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A call for literary tattoos

Posted by guest  August 5, 2009 07:33 AM

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Well, flex that quad and call me Ishmael.

Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor, a contributor to literary e-zine HTML Giant, launched a call for submissions of high quality photos of literary body art for a book they hope to compile. “From Shakespeare to Bukowski to The Little Prince in a Baobab tree, if it’s a literary tattoo and its on your body, we want to see it.’’

But lest you think different, their interest isn’t simply prurient. “We’d also like to read a few words about the tattoo’s meaning to you — why you chose it, when you first read that poem or book, or how its meaning has evolved over time. How much (or how little).’’

Talmadge and Taylor appear to be tapping into a rising interest in body art with a literary bent.

Back in the day, tattoos carried simple unambiguous messages: Mom, Navy, Sharleen. That was then.

One site, Contrariwise: Literary Tatoos has dedicated itself to sharing of and about this genre of body art. Visitors to the site submit photos of their tats and then write a little note explaining what it's about. For instance, there is a black-and-white shot of a shoulder, adorned famous lines from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’’ Numerous tributes to Harry Potter. And some more personal ones such as one of a burning candle in a stand on a young woman who says that it is an allusion to a poem by Shel Silverstein and a tribute to her grandparents who have died, particularly one grandmother who was a fan of the poet and children’s author: “If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar/A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…/If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire/ For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.’’

On another site, Yuppie Punk, there can be found an alleged short history of the trend (“Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in Germany in 1439. Samuel O’Reilly invented the modern tattoo machine in 1891 .... The lowbrow nature of the tattoo juxtaposes nicely against the highbrow art of the book.’’).

The range of the tattoos here is impressive. There are quotes from the the Bible and the likes of literary types like Shakespeare, Plath, Dickens, Frost, Kerouac, Vonnegut, along with the expected science fiction and fantasy crowd -- Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell.

Unlike Contrariwise, whose collection appears to be heavily word oriented, here there are portraits of famous authors like Faulkner and Thoreau and equally famous characters like Alice in Wonderland, Curious George, and the Wild Thing.

These are but two sites. A quick Google check will reveal many others.

Got a literary tat? It’s your time. Step out of the closet, flex an appendage, shed shirt or trou, and stage a public reading.


Photos of tattoos of Kurt Vonnegut quotes and illustrations from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are'' from

Posted by Paul Makishima, Globe staff

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Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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