“A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map. . .” (Ron Strauss)

Athlete

Athlete

(Please note: I realize I have written about tattoos—my tattoos—recently; however, that post is one I inadvertently deleted. This is not, however, a replacement for that post.)

In the summer of 1972 I lived and worked at the Robert and Francis Flaherty farm in Brattleboro, VT. At that time it was the center of study for Flaherty’s films (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Moana), administered by the School of Theology at Claremont (California), under the direction of Professor Jack Coogan.

I was assigned to catalogue and file still photos from Moana. The work was tedious, but the situation was intellectually stimulating, and the farm, located at the foot of Black Mountain, was idyllic and naturally inspiring.

Moana would be seen as even less appealing than “quaint” to modern film-goers. It would be almost impossible to endure for most of the students I’ve taught in colleges. Black and white. Silent (with subtitles—and, in versions available online, with theater organ accompaniments). Naive, I suppose—Polynesian kids running around in a blissfully innocent idyll playing and cavorting in the least sophisticated (by 21st-century styles and rituals) activities imaginable.

It was made before rock ‘n roll was invented, an eternity before rap or any of those other new musics. The film has not a single “special effect” or murder or explosion in its entire 60-some minutes.

Last week, a conversation with a young man from Tonga (the South Pacific islands) jogged my memory about Moana.

He asked me about my tattoos. He was fascinated and wanted to know if they “mean” something. He explained that his parents had asked him not to get any tattoos until he considered the “rite of passage” tattoo of many Polynesian Islands.

Tattoo.

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages. . . (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body & Society 8.4 (2002): 91–107.)

When I was in 3rd grade, a new boy joined our class. He was also the new boy at church, the nephew of one of the pillars. My parents insisted I play with him even though everyone at school thought he was weird (I knew most of the kids thought I was weird, too). I was willing as long as it was at home and no one saw us together. David had an older brother, out of high school, thin, muscular, wearing t-shirt and jeans like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. He was not handsome, but he was so sexy I could hardly bear to be in his presence. He had several tattoos. They were not socially acceptable in 1955.

My being tattooed may be a case of arrested development. I still think of Casey now and then when I consider the history of my emotional development. I know the image of his tattoos (I do not remember what they were exactly) is one of those from childhood that inhabits my most private memory.

So I have tattoos because, when I was 10, I was in love with a playmate’s 19-year-old-brother who had tattoos? I’ll admit that’s possible. Arrested development.

It’s also possible that it has something to do with my life-long search for my true identity—and my (limited by creativity but nonetheless real) unwillingness to fit my life to some pattern some unidentified power would prescribe for me. I’m a shy, introverted (unspectacular, even meek) non-conformist. That I knew at age 10 I wanted to be tattooed but waited until I was 69 to do it does not speak well for my being a rebel, with or without a cause.

All of my life I have been in professional positions in which it would have been out of the question to be tattooed unless one were a far more extroverted non-conformist than I.

Many of the student athletes I work with now have tattoos—not simply a few scattered about their bodies, but elaborate swirls of ink over large parts of their bodies. I’m not sure when that became fashionable. My guess is Dennis Rodman made it popular; I don’t know.

Is it possible that these young athletes and I have the same motivation for our “body modifications?”

My tattoo in Arabic

My tattoo in Arabic

(Ernest)Becker has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. (Strenger, Carl. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Gender and Sexuality 10 [2009]: 166–171. Referencing: Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press [1974].)

In his poem “Tattoo,” Dr. Ron Strauss tells of meeting a patient covered with tattoos, one of which the doctor thought said “J.S. Bach.” He was mystified until he discovered the tattoo read “S.S. Beech.”

A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”
explains “SS Beach” himself.
He’s become his own map, his own guide to what he will become.

Will he die or live forever through the permanent marks he has made on his body.

. . . as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body (Fisher).

The boundary of possibility is death. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. . . Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming.

I doubt any of this was in my consciousness as I sat for my first tattoo. The truth is, I could not have told you, had you asked, why I was in that chair letting Joe work on my arm. I have read many times and absorbed Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” I have studied and taught Orlan’s body modification of. I have read Becker, Strenger, and Fisher.

Perhaps I’m struggling against death. Perhaps I’m expressing non-conformity. Perhaps I’m trying to be as sexy as Casey (and the students I work with). Perhaps I like my tattoos.

Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher)

Soon I’ll tackle tattoos as “denial of death.” Stay tuned.

“The Tattoo,” by Ron Strauss
Pushing aside the nursing home curtain that’s come within reach,
a diehard sailor flexes a biceps.
For an instant we see “JS Bach” instead of “SS Beach.”

Down the street, the usual kvetch
of speed-metal pours from the local reptile shop
as if to further tattoo the curtain of his skin. The sweeping reach

of aquamarine vines and blue-green rosettes. Pitch
black nipples. A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”

explains “SS Beach” himself. Or in the clutch
purse of the deep. If only that crepe
of a curtain which Shelley calls “the painted veil” could come within reach

of the hand that would lift it. If only such
a hand were not itself caught in the grip
of the inching histiocytes that had blurred the distinction between “JS Bach”
and “SS Beach.”
From all across the map
a chorus of twenty-some-odd kids warms up
behind a scrim curtain, beyond his reach,
JS Bach instead of SS Beach.

Mine isn't Bach, but it's music

Mine isn’t Bach, but it’s music

“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet