the outset that this was about books, books, and the people who love them, but a sequel about song lyrics and music-inspired tattoos was a pretty obvious follow up, and one that I’m especially excited about, since music was my gateway to getting tattooed."

Do you want the last word?

"Yes please! We set out to make an awesome book, and I think we achieved that, but seriously, I’m still putting new tattoo pictures on tumblr every day, many of which would have definitely been included in the book if we’d found them earlier. So it’s still going."

Literary Tattoos is available now from all good bookstores.

Shelley J Ackson's Skin

There’s a great story in the book about Shelley Jackson’s 2,095 word short story that was not written down on paper, called Skin. She had volunteers from all around the world that agreed to have a word or any punctuation tattooed on a part of their body. Then, they snap a photo and send it to her so she can compile them to make her story. Brilliant. I believe the project is still open if you wish to partake. Check in here: ineradicablestain.com/skin.html

Online Stuff

You can follow the venture of book compilation by yourself at the following links:

thephoenix.com/Boston/life/109524-lit-snobs-hot-librarians-and-the-rise-of-the-lit/ (for the Kristina Grinovich Kafka dedication).



Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Word Made Fleah