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The ink so far

The ink so far

I’m getting on, getting sensible, getting worried about what people think… ah, who am I kidding? Even writing that line had me mentally reaching for a pack of Marlboro red and a bottle of Jameson at nine in the morning. Perhaps being young and being bould is one in the same thing to me. Which leads me to the current conundrum. To tattoo or not tattoo.

Tattoos started in my early twenties, a little obsession which had me under the needle for a patchwork of hours closing in on a full day of pain and magic creams. At one stage, my five-year-old son had to administer cream to the parts of my back that no contortion would allow me to access. They marked out times, obstacles overcome, relationships ended. Each tattoo planned, begotten and relished. The colours, the shapes, the delicious look of the fresh paint hiding more of me or perhaps revealing more.

My tattoos are mine, they inhabit my back and  – withstanding a sudden re-awakening as a bikini clad supermodel – will be hidden for the rest of their colourful life. That seems a shame. I look at others brandishing tattoos, names and spotted tribals where the desire to pick was too great to resist and feel the pangs. I can do better, I would never have allowed anyone to do that to me. I was lucky to have a great artist etch away at me, and now I’m lucky enough to know another whose work and outlook I admire. So I face the current dilemma, should I take the plunge and do my forearm?  I’ve looked upon its pitted surface for years, the marks of another time and life on it and wished for the colour, the right image, the beautiful band-aid to lend itself to my flesh.

Having my back done means a fleeting flash of colour getting into the shower, a sometimes reminder in a low backed dress. Having your arm done is a daily viewing. I’ve found an image, a little Holden- inspired fun, that I think I won’t detest immediately. It marks the last four years of sacrifice and hardship, but can I take that plunge? Do I still need to declare myself as anything?

So to tattoo, or not tattoo? I want it. Writing this has made me want it more, but the logistical nightmare of long sleeves around my parents (yes, I’m that whipped) for the rest of my days is a torture I may not endure. That said I’m 35 and should be able to make these decisions as a sentient human being (albeit one who still can’t bear her mothers ‘disappointed’ face).

What do you think, ink or not?

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I wrote a post about literary tattoos on my writing blog last year, featuring the tattoo site Contrariwise, where people display photographs of their writing-inspired body art. The photo from Contrariwise I used shows two lovers hand-in-hand. The woman has Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am. I am. I am.’, from The Bell Jar, tattooed on her inner arm, from elbow to wrist; the man has Marlowe’s, ‘Fly, o man’, from Doctor Faustus on his. Interestingly the Plath phrase also appears in her poem ‘Suicide Off Egg Rock’:

‘And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am.’

Most of the traffic that comes to my blog as a result of this post uses the search string ‘Sylvia Plath tattoo’. Plath’s introspective but direct poetic style clearly has huge appeal to younger readers and the variety of Plath tattoos on the Contrariwise site is testament to this. One of the tattoos on display use three lines from Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’; the lines are winding tattooed stems that hold up three scarlet tulip heads. It looks beautiful.
Another young man has ‘by a mad miracle I go intact’ on his chest from Plath’s ‘Street Song’:

‘By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops;’

That poem continues quite bloodily – ‘heart and guts hung hooked / And bloodied as a cow’s split frame’, but I suppose that’s not pretty or profound enough to be inked forever on the skin. Other favourite poets for tattoos include ee cummings, Longfellow, Poe, Frost and Ginsberg. It’s an American-based site.

On another site, Every Tattoo, I found a woman with the words ‘Virginia Woolf’ tattooed in large letters on her breastbone, like a torc. There is also a quote, on a woman’s foot, from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:

‘It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.’

Most tattoos on these sites are introspective and life-affirming. They follow the dictum of the tattooist Carmey, in Plath’s short story, ‘The Fifteen Dollar Eagle’: ‘Wear your heart on your skin’.

I’ve been wondering what an Irish poetry fan or writer even might get inked on their body. Maybe Séamus Heaney’s squat pen in the form of an arty quill? Or the line ‘Hunting words I sit all night’ from Flower’s translation of ‘Pangur Bán’?

Tattoos are not the rebel yell they once were; it’s probably more unusual now to find a thirty-something without a tattoo. But they often have deep meaning for their owner – and probably even moreso when they are taken from a much-loved poem.

My favourite book on tattoos is Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. One of its editors, poet Kim Addonizio says: ‘It’s natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them – or that maps a direction they want to go.’ However, although she has five tattoos already, none of them are text-based. She says, ‘As soon as I find the right words, they’ll be inked somewhere on my skin.’ I’m in the market for a new tattoo but I think I’ll follow Kim’s lead and take my time choosing the words.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Poetry Ireland Review newsletter.)

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