By Camille Meyers
I admire tattoo art – the boldness, the colors, the permanence, the way it comes alive with the movement of skin and muscle.
“Siberian Princess Reveals Her 2,500 Year Old Tattoos” (from The Siberian Times)
Tattoos of antlered beasts and spotted cats crawl over her shoulders and fingers, bold and crisp for a 2,500-year-old mummy. Thawed from a tomb in the Russian Altai Mountains near the Chinese border, media dubbed her an ‘ice princess.’ She was buried with two young tattooed men, six saddled horses, a container of cannabis, a meal of mutton and horse meat, and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze, and gold; she wore a decorated wig and a shirt of silk worth more than gold to her people, the ancient Pazyryks.
Archeologists believe the ceremony of her burial, wealth of her tomb, and plethora of tattoos point to her status as a revered folk tale narrator, a healer, or a shaman, rather than an actual princess.
I knew tattoos were an ancient art, but I was still shocked by the intricacy of the ice princess’ patterns. More amazing to me was the fact that in her society story tellers could hold the same revered status as a holy person, and that her tattoos reflected this. She got me thinking about what body art symbolizes in today’s society, and reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Pulitzer Prize Winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.
“An Open Letter to the Clinging Panther Tattoo on a Middle-aged Woman’s Arm” by David Hart (from McSweeney’s)
Kooser’s poem speaks of the permanence of tattoos and how their meaning can change overtime as the wearer’s life also changes. In “An Open Letter to the Clinging Panther Tattoo on a Middle-aged Woman’s Arm,” David Hart addresses the tattoo directly, “Hang in there, friend. It’s been thirty years that you’ve been perched up there, claws digging into that increasingly ample deltoid. Those small drops of simulated blood are a sign of your tenacity, and I’ll be damned if you fall off now.”
“The Wooden Overcoat” by Rick Barot (from Poetry)
Tattoos sometimes tell their own stories. Sometimes they hold secrets. Pulling on the ideas of the craft of storytelling, tattoos, and death, Rick Barot explores the differences between details and images in his poem “The Wooden Overcoat.”
“Levi Greenacres Has a Bright Aura” by Suzanne Yeagley (from McSweeney’s)
I have always wondered how tattoo artists learn their craft. How do you practice something so permanent? Luckily, McSweeney’s publishes interviews with people who have interesting or unusual jobs. Suzanne Yeagley takes us into the back room of a tattoo parlor as Levi Greenacres explains his process of becoming a tattoo artist. “More memorable than the designs are the different people. So many kinds of different people. Although it takes somebody really exceptionally weird for me to remember them.”
Perhaps that is what makes the art of the tattoo so everlasting: it is not the symbols themselves that hold the interesting stories, but the people who wear them.