literary tattoos

My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story

I’ve been wanting to post about this for a really long time, but I wanted to wait until a little more progress had been made than after my initial visit. One of my 30 Before 30 was to get a text sleeve: I’d seen a handful of photos online that I’d fallen in love with, and have always been drawn to typography tattoos. At the beginning of July, the day finally arrived, and I proceeded to have paper pieces of literature strewn across my arm and shoulder. It wasn’t going to be a quick one – the longest I’ve ever sat for ink in one sitting was three hours, and this was going to be upwards of ten – so, because reality leaves me far less badass than I like to imagine, it was going to have to be done in stages.

Five hours later, I emerged with a decent start. I had Tennyson and parts of Kerouac immortalised on my skin (though the stencil for the latter decided to abandon ship halfway through, leaving a rather amusing “plodin’ across the stars” there until next time), and a giant red immortality from the pen of Emily Dickinson. I was nervous going in – I cry at Pixar movies, and I didn’t want to look like even more of a baby than I usually do day to day crying about this or that (“but it’s so beautiful!” CHOKE) – but I ate Maltesers and had such good conversation with the artist that it went way quicker and easier than I was anticipating.

Before I continue, I have to take a minor detour through crazyville. I hadn’t told many people I’d planned on getting this tattoo immediately, and so a little shock was understandable. But I think downright judgment and public disapproval is more than a little rude. I had a lot of love for the first picture to hit my Facebook wall, but intermingled were a few rather irritating comments in the vein of “whaaaaaaaat”, “WHY” and “dear lord”, followed by something that really made me want to punch somebody:

Crazy!! Why Em? WHY? You are a BEAUTIFUL woman. You really did NOT need this. I apologize if I seem to be old fashioned. Do you wonder what it will look like when you’re in your 50s,60s,70s? You gorgeous wonderful girl. I feel gutted. 

Let’s stop for a second and think about passing the same kind of comment on somebody who decided to go for a nose job or shave all their hair off. People make all sorts of big, appearance-related decisions every day, and they do it for very good reasons. They do it for art, for self esteem, and for expression. And nobody has the right to judge or condemn them for it simply because it’s not what they’d do themselves. I find it equally audacious when people tell me I need to “eat more” and stop being so skinny. Why is that form of judgment acceptable, when telling someone to put down the burgers is seen as cruel?

It’s been about five months since I got the first chunk done, and I think after a few more sittings in the new year, I’ll be done. I’ve fallen in love with it (and my amazing tattoo artist who puts on BBC radio, bundles me in blankets, gives us Christmas decorations and burns awesome TV shows for me) more and more every time I go, and I can’t wait for the finished product.

I suppose I should elaborate on my choice of text a little: The first excerpt across my shoulder is from Ulysses, and talks of the evanescence of the strength of youth, but also of the immortality of the strength of heart and will:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Around the corner, across the top of my arm, is an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Beneath, by Emily Dickinson, is one of my favourite quotes about love. Not an everyday kind of love, but a love that burns brighter than any dream imaginable… a love that transcends words, life, time and death:

“That I shall love always, I argue thee that love is life, and life hath immortality.”

The next phase was probably the most painful – the difference between being tattooed on the outside of the arm and being tattooed on the skin inside is indescribable!! This was the only time I cried, and unfortunately this was also the only time nobody was available to come and hold my hand. Not fun, and this one hurt for a good couple of days afterward, too, but thankfully the worst is over! This quote was about writing, and on how beautiful it is to watch the words “tangle with human emotions.”

After this, I had two terribly sciencey quotes added, along with a brilliant splattering of ink across much of what had already been done.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” (Carl Sagan), and “ad astra per aspera” (through adversity to the stars… I believe at one point, this was used by NASA).

I have a few strands of text still to go, a couple of stray words and one full-size quote (below), and then, for now, I’ll be finished! The thing I love about this isn’t just the immortality of so many sentiments that mean so much to me, but also that as I grow and evolve, so too can this.

“As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through one’s fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly, or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination before they whip away on the endless current and are lost forever in oblivion’s black ocean.”

Love, science, imagination, language, strength and stars now walk with me through life, and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s taking shape. Once this is done, I’m certain I’m going to finally finish the back piece.  After all, if the body is a temple, why not decorate the walls?

Edit: Updates since include adding on to the Carl Sagan quote with “to be known” overlaying the already existing words; knowing another soul and simultaneously being truly known is one of the rarest and most beautiful things in the world, and something I have an insatiable desire to build with anyone I hold dear. I say build – if they’re dear to me, chances are it’s something we probably already share, and for those people, who’ve allowed me in to explore the most hidden depths of their souls, baring their histories and hopes and fears and dreams… allowing me to do the same with them… and giving unconditional love built on that safety, that trust, that knowing… I am incredibly blessed.

Another: “Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” This one was Neil Gaiman, who I love very much. Tales and dreams, emotions, lyrics, hopes, explosions of the heart, and stories of imagination are the things that bring such joy to life. Feelings. A memory told only with facts can sound quite ordinary, but when told with the colour of how it felt, prefaced by the promise of all its potential… these tales bring magic, and they truly are the things that will endure.