Bloomsbury, $22.00, ISBN 978-162040-490-4
Popular Culture, 2014
Pen & Ink, subtitled Tattoos & the Stories Behind Them, is all about the ink on the body. Personally, I’ve never seen any tattoo design that I’d want for myself, so I am not the best person to go to when it comes to appreciating tattoos. However, this book is quite an eye-opener in that it collects stories from a bunch of folks about their tattoos and why they get them. The stories can be funny or heartfelt, superficial or deep.
As author Cheryl Strayed wrote in the introduction:
There are people who get tattoos because they survived illness or prison or deep grief. There are people who got tattoos because they loved pizza or whale sharks or being reminded of their mortality. There are tattoos in honor of particular dogs or RVs, daughters and dads, drunken nights and fresh starts. Some were made in the spur of the moment under emotionally addled or chemically impaired conditions; others, after years of careful planning and consideration.
Ms Strayed’s story is one of the most touching ones here, by the way. It could be due to her powerful way with words, but the reasons for her to get a tattoo with her ex can be heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. Isaac Fitzgerald, who gathers all the stories here, also has a good story about his tattoo.
It is the ugliest tattoo I have ever seen. I will never cover it up.
I also like how he says that life’s mistakes is his co-pilot. Can I get an amen to that?
The stories here are from a mixed group of people. There are arty and creative people, both famous and hoping to be famous, sharing stories alongside ordinary folks in middle-class jobs and authors both big and hoping to be. Their stories rarely run longer than a single page, but some can really pack a hard punch while others make me laugh. As I’ve said, I’ve never seriously given tattoos and the people who love them much thought, but here, I get it. Tattoos can sometimes be a way to remember times both good and bad, while for other folks, the tattoos themselves (usually done at the spur of the moment or at the encouragement of somebody else) eventually become a symbol of a time worth remembering for whatever reason. Some tattoos are gifts from the people one loves or respects, while to others, having the same tattoo with another person is a way of bonding, or maybe even a mark that the other person has affected you as much as you have affected that person. Yes, I’m pretty sure that, eventually, the body will sag and the skin will loosen so that the tattoo of a loved one’s name in a heart would end up resembling a monkey’s rear end, but I guess it’s the meaning of the tattoo to its wearer that counts.
Pen & Ink is beautifully illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. The copy is presented in a handwritten-style font (all caps, but easy to read), and each story is presented in a spread – the left-hand page an illustration of the tattoo on the person’s body, and the story itself on the right-hand page. The illustrations inside the book are mostly in black and white – only the tattoos have color. The illustration approach is pretty, but it will most likely disappoint more serious enthusiasts who want to see the tattoos in photos. Illustrations are often idealized, after all, and sometimes an imperfectly rendered tattoo on skin has more character or is more interesting than a mere hand-drawn picture. Also, for tattoos that go around the body, only a part of those tattoos are seen. I guess the focus of this book is more on the stories, and the illustrations are merely complements to help bring those stories to life.
Do I want to get a tattoo after reading this book? Not really. But I have a good time reading these stories, and some of them can really get under the skin, making me laugh or go, “Awww!”, sometimes one after another.
I guess it all depends in the end on what one expects from Pen & Ink. If you are expecting detailed photos and illustrations to study, you won’t find them here. This isn’t a “serious” book in that you won’t find critical analysis and philosophical treatises here. It’s best to view this one as a light beach read in a Reader’s Digest kind of way: it’s light and fluffy, sometimes unexpectedly heartbreaking, sometimes just too funny. This book is about the people wearing the tattoos rather than the tattoos themselves, and I’m perfectly fine with that.