The Text Tattoo

text of tattoo
Tattoo by Marcus Pacheco, of Primal Urge Studios in San Francisco.

I had long wanted a tattoo with the text of one of Wallace Stevens' poems, but I worried that a text tattoo wouldn’t hold up well over time. If the writing was large enough to stay legible as the image inevitably blurred over the years, an entire poem would cover more skin than I wanted to dedicate to the project. Over the course of a few years, I wrestled with this dilemma, while getting other tattoos. My fourth tattoo made reference to the Stevens poem “The Glass of Water”, and had a couple other allusions to his work, but I wasn’t satisfied.

For my fifth piece, I came up with the theme “Man the Tool User”. I wanted two tattoos on my forearms, one representing physical tools, the other, language, the most important “tool”. I decided on a wrench and some gears for the “physical” tattoo, while the “language” piece seemed like the perfect venue for the long-desired Wallace Stevens tattoo. Text alone didn’t capture what I wanted, so after much thought I hit on the combination of a pen and writing. I had seen some collectible fountain pens which were quite beautiful, and since Stevens used a fountain pen, this seemed like a good choice.

Choosing the text was difficult, since Stevens has a large body of work. After much hand-wringing I settled on three lines from “Credences of Summer”, one of his longish later poems, and a favorite of mine:

Let’s see the very thing, and nothing else
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight
Burn everything not part of it to ash.

I picked these lines not so much for their particular meaning or resonance, but because they can stand on their own, and still capture what I find most appealing in Steven’s work: the rhythm and cadences, the willfull obscurity, the insistent and slightly surreal images.

Well, that, and because they sound vaguely stirring and heroic, in the tradition of “death before dishonor” soldier tattoos. Of course, this is largely undone if you read the next five lines of the poem – my excerpt is part of the set-up for a sort of joke about the inescapability of metaphor. But I don’t have to tell people that when they’re reading my arm…

I originally had a grand concept for the text; something like: “The pen is writing, and as the ink dries, the letters become less physical and more metaphysical.” I imagined that the first letters of the first line of text would be brightly colored, perhaps abstract, or blurred, or some such thing. The closer you got to the nib of the pen, the more black and solid the letters.

I bought a book on collectible fountain pens, and took it to the tattoo artist, along with the three lines of the poem. We discussed my idea for the piece, and made an appointment for a month or so later to do the work. Unfortunately, I’m not an artist, and I couldn’t find the right way to communicate my vision to the tattoo artist.

When I arrived to get the work done, the artist showed me the drawing he’d made. It was black and white, so the concept of the changing ink wasn’t clear, but he said that was part of the coloring. He told me that he had a very difficult time with the text. He no longer used cursive writing, so he had to get his wife to write out the letters. He used the various writing samples throughout the fountain pen book as a guide to make the text look like it was written with a nib. Still not satisfied, he enlarged the image to double size, corrected the letter shapes further, then scaled it back down for transfer to my arm. I’d pointed out several pens that I liked, and his image was a composite of two of them.

My grand concept for the text ended up as a gradual left to right fade from black to purple evenly across all three lines. I wasn’t overjoyed with that aspect, but the pen came out so beautiful that I didn’t really care. After living with the piece for a couple months, I’d changed my mind. Almost everyone who looked at it said “the writing is fading”. So I went back to the artist, and he inked all the letters black.

In hindsight, my idea was impractical for three lines of text, but could have worked with one line. In any case, I’m quite happy with what I have, since the words are more important to me than the whole “metaphysical” concept was.

High resolution TIFFs (and smaller jpegs) are available here.