“Skin in the Game” by John Milner

What follows is a piece by a friend and mentor whose writing I value. He’s not Web-oriented, so I offered to post this piece for him, and he accepted. Enjoy.

A former student was in town the other day and came by for a visit. I hadn’t seen him in some time. He’s sixty-eight now (I was very young when I was his teacher) and tells me he’s thinking about retiring. He has worked for advertising agencies and businesses over the years writing creative copy. He’s also published a couple of non-fiction books and has written a novel. He’s a modest respectable citizen, happily married, a good father, and a church goer. Toward the end of the visit he said he wanted to show me his latest acquisition. He pulled up his right shirt sleeve and revealed a tattoo on his upper arm just below the shoulder. It pictured a fat bright red bird perched on a thin green branch.

He told me about where he’d found the image — it’s an illustration in a children’s book that has special meaning for him — and where he’d had the tattoo done, but offered nothing about why he’d decided he needed a tattoo at this point in his life. Which of course was exactly what I wanted to know. I shied away from asking him, though, probably because I felt it was the kind of revelation you waited for someone to volunteer — like revealing the tattoo itself.

What I did say after admiring the tattoo was that I had been thinking lately of writing something about tattoos – that it seemed I had been seeing tattoos everywhere lately, all over professional athletes on TV, on teenagers, boys and girls, seen around town, on the arms of middle-aged guys in super market check-out lines or at the next table in restaurants, and on the legs of young ladies jogging by in the neighborhood summer mornings. Tattoos, it appears, are no longer the provenance of prisoners and sailors, or rebels, outsiders and misfits. They are showing up now on all kinds of people, including respectable sixty-eight year old former students, and I have started wondering why: what is behind this apparent proliferation of pictures punched into the skin? What does it show about us as a culture, about our values, or needs, or whatever?

My friend was not inclined to speculate, personally or culturally. Instead, he has been sending me all kinds of stuff having to do with tattoos. I’m not sure if he’s doing this to further stimulate my interest and get me going on writing something or simply because he’s happy to have found someone who shares his interest. He has sent me Internet links to tattoo images that have to do with things he knows I’m interested in — for instance, a tattoo quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He has sent links to pictures of particularly spectacular tattoos, covering whole arms or legs or torsos. He assembled and sent a CD of nineteen songs each of which has something to do with or mentions tattoos. (They’re wonderful songs and I’ll have more to say about some of them later.) And he sent me a book: Literary Tattoos – The Word Made Flesh by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor, published in 2010. (More on it later.)

And, as if that weren’t enough, The Economist magazine ran an article a couple of weeks ago (August 2, 2014) on tattoos: “Ink Blots – Body art is growing more popular; though few employers are keen.” Finally, I took a look at what Wikipedia has to offer on the subject.

So I guess I should be ready to roll.

But I’m not. God knows what this tattooing craze is about. Or if it is a craze. If it is, it’s a very quiet one. It doesn’t seem to lend itself to facile generalization (my specialty). There seem to be all kinds of reasons why people are getting tattooed, all kinds of tattoos that they’re getting, all kinds of people who are getting them, all the way from the traditional rebels, outsiders, and misfits still, to people with literary interests, to people with other special interests that they apparently now want to personalize by carrying some appropriate image of on their skin, to people who are doing it as always because it’s an in thing to do, to people like my friend whose motivation I won’t pretend to fathom. It is obviously no longer a macho masculine thing, if it ever really was, nor is it primarily a show of rebellion, a defiance of waspy lily-skinned respectability. There are a lot of waspy types now who are showing lots of colorful pictures and designs and images on their very white skin. It’s like a lot of perfectly respectable men shaving their heads now, or wearing little stud things in their ears (like Shakespeare wearing a gold earring in that famous portrait of him – and, whoever he was, I don’t think Shakespeare was wearing an earring to express rebellion). The current tattooing may be nothing more than another way of fulfilling the old need for self-expression, like clothing and hair styles or like the slang spoken by particular groups such as musicians or technicians.

But why skin? That’s what intrigues me.

Clothes you can change. Hair you can cut or restyle or dye another color. Slang comes and goes. But tattoos are meant to be forever. They are pigments punched into the dermis — the layer of skin underneath the outermost or epidermis layer. They can be removed but at much greater expense and inconvenience and discomfort than they can be received. People having themselves tattooed aren’t anticipating removal. They’re committing for the long haul, like forever. They begin thinking about removal only when someone like a potential employer for a nice job they’d like to get expresses concern about the appropriateness of people with tattoos holding that job. The old profiling still prevails apparently amongst employers: “people with tattoos are seen as … well, you know…” According to the article in The Economist, tattoo removal is up 440 % in the last decade. But that’s because those getting the tattoo in the first place were young or, like the young, didn’t think ahead. I would imagine — though The Economist doesn’t cite figures for this — that there are plenty more who have committed to tattoos recently who are sticking with them. (Or the tattoos are sticking with them.) The Wikipedia entry on Tattoo tells us that in 2008 a Harris Interactive pole conducted online found that 14% of all U.S. adults had at least one tattoo – down from 16% in 2003 – while 32% of U.S. adults between the ages of 25 and 29 had one. Men were “slightly more likely” to be tattooed than women. Take that kind of online poling with its likely sample bias for what it’s worth.

Whatever the percent, those with tattoos stand out. They are noticed, though that is not always the point. My friend’s tattoo, for instance, like those of many other tattooees, is not visible unless he pulls up his shirt sleeve and shows it to you. Though being noticed for the sake of being noticed may often have been the point in the past, and still may be to some extent, my sense is there is something deeper going on with tattoos these days. Or maybe we just didn’t notice it so much in the past what with our more superficial profiling.

I think what the tattooed may be saying by means of their tattoo is something like this: “Here is an image having to do with something that is special to me, that I have a special interest in, and that may arouse your curiosity, and maybe if you are curious or have such an interest yourself, we might relate to one another.” I think the tattoo may be an invitation to dialogue. And, God knows, in a world of caution and suspicion and separation, there is need for things that bring us into dialogue. Tattoos can be an expression of personal uniqueness while at the same time a way of reaching out to and connecting with others.

And even those who keep their tattoos under cover may be drawing on them as dialogue with themselves: “I am one person out there in my public image, in my suit or uniform or dress-up outfit, but underneath, here on the skin of my real self, I am another person, a private person, a person with particular interests or commitments imaged as personally and permanently as I can make them, in my skin, and which I reveal only to myself and to certain others whom I choose.” I think that’s what undercover tattoos may be saying and that such internal dialogue expresses a separation many feel nowadays: between the obligatory public person they feel they have to be and the inner real person — the body of real flesh and blood — and skin tattooed to say so.

Such wondering about why people commit to tattoos brings me to the book and songs my friend gave me. In the book, Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor include, along with pictures of the tattoos, comments by the tattooees about why they have chosen the particular work of literature and the particular quote from it that they have turned into a tattoo, what the words and work mean to them. One person, for instance, has these lines from a poem by Theodore Roethke tattooed on the inside of her arm:

– O remember

in your narrowing dark hours

that more things move

than blood in the heart.

She tells about her remembrance of discussing this poem in her first college course on poetry and how it has stimulated her on her own road to writing poems and how she finds a significant ambiguity in the poem: Is it the destination or the journey that’s more important? (I’m not sure just how she finds that ambiguity in those lines, but no matter.) She carries the ambiguity expressed in the lines with her on her skin wherever she goes. It’s part of her own journey.

Another tattooee has the closing lines of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road imprinted into her back along with a picture of Kerouac working at his old typewriter. It’s another instance, perhaps, of the need to carry on the road wherever one goes – in this case looking back at where one has been – words and associations that provide sustenance along the way. Life is transient, we’re always on the move, but the tattoo is a means of carrying something permanent with us from where we have been. The tattoos shown in the book include quotes from Thomas Pynchon, E.E. Cummings, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (in Russian), William Gibson, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, etc., etc. There are pictures of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, pictures from Maurice Sendak’s books, and illustrations inspired by Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, etc. And comment after comment about why these words or this book or this author is significant enough in one’s life to have inspired carrying it around with oneself permanently as part of oneself.

The tattoos shown in Literary Tattoos The Word Made Flesh cover a good body of western literature, words and works that are meaningful and of lasting importance in the lives of the people who have turned them into tattoos. Some of us memorize — or simply internalize — lines from our favorite poems; some mark special passages in copies of books. Some literature survives after a while as fragmentary echoes: to be or not to be; friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears; the quality of mercy is not strained. Those who have literature tattooed into their skin might be thought of as like walking carriers and preservers of the culture. And literature is of course only one part of the culture, and culture only one part of the kind of commitment that can be borne in this way — and bared — as part of one’s body — and being.

There is a song on the CD my friend sent, sung by Guy Clark, called “Stuff that Works.” Stuff that works is, for example, the singer’s old blue shirt and the old pair of boots that fit just right and his old used car that runs just like a top. Stuff that works is

Stuff that holds up

The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall

Stuff that’s real

Stuff you feel

The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

Stuff that works is like tattoos. There’s plenty of stuff, I might add, that doesn’t work. It washes off and goes down the drain by the end of the day.

Another song called “True Love Will Never Fade,” sung by Mark Knopfler, says it in another way.

“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” is my all-time favorite tattoo song. I have an old recording of Groucho Marx singing it at an appearance made late in his career at Carnegie Hall. On the CD, Faith Prince does a version I think would set Groucho’s eyebrows awaggling. Lady Lydia, it seems, is a history buff — in the buff. She has eyes that men adore so and a torso even more so, and on said torso are depicted, among other scenes, the wreck of the Hesperus, Washington crossing the Delaware, and the Battle of Waterloo – with proudly above them waving the red, white, and blue. When Lydia’s muscles start relaxin’ up the hill comes Andrew Jackson. As the song says, you can learn a lot from Lydia.

You can learn a lot from tattoos, and not only from the subjects of the pictures and the words inscribed into the skin. Lydia’s tattoos are not only encyclopedic, they are seductive. There can be something mysterious in the colors and intricate designs and supple shapes and movements of tattoos. I find that the music of many of the tattoo songs catches this feeling. The sound is often ethereal and far away, like the tingling of wind chimes. There can be something ominous, too, in the appearance of tattooed skin, a feeling that the tattoo endows the bearer with certain charms and powers. I suspect the tattoos done by so-called primitive peoples have always had spiritual meanings — for instance, to protect against or ward off evil, or to introduce into the tattooed person’s being certain characteristics symbolized by the tattoos.

In Melville’s Moby-Dick, Queequeg, the chief harpooner, is a native of the South Seas whose skin is covered with tattoos. Early in the book, when narrator Ishmael and Queequeg share a room together at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford prior to setting sail on the book’s voyage, Ishmael observes:

Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years’ War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it.

Whatever the original intent of Queequeg’s tattoos may have been in his land, in Ishmael’s Christian country they have the power to take control of Ishmael’s imaginings. The scene is comedy, but the tattoo power is real.

In Ray Bradbury’s collection of stories, The Illustrated Man, the man’s tattoos come alive at night and tell stories that take place in space and other planets and galaxies. And the last story is about an illustrated man who had his tattoos done as cover for his unattractive overweight aging real self, to make himself appear more attractive, he thinks, to his wife and to the world. Tattoo as cover. But to the wife he is still what he has become for her – a tub of lard – and she tells him she’s leaving him. And to the world, which sees him in the freak show he has joined as its illustrated man, the tattoo on his chest depicting him committing a murder makes him a horror. Tattoo as terror. Then, after he has murdered his wife out of frustration and despair, the other freaks chase and hunt him down and beat him with tent stakes, and, on then turning him over and pulling away the adhesive on his back covering his last yet until then unseen tattoo, reveal a scene showing “a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a dark and lonely road, looking at a tattoo on his back which illustrated a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a …”  Tattoo as mirror.

There is ordinary everyday skin and then we make it something more. We give it another dimension. We also make sounds and marks on paper and screens mean something more, and we make pigments on canvas and hunks of marble and wood into something more; but it’s tattoos that make live skin something more. It’s tattoos that give the tattooed skin in the game.

— John Milner, 8/2014



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