Paperback Writers Part 2

Published: 29 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 210, April, 2012

Previously, we looked at some of the celluloid capers that have immortalised ink over the years, and now, just to keep you on your toes, we come back to the humble written word. Once again we’ve uncovered some weird and wonderful tales that use tattoos as something more than the literary equivalent of a ‘Danger! High Voltage!’ sign.

“Show me a man with a tattoo,” said novelist Jack London once, “and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” It’s an idea that plenty of writers before and since have played with. Rather than consigning inkwork to the box of tricks marked ‘baddies’, they’ve brought it to the forefront of the story, employing tattoos as narrative devices or elements that add nuance to their protagonists – even using them as the scene of a crime… but we’ll get to that. We’ve got troubled lovers, yakuza gangsters, four-year-old tattoo artists, and some rogue fish to wade through first; are you sitting comfortably?

Marked For Life - Paul Magrs

Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Have a child, argue amusingly with the mother-in-law. Get into scrapes. What fun. Except in this case the boy is tattooed head to foot in lurid tribal markings and taking a temporary break from his homosexuality, the mother-in-law has a gay lover who’s several hundred years old and the ‘scrapes’ in question involve kidnaps, car crashes and fatal rooftop plunges.

Although sexuality is a key theme of Paul Magrs’ ’90s debut (no longer in print but easy enough to get hold of on Amazon), it’s not an ‘issues’ novel – the writer himself has said that he doesn’t set out to create those. Instead, he thinks his major themes are “Outsiders. Magic. Time. Friendship. Love”, and that’s a pretty accurate synopsis of Marked for Life. You get a ramshackle collision of oddball ‘outsider’ characters (even the five-year-old daughter of our tattooed hero, Mark, is a terrapin thief) all wearing different disguises throughout. There’s the obvious one of the man in the full body suit peering out from behind all that ink (or has he merely revealed his true self?), but also the portly centuries-old granny who actually wraps herself in countless layers of jumpers to hide her tiny seven-stone frame, to name just two…

It’s potentially not one for the squeamish, as Magrs’ early bookish preoccupations also include lots of fumbled sexual encounters drenched in multiple bodily fluids (‘phlegm-like semen’, anyone?). The narrative is equally splattered with alcohol, vomit and blood – and of course a lot of ink – sometimes described in closer proximity than you might like. But then, love can be a bit disgusting up close and the book has enough heart and humour to balance it, while playing around with the consequences of marking ourselves (literally with tattoos, or figuratively with jobs, sexuality and family roles) and the effect it produces on us, and on those around us. Probably quite a Marmite book, it’s worth a look just for its sheer madcap strangeness.

Until I Find You - John Irving

John Irving understands the world of tattoos. The author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules has a few, for starters – including a maple leaf to honour his Canadian wife and a symbol representing the starting circle of a wrestling match. Did we mention he’s also a wrestler? Yup, there’s that too. He travelled extensively to research Until I Find You, visiting studios and artists all over the world, getting to the point where he was even inking some tattoos himself, on oranges first and then on fresh fish (flounders, for all the fish fanciers out there) before finally trying his needle skills on people. The fish incident makes it into the novel, where the scaly hide is described as ‘the closest approximation to human skin’ by one of the many artists populating Irving’s tale.

And what a tale. It’s basically the biography of an actor called Jack Burns, and as you might expect from a tattooed wrestler with a neat line in cerebral comedy, it’s an eccentric tome. Much of the novel is spent skipping from studio to studio as young Jack’s mother, Alice, a tattoo artist herself, tries to hunt down the boy’s father.

Daddy, however, is sprinting across Europe chasing church organs, getting choirgirls pregnant and gradually having himself covered in musical notation by artists in every city he visits. As you do.

So Alice and Jack roam through Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and beyond trying to catch up with him. On the way they meet great artists, both real and imagined – a version of Sailor Jerry pops up at one point – while Alice plies her trade in studios and illicitly in hotel rooms to finance their fruitless quest. Four-year-old Jack himself wields the needle, covering up two former lovers’ names on the ankle of an apprentice artist (the end result ‘looked as if many small animals had been butchered’, unsurprisingly).

Irving uses tattoos as his central symbolic device and in his eyes there’s nothing fixed or certain about an inked image. “The tattoo is ephemeral, it disappears with the person who bears it,” he once said in an interview, and in Until I Find You, he really takes that idea and runs with it. The mangled cover-up Jack does is just one nod to the potential evolution of a tattoo design over the wearer’s life, transforming letters into petals and hiding whatever the original motivation for the tattoo was, even if it’s still buried under there somewhere. It’s an allegory for memory, of how we constantly edit and recompose our past and how what we remember can be unreliable, or not as it seems at first. Alice’s speciality tattoo is a Rose of Jericho, an ornate flower concealing a rather different image within its folds, hinting that the life Jack recalls may also be covering something else entirely.

On top of all this though, it’s a funny novel peopled with great characters. Irving does a neat job of quickly sketching memorable artists in the studios of Europe, for example – the cheery Doc Forest sports both a moustache and ‘forearms like Popeye’s’, while creepy Jacob Bril gives only blood curdling religious tattoos and is ‘an austere skeleton of a man’. But Irving is also great on tattoos. As well as driving his story onwards, his studios feel real and his tattoos are all old school, unashamedly symbolic and underscored by heartbreak – there’s no tattoo just for the hell of it here. Ripped hearts, Man’s Ruin, snakes and daggers and sailing ships (the perfect questing symbol chasing Jack and Alice everywhere) abound, each one rendered by a writer who’s clearly been under the needle and knows exactly which bits hurt. With tattoos, as we all know, that can be both physical and emotional: that memorial tattoo on your chest hurts when needle hits rib, but it also smarts as you think of why you’re getting it. And then that changes over time, as you grow older and your recollections fade just as the tattoo settles into your skin.

Irving’s tattoos all move, shifting and flexing with the body just as memory and sentiment shifts over time, which makes Until I Find You consistently fascinating, unpredictable and delightfully odd. For this author, there are no insignificant tattoos: “Tattoos are souvenirs,” he once told the New York Times, “they’re road maps of where your body’s been.”

Bangkok Tattoo - John Burdett

If the smoke and mirrors of Irving’s fiction or the gooey dysfunction of Magrs’ storytelling don’t do it for you, what you need is a shot of Burdett. Bangkok Tattoo will get you hammered then punch you in the face and hold your head down the toilet, all the while explaining in placid Buddhist terms why you bloody well deserve it. Sound good? It is.

Burdett’s novel is the second to feature his unique take on the noir-ish homicide detective, Buddhist gumshoe, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and is a furious sprint through the heaving underbelly of Bangkok that begins with a dead American stabbed in the stomach by a hooker, and just gets more cheerful from that point onwards. Corrupt generals and drug dealers turn out to be one and the same, crazed CIA agents dash about in the wrong direction and the body count keeps rising, while Sonchai must juggle his Buddhism with running his mother’s whorehouse and mentoring a cop partner who would rather be a ladyboy.

Into all this comes the Japanese tattoo artist Sonchai must hunt. Why is he important? No one knows… but they do know he’s a master of horimono who learned his trade needling yakuza bosses until he became a true master. Alas, inking one of them on the forehead while he was passed out from saké turned out to be a mistake, so the elusive artist is on the run, somehow mixed up in the trail of increasingly bloody violence Sonchai follows.

Not for Burdett, the sensitive heartbreak of Irving’s misbegotten lovers or the quirky identity crisis of Magrs’ protagonist. His tattoos are hammered in by hand, the artist working his tebori needle ‘as if it were a long chisel’; and all are fiercely beautiful. There’s a laudable motive beneath the murk, though, for Burdett’s artist (‘Let’s call him Ishy’, quips Sonchai in a piquant reference to the opening line of that other notable tattoo-sporting classic, Moby Dick) sees the tattoos people should have, rather than the ones they think they want. He’s trying to save them from the obvious, the empty ‘degrading clichés of his trade’ and create something meaningful on their skin. His art ‘was not an offshoot of graffiti,’ observes Sonchai, ‘but part of the great ink drawing tradition of Hokusai.’ It’s more than a little erotic too, both in application and in the look of the finished product; the artist himself even sports a representation of a sea battle that is only fully revealed when he’s, well… standing to attention.

While the frequent collisions of high ideals and lower realities give Bangkok Tattoo a seedy allure peppered with tasty irony, what’s even more shocking than the sex and drugs and violence is the ultimate treatment of the tattoos, which are in many ways the crime scene in this tale. We don’t want to spoil the ending though, so you’ll have to read on with disgust and delight to find out why so many tattooed bodies are showing up missing important features, and to discover the truth about the artist, who while neither devil nor messiah, is most definitely a naughty boy. You’ll learn a bit about Buddhism too, which is always nice.

The lesser spotted author

Animal Farm and 1984 author, George Orwell, sported tattoos on his knuckles. According to biographer Gordon Bowker, he probably got them in Burma in the late 1920s where he served as an Imperial policeman. The Burmese tribesmen believed that their tattoos gave them magical protection from British bullets, which may explain why the notoriously paranoid writer chose to wear those blue dots – as protection from an establishment he increasingly felt apart from. As it turned out, he wasn’t totally wide of the mark; documents released just a few years ago show that the secret service was indeed watching him. Hopefully the tattoos helped him sleep a little better under Big Brother’s watchful eye…

Other tattoo tales

The Fifteen Dollar Eagle by Sylvia Plath

‘Wear your heart on your skin in this life’, brogues Carmey, the tattooist in Plath’s short story set in a tattoo parlour – a line that many have gone on to immortalise in their own tattoos.

Under their Skin by Dinah Lee Küng

In a reversal of our usual fare, Shino visits Roman the dermatologist to have his irezumi removed, attempting as he sees it to reclaim his life and ‘emerge from his Purgatory almost a different man.’

In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka

Typical Kafka themes surface in this short story of inexplicable rules and horrifying disregard for human life. A bizarre instrument of torture tattoos its sentence onto the condemned before killing them. Not one to read before your next trip to the studio, perhaps.


Text: Russ Thorne