The NYC summer is in full swing and with warm-weather acres of flesh on parade, the streets and subways are a gallery of the tattooist’s art.
When I was a kid, spotting a tattoo on a NY beach usually meant you’d come across a Hell’s Angel, a Holocaust survivor or someone who spent most of his time at sea. Like so much else in the years between the Surgeon General’s Report and vaping, this changed. Rock stars (of course) led the way, with artists and chefs and a new breed of geeks hot on their heels. The tattoo renaissance became a tsunami: wave after wave of teens and young adults leaping to show that they too were unique, just like everyone else! And that first inky flower or flag or motto (frequently, dangerously, in a language the bearer doesn’t quite know) is only an ice breaker. With tattoos, like potato chips, it seems to be hard to have just one.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the craving to mark your exterior with an indelible symbol of something that’s burned itself into your soul. The main reason I’m not tattooed is that I’ve never felt a symbol that I could commit to. What I don’t understand is the compulsion to collect tattoos as if they were medals or merit badges. I write my life on pages, not on my body.
The other evening, I exited the subway directly behind a young woman whose sleeveless top and short skirt displayed barely an inch of bare skin. The images were large and bold, but neither elegant nor graceful, not particularly interesting at all except for the quantity. There was something that looked like a Chinese dragon and something else that resembled a playing card but wasn’t (a symbol from a Mahjong tile maybe?). There were a couple of miscellaneous floral and vine motifs. All perfectly competent but nothing more. I had to assume, therefore, that for her to have had so much of her body embellished, there must meaning in each image and a purpose to the overall design; and, because it was a drizzly rush hour and there was only the one stairway, I was stuck for two solid minutes with nothing to do but try to find it. From a purely visual standpoint, other than the red and black color scheme, it all seemed random. There were formless gaps between the images; no connective filigrees or hatching, no rhythm of line and curve in the placement, which seemed to have been selected purely according to the limits of the size and shape of her limbs. Surely there must be a story the young woman was trying to tell. An autobiography of sorts. There had to be, I thought, for someone to commit to covering one’s entire body with art that couldn’t be removed, not to mention the cost of the work in pain and money. I assumed I simply lacked the touchstones to interpret it.
I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t just ask her what it meant. I both couldn’t and wouldn’t.
Couldn’t because of that bone-bred New York City thing whereby, once we pass the innocent age of 6 (or thereabouts), we learn to shrug and accept that there are more things than we have dreamt of in our philosophy and let our eyes skip past what we don’t understand. And wouldn’t because those two minutes thinking on the stairs had been enough to, pardon the expression, get under my skin. Could someone who didn’t look to be out of her 20’s truly have so much life to commemorate that she was already running short of skin to ink? Either she did, in which case I was jealous as hell of the richness of such a life; or she was faking it in a peculiarly extreme way, making her both pretentious and stupid, both of which flip my personal hostility switch.
Moreover, this walking collage was pushing my angry artist button. If you’re going to make a public display of art, it ought either explain itself or tickle a subterranean spring of emotions that make explanation unnecessary. Her body art did neither and yet, meaningless as it was, as she walked through the street, people were forced to see it.
Oh, that really made me fume! My blood boiled with the same flavor of resentment I feel for subway dance teams, and street buskers, and the kinds of painters and plastic artists who create images that can be viewed in a single glance. Audience envy! I don’t know how many hours it takes any of those artists to create a piece of work. Maybe it takes the same couple of thousand hours for them to nail that dance routine or paint that landscape as it takes me to write a novel. The difference is that, once their art has been created, they can make people hear it or see it. I can’t. Reading novels takes too much time: time, which is limited and already has too many demands on it. The painting is displayed on someone’s Facebook page, and people can gaze at it long enough to decide they “like” it in less time than it would take most of them to read a single page I’ve written. You walk by the busker, the music catches your ear, you stay for the whole piece—less time than reading a chapter. If people enjoy what they see or hear, they’ll listen to or view it again, or they’ll find something else of that artist’s to consume. You could listen to Mozart’s lifetime of music or view Van Gogh’s entire surviving output in less time than it takes to read a single novel.
My stories, although available to the world, aren’t accidentally brushed by but have to be sought, and demand hours of attention to consume. While, whether I want to or not, whether I understand it or like it or not, I exit the subway and take in the incomprehensible story written by a tattooed girl.