A Tattoo Tells a Story: Dorothy Parker’s Elbow Book Club

The Tattoo Tells a Story

“Each tattoo tells a story,” writes J. Acosta in The Tattoo Hunter. “The tattoo is a freely chosen scar.”

In a poetic style that is at once fierce and tender, he tells of these chosen scars:

I have tangos tattooed upon the nostalgia of a mouth; poems tattooed on my apocalyptic anxiety.

My conscience is tattooed.

I have tattooed on my retina a painting by Magritte, a regret on my esophagus, a tongue on my crotch, a silence on the decade of the seventies.

The tattoo is a marking of sovereignty on the skin.

. . . a bullfighting ring of epidermic calligraphy and melancholy.

Acosta’s character works a bit of illusion with the reader, first suggesting “a tattoo is a freely chosen scar,” as though he’s talking about the colorful artwork on the skin of the tattooed. But the tattoos he speaks of color organs other than the skin–the mouth, the esophagus, the retina, the conscience. He takes what we expect to be literal — for isn’t even the most exquisite tattoo across a smooth ivory hip a freely chosen scar? — and with graceful sleight of hand inks the tattoo as metaphor. The scars he illuminates are subcutaneous, seared between mind and soul, but also, poignantly, chosen of one’s own volition.

The Story’s Tattoo

And then there are those scars that could be seen as their own kind of tattoo, carrying stories in their pigment but that aren’t so freely chosen, as in Susan Terris’ “After the Surgery”:

After the surgery when they took the breast tissue and the nipple, after twisting a back muscle across my chest for shape, they grafted skin for a new areola, cut a fishtail, formed a small bud shaped like a rose, tattooed it, (Pigment and palette, Beige 10, Beige 1, Pink 1, Brown 2) — a numb, artificial rose on a man-made hill (Hedge-clipper hum of needle, sting of punctured flesh), and I see the rosebud but how can I tender it now?

The Tattoo’s Story

The tattoo is a story with a life of its own, it seems, captured in Acosta’s “sovereignty upon the skin,” and once visible it’s as though there is a natural bond between one and another. In Jennifer Armstrong’s short piece, “Snakes,” she finds herself offended at the opportunistic “stained-T-shirt, jean-sagging male specimen” in the supermarket who asks about the tattoo on her arm, offering to show her his, as though it were a mating ritual for a one-night stand. But then, it’s the story.

I consider lobbing both the boysenberry yogurt in my right hand and the raspberry in my left at him. But I’m a nice person and so I carefully set both yogurts back on their respective piles and turn to slowly walk away when his voice stops me for the third time. “I got this tattoo after my father died. It helps, sort of. I turn back and look. He’s holding up his shirt for me to see a vivid red and gold snake encircling his navel. My eyes find his. They are so blue.

Join the Discussion

We’re reading Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, a collection of essays, short stories and poems about tattoos this month as part of our September Tattoo theme. This week we want to consider the scars and stories — of both actual and metaphorical tattoos, the way sometimes the scars are chosen, and sometime they are imposed upon us, the ways each tell their own respective story. Perhaps you’d share your thoughts, or a poem, with us in the comments.

And join us next week for the readings from J.D. McClatchy’s “Tattoos” to Eliot Wilson’s “Designing a Bird from Memory in Jack’s Skin Kitchen” (pp. 141-199).

Photo by Luis Hernandez, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW 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.

Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos

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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. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Being from the south I’ve seen my share of a tattoo located on people’s bodies. The one that blew me away was two huge butterfly wings between a ladies thighs while tubing down the river, that one left me with my mouth wide open. They are a form of art, each tell a story just like poetry. When I write a poem it comes from deep within my soul, sometimes like the tattoo’s I have scars with stories that you can’t see but share within my poems. Each are a chosen art, to which I agree, both can be painful.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    I’m thinking about today being September 11, and I know that for some people they might be sort of done thinking about that, and for some, born more recently, it is hard to even know what to think about.

    I’m thinking of when I went to see the monument, I was struck by the choosing of the scar… see, of all the things proposed for that site, in the end the architects chose to leave the holes in the ground, and to turn them into fountains in which the water pours in and in and in to the holes and it looks like ghost water the way it changes and shimmers and comes back up invisibly probably through inner pipes… only to fall back in the holes again. Some people think the monument isn’t “much,” but to me it was amazing in this sense of choosing the scars over covering them with new buildings or sculptures.

    A scar doesn’t ask you to repeat things at crisis level, but it does ask you to remember how it got there. You might run your finger over it. You might not feel the same pain, nor should you. There’s a way in which a scar contains healing as well as a forever-wound.

    • says

      Listened to Krista Tippett interviewing Nadia Bolz-Weber over the weekend, and the stories of her (many) tattoos came into the conversation. She told of one on her back that she got in a junkie’s apartment (something, can’t recall the details just now) that is mostly scar tissue and as she said, quite “gross.” She’s in the process of a large piece on her back depicting the Annunciation, and that area of scar tissue will be covered, which I imagine to be more like worked in.

      The scars are there for something, it seems.

      • L. L. Barkat says

        “working in” the scars and working in spite of them and transforming them by what we add to (or take away from) them… this is the job of the writer/artist, yes?

    • says

      I feel the same way about the 9/11 memorial, and as I do about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., a highly criticized memorial at the time that I always found absolutely moving. I still do.

      The scar as metaphor . . . I will be thinking about that.

  3. says

    You know when I saw this month’s topic, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine where you were going with it. But here you are. And this is beautifully done, Lyla. Thank you. I tried about 10 times to listen to that interview and it would never play on my computer. First time that’s ever happened. I could play the other videos on the site, but not that one. I still regret that. Do you suppose that’s a tiny scar, all on its own?


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