Lit snobs, hot librarians, & the rise of the literary tattoo
By Eugenia Williamson
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was sitting down for a meal at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, when she found herself under critique.
"I sat down in the cafeteria," the Jamaica Plain writer recalls. "One of the famous poets who was there to teach sat down next to me and read the first line of the Sexton poem off my arm, and he said, 'That's a terrible poem! That's not one of her good ones!' "
The eminent bard — she wouldn't name names — found fault with Anne Sexton's "Curse Against Elegies." That poem, along with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Dirge Without Music," wash over each other to form the outline of an orchid on Marzano-Lesnevich's bicep.
She didn't take offense at the poet's criticism. "I just let him talk," she says. "How often do you get to hear a famous poet rail against another famous poet?"
At that same conference, the tattoo led to another, more fortuitous encounter. "Amy MacKinnon [the Boston-based author of the novel Tethered] saw my tattoo and said to me that a woman in her agent's agency was putting together a book of literary tattoos."
That book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide (Harper Perennial), comes out this week. The idea for the book came about in the spring of 2009, when two friends realized that two of their respective roommates had three literary tattoos between them. If this number seems high, consider that editors Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor both have MFAs, are under 30, and live in Brooklyn. Talmadge, 29, is the aforementioned literary agent and writer; Taylor, 28, a novelist and currently a creative-writing teacher at Columbia University.
The book's participants skew heavily toward literary professionals. "There's a lot of people in the book that are affiliated with publishing or books in some way," says Taylor. "A handful of librarians, a lot of people who work for publishing houses, magazine journalists." There are a few famous writers, too, like Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody. There are also a number of independent bookstore employees, whom Taylor tried to shoot in their natural habitat. "I wanted to make it a thing about bookstores and about the places where literature is consumed," he says.
Still, Taylor estimates that literary laypeople comprise the majority of his subjects, proving that literary tattoos are far from the exclusive province of MFAs and those who work in publishing. (For further evidence, check out the Harry Potter neck tattoo that immediately follows a two-page spread of Twilight sleeves, one of which features the word "Believe" in Edward Cullen's "handwriting.")
With any luck, the book will be used as a primary source by anthropologists of the future who have set out to understand what happened to bibliophiles when physical books began to disappear. At the very least, they'll learn that literary passions ran broadly, and deep, and weren't readily digitized.Ink-stained wretches
Some of the tattoos contain intentionally cryptic references to high literature: the title of William Gaddis's JR in the original cover art's typeface and the outline of a box with text from Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives come to mind. Some are more conventional: Kerouac with typewriter, lines of e.e. cummings. Still others are just plain whimsical: a "librarian" banner over a skull with two books in the shape of crossbones, a bespectacled nude perched on a copy of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust.
Carey Harrison (son of Rex) is an English professor at Brooklyn College in his late 60s. The complete text of Theodor Adorno's essay "For Marcel Proust," in the original German, covers his entire back.
Becky Quiroga is a bookseller from Coral Gables, Florida. When picture-book author Eric Carle visited her store, she had him sketch a Very Hungry Caterpillar on her arm, then dashed off to the tattoo parlor to make it permanent. She says her ink has been recognized by children and baristas from Florida to Spain.
According to Talmadge and Taylor, the number-one author of those who submitted their literary tattoos is Kurt Vonnegut, followed closely by Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Shel Silverstein. "There are as many reasons for getting tattoos as there are people willing to be marked," Talmadge says.
The overwhelming number of literary tattoos collected in this book will lift the spirits of anyone who fears the world's affection for books is on the wane. The volume has also the potential to depress — it might give the impression that literature has become so marginalized that today's readers feel they're part of a subculture.
As for the editors, they're just glad their subjects have actually read what they've marked on their skin. Says Talmadge, "I think the majority of our readers got these tattoos out of appreciation or love for an author or a particular work."Metamorphosis
A striking example of author-love covers the entire arm of Winter Hill resident Kristina Grinovich. The 25 year old, with the help of artist Brian Hemming at Regeneration Tattoo, dedicated one calendar year to her Kafka sleeve. The editors dedicated four pages of The Word Made Flesh to her tribute.
"Originally, I was just going to get the half sleeve and then we started coming up with more ideas, and it turned into a full sleeve," she tells me. A black and white portrait of Kafka, framed in a spider web, stares out from the inside of her upper arm. "The meaning of life is that it stops," a quote attributed to Kafka, adorns the other side. A species of dahlia named after the author hugs her elbow. Colorful insects changing into flowers fill in the rest, along with her family's names in Cyrillic. An open book caps the sleeve at the shoulder, and the words "thank you" close the tattoo at the wrist. The work is beautiful and intricate.
Only some people recognize the portrait. "Other people ask if it's my grandfather," Grinovich admits.
Franz Kafka has been a part of Grinovich's life since she was 12. "I'd always written crazy, weird stories, short stories as a kid — they were always kind of dark, [but] not very well-written," she says. "My dad noticed . . . what I was leaning toward in my writing, so he got me Franz Kafka's short stories and I was just blown away."
Grinovich, who comes from a family of artists, feels the tattoo is a tribute to them, too. "It's just really nice for me to think back and think, 'Oh, my dad knew who I was even back then' and he was encouraging this kind of weird, creative side to me . . . when some parents would say, 'Oh, she needs help.' And that kind of got the ball rolling for me to be a writer."
After receiving her BFA in creative writing from Pratt and spending a few post-collegiate years in New York City working for Spin, Grinovich returned to Boston to work on her writing and as a baker for True Grounds in Somerville. "I never wanted a job where I couldn't be completely myself," she says, "and I never wanted to have to cover up who I was."
Her tattoo helps Grinovich stay focused on her writing. "This tattoo is kind of forcing me to become disciplined; looking down at it every day, thinking, 'I have to write every day,'" she says. "I'm out of school. I'm a baker. You don't have teachers and professors pushing you anymore."
Grinovich's dedication codifies a universal truth of those with literary tattoos. "I wear my heart on my sleeve.