“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare’s infamous line has been revived time and time again in various movies and television shows, declaring that the name of something isn’t nearly as important as the meaning behind it.
When I began my research on tattoos, I turned to Eva Tallmadge’s and Justin Taylor’s unique book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. Their vibrant book includes and covers photographs of tattoos that are grounded in literary works: some tattoos portray famous quotes from classic novels such as, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Other tattoos capture images of classic heroes, such as the prince who slays the Jabberwock from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
Certain images are accompanied by a small description of the personal meaning behind the tattoo or a simple explanation of what the tattoo represents to the wearer. What struck me most while flipping through these pages in awe (occasionally hopping up and saying, “But you have to look at this one!” while tapping the page incessantly) was that this micro world of literary tattoos indicated a greater macro world of individual expression within all tattoos, categories unimportant.
That is, even though all the tattoos in this book were similar in that each tattoo was inspired by a literary work, each tattoo still had its unique touch that revealed something about the wearer. For example, one need look no further than the image of the E.E. Cummings tattoo beautifully displayed across the wearer’s back (Tattoo artist and shop not provided). There is no commentary on this tattoo explaining what this represents for the person. But from it, we can see that no image accompanies it. An image would not strengthen this tattoo. The words of the poem capture the true importance of the meaning behind the tattoo.
Another tattoo that reveals quite well the mark of personal expression is three simple numbers written on the arm: “811”—the Dewey Decimal number for poetry (Metamorphosis Tattoo & Piercing, Indianapolis, Indiana). As the commentary reveals, the wearer is a librarian named Danielle who states, “I love that this number never changes. I love the nature of libraries; the exchange of information and inspiration” (page 118). For this librarian, the idea of permanence and a love of poetry inspired this tattoo. However, when we think about the macro world, in the sense that we are not limited to only tattoos that indicate literature, what would someone else get that would provide this same concept of permanence? Danielle chose to express stability in a number. What kind of tattoo would someone else get to represent that same concept?
Another image that catches attention is Sandra Willie’s tattoo (Maria Tolo at Fjord Tattoo) that combines all four of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series’ covers. While Meyers does not fall in the same category as Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Carroll, or E.E. Cummings, (Yes, I am aware that upon seeing Meyers mentioned at all, certain things such as water bottles and iPhones may have been thrown at the screen) this is clearly something that means a great deal to the wearer. Different from all the other tattoos covered so far, this tattoo combines the word “Believe” to the image of all four novel covers, thus assimilating each unique form of expression.
Therefore, when I think of the tattoos in this book that are “limited” to literature (I say “limited” with as little negative connotation as possible. Since the book’s theme is literary tattoos, the tattoos are inadvertently limited to one concept, but in no way do I mean to hint that it is a bad thing), each tattoo still points to the greater idea of individual expression: some people choose to portray only words while others choose to don images.
The authors write in the introduction that “the tattoos themselves make their unchangeable declaration of selfhood, meaning, and literary association in an ever-changing world.” In this way, Shakespeare’s timeless quote finds a nice spot in tattoos: it’s not the name given to each tattoo, such as “881” or simply the word “permanent” tattooed out, as it is the meaning behind each tattoo. Permanence can be represented in an assortment of ways, and we have no right to label any portrayal as the correct way, just as a rose would smell just as sweet if it were called something else.
Talmadge, Eva, and Justin Taylor. The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. New York, NY: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins Pub., 2010. Print.
I do not claim any rights over the books or the photographs presented. Full credit is given to the authors and publishers.