Tattoos for English Majors

Up until relatively recently, this blog had a title, and the title was Scribal Tattoo. I wasn’t particularly attached to the name, which is a shallow pun on “tribal tattoo”: I’m the scribe, obviously, and while I’m not more tattooed than your average writer, my identity as a tattooed person goes all the way back to high school when I got my first ink. Several of my tattoos are in fact scribal in some respect: the plum tattoo, inspired by Wallace Stevens, and the artichoke tattoo, which was my gift to myself for completing a PhD in literature.

When I titled my little book blog, however, I wasn’t expecting so many folks to find me by way of their web searches for literary tattoo designs! I regret disappointing these seekers when they land on a wordy website with infrequent and mostly informational illustrations. If you are one of the folks who searched for the following designs–or quotations, perhaps?–I hope you found what you were looking for somewhere, if not here. I hope you share your results.

In the meantime, I hope you didn’t think I was going to mind my own business. I have thoughts about your literary tattoo searches.

aleatory tattoo

I love the idea of a tattoo left up to luck. I follow a writer on Twitter who recently got a tattoo from flash out of a gumball machine, and I would absolutely do the same, given the opportunity. We don’t always get to choose the permanent lines and marks on our skin; if I can bear scars and wrinkles with grace then I can surely bear a tiny, randomly selected design.

because survival is insufficient tattoo

A nice idea. I imagine most folks who Google this are looking for a Star Trek tattoo, but if not, please introduces yourselves to the folks who searched for station eleven tattoo (and found this).

I could not locate a creator credit for this image, sorry!

cucumber tattoo

A surprising choice! I imagine it is difficult to render what Robert Hass calls the “opal green flesh” of a cucumber on human skin, or to visually distinguish a cucumber from a pickle, but his “Poem with a cucumber in it” has convinced me that the cucumber is a noble object of ephemeral beauty, therefore suitable for tattooing. You can read the whole poem here.

discovery of witches tattoo
jonathan strange tattoos

You’ve got a rich selection of tattoo ideas in these fantasy tomes: family crests, witchy sigils, rare book illustrations, eerie dress descriptions.

french toile tattoo

A beautiful idea, but bear in mind the troubling history of this delicate art. Maybe you could get a toile-style tattoo that isn’t a pastoral scene of exploited labor–here’s a round-up of some modern styles.

gravitas tattoo

This is one of my top search terms of all time, and I admit I’m not exactly sure what it refers to or what it leads people to. Perhaps this short poem by Sara Miller?

The overweight, overnight parts
that came to me in a dream.

Their clothes no longer fit,
it was this that brought them
to me crying, their faces twitching.

That had to end. No, they said,
it didn’t.

horse bit tattoos for women

I have questions. Don’t… please don’t answer them.

michael blumenthal tattoo

Oh, do tell me it’s “Squid.”  “So this is love….”

sea plant tattoo
tattoo doolittle

I’ve grouped these together because when I think of a Hilda Doolittle-themed tattoo I think of her sea gardens and sea roses: stunted, salt-blasted plants enduring conditions and existing in their own kind of wild beauty.

Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem—
you are caught in the drift.

tell the wolfes tattoo

You could do worse than a blackwork tattoo inspired by a symbolism-rich design like this.

william carlos williams tattoo

I almost typed “Don’t do it,” WCW is a jerk, but you know what? Let she who has not loved a terrible man’s writing throw the first stone, and this man had any number of tattooable lines. I’m partial to “That’s the way it is with me somehow” and “am I not I–here?” myself.

levertov tattoo

Like many of her Imagist and Modernist contemporaries (including WCW above), Denise Levertov wrote a lot of powerful short tattooable lines. My favorite was often anthologized in the food writing collections I pored over when I was dissertating.

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

louise erdrich tattoos

Oh my goodness, where would you even start? Would you use artwork from the cover of one of her dozens of books, many of which have been released in multiple editions with different covers? Would you use a quote from her pages and pages of writing, and interviews or essays about writing? If you got a Louise Erdrich tattoo, web searcher, please come back and tell me what you decided on.

tattoo sonnet

A sonnet is a pretty intense thing to get tattooed on oneself, but if you have the real estate for it, which one would you go for? One of the Shakespeare’s formal compositions to youth and beauty? Wyatt’s sad unrequited love poems? I feel better suited to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s wry wit.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

academic books about tattoos

Tell me if you find any!


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