Thirteen ways of looking at ink

Reflections on a lifetime of personal connections with tattoos
By SALLY CRAGIN  |  February 20, 2008

Matt Timms's "To-do list" tattoo

Permanent: Body modification as art at the Peabody Essex Museum. By Sally Cragin
Though I never got inked myself, tattoos have always been a part of my life, in that they’ve adorned my relatives, partners, and closest friends. The only time I seriously considered getting one was after the birth of my son, Christopher Tigran. Fourteen hours of un-medicated labor makes a passing moment with someone wielding an electric pen look entirely survivable. Ultimately, though, I think one’s identity comes from the parts of the body unreachable by the typical tattoo needle.

My brother Hal never got one, and he moved to New York in the early ’90s, just in time for the rise of tattoos in rock culture. “When tattoos were still illegal in New York, I remember that Jonathan Shaw [Artie Shaw’s son, and an East Village hipster] was running a tattoo place out of an apartment, and he’d done really well,” notes my brother. “But Jonathan, the king of the modern tattoo, said to me, ‘Anyone who gets a tattoo is an idiot.’ Which is interesting, because he’s covered from head to foot. He just deals with a lot of boneheads in his life, so he was just fed up.”

My beloved ex-husband Larry Silverman, a TV producer who’s created hundreds of hours of reality TV, met the Catman, a/k/a Dennis Avner, when he was producing segments for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Avner was completing the plastic surgery he needed to make himself look feline (i.e., cheek implants, tattoos, whisker plugs, splitting his upper lip). Larry decided to make a movie about the Catman and the others in his circle, including tattoo artist/body-modification innovator Steve Haworth. Flesh and Blood came out this past year and has been a hit at a bunch of festivals. It’s compelling and graphic and I still watch much of it through my fingers.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a really sweet friend who was newly sober and decided to get her navel pierced. Then she got a small tattoo. Then she realized that “every time I had a feeling, I could get a tattoo, and feel something else.” And so she did.

My beloved current and final husband, Chuck Warner, a music producer whose life’s mission is resurrecting bands of the DIY late-’70s and early-’80s era, never got a tattoo. Since he spends his days listening to extremely raw punk bands, he probably feels a tattoo is somewhat redundant.

Three of my son’s godparents are in the Timms family. The youngest brother, Chris, got a big USMC tattoo in Old English script on his muscled-up upper arm. The Marine Corps permits tattoos, so long as they are not visible when you are in uniform. Chris has been in Iraq twice and is now in a country he won’t name. The whole time he was in Iraq he was behind a desk, working at a computer. (At least that’s what he told his parents.) His older brother, actor/director Matt, got the first functional tattoo I have ever seen: a to-do list, complete with numbered lines. Matt had been writing lists on his arms with Sharpie pens for years; this was a way of organizing his thoughts. He told his mother, Romayne, the tattoo was the most brilliant idea he ever had. This scared her more than the thought of her other son’s military activities. (Their middle sister, Zoe, is an expert at mehendi, Indian temporary henna tattoos.)

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Related: Permanent, Slideshow: Snowblind | Regeneration Tattoo, Tattoo you, More more >
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