Tattoo Charlie's by Britt Selvitelle

Originally I wanted a tattoo of my tattoo artist
giving me the tattoo itself but he said
“boundaries” and demanded I peruse
the tattoo photographs cascading
down his sheetrock walls. How about a tattoo
of sheetrock? I said, and then he made me
flip through a book of dragons. “Lots of people
get sleeves these days,” he added, and I said maybe
the sleeve of a nice blue dress shirt
down the length of my arm…
and so he gave me a book of complicated
knots to consider. “Do you like this one?”
he asked. “It’s called the Knot of Destiny.”
How bout a frayed knot? I asked, and he just
looked around. I think maybe a tattoo of how
your neck swivels evasively, I said, would make
a nice tattoo. Or a tattoo of one of your
many tattoos. “That would be the tattoo itself,” he said,
“iterated across your naïve flesh.” I don’t think
any of these tattoos are really me, I said,
and he told me that I would become the tattoo
and vice versa. That the tattoo didn’t say much
about the person until it was part of the person
at which point it had no choice but to reveal
something, no matter where it is hidden.
I said that sounded interesting, which is exactly
what you to say when something
isn’t. “Why don’t you a get a quote wrongly attributed
to Oscar Wilde put somewhere on your thigh?”
he asked, and I said good question, because
they all are, in my experience, each one better
than the last.


Click here to read Gregory Lawless on the origin of the poem.

Gregory Lawless: Plenty of people get tattoos for decidedly un-grandiose reasons (they just take to a particular design or image and want to put it on their body) or because of some kind of occasional, cultural and/or traditional motivation, but that’s not what I’m getting at here…I wanted to examine the quasi-spiritual sales pitch that the body-art industry (an itty-bitty subsidiary of capitalism itself) foists upon consumers, or that consumers foist upon themselves. This poem is a kind of monodrama wherein the self is split into a pair of loopy partisans for two conflicting psychic forces (ego/id, buyer/seller, etc.) The prospective-tattooee is ironic and playful (a browser, not yet a buyer) while the tattoo artist is relentless, coaxing, and transactional (a merchant, a fixer, and a palm reader, among other things). Together they manifest something like Yeats’ “argument with the self” taking place in the shabby theater of strip-mall capitalism. Ultimately, these two selves have to find some common ground in order to make the sale/art.


So, getting a tattoo is a complicated form of consumerism but we’re urged to think of it as this personal and personalizing act. Of course, the fact that so many people get ironic tattoos (a mustache on the finger, stylized forearm anchors) is, in many cases, an elaborate hedge against this inherent contradiction. But, for me, the ironic tattoo isn’t a sufficient resolution. Rather, it’s the tension and wonder that precedes the decision, the sale, the American leap of faith, that interests me, because I get stranded there all the time. And I can best explain this predicament, not in an essay, but with art and spiraling questions.

Photo “New Tattoo!” by Britt Selvitelle ; licensed under CC BY 2.0

Gregory Lawless
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