Oatman Redux: Hell on Wheels

Monday, December 5th, 2011

If tattooed Eva on “Hell on Wheels” seems to have stolen Olive Oatman’s chin tattoo, it’s because she’s based on her, as the HOW blog explains (with a quote from The Blue Tattoo). Eva’s Oatman has been tweaked: she’s a prostitute, which Oatman never was; she’s blunt and outspoken, which Oatman never was; and in 1865 when the show is unfolding, Oatman was a national celebrity, newly married to a wealthy Michigan cattle rancher and living in Texas during what she called the happiest period of her life. Eva’s the latest of more than a dozen tributes Oatman has inspired in art, film, theater, fiction, t.v. and music over the last 150 years, from Elmore Leonard’s “Tonto Woman” to Phantom of the Black Hills’ “Olive Oatman,” a song that, come to think of it, would work beautifully on Hell on Wheels. What’s AMC waiting for?

Ceci n’est pas une vagina

Monday, November 7th, 2011

The only shock induced by Damien Hirst’s “vagina” tattoo, slapped on the (fall/winter) debut cover of Garage magazine beneath a calculated-to-thrill removable sticker, is that the artist missed his mark. If this were a vagina tattoo, Hirst’s butterfly (applied to volunteer Shauna Taylor’s vulva and extending to her thighs), would be something to behold, since it would be located internally. Hirst’s grand gesture lands him in the growing ranks of vagina tattoo misnomerists, whose handiwork, spanning Homer Simpsons (plural), a hippie dude with a fuzzy beard,  and a cat with a bowtie, outshocks him, hands down.

Gender is conspicuous for other reasons in this feature, called “Inked,” for which name artists (all male) design tattoos applied by name tattooists (all male) on nine volunteers (mostly male). Of the three female subjects, one appears topless for no reason relating to her tattoo; a second is the spread-eagled Taylor, who aspires to “give birth through a Damien Hirst artwork.” Here, just as in the tat mags, men make the art, and women strip down to display it.

Art magazines have always been hostile to tattooing, and even here, in the rare instance where high and low find a cultural intersection (Garage is an art/fashion magazine), the class divide is reliably enforced. Well known Artists create designs executed by tattoo tradesmen, because, of course, the latter aren’t really artists (Dr. Lakra excepted). And the artists don’t try too hard, since this art doesn’t sell. Hirst at least gave some thought to design and placement, even if he chose the single most predictable image a woman can wear. But if Jeff Koons was going to attempt what looks like a pinup straddling a dolphin giving birth to a blow-up doll, would it have killed him to get some help with his draftsmanship?

Just one artist, John Baldessari, rises to the challenge of adapting his art to a new medium. His piece, “I WILL NOT WEAR ANY MORE BORING TATTOOS” appears on the arm of a man wearing a boring tattoo. It echoes Baldessari’s 1971 piece, “I will not make any more boring art.”  It mimics the handwritten all- caps typeface in Kenneth Cole’s aphoristic ad campaigns (a nice touch in a fashion magazine). And it serves notice to his fellow “Inked” participants, who made boring art that became boring tattoos.

Book Giveaway: The Blue Tattoo

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

It’s a Blue Tattoo fest at Her Circle Magazine, where you’ll find an author interview on their blog, The Writer’s Life, a review, and a book giveaway  (through Oct. 15) in honor of the Bison Books paperback release.

True Lies, Beautiful Fakes

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Fans of the Museum of Jurassic Technology will enjoy artist Scott Serrano’s lovingly meticulous, faux period installation in a show called “Hudson Valley 2011: Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum (SUNY New Paltz).

In “Picturesque Flora: Wallaceana,” the chronicle of a mock botanical expedition, Serrano imagines an island on which each plant mimics the tragic life of a modern or 19th century figure. That includes Olive Oatman, who inspired him after he read The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Serrano’s mythological Oatman cactus is surrounded by wildflowers named for her family members, most of whom were killed in the 1851 Oatman massacre. The desert bloom, Serrrano tells me, represents “a symbolic ghost awakening.”

The flower’s changing colors mark the phases of Olive’s life, shifting from white (she was raised in Illinois) to red (she was adopted by Mohave Indians) back to white (she was ransomed back by the U.S. government). And the lined petals echo her chin tattoo (which was in fact applied with cactus needles). Fittingly, the bloom retains a red center, denoting, as the placard reads, “the past history of the flower inscribed upon the very petals of the blossom.” It’s a touching, nuanced tribute to America’s only white Mohave.

Decimation Nation

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

In which I discuss mad Methodists, monomaniacal Mormons, and tattooed Mohave Indians on the expressway to Manifest Destiny (and my research for The Blue Tattoo). Violent Encounters (U. of Oklahoma Press) includes interviews with nine authors about major massacres like Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows along with lesser known incidents like the 1871 Camp Grant massacre in Arizona, in which Anglo-Americans teamed up with Mexican Americans and Tohono O’odham Indians to slaughter over a hundred Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches—mostly women and children.

From the introduction by the authors: “Violent Encounters allows the reader to reconceive what it means to conceptualize a historical event, the ways in which history is used to as a political tool, and the need for the incorporation of multiple viewpoints when reconstructing past events.”

Hopper Happens

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Since Edward Hopper was famous for his interiors, the images of his women projected on the windows of his childhood home in Nyack, N.Y. last week had an eerily voyeuristic resonance. They’re the work of Kristina Burns, an artist in residence at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, who has organized a festival called Hopper Happens, to coincide with the show Edward Hopper, Prelude:The Nyack Years.The latter (also at the Hopper House) will include pieces the artist painted in Nyack, some of which have never been shown. Here’s his Nyack bedroom (1905-6):

From May to July, Hopper Happens will feature installations by local artists and set designers; paintings, poetry, and film inspired by or reminiscent of the artist; Hopper themed Flash Mob Fridays; and an online bulletin board where locals can post photos of Hopperesque buildings, streetscapes or houses, which is easy, since they’re all over this town:


If you stroll of few blocks north of The Hopper House on Broadway, you’ll see Helen Hayes’ former home, Pretty Penny (which Hopper painted); go south and see the house where Carson McCullers lived for nearly half a century (here she is the day Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Isak Dinesen came to lunch); and, farther south on Piermont Avenue: the childhood home of Joseph Cornell.

Committed to Print: Literary Tattoos

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

When I wrote a mini history of literary tattoos for The Believer, I explored images dreamed up by writers from Melville to Elmore Leonard. The authors of The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide present just the opposite: literary passages (and a few author portraits) on skin. They also deliver one of the better book trailers of late (a refreshing departure from the gimmicky, low content schlock floating around Youtube), and their web site confirms this trend is flourishing.

But to be fair, they’re a little late to the game: In 2007, Jen Grantham began posting literary tattoos (spanning Dickens, Bukowski, and Dr. Seuss), with commentary, on her (now defunct) blog Contrariwise: Literary Tattoos, and Ina Saltz’ Body Type books feature literary excerpts as well.

If The Word Made Flesh is any gauge, men’s words make better flesh:only about ten percent of the literary tattoos in it were inspired by women (and Vonnegut’s “So it goes” is a chart topper in this subculture wherever you track it). But throw in Shelley Jackson, who has inked 553 people with individual words from her 2095-word short story, “Skin” (a kind of on-demand, direct-to-wearer publishing project) and the scales tip back again.

Scar Power

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Shortly after I finished writing this essay about the symbolism of scars, I wiped out on my bike and ended up with five stitches in my chin—and a brand new scar. I mentioned it to the ER surgeon as he scraped the asphalt from the wound and sewed it up. “You should have written about winning the lottery,” he said. The next day, I emailed the editor assigned to my piece and told her about the coincidence. Then I Googled her, never having worked with her before. “Magazine Editor Wins $100,000 Instant Top Prize,” the headline read. She’d won the lottery. What does it all mean?

YouTube Play’s Perception Problem

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

YouTube is the extrovert’s playground, so it’s no surprise that the Guggenheim’s inaugural Youtube Play Biennial netted so many technophiles broadcasting their wizardry. More than half of the 25 winners employed animation or cinematographic sleights of hand, too often in the service of low concept gimmickry. (Just one harnesses the unique participatory potential of this platform: Perry Bard’s “Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake” is a stunning piece of user-generated art).

By contrast, in “Luis,” Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León and Niles Atallah offer intimacy. Using stop-motion animation, they present a weird little world inhabited by an angry child who camouflages himself as animal. In a raspy whisper, Luis explains his inexplicable–and catastrophic–separation from his friend, Lucia: when this emotional bond breaks, his house falls apart, the walls dissolve, and he’s exposed to menacing creatures of the night.  In a white heat of fury, he takes a long breath and blows the evil force from his home, hissing, “I’ll kill you, asshole, son of a bitch, you fucking idiot.” Magically, order is restored: his ravaged house rights itself, the camera dollies back, and a sheer curtain closes on the stage set of Luis’ exorcism. Conjuring children’s stories like Where the Wild Things Are and The Three Little Pigs, the video–using a set made of charcoal and cardboard, flowers and found objects–captures the raw fear and primal power of childhood rage.

But it also calls into question the scope and purpose of the Guggenheim’s YouTube biennial. “Luis” has already garnered six awards at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, and by YouTube’s own standards (where views are votes), it’s a winner (with over 100,000 views). Unlike the Vimeo Awards (also inaugurated in October), which are organized by genre and allow only original content, Play pits “Luis” against slick commercial entries, documentaries, and an unruly host of other forms by pros and amateurs. Is the Guggenheim mistaking a hosting site for an art form?

Gashlycrumb Trendies

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Attendance is up 15% this year at the Edward Gorey House on Cape Cod, according to director Rick Jones, and perhaps not coincidentally, Gorey tattoos are on the rise. Following the example of famous local Siobhan Magnus, who sports a Gashlycrumb Tinies tat, people are wearing all sorts of Goreyalia, from individual Tinies to The Doubtful Guest. Because of his intricate shading, fine lines, and high contrast style, Gorey’s work is difficult to replicate on skin. Magnus’ is too hazy for my taste, but here’s a worthy one: