For literally thousands of years, human beings have been doing something to their bodies that I truly believe only just recently (on the scale of all things, of course) begun to be truly accepted. That thing: Tattoos. As you know, if you’ve stuck around these parts for any particular period of time, I’m a very fond aficionado of tattoos, and I have on my body more than I could even begin to count. I love them all, I wouldn’t change them for the world, and I cannot wait to grow old with them, even as they blur and soften, change shape and color. What has fascinated me, however, is why we, the collective we who have sat there willingly while a needle is repeatedly drilled into the surface of our skin, do this, and how long we’ve been doing it for. So, I did some investigating, I did some researching, and what I found made me even more fascinated, and gave birth to even more questions.
For a long, long while, scientists that get paid to ask questions just like these, believed that the earliest known civilizations to actually tattoo the human body were the Egyptians. As tombs were excavated and mummies unwrapped, they started seeing evidence of all sorts of ink staining the shriveled flesh of everyone from pharaohs to those forced to build the pyramids. Some of these dated as far back as 2000 B.C. and so scientists proudly declared tattoos to be that old, about 4,000 years give or take. As hypotheses are want to do, not too long ago they were proven wrong, all because of an Iceman buried and discovered on the border of Italy and Austria. One find, and instantly it was determined that the first scientists were off by about 1,000 years. The Iceman, it turned out, was over 5,200 years old. Is there a possibility that the first person to piss their mom off by tattooing their body did so even earlier? Yes, absolutely. Until then, we’re just going to have to celebrate the fact that for over 5,000 years, human beings have been voluntarily (mostly, I’m guessing, although many tattoos in history have infamously been given for nefarious reasons) submitting themselves to pain and permanency all in the name of this beautiful form of art. What a thing.
A rad little tidbit you may not know, the word “tattoo” actually comes from the Samoan word “tatau” which was an onomatopoeia for the sounds that were made when turtle shells tapped boar’s teeth loaded with ink into the flesh. Now you know.
Nevertheless, tattoos over these 6,000 years have been for a wide range of reasons. From fertility and rejuvenation for Egyptian women, to prisoner identification in China, to the genocidal labeling from Hitler and his asshole cronies, to the Maori people using them to identify their rank, their skills, and their ancestry, to drunk people stumbling into some dark parlor and stumbling out with something they’ll regret years later on the small of their back, and a million reasons in between, tattoos have represented it all. We could spend hours discussing all of the different reasons people get tattooed, and I hope that in the comment section of this post, all of you who do have tattoos will sound off on what they mean to you, but for now, I’ll just stick with the reasons that have led to me getting tattooed to get that conversation rolling.
For me, tattoos are memories. Tattoos are placeholders, they are bookmarks, they are highlighted sentences of a life. For me, they all add up to meaning something else, and every single time I see them, I remember. Tattoos mark significant occasions — I have one for people in my life I’ve lost, I have them for each different book I’ve had published, I have them for places that took my breath away — and they bring me back to exactly where I was, exactly who I was when I received them. I got my first as a dare with my best friend, Greg, when we were only 18 years old. The parlor that did it was terrifying, she tattooed far too deep and left scar tissue that later had to be tattooed over and broken up (ouch, really ouch, trust me) before it could be fixed and covered up by a much bigger, more meaningful tattoo to me. I am tattooed all over my body, from my fingertips to my shins, and strangely, I’ve never been one for giant pieces, instead opting for the more ‘stamp’ like tattoo style where each memory gets its own place, its own reason. I have letters from my typewriter, I have Ogham letters from the ancient Celtic language, I have swallows and ravens, lightning bolts and storm clouds, I have drawings Sarah made me at special times, I have a light bulb from the very first love note she ever left me. I have the name of friends that have passed away, I have quotes from my favorite films, books, and songs, I have a drawing my best buddy Gregory Alan Isakov drew me just to get tattooed. I am covered in ink, and every single drop tells a different story. When I see them, I know these stories, when others see them, if they wish to know, they need only ask.
What’s been a surprising, and beautiful thing, is that many in my life that went over 30 years without ever even contemplating a tattoo, have since jumped into the inky waters and are now proudly sporting their own. Even my own parents, people who swore up and down and left and right that they’d never even consider it, are tattooed and love what they have. They joined the tattooed ranks as I, a few years back, wrote a poem after I invited anyone who wished to join in on the project, would be tattooed on all of their bodies. Almost 1500 people signed up, and so I split the poem up into single and double words, and to date, we’re almost halfway there for everyone getting their tattoo and sending me the photos. I will not stop until this project is complete, and it’s amazing that so many of my friends, family, and random acquaintances from my life joined in. One day, there will be an entire poem, walking around the planet earth in the form of tattoos, for this precise reason, I’ve always called it the Walking Poetry Project.
I’m excited to hear stories from you, the readers, about your tattoos, about your choices for your ink, the where, the why, the plans for more in the future. I think I agree with scientists when they call tattooing the “world’s oldest art form” and I think I will die with a body decorated in random stories, amazing memories, and the fingerprints of so many places I’ve been, people I’ve loved, and things I have seen.
If you don’t like them, that’s fine too. The beauty of this place, of art, is that we’re all allowed to make, to enjoy, and to be, whatever art form comes most naturally to us. There’s no need to explain, to reason, to justify. Be the art you want to be, share it how you need to share it.
All these slivers of my life, all these pieces of my past, I treasure them. And personally, I cannot wait to be that old guy walking in a t-shirt through a grocery store, everyone younger wondering what on earth it all means. Soon enough, for now, I’ve got more memories to make, more ink to add.
*Also, it should be noted, that ALL of my tattoos have been done by two people I love more than I can even express, and who have become family. Jami Daehn from Tattoo Sindicate in Helena, MT and Ramon ‘Spooky’ Rendon who does his thing down in southern California.
Ink on canvas flesh,
each a sliver of my life,
a piece of my past.