Tattoo and Identity: Dorothy Parker’s Elbow Book Club

Tattoo as Identity’s Herald

Beauty is only skin deep, we like to say, we like to believe.

And yet, we suspend that belief and accept, somehow, that the skin-deep etchings of a tattoo allow a deeper sense of identity to rise to the surface in much the way Virginia Chase Sutton in “Embellishments” describes how a burn blisters on skin under the butter: Raised bubbles, little kisses, / boiled to the top

In the second segment of “Tattoos,” J.D. McClatchy writes of the skin’s place as both prophet and mask (its own kind of prophet) of identity, calling out or hiding the identity that is, or that one wishes to be:

Figuring out the body starts with the skin,
Its boundary, its edgy go-between,
The scarred, outspoken witness at trials,
The monitor of its memories,
Pleasure’s flushed archivist and death’s pale herald.
But skin is general-issue, a blank
Identity card until it’s been filled in
Or covered up, in some way disguised
To set us apart from the beasts, whose aspects
Are given, not chosen, and the gods
Whose repertoire of change — from shower of gold
To carpenter’s son — is limited.
We need to distinguish ourselves
From one another, and ornament
Is particularity, elevating
By the latest bits of finery,
Pain, wardrobe, extravagance or privation
Each above the common human herd.

Tattoo as Identity’s Seal

In Typee, Melville’s Tommo, the young man who abandoned his whaling ship to live among Polynesian tribal folk, comes across the village tattoo artist at work touching up the faded streak across the aged tattoo on his subject’s eyelids. He describes the tools of the artist’s craft: instruments made from wood and bone tapped into the skin with a hammer softly mirroring chisel against stone.

In spite of all the efforts of the poor old man, sundry twitchings and screwings of the muscles of the face denoted the exquisite sensibility of these shutters to his soul, which he was now having repainted.

My misreading of the passage had me thinking Melville was suggesting that, in fact, the tattoo represented a mural painted across the soul itself, and though it’s not what he said, I suspect he’d be right about it if he had. For many, it seems, the tattoo is more than a declaration, more than even a representation; it’s a seal, as though the identity itself were rolled into the hot wax of the skin with a signet.

This may explain Tommo’s “terror and indignation” over the tribe’s insistence his face be tattooed as one of their own:

When his fore-finger swept across my features, in laying out the borders of the parallel bands which were to circle my countenance, the flesh fairly crawled upon my bones. At last, half wild with terror and indignation, I succeeded in breaking away from the three savages, and fled toward old Marheyo’s house, pursued by the indomitable artist, who ran after me, implements in hand. Kory-Kory, however, at last interfered, and drew him off from the chase.

This incident opened my eyes to a new danger: and I now felt convinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the face to return to my countrymen, ever should an opportunity offer.

Tattoo as Identity Imposed

Peter Trachtenberg’s first tattoo was done in Amsterdam at the hands of behemoth and renowned tattooist Hanky Panky, who he said “could crush me like a styrofoam peanut.” He describes the transformation wrought by the tattoo, a design Trachtenberg had seen in a book of Dayak art, in 7 Tattoos:

Two hours later I get up and I look at myself in the mirror. And there, on that chest that was just a chest, on those shoulders that were just shoulders, is a beautiful, undulant black labyrinth of slender, hooked lines. It’s incredibly crisp, the way new tattoos are, and the antibiotic ointment makes it shiny. This is my body, and it’s been transfigured. The word that comes to mind is lithe. I’m lithe and I’m powerful and I’m wild. This tattoo has turned me into a jungle thing… Gone are the timidity, the caution, the doubt, the sniveling Heepish niceness, the excruciating self-consciousness that have encysted me since the day I first knew I was an “I” … Four hours under a tattooist’s needle and for the first time in my life I can look in the mirror and actually like what I see.

Trachtenberg’s greatest delight is Tommo’s worst fear: that the tattoo might not merely superimpose a design on the skin, but that it would impose an identity, wanted or not, upon the soul. Trachtenberg becomes himself. Tommo would have become someone else.

Tattoo as Identity Taken

Despite his initial euphoria over the warrior persona imposed by the the Dayak design on his shoulder, Trachtenberg later regrets the act as he reflects on the tattoo as a betrayal of his father and the legacy of a people for whom the tattoo, even as it sought to identify, became, in a way, the means to stripping away personal and national identity:

Because he was a nominally observant Jew, my father had no tattoos, but his mother and several other relatives had gotten them when they were herded into Auschwitz. Tattooing had been the Germans’ way of keeping track of the Jews they were killing in such huge numbers with such witless method and ingenuity. The only way I can imagine what what the Nazis had in mind is to envision an empire of idiot savants who’ve made it their national project to count to infinity by ones. At the railroad sidings, at the camp entrances, outside the gas chambers and the crematoria, they count and they count. And they tick off each “one” with a number on the wrist, because they don’t want to make any mistakes in their idiot progress toward infinity; they want to keep track of all those corpses and all those corpses-to-be, of all those “I”s who are about to be transformed into inanimate “its.” Because what is a corpse but an I that has become an it?

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 consider the tattoo and identity — the way a tattoo can broadcast one’s identity, and how it might seem to have the power to create it, impose it, even take it away. Perhaps you’d share your thoughts, or a poem, with us in the comments.

We’ll wrap up our discussion next week with readings from Bruce Bond’s “Second Skin” through Katharine Whitcomb’s “Benediction” (pp. 200-257).

Photo by soundlessfall, 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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    • says

      The contrast of Trachtenberg’s tale of coming into his own under his tattoo while his people disappeared under theirs was something like that, yes. I caught my breath. It was all Tommo’s funny story until then.


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