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:

Taking Sexy Back

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

It’s nice that The National Older Women’s League called bullshit on Alan Simpson in light of his “milk cow” comment debacle last week, but I wish OWL had been available to rescue Older Woman Betty White on Emmy night. Simpson’s consciousness will never be raised, but there’s still hope for t.v. audiences who think batty old biddy jokes are howlarious.

Because the short shelf life of actresses is directly linked to sex appeal, when they stop being sexy, they start being funny—for not being sexy. Thus White’s goofy dance routine and stilted “sexual chemistry” exchange with Madman John Hamm, followed by her shower scene with Hugh Jackman, former sexiest man alive.

Never mind that 88 year-old White was a pioneering woman in television in the ’50s (after hosting her own radio show in the ’40s). Or that she’s been winning Emmys for half a century. She’s old. And for women, that’s all it takes to get a laff. You can even win an Emmy for it–if you don’t mind that the joke’s on you. As Julia Cheiffetz asked on Huffpo yesterday: Is it really that funny to see an old lady express sexual desire and say ‘”fuck’ on prime time television?”

Happy Birthday, Lucy Stone

Friday, August 13th, 2010


Mona Hatoum, “Over My Dead Body”

Call me a Lucy Stoner. I didn’t take my husband’s surname when we married, which seems perfectly unremarkable–except that it’s not: a century and a half after Stone became the first American woman to keep her name in marriage, only about 10% of brides do the same, according to the Lucy Stone League. And The Boston Globe says the practice is in decline. Stone is probably rolling over in her maiden name-marked grave.

The Lucy Stone League opposes conjugal name-changing on the grounds that it’s “a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a major effect on women.” I doubt it’s that consequential. But Stone herself offered a more fundamental reason: “My name is my identity and must not be lost.” It is just a name–until you’ve lived with it for a few decades and it accrues history and symbolism on top of family (and ethnic) pride.

“A woman should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers,” Stone reasonably asserted. After she registered in a Dayton hotel under “Stone” instead of “Blackwell” in 1856, the Dayton Journal sneered, “We don’t offer ‘Mrs. Lucy’ our hat because she probably has one of her own, to match her breeches! Women’s rights forsooth! Where, we should like to know, are Mr. Blackwell’s rights?”

Bound Object

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

A permanent installation by the Prague-based artist Matej Kren stands as a challenge to Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction, last week, that books will be obsolete within five years. The piece, called “Passage,” recalls Walter Benjamin’s sublime essay, “Unpacking My Library,” about buying, borrowing and inheriting books. In the closing paragraph, Benjamin regards his several thousand-volume library, observing that “…for a collector… ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

Americanitus: Diagnosis for the People

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Proust suffered from it. Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman took “rest cures” for it. And though it’s been retired from The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, we all surely have a touch of it: Americanitus (or “neurasthenia”), a nervous condition triggered by the stresses of modern life (which, said Freud, also caused flatulence).

San Francisco artist Alison Pebworth has launched a cross-country research project called “Beautiful Possibility” in which she explores contemporary manifestations of Americanitus by interviewing people about what ails them and why. Her historical research focuses on the intersection between European and Native American history and how it shapes American identity today. Pebworth’s wry, postmodern, and stunning circus-style tour banners combine folk, historical and political icons (including Olive Oatman, who, she says, elicits more questions than anyone in the series).  One of my favorites, “Claim Your Demons,” shows Dick Cheney hunkered down in a basket next to the Sauk Indian chief Black Hawk (to her credit, Pebworth forces you to figure out why Black Hawk was once considered a demon of Cheneyesque proportions).

Pebworth’s multimedia road show is interactive on many levels: she’s out there taking the pulse of the nation now; you can browse around to see where the northern leg of her tour is taking her here, learn what happened at previous stops here, or take her Americanitus survey here. Better yet, track her down and tell her how you’re feeling. Next stop: Aberdeen, SD.

Let them Eat L’Oreal

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Makeup-free Mondays: interesting, provocative, and—when you think about it for three seconds—bonkers. Last I checked, women (Lady Gaga excepted) were already fully empowered to forgo makeup on Monday or any other day. Half the working women I know go without; the rest slather on CoverGirl Thick Lash like there’s no tomorrow, and nobody cares who does what.

This natural beauty initiative either has something to do with Debrahlee Lorenzana, a 21st century Joan Holloway who was (allegedly) fired by Citibank for being too sexy for her shirt, or it’s a fabulous prank: after all, the organizers are asking women to donate their unopened makeup to–no joke–women’s shelters (Let them eat L’Oreal!)

The people at The Beauty Bean, where MFM was launched, recommend a Charlotte York inspired Sex and the City hair style that requires a $58 “serum” followed by a $38 “Anti-Humidity” spray followed by a $49 “creme”—no servility to fashion or commerce here! But their MFM page exhorts, “Stop apologizing for not wearing makeup, no matter what day of the week it is.” It’s true that women apologize for a lot of random nonsense, but not, in my experience, their bare faces. Even Grace Coddington goes naked at Vogue.

What next–girdle-free Fridays? This is the latest (well-intentioned) initiative in a growing trend of low concept activism that ranges from the merely misguided (Remember Not One Damn Dime Day? No one else does either) to the downright embarrassing (Bras Without Borders). And like most misdirected advocacy, it’s having an unintended effect. I suddenly hear Dior’s Serum de Rouge Luminous Lip Color Treatment calling out to me. Sephora, all is forgiven–I’m coming for the Crimson 840.

Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Since she was ransomed back from Mohave Indians in 1856 wearing a tribal chin tattoo, Olive Oatman has inspired a sculpture by Erastus Dow Palmer, two biographies, two novels, a play starring John Wilkes Booth’s brother, a 1965 episode of “Death Valley Days” (featuring Ronald Reagan), four children’s books, a 1982 short story by Elmore Leonard, and an Oscar-nominated short film (2008), but never a song.

Until now. Last month the country grindcore band Phantom of the Black Hills released a fittingly Deadwoodesque tribute to America’s first tattooed white woman on “Ghosts,” tweaking some interesting themes, like whether or not Oatman, a Mormon, lost her religion as a white Mohave. If the facts in “Olive Oatman” are iffy (twisted as they’ve been for over a century), the mood is right: Here’s the Oatman clan heading west:

Her and her family prayin’ to the moon
Piled in a wagon, rolling to their doom
Bones of the past rattlin in the back
That’s when the mountain roared

Indeed, the Yavapai Indians who killed Oatman’s family in southern Arizona (then Mexico) were mountain dwellers. (Note to Governor Brewer: back then, the state was filled with nativists–none of whom were white). Phantom nails it in saying Oatman, who was taken captive, then traded to the Mohave, “had to bend but she never bowed.”

The song’s gritty vocals and driving rhythm–slow in the intro, then double time–evoke Oatman’s ride on a prairie schooner driven by a reckless and monomaniacal father of seven, bound for California (the place, wrote Didion, “where we run out of continent”). A banjo traces jittery lines of fingerpicked beauty across this well-worn gothic narrative. Though Phantom of the Black Hills’ website is damnably uninformative (perhaps a masked dude aiming his banjo at you like a loaded weapon is all you need to know), I’m glad an L.A. band with a pistols-at-dawn attitude was the first to claim this California dreamer.