Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Megan Baxter, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to my Skin” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2018

To consider my tattoos we must first consider skin. Skin is our barrier against the world, enveloping our body so that we don’t lose our precious water and evaporate like dew. …. The strata of our skin resemble a slice of the earth, where twenty-five to thirty layers of skin cells separate us from the outside world. Scratch your epidermis and you might flake off a few dead cells, but cut into your dermis and you will bleed and slap your hand to the cut in pain. It is in the dermis that tattoo ink is deposited and where, as the years of a life progress, the ink sinks like heavy water, fading away through layers of skin like a figure retreating into shadow.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

Is there a philosophy of the tattoo? Given the devotion of a not insignificant number of people to this art form, I would imagine so, but it might be a bit different for each practicioner or participant. Baxter gives us several viewpoints, all accented with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Not a bad choice, as he was the poet of everything and everyone, a singer of every physical experience a person might undertake from love to war to death to lying on the spring grass. Baxter speculates he might have encountered tattoos on Civil War soldiers he spoke to, as that was a means of identification should they perish on the battlefield. That practice, she explains, lives on in the military, particularly the navy.

She mentions another historical tattoo story which I’d never heard: an Iconoclast emperor in the Byzantine empire punished two priests who refused to destroy their icons to torture, first by beating, then by tattooing poetry on their foreheads. I looked up the poem; it’s quite long, and I wonder how it would fit on one forehead. I also wonder if Kafka was inspired by this when he wrote “In the Penal Colony”, another story about tattooing as punishment.

Pain is part of the process, and Baxter finds it a benefit:

The pain of fading, the pain of mistake, is not as bad as the pain at its origin under the needle.…
But the pain is essential. It releases endorphins that flooded you with something like love and joy. The two-beer buzz. Sex. French fries and milkshakes. The good stuff. And after a while you won’t be able to describe the pain but you will know that it is a key and the release is worth the scratch.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
– Walt Whitman

Exercise advocates also insist that the pain of running or aerobics releases endorphins and improve mood; maybe my endorphin system is defective in some way, because all exercise ever did for me was make me tired and sore.

Baxter also reveals some of her own inspirations that resulted in tattoos, most dramatically, a Utah eagle, but also her first experiene as a teenager. She has seven tattoos, and considers herself done at this point. “You came into the world perfect”, her mother says after each one. She isn’t immune to the implications of that statement.

I’m pretty laissez faire about tattoos, much as I am about most things consenting adults wish to do with their bodies. I’ve occasionally thought about what kind of tattoo I would get, much as I sometimes, even in my senior dotage, think about names for children I never wanted to have. I’ve seen some beautiful work, art that used the anatomy of the body as a platform for non-planar art. And I’ve seen some stupid stuff, including my husband’s self-tattoo of my initials on his fingers.

If there is a philosophy, or a psychic drive that I don’t happen to share, that’s fine. To each their own.

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