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Buzzed Books #17 by John King

Pen & Ink: Tattoos & The Stories Behind Them

Pen and Ink

For writers, there is this paradox about tattoos: body art often both symbolizes and continues a story in someone’s life, yet the nature of body art is never just about words, or else, why get body injected with ink in the first place, rather than, say, write an essay?

Tattoos defy literary expression. They resist verbal narratives just as much as they provoke them.

What’s more, the artistic quality of tattoos can seldom be conveyed by photographs, since photographs impose their own two-dimensional context of limited light and perspective on the body.

Knowing Isaac Fitzgerald through my interview way back on episode 42, I was keen to see how he would use this paradox in his new book, Pen & Ink: Tattoos & The Stories Behind Them.

From the outset, what makes Pen and Ink remarkable is the artwork by Wendy MacNaughton. In lieu of photos, her illustrations, with water-colored accents, convey the visual sense of tattoos in a way that pops off the page. This translation, or adaptation, of tattoos seem both bohemian and similar enough to traditional tattoo styles of art that the entire book feels coherent and vital, the images of tattoos foregrounded by relatively realistic cartoons of the bodies of the storytellers.


One of the cool ways this book swerves from a traditional text is the lettering, which is either actual block-letter script mixed with cursive or else a decent-looking imitation of that in a font. That maneuver avoids the stiff formality that I cannot avoid on this blog.

Tiffany Parker textThe brief commentary by tattooed people sometimes evokes the poetry, the surprise in emotions they’ve discovered in life, or hard-won realizations they’ve made in life, and the illustrations convey the sense of the tattoo more than a photo would. The combination of the two is totally fucking sweet.

Pen and Ink

The observations by, for lack of a better term, non-writers, appear throughout along with some of your favorite artists and writers, like Tao Lin, Cheryl Strayed, and Roxanne Gay.

Pen and Ink RoxaneGaySometimes the texts are short, and the illustrations complex, and other times the script consumes the page next to a simpler image. The asymmetrical has its place. The complex meets the complex. Every page is a surprise.

Pen and Ink Detail

Pen & Ink reads like a good book of poetry, like an illustrated sonnet sequence. It makes literature out of the experience of tattoos without being fucking precious, or pretentious, or opaque, or ugly. This book is as strong and weird and reckless and smart as the people in it.


John King Repeal Day 2014

John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.