book review: the tattoo

 The title of this book promises something a reader won’t find in it – tattooing doesn’t play here a big role and is rather a pretext to tell a totally different and yet still interesting story.

It is set in Hallawa Correctional Center, one of (presumably) many prisons in Hawaii but then it splits into two streams and it follows its narrator to places he saw and experienced. When Cal, a white and mute prisoner turned into a tattoo artist, doing jail time for murdering his wife, meets his new cellmate, a Japanese guy named Ken Hideyoshi, both of them experience a travel back in time to see their lives, good (if any) and wrongs (way too many) in a new light.

As one of amazon reviewers stated quite cleverly, Cal is white and mute to show even more strongly all the wrongs the white people have done to the Hawaiian people and to finally let them speak out loud, even if quite metaphorically. To a degree it’s quite true. Cal is the only white man who has anything to say in this novel and he obviously never speaks, he just thinks. If the white people are mentioned here, it’s in negative light and as seen by the ‘natives’ and Asian immigrants. One would be very wrong, however, if took it as a sign of hatred on the author’s part. It’s rather a way to show the situation many Hawaiian people are in and how desperate and hopeless they feel.

Ken was growing up immersed in books about heroes of the past, both these European and Japanese ones. His friend Koa, a descendant of an aristocratic Hawaiian family, lives in a dilapidated house watching how the land that once belonged to his family and his people is turning into wasteland with brown water, eroded soil and dying forests. Both he and Ken can only watch how foreign tourists come to Hawaii to see the Paradise, painfully aware of what is really going on under the beautiful but very thin cover.

Ken wants to get out from his father and lack of perspectives; he wants to change everything for better. When he comes to the city on the other side of the mountains he thinks he got what he wanted only to land in the middle of another, much worse a disaster. When he comes back to his father’s house, to prepare for a new, calmer life with his love and their child, things go amiss again and he notices, on Koa’s example no less, that life is not a fairy tale and there’s never ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

The story is told at nights, with Cal working on Ken’s backpiece consisting of Japanese kanji for ‘The Book of the Void;’ Ken’s way to show his love for the old heroes, his love for Miyamoto Musashi and, maybe above else, the way he sees himself.

One could tell that it shows how ‘every body has its story’ and how there are fascinating and complex stories behind people’s ink-stained skin and that would be true to a tiny degree. It wouldn’t, however, change the fact that in this novel tattoos are only a pretext to show something else, something more important and usually unnoticed, the fate of people who lost. It’s true that Ken gets a tattoo paying, in a way, tribute to his heritage and rules he would like to follow and it’s true that Koa wears a traditional Hawaiian tattoo to maybe feel closer to his own heritage and lost pride but tattoos are not what this novel is about.

For people to whom Hawaii is only a name of a certain place somewhere in the world reading this book and acknowledging what it is about demands some trust in the author’s views and knowledge of the subject. No matter what the real situation of many Hawaiians looks like, it’s certainly true, though, that there is no real Paradise and human nature is able to stain and ruin everything it touches. When some win, others lose and no one cares about them. When they start caring about themselves in few left to them ways, things may get even worse.

The novel may be difficult to read to non-native English speakers or even those native ones who are used to ‘proper’ English – many dialogues are in Hawaiian pidgin English which requires some effort to follow and understand it. For language nerds, as myself, it’s an interesting experience, though.

‘The Tattoo’ is a novel that shows one how life changes people and how the past, race and way people live in influence and shape them, whether they want it or not. It’s not an easy and fast read but certainly one worth a try, even if there’s not too much about tattoos per se in it!

Chris McKinney, The Tattoo, Soho Press 2007

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all is quiet now

The holiday time slowed down the flow of the news as it seems, so there are only a few interesting ones to present:

A man with passion and a taste for tattoos in ‘tattoos illustrate man’s monstrous obsession with Seahawks.’

A dangerous side of the industry: ‘illegal ink.’

Tattoos can be useful, too: ‘tattoos get a nod from veterans’ groups’ – tattoos for their prosthetics and orthotics that is.

This book seems very interesting: ‘the quest for beauty through the ages,’ published by L’Oreal Foundation; number of copies must be quite limited, though, and sure not everyone can afford it.

book review: the tattooed lady

 Being a tattooed woman even today means thrills and ‘excitement’ on daily basis – people’s stares and occasional disapproval are easy to feel and notice. What it meant a few decades ago is no longer left to imagine as Amelia Klem Osterud did quite thorough a research on the tattooed women of the past allowing us to have a glimpse in the not so glorious past.

For such an unusual subject as ‘tattooed ladies’, the book begins in a very standard way – a short description of the history of tattooing around the world. One must, however, be understanding here as the lack of such introduction would cause accusations of a sloppy approach toward the subject. Not the case, though, and the introduction is decent enough and even makes a bow in direction of the ‘Western tradition of tattooing’ which – we are told – is quite deeply rooted in the European history. From here on it gets only better.

The strong points of this book are, as it seems, well-done research and setting the subject in the broad (and yet still detailed) context. Since the first tattooed ladies appeared in the 19th century, the century heavily influenced by the Victorian era in England, the reader is introduced to basic information on how the Victorians perceived women, their place in society and rules they should have followed. Tattooed women, clad in scanty clothes and seemingly shamelessly exposing their bodies to the audience, defied the norms which made them ‘mixture of both ordinary and exotic’ and ‘[a representation of] freedom to choose what to do with their bodies, the freedom to live an unusual life…’ Osterud is too good of a scholar, though, to be led astray by very modern concepts of womanhood and women’s freedom, so she makes us look both at the economic and social situation of women in the 19th century and what choices were possible to them back then. She also did another very important thing – she went through letters, memoirs, leaflets and everything else that’s left of the first tattooed ladies and their descendants in trade to see/hear what they had to say on the subject themselves. Suddenly long-dead women come to life again and can not only shatter some of our false impressions on them but also teach us a few life lessons. The romantic image of circus life, love for art and freedom aside, there were also other reasons to get tattooed and become a tattooed lady; as one of them, Ada Mae said: ‘when people ask me how come I’m a tattooed lady, I tell’em it’s because I love Art … and that’s true, too … – up to a certain point … I mean, I like to eat regular.’

One of very fascinating side-subjects here is the circus life and the book contains many rare pictures of performers both on and off the stage. The author points out the meaning of the sideshow to people visiting it, describes the everyday life on the road, shows what the sideshows had to offer and how they helped ordinary people define their own identity and learn about the world outside their own micro cosmoses.

The famous tattooed ladies themselves, such as Nora Hildebrandt, Irene Woodward or Emma de Burgh, are not only names and a few lines of basic information but rather detailed portraits and solid attempts on the author’s part to follow their lives from the beginning of their careers to the very end of their lives. Old photos, anecdotes and rare information on their private lives makes it a fascinating story of women who were brave enough to go against the norms and strong and clever enough to survive the hardships of the everyday life.

The book wouldn’t be, obviously, complete if there wasn’t a chapter on the contemporary tattooed ladies ‘here and now’ and the last chapter, The Legacy, describes the enormous changes that happened during the last few decades and how much our culture and our perception of tattoos differ from the ‘old times’ and how much they are influenced by the achievements of the first tattooed ladies. The focus is put on burlesque and modern sideshow and, again, the author’s point is very nicely illustrated. Oddly enough, though, there is nothing about Die Katzen who is one of the heaviest tattooed women in the world and who had her share in the sideshow ‘industry.’

The book is very nicely edited and published – it’s a hardcover, with a good index and sources included. As mentioned before, many rare pictures and interesting points made by the author make it a very interesting addition to any book collection on the subject.

Amelia Klem Osterud, The Tattooed Lady. A History, Speck Press 2009

no mistletoe, lots of tattoos

A Dutch article about the ‘star girl’ I’ve just come across reminded me of the big uproar she caused a few months ago and also showed how short-living it was for us and how nightmarishly long is must feel to her. Sure she made us doubt everything she says but still, let’s hope she’ll be all right after all.

Interesting and pretty ‘hardcore’ news from the US: tattoo marathon that might end as a new world record.

Bali doesn’t strike ‘us’ as a place where tattoos are very popular but ‘our’ impressions can be wrong quite often. Here’s an article about the Balinese tattoo scene and a tattoo magazine debuting there.

Books about tattoos are one of my favorite kind and here are two new titles that may be worth checking out: ‘Tattoos in Japan’ and another review of the ‘Tatted’ book showing the tattoo scene in Philadelphia.

Something touching to end this post – every body allegedly has a story and here’s a memorial story that’s a ‘tribute paid in ink, blood and long tresses.’

rules, artists, commerce

The news in Dutch doesn’t appear on here as often as I would like but here’s one interesting piece: allegedly 92% of tattoo shops in the Netherlands are safe and stick to regulations.

Three artists: Mr Cartoon and some of his side projects, Ed Hardy in a short interview and a body art performer discussing the body in a pretty interesting way (worth checking out as so many modified people claim that their bodies are the only thing they really own and this guy’s opinion differs in this regard quite strongly).

Quite controversial art project in New Zealand: ‘Queen with moko portrait draws complaints.’

Boing Boing’s review of ‘Black Tattoo Art’ book with some nice pictures from it.

Tattoos-inspired art on our tables and walls? Quite possible as you can see in ‘on the table’ and ‘tile tattoos from Mibo.’

Finally something for the fans of slideshows and rankings: ’10 best tattoos in NBA.’

book review: Faces of Africa

 It was one of my random book purchases and yet it proved to be very satisfying. This particular edition is a sort of anthology of work by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher and shows images they took during a few decades of their fascination with Africa.

It’s a concept anthology, too, as it is focused on the cycle of life still very tangible and always present in lives of African people. The first pictures show newborn children with their mothers in very intimate and fragile moments of their lives only to move to pictures showing older children playing in quite often harsh African conditions, teenagers facing the ordeal of rites of the passage of their tribes, young men and women at the threshold of a new social group to end with touching photographs of the elders, their faces weathered by hard and challenging life and yet showing pride of who they are.

Pictures are wonderfully done and full of dynamics and life. We can see beautiful Masai warriors showing off not only their physical strength and courage but also the softer side directed toward their girlfriends, impressively ‘dolled up’ Wodabee charm dancers and mysterious and always veiled Tuareg camel riders. There are many portraits of people here but ‘Faces of Africa’ are not only about human faces but also about the fascinating and ever changing face of the continent.

 The main reason I decided to buy this book was hope that it would contain pictures of ‘modified’ people and I was not disappointed as even though the authors were not focused on this facet of the African culture, it was impossible to photograph members of African tribes outside their culture and thus also their ways of adorning their bodies and marking stages of their lives. There are a few great pictures of Surma women wearing their impressive in size lip plates with pride and dignity, many photographs of Masai people and their stretched ears, a beautiful shot of a certain henna design and many wonderful examples of tribal body painting. Above all, however, the book shows how amazingly beautiful African peoples are, from giant Dinka men to slender Masai boys to fragile and yet strong Himba and Surma women.

Pictures speak for themselves but there are also captions added to all pictures to allow the reader/ viewer know some background about the culture and people shown. Each chapter is preceded by a short introduction which may seem a little pathetic at times but it always shows the authors’ fascination and love to both the place and its peoples.

While going through this book I got to think about the modifications and how different they are from our own. Even though they seem to be the same (stretched ears and lips, scars and tattoos), they are not about distinguishing their wearers from the crowd/ society; they do not communicate a desire to be different but rather an urge to be the same like the people around and their ancestors. People do it not because they want to but rather because it needs to be done and the feelings they derive from their ‘modifications’ are probably also different from ours.

There is a wonderful and fascinating variety to ‘Faces of Africa’ but also an amazing sense of relativity, truly showing that beauty is in the eye of beholder.

Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, Faces of Africa. Thirty Years of Photography, National Geographic 2009

hidden and drastic

A small bunch of links to start a new week:

News about ‘novel infrared technique to identify hidden tattoos’ (more with pictures demonstrating the ‘trick’) is quite interesting and the invention more useful than it may seem at first.

A German article asks quite serious a question of ‘what is body art’ and it really is quite interesting to consider, seeing as Orlan, Stelarc, the Lizardman and many others all practice body art in various forms.

Another German one with a ‘Wow! Ouch!’ attitude published on focus.de mentions suspensions, split tongues and many other body modifications. Somehow I found this article lacking in a broader perspective on the subject. My favorite line from this one described suspensions as hanging ‘‘wie geschlachtetes Vieh an lang gezogenen Hautlappen.’ Yes, that’s the point! Also, notice how it was categorized!

Tattoos gaining popularity in Botswana’ one isn’t overly great but both the context and location deserve some attention.

Finally a DVD featuring some ink in ‘tale of a tall man’s tattoo’ – touches quite popular a topic of NBA players and their shameless tattoo sporting.

monstrous length, interesting links

The topic of body modification (tattoos mainly) in work settings appears in articles quite often. A pretty interesting article was recently published in the Washington Post: ‘In D.C. area, tattoos are largely taboo from 9 to 5;’ even more interesting is how the story was developed with some help from the readers in the ‘Story Lab blog.’ A similar, not very optimistic stand on tattoos and jobs takes this article from IL which title says it all: ‘Tattoos could destroy your chance of getting a job.’ (Bad) news spread fast, so here we have a Polish summary of the Washington Post article. In a similar vein is a short article from Germany discussing results of the survey among Germans showing what they find un/acceptable on their police force.

Quite different is the article from Hong Kong: ‘women shrug off tattoo taboo;’ (in Polish).

Very interesting is an American article about soldiers and tattoos (quite traditional and common a combo): ‘Soldiers find comfort at tattoo shops, churches and other refuges;’ as a bonus, here’s a slide show of ‘tattoos in the military.’

I’m not a huge fan on Ink-TV shows but the Rescue Ink seems different; here two relevant articles: ‘Batso: tattooed animal rescuer turned TV star’ and ‘tough and tattooed, Rescue Ink bikers take on animal abuse.’

A self-injury label is often thrown our way and we’re accused of disfiguring or even mutilating our bodies; quite interesting reasoning then may be found in ‘tattoos and piercings: self-injury?

Health and risks: bad news from Belgium where a young woman experiences some serious health complications after getting a tattoo (in German).

This story is very interesting and seems taken straight from the old freakshow: ‘The Marked Man: Jack Dracula’s New London’s years.’

Since I’m always up for new books on tattoos and body modification in general, here are two articles about two books: ‘Book review: the tattooed lady;’ (oddly enough, I bought it on amazon a week ago; still waiting for it to be delivered) and ‘Philly tattoos get their own book ‘Tatted’.’

An interesting idea how to raise money: ‘Artist auctions her tattoos online.’

 To end on a lighter and positive note, maybe tattoos and other forms of body modification are still frown upon and make our lives a little more difficult but there must be something about them if mature people find them attractive, too: ‘more seniors get tattoos.’

campaign, fusion, fee

A short post today but with a few very interesting links:

Be smart with body art’ is a campaign started in CA to make tattoos and piercings a safer experience for people.

‘Visibly modified’ people sharing their experiences: ‘skin deep.’ People and their tattoos also in a new German TV program ‘my tattoo story.’

A concept very much like the *in*famous art fusion but with a local touch in ‘Artist Fusion.’

Elayne Angel was the first tattooed person ever who copyrighted her backpiece; here’s an article about the local town copyrighting their logo: ‘tattoo image fee.’

 I liked this article a lot: ‘before he was a brand, Ed Hardy was a real person.’

human species and its beliefs

I love thinking about humans in terms of pure biology and being just another animal species, so I quite enjoyed a brief outline of the results of research done by the Polish anthropologists from Wroclaw: ‘tattoos, piercings may advertise good health.’ It certainly is a very interesting idea although I’d argue how valid it actually may be in the modern society (as it certainly would make more sense in more traditional, not to say ‘primitive,’ settings); the probe is small and I wonder how modified the test subjects actually were. Sadly, there’s only a very short outline of the article available on the home page of Evolution and Human Behavior website. Definitely both an interesting and entertaining idea, though!

 ‘Tackling the traditional tattoo taboo’ discusses Christians and tattoos and mentions Christian Tattoo Association; in a similar vein, I also got to read about ‘my sign of God’ where a British Christian describes his reasons behind his quite visible cross tattoo.

 Art inspired by tattoo motifs in ‘scratching the surface with tattoo ink.’

 Finally, to help you shut up the mouths of all the people asking the ever annoying ‘does-it-hurt?’ question, here’s a tattoo pain chart!