I was recently asked to write a short reply to a work of art in the “Masterworks on Paper” exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art and read it aloud during a one-night event. There were cocktails inspired by art and readings by local authors. I was one of the writers and I although I’m new to reading in public (and thus pretty nervous!), it was still a great evening. Above is the work I chose to write about. Below is what I wrote.
Thanks for being on my website, and thanks to everyone who came out.
Skin and Bones
In response to: Self-Portrait as Ishmael’s Arm, Scott Kelley, 2011. Watercolor and ink on paper, 18″ x 18″
When I was twelve years old, my forehead erupted into miniature mountain range, a mess of red bumps. Sometimes, little pieces of skin would slough off, like ice calving from a glacier.
I hated this change, the disruption to my facial topography. I hated every change imposed on my body by puberty. My body, this thing I had lived with for years, had become, suddenly and irreversibly, outside my control.
My skin cleared up after a few months—I consider myself lucky for that. But I never lost the feeling that puberty brought—that my body was something that needed to be tamed, changed, and conquered. As I grew taller, the thirty-three bones that make up my spine curved, first to the right, then to the left. It was subtle, my scoliosis, but it compressed my torso, bringing my height down from five-foot-nine to five-foot-eight.
But that change I welcomed because, as anyone who has lived inside a young female body knows, there’s always someone on hand to critique its size and shape. I have struggled to change my body, to make it into something other than its grown shape. I wanted to make it smaller, and somewhat paradoxically—because the world likes small, delicate women—something more visible to others. Over the years, I’ve applied myself to a series of ridiculous diets, some funny (like the time I only drank milk and ate carrots for a week, which gave my skin an orange tinge and made my stomach rumble loudly) and some sad (like the time I proclaimed proudly to a group of friends, “I only ate three grapes today” while they looked on in undisguised horror). I’ve joined gyms and attended expensive spinning classes where everyone sits in a dark room and pumps their legs aggressively while the instructor barks out orders from her own stationary station, going nowhere fast to the tune of overproduced bumping and grinding.
I haven’t found a single way to effectively tame this wild thing, this thing that grows hair in unexpected places and kicks fitfully in its sleep. But I have discovered a way to mark it as my own, and it involves needles, ink, and a blank piece of human real estate.
I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen years old. I had begged my mother for months to let me get one, to sign a parental release and let me permanently brand my body. Finally, on a family vacation to Bridgton, Maine, she gave in. Under the light of a neon sign, a burly man holding a can of Coors Light inked a small, black butterfly on my left shoulder blade. It cost $20. My mom held my hand as I lay on the cheap plastic table. “Does it hurt?” she asked me. “No it feels good,” I lied.
Or maybe that was the truth. I’m honestly still not sure. I’ve been tattooed multiple times since then, including a cover-up piece that erased the sad, faded remains of my first little butterfly, and I’ve never quite figured out how it truly feels. It stings, sure. It bleeds and that hurts. But it doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t feel good. It isn’t pleasurable. But it feels interesting. Compelling. It feels like a transformation, and I’m a junkie for change. So I keep doing it.
Of course, I’m not alone in my desire to mark up my skin. People have been getting tattooed since Neolithic times. Anyone who has seen a picture of the famous “Ice Man” knows how strange these mummified ancient corpses look, all leathery skin and short bones and dark ink, at once both alien and primal.
And this is how many still view tattoos in the western world. Exotic and somehow primitive, a visual marker of a volatile person, someone uncontrollable. This has been especially true for women. Tattooed men were sailors and soldiers; tattooed women were freakshow acts, painted ladies and hookers. Deviants, all of them.
When I look at Scott Kelly’s piece, his delicately painted watercolor arm, his beautiful tribute to my favorite novel, I feel something I don’t like: Jealousy. I feel jealous of that arm in the same way I once felt sick with jealousy reading Melville’s prose. Not because I aspired to be a writer like him (though I do—who doesn’t?) but because I wanted to enter that world so badly. Ishmael spoke my language, but he wasn’t speaking to me. He was hazy about the eyes, plagued by the dark November of his soul, and pulled like a magnet toward the water. I saw myself in him, a Narcissus-like reflection in a pool of literary beauty. And yet, I couldn’t enter that world. There was no place for me there. I was a girl. And that was a world for men.
The world has changed and moved in fantastic, spectacular ways. My tattoos do not mark me as a freak, but as person who values something a little left of the middle. I could be a sailor if I wanted to. I could hunt a white whale and harpoon my own beast.
When I see that whale spine, I have to remind myself. Do not be jealous. Do not envy the freedom of those who came before. Just straighten your own spine. Take those thirty-three bones and stretch them out to your full height. Bare your skin, and align your bones.
You own this body. You claimed it, and it is yours.
[Image of Maud Wagner, first female tattoo artist in the U.S., plus a circus performer, aerialist, and contortionist. Bad. Ass.]