The Tattoo Exchange
Upon reading Tattooing the World and “Paker’s Back”, I cannot help but relate the experience of tattoo and travel to another novel I’ve read. John Irving’s Until I Find You centers on a young man who does not know who his father is, but knows he is covered in tattoos. The father moves from city to city meeting with the best tattoo artists as he covers his body in intricate designs. The novel imbeds the notion and travel into tattoo and makes the two almost synonymous. Like Jack O’Connell, the father in Irving’s novel tattoos mean something different to both the artist and the tattooed. The similarities between author and tattoo artist remain relevant to all these texts.
One aspect of O’Connor’s story that ties into the importance of tattooing is the idea that O.E. Parker refuses to acknowledge his real name and only does so with his wife, Sarah. This is a significant departure from the tattoo culture we have seen thus far, where the one receiving the tattoo does so in search for identity or through a coming-of-age ceremony. The fact that Parker continues to get tattoos because he becomes so quickly dissatisfied with the previous one shows the divide between Western and non-Western tattooing. For Parker, the tattoo process has little to do with identity and more to do with aesthetics. However, it is also important to note that Parker might be involved in a search for his true identity through the endless need for a new tattoo. In the Pacific, tattoos are much more complex and hold a much deeper meaning than most in the western world. For instance, “recognizing that tattoo does not correspond to a single meaning or even a single category of identity creates much richer and more nuanced understandings of tattoo, as of human sexuality and the psyche” (Ellis 29). Understanding that the process of tattooing is just as important as the tattoo itself adds to the idea that a tattoo does not have a singular meaning.
While comparing both Tattooing the World and “Parker’s Back” it is also worth noting the inspiration involved with tattoos. For example, Parker becomes infatuated with tattoos after seeing a fully inked man at a fair, which highlights the strong connection between tattoo and travel. However, in the Pacific, tattoos are not necessarily inspired by random sightings but rather, encouraged and deeply imbedded in their culture. The fact that Obadiah has his first encounter with tattoos at a fair shows the way in which tattoos travel the world and inspire. Just as Jack O’Connell brought the Pacific notion of tattoos to America, modern tattoos still inspire others.
Although I do not personally have any tattoos, my roommate has several. For her, the tattoos both represent a significant belief but are also aesthetically pleasing. In terms of timing, her tattoos were all spontaneous and not necessarily tied to a single event. One thing that was really interesting though is that when she received her most recent (quite large) arm tattoo, I was able to go with her to the parlor. As she lay there being tattooed, the artist was just as interested in the meaning behind the tattoo as he was giving her the perfect representation of her ideas. In the same way, the Pacific culture creates a strong bond between the artist and the art. I like how the process of tattoo becomes an exchange, like the artist is offering his/her talent in exchange for the story the person receiving the tattoo has to tell. This makes the process spiritual and connected for both parties involved. Also, it relates to the idea of travel in that both the foreigner and the native have something to learn from each other and even from the act of travel alone.