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The Illustrated Man

Some twenty or more years ago, I worked for the CID. Now, before you go imagining me in (70s reference approaching at speed) the Sweeney jumping over balconies, slapping on cuffs and yelling ‘you’re nicked mate’ I should clarify. I was a temp typist, hired in for a few weeks to transcribe interviews. Plus, this was the 90s (oh my god it’s a time warp). I made tea for undercover detectives in between plugging myself into a set of headphones and trying to decipher the taped exchanges between detectives and their various ‘suspects’. It was, I have to say very interesting. The officers were polite and friendly and keen to keep me around as I typed faster than they could. Their collection of paperwork was an industrial fire hazard visible from space. You might wonder where all this is leading, did I afterwards pursue a career in crime solution? Did I take up origami? No.  In fact, what happened was that I learnt that if you are intent upon a life of crime it is probably best not to have a tattoo on your face. No tattoo at all in the facial type area. Especially not a really distinguishable one like say, a  scale model sea eagle or a technicoloured oriental dragon or the Vatican in line drawing complete with halo. Please be assured, these descriptions of ink have been altered to protect the guilty.

I was reminded of this nugget of wisdom yesterday when I was on duty in the library. A young woman arrived and I could not hear one word she said, because of her remarkable eyebrows. As she berated me for the various ills of the library service as she saw it, I was distracted by the eyebrows, realising, after several moments, that they were tattooed on. They were not hairy buffers for keeping the rain out of her eyes, they were precision drawn. At the nose end they were slightly bulbous, arcing back on themselves towards her temples like tilted commas. I longed for a mistake in their execution, a point where they had slightly quirked, wriggling upwards to lend her a look of  permanent wry consideration.  It was a useful distraction from her rudeness and my look of mesmerised wonderment diffused her literary rage. So where am I going with all this? Crime? Library Rage? Punctuation?

Tattoos. They are an art form. I see that. I can see where the skill is. What disturbs me is the transformative nature of them. Tattoos have a duality that is hard to pinpoint. They can make you vanish. Consider someone with their entire face tattooed, their original face, the one their mum cooed at and wiped with a spitted hanky has gone. Done. Boom.

They alter you. Irrevocably. This is probably why people have them, at least the people who go for the epic scale tattoos. If you’re just going to ink yourself in with a pin and a spoiled Biro then possibly that says something else too, something more raw perhaps and unfinished. Tattoos. Hmm. I find them disturbing.

Another tattoo story to help with the proof; I used to go to a hairdresser in town, a little elf of a girl who was very very skilled at haircutting. One afternoon she was cutting my hair and she winced as she moved. I asked if she was ok and she confessed that she was in the process of having a tattoo done. She’d spent a couple of hours the day before having it outlined.

“What’s the tattoo of?” I asked. Without any preamble she slid back her baggy sweatshirt top and revealed the skeletal outline of vast angel wings which spread across her back and up onto her shoulders. The effect was striking. It was a combination of the reveal, the simple grey sweatshirt with its ravelled edges, and then the intricate beginnings of the tattoo itself. She was not quite an angel. The bones of it were there. She was, to my eyes, being transformed. Her back was no longer quite human. The tattooist clearly had skill, both  graphic and creative. The wings, even in that early state, primary feathers you might call it, looked gothic and delicate.

I assume that people have a tattoo to draw attention to themselves. It’s a kind of badge or marker. For me the more tattoos a person has the less you can see them. The simple biology of an arm, for example, is obliterated by pictures. You begin to not see the arm, you fall into the pictures and that is where my personal problem lies. My imagination takes over and the tattooed being becomes something other. The person behind the ink starts to be a ghost, a shadow beneath the images and words that they have had inscribed on themselves.

There are, apparently, more people with tattoos now than ever before. Once upon a time ink was a marker for certain social and cultural groups but now tattoos are everywhere and on everyone. How true this is I don’t know as, in the way a pigeon gets its lunch from the depths of the nearest wastebin, so I pecked up my fact from the internet. I felt a pang for the groups; sailors, bikers, the Māori probably, who have been robbed of their cultural marker.

For several days after learning this I began to look around a little more, and I think there are different levels of tattoo. For the most part, the flimsy scribble containing the birthdates of your latest offspring or some curlicued symbol that you’ve cribbed from Chinese or other available calligraphy doesn’t really count. Again, there are the internet statistics on the prevalence of misspelt and mistranslated tattoos. How bad must it be to have a tattoo that you  thought read ‘Peace and Oneness’ and in fact it really says ‘Peas and Onions’? You have been altered, a marker has been laid down but Fate has twisted it and it cannot be revoked.

I’m not a tattoo aficionado by any means, I’m just an interested bystander. For me these kinds of frivolous tattoos are the notes in the margin. The lady with the eyebrows for instance, what is that about? Convenience? If they had been Gothic or Rococo, twisting in black swirls down her face or broken up like filigree then they may have meant more, said more, even if I don’t know what that message is. I think that might be what concerns me, the idea of message, of saying something about yourself and meaning it because it is permanent. I have said that tattoos make you vanish, perhaps the opposite is true and that is what unsettles me. The girl with the angel wings had more to say. Her tattoo was, to my mind, real in the way that a Māori tattoo or Ta Moko, has a deep cultural significance. It says much about being a Māori, a warrior, your ancestors. It tells of your status, your prestige. It’s a ritual and a rite of passage not an afterthought or a doodle.

Ray Bradbury wrote a book called ‘The Illustrated Man’ about a man wandering the universe with pictures inked onto his skin which would animate when observed and told stories of the human condition. Madness. Death. The End of the World. This has fired my own imagination.

When I see someone carrying a large and vivid collection of tattoos I always think of The Illustrated Man. I am drawn to look and wonder at the life stories they are telling, the innermost secrets printed onto skin.

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