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Inked Ink: On Literary Tattoos

Loulwa Soweid By Loulwa Soweid Published on March 16, 2016

Inked Ink: On Literary Tattoos
Loulwa Soweid

As a bookworm-to-the-bone, I can understand being utterly captivated by a certain word, phrase, or even entire passage, in such a way that you want to do more than just write and rewrite it on paper, but to proclaim it as an ingrained part of yourself in its own right, something tangible and concrete. Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor acknowledged this through the publication of The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, a collection of photographs displaying literature-inspired inscriptions on human skin (you can listen to an interview with Talmadge and Taylor, and see photos straight from the book, here). Scanning its archive, it’s evident that while each entry is unique to the tattoo-bearer—text, font, and location vary per photograph—their common provenance lies in a fierce love of literature, or at least, select parts of it.

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Some people are, in fact, taking it a step further by choosing to promulgate said love through their participation in literary tattoo-chains. Over 5,000 enthusiastic bibliophiles have signed up to partake in the company Litographs’ ambitious goal of organizing the world’s longest temporary tattoo chain by recreating Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland novels. The project gained so much initial momentum that “midway through the first day [of the Kickstarter campaign], 2500 spots had been claimed,” says Jack Neary, who works with Marketing and Community Relations at Litographs. In response, Litographs scrapped their original plan of only reproducing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in tattoo-form and quick-wittedly decided to include Through the Looking Glass as well.

“Throughout the course of making literary products and developing relationships with customers who enjoyed them, we built an impressive community in terms of their willingness to participate in ambitious projects,” says Neary. “This project in particular seemed like something that would take only a small effort on the behalf of each participant, but would yield something much greater when taken as a whole.”

Though the chain is not yet complete, many participants have already uploaded photos proudly exhibiting their randomly-assigned tattoo-snippets. “There really isn’t a boring sentence in the book, and we were blown away by the creativity of the submissions,” says Neary, “many feel like mini skits playing out the assigned line.” The photos are placed side by side so that, should one fancy reading on a more unconventional medium, the entire book is written out on arms, legs, bellies and backs, among others (though no body-part was strictly off-limits, “participants were encouraged to keep their submissions family-friendly”).

However, while Litographs opted for transience, noting that “it's a much easier ask to borrow appendages temporarily when organizing more than five-thousand people,” author Shelley Jackson’s “Skin: A Mortal Work of Art” project (which was, in fact, a source of inspiration for Litograph’s tattoo-chain) goes even further by requiring participants to get permanently inked should they choose to be involved.

Also, unlike Litographs’ project, Jackson isn’t reprinting an already-published book on human skin; she plans to write out an entirely new story in tattoo-form (in accordance with a hefty list of guidelines, which can be read here). Each participant is randomly allocated one word, after which, as Jackson states on the project’s website, they “will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed text, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.” Furthermore, these “words” are the only ones who will be allowed to read the entire story upon its completion, and their skin is the only medium upon which it will be published. 

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One “word” has beautifully shared her reflections on her word-hood here, although she starts off by admitting that “surprisingly few people ask me why I have ‘away’ tattooed on my ankle.” 

Upon reading her statement, I felt compelled to do what those people hadn’t done, driven by my belief that learning the backstory behind any tattoo adds a crucial and meaningful layer to the story. As such, I sought out people who sport literary tattoos, in order to offer a behind-the-scenes look as to why one would enter into a lifelong commitment with a piece of literature:

Name: Kinda

Tattoo and Inspiration: Two Harry Potter-inspired tattoos, “one in black ink on my wrist of the deathly hallows symbol, and one in white ink on my foot of Harry's glasses and his scar.”

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Backstory: “The world of Harry Potter is my ultimate comfort zone. I've made amazing friends from it, I've had the best experiences because of it, and I've learned so much about life and how you should treat people because of it. They say you always end up regretting tattoos, but I don't think I'll ever regret such a huge and essential part of my childhood, so I genuinely wanted something I could carry with me for the rest of my life.”


Name: May

Tattoo and Inspiration: A seagull tattoo, inspired by one of Spanish writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s translated “greguerias” (you can find a couple more of them at this link and in this book) : “seagulls are born from the handkerchiefs that wave goodbye in ports.”

(May preferred not to send in a photograph, so just imagine a really cool seagull tattoo :))

Backstory: “Leaving and travelling were a big part of my life. I left the country that I was born and raised in to live in a complete new one, without my family, and I believe that this transition changed who I am and made me more independent. So it’s become a really important part of my personality, although it was painful. That’s why I wanted a permanent tattoo, as a memory of what I went through and how I managed to become someone better.”


Name: Jihane

Tattoo and Inspiration: The words “not all those who wander are lost” in Elvish, inspired by a poem in the Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

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Backstory: “I fell in love with Tolkien's works when I was 9, and they became a huge influence on my life. His world is so vast and well-built and full of so much meaning that even 13 years later I've still barely scratched the surface. I contemplated getting this specific tattoo for about 7 years before actually getting it, so it was certainly well thought-out. And that's why I got a permanent one, because after thinking about it for so long, I was able to judge how much of a part of my life Tolkien's works have been and whether it will continue to be as big a part in years to come. I also wanted something that other fans would recognize, so the Elvish script is perfect!”


What I appreciate the most about literary tattoos like Kinda’s, May’s, and Jihane’s is that they simultaneously hold deep-rooted personal meaning to the individual while serving as a blatant declaration of the fact that they have been moved by the written word. In a 2014 article in "The Huffington Post," best-selling author Marjorie Liu draws up a list of book characters who carry their own tattoos, and notes that “literature is a fantastic way to explore how skin art embodies individuals and reveals otherwise hidden aspects of a character's personality.” While Liu is referring to tatted ink-and-paper people, I move to suggest a similar sentiment regarding book-lovers made up of blood-and-bone, based on the information gathered in this article: that the literary tattoos adorning their bodies characterize them, shape them, speak of their beliefs and inspirations, and are ultimately a manifestation of the fact that at some point in their lives, they connected so profoundly to specific piece of literature, that it literally became a part of them, and will remain so.

Psychology graduate with a love of all things literature, poetry and theater!