What Do Tattoos Mean: Dorothy Parker’s Elbow Book Club

When your kid takes an interest in tattoos

A couple of weeks ago, my son sat cross-legged on the spare bed in my office. We were talking about the sort of things we might be expected to talk about in the days leading up to his departure for college. Dorm life, saying goodbye to friends, finances, funny memories, class schedules.

Without warning, he said, “You’ve got to see this!”

He turned his iPhone toward me and showed me a picture of his friend Tyler’s new tattoo: an exquisite design of a wolf, from just above his pec and over the top of his shoulder. Maybe it was a hawk. Or even a blackbird for all I know. I don’t remember now. I do remember being impressed with the tattoo, telling him it was quite stunning, despite flinching at the red marks that suggested more than a little pain. He assured me that Tyler said it was just a little tender.

He’d never really had much interest in tattoos until he saw Tyler’s, but he felt a tattoo was something he could do. An employer wouldn’t see it under a dress shirt, he told me, and it was positioned where his basketball jersey would cover it during a game. I nodded, looking at his broad shoulders, and agreed. He could pull it off, if he ever wanted to.

Later, I mulled over my lack of even mild concern when my son took an interest in a chest tattoo the very day before he moved out on his own for the first time, and then wondered just when it was that I took an interest in the artistic merits of tattoos at all.

Tell Him How Tattoos are Made

If I were really concerned, I suppose, I could tell my son how tattoos are made. It might slow him down a little, if he were really in a hurry to get his chest inked. (I don’t think he is.)

In Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, I read Karol Griffin’s account of learning to tattoo by practicing on grapefruit and bananas.

A tattoo is created by embedding pigment in living skin. The pigment is poked through the epidermis and adheres to cells in the underlying pad of tissue. Tattoo needles are not hollow. They do not inject pigment. Instead, the the needles poke holes in the skin and leave pigment behind. Epidermal tissue heals over the pigment, and the tattoo is visible through a thin layer of scar tissue. Once healed, the tattooed skin feels just like the surrounding skin. It is just as ticklish, just as warm.

And Tell Him Tattoos Last Forever

It’s not exactly like drawing on the back of your hand with a Sharpie pen during math class. I have to admit, I know little about the tattoo process, nor about the tattoo culture. I’m bound to misspeak at some point during our book club discussion on this collection of poems, essays, and short stories on the mystical tattoo. But this much I know: tattoos mean something. Tattoos say something, and tattoos are permanent in ways that transcend the fact that they don’t wash off. Mark Doty writes of permanence in his poem “My Tattoo”

What noun
would you want

spoken on your skin
your whole life through?
I tried to picture what
I’d never want erased

Later in the poem, he writes

It’s too late to be unwritten,
and I’m much too scrawled
to ever be erased.

Go ahead: prick and stipple
and ink me in:
I’ll never be naked again.

Griffin writes of the first time she tattooed a person, instead of a grapefruit, reflecting that the permanence wasn’t just for the tattooed, but for the tattoo artist as well:

As soon as I touched the needles to Rick’s skin, I was tying myself to tattooing for the rest of my life.

And Then Tell Him the Tattoo Better Mean Something

Dot by imperceptible dot, inch by inch, plain skin became permanently marked. Layer after layer, latex like the connecting wall of a dividing cell. On either side, skin–his and mine–and beneath that, muscle and bone, nerve endings and blood. The heat that rose from Rick’s body was markedly more pronounced on the freshly tattooed part, cooler outside the lines. His blood rushing white blood cells to the area of invasion, fighting against what his mind had decided to do; his blood busily transporting excess ink to the nearest lymph node for storage. All this for a picture on the skin. It wouldn’t be worth it if it didn’t mean something more, somewhere else.

This, of course, is the big question. What does the tattoo mean, besides “a picture on the skin”?


We’re reading Dorothy Parker’s Elbow together this month, a collection of poems, essays and short stories reflecting on the subject of tattoos. We read the first several selections this week, including Doty’s poem and Griffin’s story, as well as an excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” and Alejandro Murguía’s “A Toda Máquina.” For next week, we’ll read from “The Tattoo Hunter” (p. 78) to “It Only Hurts a Little” (p. 140).

Let’s look at Doty’s poem, “My Tattoo.” The complete poem seems to suggest that when he says It’s too late to be unwritten, / and I’m much too scrawled / to ever be erased, he’s speaking before getting the tattoo, suggesting that we can be tattooed without ink. What might that look like?

My Tattoo

I thought I wanted to wear
the Sacred Heart, to represent
education through suffering,

how we’re pierced to flame.
But when I cruised
the inkshop’s dragons,

cobalt tigers and eagles
in billowy smokes,
my allegiance wavered.

Butch lexicon,
anchors and arrows,
a sailor’s iconic charms –

tempting, but none
of them me. What noun
would you want

spoken on your skin
your whole life through?
I tried to picture what

I’d never want erased
and saw a fire ring corona
of spiked rays,

flaring tongues
surrounding – an emptiness,
an open space?

I made my mind up.
I sat in the waiting room chair.
then something (my nerve?

faith in the guy
with biker boots
and indigo hands?)

wavered. It wasn’t fear;
nothing hurts like grief,
and I’m used to that.

His dreaming needle
was beside the point;
don’t I already bear

the etched and flaring marks
of an inky trade?
What once was skin

has turned to something
made; written and revised
beneath these sleeves:

hearts and banners,
daggers and flowers and names.
I fled. Then I came back again;

isn’t there always
a little more room
on the skin? It’s too late

to be unwritten,
and I’m much too scrawled
to ever be erased.

Go ahead: prick and stipple
and ink me in:
I’ll never be naked again.

From here on out,
I wear the sun,
albeit blue.

–Mark Doty

If you’re reading along, perhaps you’d share in the comments your thoughts on this poem or any of the other readings. And even if you’re not, you might weigh in on your thoughts about the permanence and meaning of the tattoo.

Photo by Latente, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Lyla Willingham Lindquist.

Quotations and poems from Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, edited by Addonizio, Kim, and Cheryl Dumesnil. New York: Warner, 2002.

Buy Dorothy Parker’s Elbow now

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Every Day Poems Driftwood

Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In September we’re exploring the theme Tattoos.



  1. says

    There was a story earlier this week in The Washington Post about the death of a man four years shy of 40 who was “security” for a club downtown. He was a large man (6’4″. 340 pounds), with silver horns in his nose and his body covered in dragon tattoos. Everyone who knew him remarked on the gentle giant. I found so poignant his statement that before he died he wanted to make sure all his dragons had eyes so that they could be free. Sadly, he died before he could make the arrangements.

    It is so true that every tattoo has a story. My son has more than one to tell.

    • says

      I’ll have to go look up that story. Sounds very poignant.

      Would love to hear your son’s story(ies). Though I have no tattoos, I do find the idea fascinating. It’s something that seems to have a life of its own.

      • says

        I just wrote a poem this afternoon inspired by that story. I couldn’t shake the part about his desire to arrange for the dragons to have eyes before he died. The poem will be up next Tuesday.

        My son’s most recent addition goes down his left arm; it’s inspired by one of his dreams. The raven, his spirit animal, spans his shoulders. Three rows of Chinese characters on the right side of his back are the text of a poem, which is his life’s philosophy. He has a hamsa below the raven to the left of the Chinese characters. If you go to my FB page you will probably be able to see a photo of his back. He designed all his tattoos and had an artist refine them. All have a lot of meaning, which is in the stories he tells. He led storytelling workshops at Burning Man this year.

  2. says

    I’ve loved this book so far. Karol Griffin’s account of learning how to tattoo is riveting. The responsibility of the tattoo artist is something I’ve honestly never thought of before.

    “My Tattoo” is probably my favorite account so far, precisely because he mentions he is already “too scrawled to ever be erased”. It is possible to be inked without ink. It is invisible, an etching on the inside, something we carry with us always. Maybe this is why people get tattoos on their skin — to give a presence to what goes on beneath.

    • says

      So happy you’re reading with us, and popped into the comment box, Lakin. :)

      I too was taken by Griffin’s account. I mean, you know it’s a huge responsibility, but I don’t think I thought about it in the terms she does either. And that’s more than just the fact that the skin is permanently altered. I think it’s all that goes into the image, the process, all of it.

      I was struck by Doty’s poem for this same reason — it’s almost as though he speaks of an internal tattoo, though one can’t help but believe that shows itself on the exterior as well. And so then, if I were to get a tattoo (which I’m not planning on 😉 ), if it were to mirror in some way the internal tattoo, what would it be?

  3. says

    I like how Doty shows us that the stuff of the tattooist’s trade is also the stuff of writers and how both are about making something that endures. The best tattoos, of course, do, although they can be removed; written words are much harder to take back.

    Asked in a Q&A at The Coachella Review what was her “relationship” with tattoos and how writers and tattoos “relate” to each other, Kim Addonizio replied: “Tattoos are … a commitment to who you are at a certain time. . . . . when writers get tattoos, those images may be significant in a different way. At least, we writers like to think so. They say, This is who I am, this is what is important to me. Writers do that. We step forward and show ourselves….”

    It’s interesting to see the tattoos poets get. Some results from “Tattooed Poets Project” (it has a FB page) are here:


  4. Marcy Terwilliger says

    This week I’ve read all the stories, poems, listened to all the music about tattoo’s. Only know one by trade, the Lone Wolfe from Nashville, TN. He is an artist, the one that would get the Oscar award. Clients fly him to L.A. and really all over the U.S. just to have him do their tattoo’s. Monday for the first time I threw out my back, pain is unbearable but this is where it gets interesting. I’m standing against the wall at the doctor’s office yesterday and woman comes wheeling in, total control of her electric wheelchair. What do I see? A tattoo on her arm, so I ask what it was and why she got it? She speaks in a soft voice, there are two hearts here, one has my name on it while the other is the name of my son I gave away at birth. That was so profound and gave a total meaning to a tattoo. She gave up her baby yet he’s still with her all the time, engraved in her arm and heart. So these pieces of drawn on ink for some really carry a life story and I thought how odd to meet this woman on the week we are talking about tattoo’s.


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