Our next special-focus issue, due out in January, is all about Skin. Eva Talmadge, co-author of The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, talks with editor Anna Schachner in the editor’s note, and so we asked co-author Justin Taylor to give us some additional insight on what is fast becoming a subculture. First, a little about the book:
The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide is a guide to the emerging subculture of literary tattoos—a collection of 100 full-color photographs of human skin indelibly adorned with quotations and images from Pynchon to Dickinson to Shakespeare to Plath. Packed with beloved lines of verse, literary portraits, and illustrations—and statements from the bearers on their tattoos’ history and the personal significance of the chosen literary work—The Word Made Flesh is part photo collection, part literary anthology written on skin.
Special features include a reprint of a short story by Donald Barthelme (along with the tattoo it inspired on the author’s daughter), an interview with Brian Evenson about seeing his own work tattooed on someone else, Shelley Jackson’s SKIN Project and Rick Moody’s Shelley Jackson tattoo, Jonathan Lethem’s homage to Philip K. Dick, Tao Lin’s Tao Lin tattoo, and more.
LS: What is this book’s manifesto?
JT: The purpose of this book was to celebrate the intersection of two distinct subcultures—tattoo people and book people—who, it seemed to us, maybe weren’t so distinct after all. Broadly, the hardcore enthusiasts of each group had many of the same tribal tendencies, and in some cases they were also the same people. In the course of putting the book together, we began to believe that the increasingly mainstream allure/acceptance of the once-marginalized practice of tattooing, was at least in part an affirmation of physicality and permanence in a world increasingly overrun by the virtual and ephemeral. Which is the same thing literature attempts: to create something that endures, or, in Pound’s famous dictum, “news that stays news.” I don’t know if that’s a manifesto, exactly, but it’s what got us interested in the project. Maybe more like a raison d’etre. Or better still: excuse.
LS: Your advice for getting a literary tattoo:
JT: I can’t give any first-hand literary tattoo advice, because I don’t have any literary tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos. This topic was just something I was interested in exploring and had the opportunity to build a book around. But I can tell you from having met several hundred literary tattoo-possessors, and having collected their stories and photographed their bodies, that people get them for all kinds of reasons. Some were commemorating lost loved ones, or favorite childhood books. Others chose quotes or images that inspired them. Others were expressing hardcore fan-dom—of Harry Potter or Edgar Allan Poe. Still others began with the desire for a tattoo before they knew what it would be of, and in the course of whatever long or short deliberations they undertook came up with something literary—they could have just as easily chosen a band or a piece of original art. I think the thing I was most surprised to learn from talking to people with tattoos is that many of them didn’t know exactly why they chose what they chose. I had always assumed that you choose your tattoo very carefully because it stays with you forever. And that’s why I never got one—because I couldn’t make that commitment. But many people told me that a huge part of the tattoo experience is your changing relationship to it over time, that belated regret or irony are as much a part of the experience as cherishing or loving your choice. This was kind of mind-blowing for me, but it actually makes sense and justifies the underlying concept of our project because books are exactly the same way! A book like Moby-Dick, for example, doesn’t read the same at age twenty as it will at age thirty or fifty or seventy. The evolution of the relationship over time is one of the qualities that makes the relationship worth having.
Read more about The Word Made Flesh, and subscribe to The Hooch today to receive Skin as your first issue, and for a limited time, receive a free back issue with your $16 subscription by mentioning “Skin” in the comments!