Some of the tattoos contain intentionally cryptic references to high literature: the title of William Gaddis's JR in the original cover art's typeface and the outline of a box with text from Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives come to mind. Some are more conventional: Kerouac with typewriter, lines of e.e. cummings. Still others are just plain whimsical: a "librarian" banner over a skull with two books in the shape of crossbones, a bespectacled nude perched on a copy of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust.
Carey Harrison (son of Rex) is an English professor at Brooklyn College in his late 60s. The complete text of Theodor Adorno's essay "For Marcel Proust," in the original German, covers his entire back.
POETRY SLAM: Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich found her tatoo under attack on grounds of literary merit.
Becky Quiroga is a bookseller from Coral Gables, Florida. When picture-book author Eric Carle visited her store, she had him sketch a Very Hungry Caterpillar on her arm, then dashed off to the tattoo parlor to make it permanent. She says her ink has been recognized by children and baristas from Florida to Spain.
According to Talmadge and Taylor, the number-one author of those who submitted their literary tattoos is Kurt Vonnegut, followed closely by Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Shel Silverstein. "There are as many reasons for getting tattoos as there are people willing to be marked," Talmadge says.
The overwhelming number of literary tattoos collected in this book will lift the spirits of anyone who fears the world's affection for books is on the wane. The volume has also the potential to depress — it might give the impression that literature has become so marginalized that today's readers feel they're part of a subculture.
As for the editors, they're just glad their subjects have actually read what they've marked on their skin. Says Talmadge, "I think the majority of our readers got these tattoos out of appreciation or love for an author or a particular work."
A striking example of author-love covers the entire arm of Winter Hill resident Kristina Grinovich. The 25 year old, with the help of artist Brian Hemming at Regeneration Tattoo, dedicated one calendar year to her Kafka sleeve. The editors dedicated four pages of The Word Made Flesh to her tribute.
"Originally, I was just going to get the half sleeve and then we started coming up with more ideas, and it turned into a full sleeve," she tells me. A black and white portrait of Kafka, framed in a spider web, stares out from the inside of her upper arm. "The meaning of life is that it stops," a quote attributed to Kafka, adorns the other side. A species of dahlia named after the author hugs her elbow. Colorful insects changing into flowers fill in the rest, along with her family's names in Cyrillic. An open book caps the sleeve at the shoulder, and the words "thank you" close the tattoo at the wrist. The work is beautiful and intricate.
Only some people recognize the portrait. "Other people ask if it's my grandfather," Grinovich admits.