Paperback Writers - History 101

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

There’s a curious snowball effect happening with the coverage of tattoos and tattooing in the wider media at the moment. Several articles have appeared in recent months examining various aspects of tattooing, all using the hoary old cliché ‘of course, tattoos are no longer the exclusive preserve of bikers, gangs, murderers and psychotic incestuous hillbillies’…

While this is a happy opportunity for the entire tattoo community to slap its collective palm to its face, it’s dispiriting reading and it seems to be multiplying. So instead, we present a few alternative tomes and treasures where tattoos, tattoo artists and body art in general receive slightly more imaginative treatments. Hopefully they’ll act as a reminder that tattoos have never been the exclusive preserve of anyone at all – and that writers throughout history have recognised this. Enjoy, and don’t forget to share your suggestions with us…

Herman Melville: Moby Dick

More than any of his contemporaries, Melville (1819-91) was well placed to write about tattoos in his fiction. A sometime sailor on whaling ships, he deserted his vessel in 1842 in the Marquesas and lived amongst the tribes there for a month – his experiences later informed early novels ‘Typee’ and ‘Omoo’, both of which contain accounts of the tribal tattooing practices he witnessed.

But it’s really ‘Moby Dick’ (1851) where tattoos crop up, not just as a cultural observation, but as a means to ask questions about identity. The novel is both thrilling and frustratingly dense, packed with gory scenes of hunting, brawling and battling on the high seas, running alongside religious polemics and a lengthy investigation of types of whale (in case you need to know your fin back from your sulphur bottom). The tattooed character in question is Queequeg, a harpooner sharing Captain Ahab’s demented chase around the oceans; initially his markings are simply described as ‘squares’, but as he gets to know the narrator, Ishmael, the full story is revealed. The tattoos are ‘the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume.’

The twist being that Queequeg himself cannot decipher the marks he carries, even though ‘his own heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and to be unsolved to the last.’ Queequeg will die with no understanding of the appearance he turned outwards towards the world, bearing a story that though visible, can’t be told. Is it a wider comment on the human condition? A criticism of the prevailing attitude in 19th century towards those of colour? Who knows? One thing it definitely isn’t is a criticism of the body art itself – ‘It’s only his outside,’ confesses Ishmael, ‘a man can be honest in any sort of skin.’ Like much of ‘Moby Dick’, Melville leaves plenty open to interpretation, which is probably why the novel continues to challenge and intrigue to this day.

Ray Bradbury: The Illustrated Man

In the framing story for ‘The Illustrated Man’, a 1951 collection of short science fiction tales, our nameless narrator meets a stranger in the woods who even in the ferocious heat of the day refuses to remove the heavy shirt that covers his whole torso. When he eventually relents, he’s revealed as tattooed (or ‘illustrated’) from the neck downwards, ‘a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and colour that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. [...] You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait.’

Anyone who’s ever been asked “what does that tattoo mean?” could take some great inspiration from the Illustrated Man (and the short story of the same name within the collection), whose tattoos are revealed as individual stories that come to life on his skin before the narrator’s eyes, yarning about rocket men falling to earth (and inspiring Elton John along the way – fact!), apocalyptic events on Mars and – most interestingly to the inked reader – warning prophetically of events to come in the life of the tattooed man. They muse on pride, misplaced faith, love and fate, but the Illustrated Man himself is a warning about the seductive lure of storytelling (our narrator is warned not to look at the tattoos, but can’t resist them and sees a depiction of his own death), and the danger of learning things ahead of time.

For those with ink, it also raises an issue that Bradbury probably never intended, writing as he was at a point where a significantly smaller proportion of the population was heavily tattooed. The doomed protagonist of ‘The Illustrated Man’ short story, inked by a witch with her eyes sewn shut (you’ve got to think he was asking for it, really), discovers that he has his fate marked out in his own tattoos – which could give us pause to think about how the way we choose to adorn ourselves might affect our future. Do we truly live differently because we get that memorial tattoo to remember a loved one, for example? Will the stories we tell through our own collections affect those experiencing them, as they do Bradbury’s narrator? The Illustrated Man may have started off as a simple narrative device, but as the future has arrived, he’s evolved into something more. But remember: if you think your tattoos are moving and telling you stories, you’ve had enough and it’s time for bed.  

Stieg Larsson: Millennium Trilogy

The use of body art in Stieg Larsson’s world-beating Millennium trilogy may be sparse, but it makes quite an impact. Among Lisbeth Salander’s collection (of nine) is an armband and the dragon tattoo that gives the first book in the trilogy its English title – ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ – but Larsson spends little time pondering their meanings. He creates a solid back-story for just two: a wasp, which is also her hacker pseudonym; and an ankle tattoo, which she gets to remind her of a particularly savage event in her life.

The rest of her tattoos and piercings are left vaguely defined, which keeps Salander one step removed from the reader and also paradoxically makes her seem more real – since many people have tattoos for specific reasons, many for no reason at all. But another intriguing function (aside from creating a heroine who remains baffling to the last) is to play on the reaction of society to tattoos, and those who have them. Some characters see her ink as simply her choice; some don’t really see it at all; some think it’s sexy; and some use it to designate her as a sociopath, a freak and a borderline lunatic. The point being that she may be all of those things, but that the tattoos have nothing to do with it. For Larsson, who was a committed advocate of women’s rights, the skinny girl with the tattoos becomes the mirror to hold up against Swedish society, to make it confront its darknesses, prejudices and failings.

There’s a further tattoo sub-plot wherein Salander uses a tattoo machine to mete out bloody vengeance, but rather than spoil the shock for those who haven’t delved into the wonders of this trilogy, let’s just say that a very bad man indeed gets what he deserves under the needle. Definitely not one to try at home, kids.

Sarah Hall: The Electric Michelangelo

Tattooing is both the hero and villain of this picaresque tale of romance and roguery, which is the only one on our list to look closely at the people and processes involved in inkwork, crafting the entire story around them. It details the life of Cy Parks as he grows up in shabby post-war Morecambe Bay. He’s accidentally apprenticed to a spectacularly curmudgeonly tattoo artist, makes his way to America, finds his way as a tattooist in Coney Island and navigates a strange world of circus freaks, gangsters and, oddly, a horse who lives in the downstairs apartment.

Hall’s gift as a writer is to conjure the sensations of tattooing from a bygone age, and she’s clearly done her research – those wanting a decent overview of ink in Europe and the States in the past hundred years will get their itch thoroughly scratched. Her descriptions of the flash, the freezing seaside studio, making up needles and drawing designs are supremely evocative, as are her portraits of the people who come to be inked and the reasons they do it.

But she’s best at investigating the areas where there are no answers, and that makes for an engaging read in amongst the bar fights, corporeal woes and occasional grimness of her tale. ‘It was impossible to pin down the exact beauty and appeal of their profession, butterfly-captured and gorgeously open for all to see,’ thinks Cy at one point. ‘You couldn’t find the marrow or the quick of it to suck out, or set a flame to the wick of it and illuminate a room. Tattooing was like being called by a siren song, or the music of the spheres, impossible to resist, impossible to explain.’

Whether you agree or not, it’s a beautifully written investigation into the world of tattooing, and there’s a lot here that will raise a wry smile and a ‘yup, met that person’. And as she deftly illustrates the whole spread of society receiving tattoos, from drunken louts on coach trips to genteel passengers on a transatlantic cruise liner; it’s the perfect antidote to the strange alternative history being peddled in the papers.

Skin, version one: Roald Dahl

In between spinning charmingly grisly yarns of giants, twits, witches and giant peaches, Roald Dahl spun a nasty little tale of the unexpected with a full backpiece at its core. Tattoo artist, Drioli, consents to having a portrait of his wife created on his back by an artist friend. Some years later, his life in ruins, Drioli passes a gallery exhibiting some of the artist’s work and goes in, eventually revealing his own unique piece of art to the crowd inside, and is made some astonishing offers that change his life forever. It’s an entertaining little shocker, but tattoo artists out there may be vexed by Dahl’s dismissal of their craft: ‘I will teach you to use the tattoo [sic]. It is easy. A child could do it,’ says Drioli. ‘I will undertake to teach you in two minutes.’

Skin, version two: Shelley Jackson

Brooklyn-based writer Jackson’s ‘Skin’ project is designed to create an unusual short story. It’s told across the skin of participants, or ‘Words’, all of whom have volunteered to have one word (plus any relevant punctuation) tattooed onto them. It has to be in a classic book font, be unadorned, and be exactly as specified by Jackson. Once the word is inked, the Words send pics of the finished artwork to her, to be compiled. Ultimately no-one will know the finished version of the story except Jackson herself, but it will be out there, wandering around etched into the skin of her volunteers from all over the world and unsolved to the last, just like the tattoos on Melville’s Queequeg.

Find out more from, and look out for an interview with the artist herself in a forthcoming issue of Skin Deep!


Text: Russ Thorne