By DAVID COLLARD
“The Skin Project”, launched in 2003 by the American artist Shelley Jackson, is a 2,095-word short story “published exclusively in tattoo form, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers”. The first word – which is “skin” – adorns Jackson’s wrist in Baskerville font, and she stipulates that each volunteer, once issued with their word, should likewise employ a “classic book font such as Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and Times Roman”, adding that the tattoo “should look like something intended to be read, not admired for its decorative qualities”.
Prompted by my belated discovery of this I’ve been looking (and often flinching) at online images of other “literary” tattoos, of which there are thousands. The same “decorative qualities” proscribed by Jackson are very much on display as, wrenched from their printed context, lines of prose and poetry are elaborated with baroque fonts, fancy scrolls and curlicues and much use of faux-Gothic script, more Motörhead than Montherlant.
Literary tattoos fall into two broad categories: photorealist portraits of authors and quotations from their work. Most common is a quotation, drawn for the most part from a small cohort of hip writers. Kurt Vonnegut is very popular, with numberless Slaughterhouse-Five fans sporting the author’s laconic coda “So it goes”. So too is Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac and J. R. R. Tolkien. People also seem to favour lines from childhood classics (The Little Prince, Harry Potter) and high school staples (Maya Angelou, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Edgar Allan Poe), but there are some surprises, such as the nine lines from Little Gidding covering the back of an English teacher from Hawaii, who writes: “I chose to tattoo the first four and last five lines together (I didn’t have the guts at the time to go whole hog and tattoo the entire section. I wish I had.)”
There is a perhaps inevitable trend for literary tattoos among celebrities. Johnny Depp, the epitome of Hollywood cool, has Joyce’s “Silence Exile Cunning” (sic) in big faux Gothic script on his forearm. Lady Gaga is adorned with lines from Rilke; Angelina Jolie from Tennessee Williams.
Lady Gaga performs in concert at DAR Constitution Hall on September 29, 2009 in Washington, DC. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage/Getty Images
Leafing through Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor's The Word Made Flesh: Literary tattoos from bookworms worldwide (2010) and looking at the associated online archive I couldn’t find a single literary tattoo I liked. I’m deeply sceptical about the self-commodification involved when asserting non-conformism and individuality by shelling out on an epidermal doodle, but I wanted to get an opposing view so I asked a good friend about it. He’s a writer in his fifties and has “Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone” emblazoned on his chest because (he says) it’s his favourite line in English poetry and because he “thought it was funny to have Wordsworth tattooed on oneself”. When I asked him why he didn’t quote the full line from The Prelude (“A mind voyaging . . . etc”), he replied, reasonably enough, that it wouldn’t fit. Then I asked him about tattoos in general, and literary ones in particular, and he said: “People I know see it as a continuous point of reference and don’t give two hoots about being thoughtful or cultured. It’s often because they want a tattoo but want to show they have a certain degree of awareness of the process”.
A casual census suggests that the practice of literary tattooing is largely confined to youngish American fans of cultish American authors, though it’s becoming more popular in Britain. It’s made me wonder which author’s portrait and which quotations I would, if so minded, have inscribed on myself. Do I really like anything I’ve read that much? Then I thought of the fine opening lines of the poem “Liverpool” by Michael Donaghy, who died the year after “The Skin Project” (a quarter of the way through, according to the last report) began and didn’t live long enough to see the rise of the literary tattoo:
“Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron,
takes sweating in the antiseptic-stinking parlour,
nothing to read but motorcycle magazines
before the blood-sopped cotton, and, of course, the needle,
all for — at best — some Chinese dragon.
But mostly they do hearts”
“It takes a whim of iron” might be my own choice for a discreet inking – in Times New Roman, of course, or even Gill Sans, and in legible 12-point.