The Phoenix Network:
About | Advertise
Books  |  Comedy  |  Dance  |  Museum And Gallery  |  Theater

Thirteen ways of looking at ink

Reflections on a lifetime of personal connections with tattoos
By SALLY CRAGIN  |  February 20, 2008

Matt Timms's "To-do list" tattoo

Permanent: Body modification as art at the Peabody Essex Museum. By Sally Cragin
Though I never got inked myself, tattoos have always been a part of my life, in that they’ve adorned my relatives, partners, and closest friends. The only time I seriously considered getting one was after the birth of my son, Christopher Tigran. Fourteen hours of un-medicated labor makes a passing moment with someone wielding an electric pen look entirely survivable. Ultimately, though, I think one’s identity comes from the parts of the body unreachable by the typical tattoo needle.

My brother Hal never got one, and he moved to New York in the early ’90s, just in time for the rise of tattoos in rock culture. “When tattoos were still illegal in New York, I remember that Jonathan Shaw [Artie Shaw’s son, and an East Village hipster] was running a tattoo place out of an apartment, and he’d done really well,” notes my brother. “But Jonathan, the king of the modern tattoo, said to me, ‘Anyone who gets a tattoo is an idiot.’ Which is interesting, because he’s covered from head to foot. He just deals with a lot of boneheads in his life, so he was just fed up.”

My beloved ex-husband Larry Silverman, a TV producer who’s created hundreds of hours of reality TV, met the Catman, a/k/a Dennis Avner, when he was producing segments for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Avner was completing the plastic surgery he needed to make himself look feline (i.e., cheek implants, tattoos, whisker plugs, splitting his upper lip). Larry decided to make a movie about the Catman and the others in his circle, including tattoo artist/body-modification innovator Steve Haworth. Flesh and Blood came out this past year and has been a hit at a bunch of festivals. It’s compelling and graphic and I still watch much of it through my fingers.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a really sweet friend who was newly sober and decided to get her navel pierced. Then she got a small tattoo. Then she realized that “every time I had a feeling, I could get a tattoo, and feel something else.” And so she did.

My beloved current and final husband, Chuck Warner, a music producer whose life’s mission is resurrecting bands of the DIY late-’70s and early-’80s era, never got a tattoo. Since he spends his days listening to extremely raw punk bands, he probably feels a tattoo is somewhat redundant.

Three of my son’s godparents are in the Timms family. The youngest brother, Chris, got a big USMC tattoo in Old English script on his muscled-up upper arm. The Marine Corps permits tattoos, so long as they are not visible when you are in uniform. Chris has been in Iraq twice and is now in a country he won’t name. The whole time he was in Iraq he was behind a desk, working at a computer. (At least that’s what he told his parents.) His older brother, actor/director Matt, got the first functional tattoo I have ever seen: a to-do list, complete with numbered lines. Matt had been writing lists on his arms with Sharpie pens for years; this was a way of organizing his thoughts. He told his mother, Romayne, the tattoo was the most brilliant idea he ever had. This scared her more than the thought of her other son’s military activities. (Their middle sister, Zoe, is an expert at mehendi, Indian temporary henna tattoos.)

Iggy Pop never got a tattoo, and my brother would know since he spent most of the 1990s in extremely close proximity to him as his bass player. “Iggy was quite happy with his body as it is,” says Hal.

If you have writing in your tattoo and it’s on a part of your body that’s not readily visible, you’d need to use two mirrors to read it.

The first tattoos I ever saw were on the forearms of my aged great uncle Gillis. He’d been in the Air Force during World War II, and had some very smeared blue images of female forms. They were not attractive. They looked like mistakes. Gillis never talked about them.

Everyone else I know with a tattoo will tell you all about their tattoo. Which begs the question: do you get a tattoo in a visible place so you’re constantly answering their questions? As a writer, it’s my job to ask the questions, dammit!

When I lived in Los Angeles, I bought my tobacco and licorice papers at the one store in Santa Monica that had quality imported smoking supplies. One of the clerks was learning to be a tattoo artist. Like an idiot, I dated him. He lived in an SRO building in Culver City and practiced his craft on oranges. He’d just had a Daffy Duck put on and wanted a Porky Pig. When I stopped returning his calls, I had to remember when his shift was at the store, to avoid those awkward moments. That was much easier than quitting smoking.

1  |  2  |   next >
  • Bad seeds?
    Errol Morris checks the apples, not the tree, in Standard Operating Procedure
  • Permanent
    Body modification as art at the Peabody Essex Museum
  • On the national affront
    An inescapable year reaches its inevitable conclusion
  • More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Matt Timms , Tattooing and Body Modification , Peabody Essex Museum ,  More more >
  • Share:
  • RSS feed Rss
  • Email this article to a friend Email
  • Print this article Print

Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PERMANENT  |  February 20, 2008
    Body modification as art at the Peabody Essex Museum
  •   BEANE TOWN  |  January 08, 2008
    Speakeasy walks The Little Dog Laughed
  •   ACTING TEACHER  |  November 20, 2007
    Nilaja Sun’s journey from tough schools to art
  •   RAZOR’S EDGE  |  October 17, 2007
    Judy Kaye on reuniting with Sweeney Todd’s Demon Barber
  •   ARABIAN NIGHTS  |  October 09, 2007
    Roosen's monologues considers sex beneath the veil

 See all articles by: SALLY CRAGIN

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

Featured Articles in News Features:
Sunday, November 23, 2008  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2008 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group