Sunday, September 7, 2008
A poet with a laptop walks into a bar.
He orders a beer and begins scrolling Web sites of "literary tattoos."
He sees a man's back entirely inscribed with the first page of "Fight Club." The tattoo looks fresh, red and painful. He sees a woman holding aside her hair to show the nape of her neck, where this line by e.e. cummings - "be of love a little more careful than of anything" - appears on her freckled flesh. Then, with a sharp shock, he stops scrolling. He has come upon his own words, inked on skin.
Many living writers might have just this experience, including Bay Area poet Robert Hass, the UC Berkeley professor of English, winner of this year's National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and former poet laureate of the United States.
On the Web site Contrariwise.org, this line from Hass' poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" appears in blue script on a young woman's arm: "Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances."
San Francisco is a creative crucible for tattooing, piercing and other body art. It was North Beach visionary V. Vale, of RE/Search Publications, who named the trend in his 1989 book, "Modern Primitives," which the editors of the avant-garde North Beach publishing house called "an anthropological inquiry into a contemporary social enigma - the increasingly popular revival of ancient human decoration practices."
Since then, tattoos have emerged from the underground. In fact, they're mainstream. The styles are ever-evolving and, in recent years, "script" or text tattoos have gained in popularity.
"I've noticed more and more people with a bit of Dickinson or Kafka or Nietzsche somewhere on their bodies," said San Francisco poet Kim Addonizio. "It's natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them - or that maps a direction they want to go."
She co-edited the 2002 book "Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos," a collection of work by Ray Bradbury, Sylvia Plath, Herman Melville, Flannery O'Connor, William T. Vollmann and others. (The title refers to a tiny star on Parker's arm.)
Message art form
Internationally known San Francisco tattoo artist and historian Lyle Tuttle attests to the popularity of "script or written-word" tattoos. It makes sense. "Tattooing is a message art form," said Tuttle, who once inked a 135-line poem on a chest. "Tattoos are exterior decorations for interior feeling."
A case in point is Beth Loster, 24, a San Francisco writer and waitress who was a student at UC Berkeley when she met a young man who said, "Hey, we have tattoos in the same font."
The text of her tattoo - "clad in the panoply of love" - came from "Science & Health" by Mary Baker Eddy. "I like the way the written word looks on the body," she said. "And that phrase made me feel safe." His tattoo, also in a "typewriter" typeface, was in Latin. (She can't recall the translation.)
The text of Loster's next tattoo was written by that young man, who had become her boyfriend. Before leaving for South America, where he was going to study, he left a note on her refrigerator that began, "this is on account of my loving you forever." That phrase - in the form of a tattoo - offered her comfort when he was killed in a car accident in Brazil.
"After he passed away, I got it for him," Loster said. The typeface is from one of the vintage manual typewriters she collects: "I typed it up and brought it in."
Several years have passed, and she is asked about it nearly every day. "I talk about his death more than I would normally," she said. "But that's good. It reminds me that something good happened and something bad happened and, somehow, it's all OK."
Acknowledging personal history is also the motivation behind the tattoos of Jon Woo, 29, manager of a sports shoe shop in San Francisco.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, he got his first tattoo - of his last name, in Chinese, on his left shoulder - when he was 17.
"At the time, tattoos weren't as widely accepted," he said. "I've watched the progression as tattoos have gone from taboo-esque to mainstream."
The one that sparks the most comment is a line on his arm, "As long as the world is turning and spinning, we're going to be dizzy and we're going to make mistakes," by comic and author Mel Brooks.
"I have tripped and fallen and picked myself up so many times," Woo said, explaining the tattoo's significance. "I wanted to get it somewhere where I could see it and others could see it."
"It's a statement to everybody, about my life, about everybody's life. People respect it," he added. "They read it and say, 'That's so true,' and it is."
Michaela Healy, 22, a cook in San Francisco, has been fascinated with tattoos since she was 10 years old, growing up in Encinitas, in San Diego County. That's when her older sister brought over a friend who had a tattoo of a huge tiki god on his shoulder. "I saw him the day he got it," she said.
Before her 18th birthday, she got her own first tattoo - the name of her favorite band, the ska band No Doubt - on her upper back.
Since then, she's gotten others, but the one that stands out artistically is a color rendering of the cover of her favorite comic serial, "Strangers in Paradise," with art by Terry Moore.
"The cover tells the whole story of the book," Healy said. "Sex, drugs, government conspiracy, struggling with sexuality, mercenaries, assassins and, ultimately, love."
She doesn't mind being asked about her tattoos, which happens often. "That's OK," she said. "It's half the reason I have them. This is the art that I've chosen to put out there."
Illustrations from beloved books can have emotional power beyond words, as Ken Samuels, 44, a San Francisco bookseller, will attest.
On both arms, he has tattoos of illustrations from his favorite children's books, including Max from "Where the Wild Things Are," Harold from "Harold and the Purple Crayon," Peter from "The Snowy Day," Thelonious Monk from "Mysterious Thelonious" and Ferdinand the Bull.
"These books made me love reading," he said. "I loved the characters' persistence and creativity in the face of difficulties and their ultimately successful journeys home."
Samuels didn't get his first tattoo until he was in his mid-30s. "I became reacquainted with these books when my nephews were little boys," he said, "and I got the tattoos in tribute to them and their future journeys into the world."
Whether they inscribe themselves with words or illustrations, a good portion of San Francisco artists, book lovers and wordsmiths are likely to continue to find personal expression in tattoos.
Poet Addonizio - who has five tattoos, but no text yet - is discerning. She is taking her time.
"As soon as I find the right words," she said, "they'll be inked somewhere on my skin."
E-mail Heidi Benson at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle