Literary Ink: Famous Authors and Their Tattoos

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For some reason, writers and tattoos don’t necessarily spring to mind as a natural pairing — we tend to imagine authors decked out in sleeves of tweed and corduroy, not ink. But more and more authors are showing off their tattoos nowadays, and even some classic writers are a little more tatted up than you might think: George Orwell supposedly sported bright blue dots on his knuckles, and Dorothy Parker wore a star on her elbow. Since we’re always interested in finding out a little bit more about the internal lives of our favorite writers, we decided to explore a few of their tattoos, from the simple to the expansive, the cheeky to the deadly serious. Check out some awesome writer ink after the jump.

Kathy Acker’s awesome back tattoo, the most badass combination of birds and flowers and koi we’ve ever seen. “The tattoo is primal parent to the visual arts,” she wrote in Empire of the Senseless. “Beginning as abstract maps of spiritual vision, records of the ‘other’ world, tattoos were originally icons of power and mystery designating realms beyond normal land-dwellers’ experience… In decadent phases, the tattoo became associated with the criminal — literally the outlaw — and the power of the tattoo became intertwined with the power of those who chose to live beyond the norms of society.” Fun fact: Acker dedicated the novel to her tattoo artist.

Kevin Wilson rocks a tattoo of Buster and Annie from the cover of The Family Fang on his left arm. He writes, “I have two other tattoos and imagine I’ll get quite a few more before I’m done. The other tattoo I have is of a Deth P. Sun image of a weird catlike creature playing a marching band bass drum. Underneath it says, ‘Please Be Brave.’ The other one is just some damn ominous blackbird. I very much like tattoos, not because I really want other people to see them (though that is nice), but because it gives me a point of distraction whenever I happen to look at myself in the mirror and see how much older/fatter/sadder I’ve gotten. It’s a way for me, while I’m brushing my teeth before bed, to focus on a cat playing a bass drum or Annie and Buster with their bird masks and not, for example, why my skin always seems to have strange yellow bruises on it.”

John Irving has two tattoos: a maple leaf, in honor of his wife’s Canadian heritage, on his shoulder and the starting circle of a wrestling match on his right forearm. But he’s not just a dabbler — while researching his 2005 novel Until I Find You, Irving threw himself into the world of tattoo parlors and their inhabitants, even learning a little of the trade himself. “Tattoos are souvenirs,” he told The New York Times . “They’re road maps of where your body’s been.” Photo via UNH Magazine.

Patti Smith’s Crazy Horse-inspired lightning bolt was tattooed on her by Vali Myers, an Australian artist and one of her early heroes. As Smith told Penny Green for Interview magazine in 1973, “Vali’s an Italian beatnik-witch and she was a big hero of mine when I was 14. She lived on the left bank, the supreme beatnik chick—thick red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters, and trench coats. Before Edie Sedgwick, she was my heroine. I had pictures of her all over my walls. I never considered her as a real person. Then I was confronted with the real girl, and I thought, ‘oh man, what am I gonna do,’ cause I had dealt with the image so long. She came over to me and we played all these, not really lesbian games, but like flirting with a boy in high school. When she tattooed me, it was painful. It looks like a little lightning bolt. My photos had become real, and I had to deal with that as a reality. It was a great turning point in my life, it had come full circle.”

Rick Moody has one of the coolest tattoos possible (in our opinion), because it’s part of Shelley Jackson’s Skin project, a 2095-word story published exclusively in tattoos, one word each on as many willing volunteers, so it can never be read in its proper order, but just exists, pulsing, out in the world at all times. Photo via NY Press.

China Miéville marked a very successful 2010 by having what he calls a “skulltopus” — exactly what it sounds like — tattooed on his right arm. As he explained to i09, “it’s a simultaneous homage to two, I think, contradictory traditions of the fantastic, which is the ‘hauntological,’ the ghostly tradition, and the ‘weird’ — the what I think of, rather than the ‘uncanny,’ as the ‘abcanny,’ and it feels to me like those have always pulled in very different directions. One to do with the return of the oppressed, and one to do with the eruption of the utterly unknown and unthinkable, and these are symbolized to me by the skull on the one hand and the octopus on the other, and by the different traditions of the ghost story tradition and the weird fiction tradition. And to steal a term from philosophy — I can’t remember which philosopher it was that used it — I think of the tentacled skull as an ‘incompossiblity,’ and a kind of coagulation of these two non-sublatable traditions.” If that’s not enough explanation, Miéville writes further about the skulltopus’s significance here. Photo via Nautilus English Books.

Trust literary nerd hero Jonathan Lethem to have a Philip K. Dick tattoo. In a fantastic essay about the author, he writes, “I impetuously went into a tattoo parlor and had the spray-can logo from the first American edition of Ubik tattooed on my left upper arm. Well, medium-impetuously: the day before, my then-wife and my sister had together gotten tattoos at that same parlor, so it was familial peer pressure that made this decision for me. I wasn’t certain I wanted a tattoo, actually, but if I was going to have one I was certain what tattoo I wanted… I never wear sleeveless shirts, but word of my tattoo has circulated, slightly, a viral rider on my own moderate fame, and I’m occasionally called on by sly interlocutors to sheepishly exhibit it while signing at a bookstore. In two decades I’ve watched my spray can swell, shrink and grow slack with the changing contours of my arm, gain hairs, survive mosquito bites. The simple colors haven’t faded badly, but the blue outline has blurred, victim of the entropy the spray-product Ubik was supposed to combat. Dick ensured Ubik’s immortality; I’ve ensured its mortality.” Photo via NY Press.

“How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?” reads the tattoo on Harry Crews’s shoulder, beneath a somewhat anxious-looking skull. It’s a line from “Buffalo Bill’s,” a short, brutal poem by e.e. cummings — perfect, we think, for the great grizzled wildman of American fiction.

Novelist Elizabeth Hand’s tattoos are largely intwined with her own work — which is not surprising, and probably vital. “I’ve got a bunch of tats — two huge ones on my left arm, a ring of fire on my right arm, and a really beautiful tattoo on my calf that’s based on an illustration of The Boy in the Tree (a recurring figure in my work) from the Japanese edition of my first novel, Winterlong,” she told AbeBooks. “My novella The Least Trumps, included in my short story collections Bibliomancy and Saffron and Brimstone, was also inspired by that first tat… The big tat on my upper arm is an old-style tattoo of a phoenix in flames with the motto TOO TOUGH TO DIE — this is the tattoo my protagonist has in Generation Loss. Anyway, I love tattoos. I’m fascinated by tattoo artists, too.” Photo via Thinking About Books.

Stephen Elliott has quite a few tattoos, as it turns out. We’re pretty sure we know why he got that Rumpus ink, but what about the rest? As he explained in an interview, “The one on the left arm is a cover up for a ‘jailhouse’ tattoo I got in the group home when I was fourteen. It was huge, crooked dagger. The cover-up is a wizard releasing an orb. It’s actually a western takeoff on a traditional eastern tattoo, but it’s a greek figure instead of a buddha. On my left leg is The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. I don’t know why I did that one. I was in college and hanging out with the local tattoo artist and I said, ‘Why don’t you do that on my leg?’ The band on my right arm is actually a version of the leather pride flag. I got it early in my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, in 2005. I was in love, in that way that makes you literally crazy.” Photo via Magnet Magazine.