Getting Inked: Henry David Thoreau and American Tattoo Art

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Mark Sullivan | © Mark Sullivan 2016

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As many of you know, I have been looking at images of Thoreau for about a decade now. I’ve studied paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs of Thoreau; and I’ve examined portraits of Thoreau found on dust jackets, postage stamps, t-shirts, coffee mugs, skateboards, tote bags, watch fobs, and shop signs, to name just a few locations. I published some of my findings about this wide array of images last year, in a book called Picturing Thoreau: Henry David Thoreau in American Visual Culture.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 If you’ve had a chance to dip into this volume, you know that I’m interested in what these images might tell us about Thoreau, but also in what they might tell us about the artists who created the images. And I’m especially interested in what these portraits can tell us about our changing expectations of, or opinions of, the “hermit of Walden”. As Americans, we have had a long love-hate relationship with Thoreau and his ideas and writings, and it is a relationship that has taken many twists and turns with each new generation of Americans. What we like or dislike about Thoreau has changed frequently over the years since the publication of Walden in 1854, but what remains constant is our fascination with Thoreau. And in recent years (i. e., the last generation or two), much of the fascination with Thoreau has been due to the multiplicity of important issues with which he was involved in his day, issues which came to a head again in the late twentieth century and are still unresolved – issues such as environmental sustainability, racial equality, and the role of government in one’s personal life.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In my book Picturing Thoreau, I demonstrated that the invocation of Thoreau (and/or the use of his facial features) can serve handily as a way of marking out, clarifying, and legitimizing the interests or concerns of a particular group, or constituency, in American society. Because he, and his facial features, are so well-known (there are more than 1200 different images of Thoreau on “Google Images”), he is a natural choice for any group that wants to be recognized as espousing one or more of the ideas that Thoreau advocated during his short and somewhat turbulent life.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Today, I’d like to focus on how Thoreau’s words and facial features have been adopted by American tattoo artists (and “tattooees”, as the wearers of the tattoos are called) in the last few years. I’m in the early stages of my research on this subject, so I can’t, and don’t want to, make any grand analytical statements, but what I would like to convey, at this point, is the enthusiasm, and the wide variety of motivations, with which a large number of the younger generation is embracing Thoreau by “getting inked” with tattoos of quotes from Thoreau, or with portraits of Henry David himself.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Some of us in this room might worry that Thoreau is headed for the dustbin of history, and about to be forgotten, especially if we are witness to the moaning and gnashing of teeth that often comes from high school students who are assigned to read Thoreau’s works. But there is a vibrant, little-known community of Thoreau enthusiasts out there, many of whom may not have scholarly interests, or have much of a voice in present-day society. This is a community that is fiercely dedicated to Thoreau, and which sees him as a true visionary and a role model of personal independence. They are not about to allow Thoreau be forgotten, even though they may at times quote him incorrectly.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It is possible that this community of young people is drawn to Thoreau partly because his one recorded statement about tattoos was fairly liberal for the nineteenth century (and even for some twenty-first century readers and critics). In Walden, Thoreau writes: “Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable.” What Thoreau meant here, I believe, is that one should look carefully at the message being conveyed in a tattoo, and not judge all tattoos out-of-hand as barbarous, simply because the art of tattooing came from a supposedly uncivilized, or “other”, part of the world. And a common statement by the young people who have gotten Thoreau tattoos in the last few years, is that each tattoo, and each person, should be looked at individually, rather than being judged quickly as belonging to this or that group or category.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Let’s look at some of these tattoos from the last few years, so that you can get an idea of what I’m talking about. Then we could discuss, if time permits, what significance this phenomenon might have for the future of Thoreau’s reputation.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This first tattoo [Slide 2] is a very simple one, just a brief, undecorated quote from Thoreau’s journals. It says: “Going from – Toward.” The full quote from Thoreau reads: “A Traveler! I love his title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from – toward; it is the history of every one of us.” This is a tattoo being worn by a young woman identified only as Krissy, and it was posted to a website called “Contrariwise: Literary Tattoos” in 2010. Here is Krissy’s commentary about why she got the tattoo: “I’ve been wanting another tattoo for a while…. But while reading through some quotes I found this one. It jumped out at me and I drove straight to the shop. I didn’t care about the cost, I just knew I had to have this. Currently, I work for a residential treatment facility for juveniles with dual diagnosis. It’s a tough job, but I feel like I’m making a difference in the world. I’m always telling the youth I work with that it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you’re coming from, but where you’re going and what you do to get there that matters….”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Some people in the audience may be wondering why there is a semi-colon far to the right of Krissy’s tattoo. There is a semi-colon in Thoreau’s original text, but in his text the semi-colon comes immediately after the word “toward”. In the tattoo, Krissy is letting us know, by placing the semi-colon at a distance from the text, that there is a sub-text here. In contemporary youth culture, a semi-colon tattoo is a way of conveying to others that the tattooee has seriously contemplated suicide, but finally decided against it.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Here is another very simple Thoreau tattoo [Slide 3], by an anonymous artist and inked on an unknown customer. It has been re-posted frequently on Pinterest, the website where anyone can post his or her favorite images. The text says: “Go confidently”. This, of course, is an abbreviation of the following misquotation from Walden: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” The actual quote from Walden reads this way: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I find this tattoo to be very interesting, even though it’s a misquotation, partly because the tilt of the text itself expresses a confident motion, and partly because the simplicity of the tattoo itself actually echoes a message found in the next full sentence of Walden: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex….”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The next few slides show just three of many tattoos that one can see online if he or she googles “Thoreau tattoos”. Many younger people are clearly drawn to Thoreau’s statement that “all good things are wild and free” [Slides 4-6]. Another phrase, or “sound bite”, that has become the subject of many tattoos, is the well-known “Live deliberately”, which comes from the first chapter of Walden [see Slide 7]. And a third pithy Thoreauvian phrase that has caught on among tattoo artists and tattooees, is: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (also from Walden).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 But these are just a few of the quotes from Thoreau that have kept tattoo artists busy in the last few years. Only slightly less popular than the above three, is the following quote: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live”. And look at these two very intricate tattoos, featuring the quote: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something” [Slides 8 and 9].

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The first of these two “Aim above morality” tattoos was posted to the Contrariwise.org website on January 10, 2014, by “Jen.” She reports that this tattoo belongs to “Damien”, and that he (Damien) said of the tattoo: “I love Henry David Thoreau and found this in a book called Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. It is a collection of letters that Thoreau wrote to Blake. Not sure of the font. I gave the quote to the artist and said if you have any ideas go for it. This is what he came up with and I loved it.” Longtime members of the Thoreau Society will recognize this quote as coming from a letter that Thoreau wrote to Harrison Blake of Worcester, on March 27, 1848, and that the tattooee is referring to Bradley Dean’s masterful 2004 edition of Thoreau’s correspondence with Blake.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I wanted to show you the second “Aim above morality” tattoo [Slide 9] partly to show how popular this phrase has become among young tattooees, but also as a way of introducing you to the many Thoreau tattoos being done these days that don’t just simply quote Thoreau. In this tattoo, we see Thoreau’s facial features, as well as his cabin at Walden Pond. The artist has made a magnificent portrait of Thoreau that is based on the Benjamin Maxham daguerreotype of 1856 [Slide 10]; and he also has modeled his picture of Thoreau’s cabin on the most famous image of the hut in existence today, the image that appears in the earliest editions of Walden. This artist has clearly done his homework, and clearly had as much interest in Thoreau as the person receiving the tattoo. By the way, the artist here is Joe Spino, of the Rise Above Tattoo Studios in Orlando, Florida. On his website, joespino.com, one can see amazing portrait tattoos of Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the above Thoreau tattoo.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The Maxham daguerreotype has inspired a host of other tattoo artists in the last few years. Here, for instance [Slide 11], is one that showed up on www.tattoopinners.com recently, with no mention of either the artist or the tattooee. The quote “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it,” comes from Volume 14 of Thoreau’s journals (written between August of 1860 and August of 1861), and no doubt reflects the feelings of the tattooee about the nature of social or political authority. And here [Slide 12] is another adaptation of the Maxham image, with the word “Simplify” written on either side of Thoreau. This tattoo, which is by the artist Meg Knobel of Buju Tattoo in San Diego (and can be seen on her website, http://megknobel.com), also includes a mouse at the lower left. This mouse is no doubt a reference to Chapter 12 of Walden (the chapter entitled “Brute Neighbors”), in which Thoreau describes the various woodland animals with whom he lived harmoniously during his time at Walden Pond. One of these animals was a mouse that would climb up his sleeve and eat the crumbs that Thoreau provided.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The portrayal of Thoreau as a man who knew how to work with nature, and not against it, has been widespread since at least the 1970s, when Thoreau was cast as the forerunner of the environmental movement and the progenitor of Earth Day. And the story of the mouse who lived peacefully with Thoreau at his cabin has been the subject of at least two children’s books. One of those books is Bill Montague’s Little Mouse: The Mouse Who Lived with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond (Concord: The Concord Mousetrap, 1993); and another is Marilynne K. Roach and Joseph Low’s The Mouse and the Song (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1974). One wonders if Meg Knobel (or the client for whom she was working) read such a book in childhood.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 My personal favorite, when it comes to tattoos of Thoreau that are based on the Maxham image, is this one [Slide 13]. It appears on an unknown person’s knee, and includes the following quote from Thoreau: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The image comes from “12 Crazy Celebrity Tattoos”, a webpage on wordpress.com (posted January 16th, 2011). The quote comes from “Economy”, the first chapter of Walden, where it is followed by this sentence: “I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 I am drawn to the graceful drawing style of the tattoo artist here, and to his or her clever way of adapting the Maxham image. But I am also drawn to the quote, the meaning of which has been the subject of lively debates/discussions among young people posting on websites such as reddit.com and answers.yahoo.com. These postings give us a real window into what it is that attracts “millennials” to Thoreau. On reddit.com, for instance, a contributor named “baconicity” interprets the quote this way: “Human interaction can be nourishing when you’re with those who ‘love people and use things.’ I’m guessing that velvet-cushion people find it easier to love things more than people…;” and someone whose online name is “SSSS_car_go” writes: “A life of luxury or one filled with many material objects and superficial people does not allow for the space to quietly contemplate…. He [Thoreau] gave me the courage not to live in a house of ticky tacky trying to keep up with the Joneses, to not value a thing over my relations with people I love….”

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 On answers.yahoo.com, contributors who were asked to interpret Thoreau’s quote came up with a variety of answers. One, who goes by the screen name of “Audie”, wrote: It means he’s a misanthrope, that he doesn’t like the company of other humans….” “Dee”, however, writes: “He’s pointing out the absurdity of materialism. He’s basically asking why are all of you chasing this velvet cushion when there is a perfectly good pumpkin that serves the same purpose.” And “Lily of the Valley” has this to say: “He would rather be alone than be with those putting on a show for the sake of social structure. The pumpkin may be hard, but it is natural/real.” As we can see, many of these comments echo the ideas of the tattoo artists and tattooees mentioned earlier in my talk. For many millenials, Thoreau exemplifies individualism, authenticity, anti-materialism, independence, and the virtues of being non-judgmental.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Besides the Maxham daguerreotype mentioned above, there are two other surviving portraits of Thoreau that were done during his lifetime. And each of them has been the inspiration for a host of Thoreau portrait tattoos. Here is a slide of Samuel Worcester Rowse’s 1854 crayon sketch of Thoreau [Slide 14], which was executed two years before the Maxham daguerreotype. Rowse gives us a somewhat more genteel (and much younger looking) view of Thoreau, who in 1854 was 37 years old in and had just published Walden.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Here’s a shoulder tattoo from about 2011 that is based on the Rowse crayon sketch [Slide 15]. It was featured in an article called “Tattoo Tuesday”, which appeared in USA TODAY on Feb. 1, 2011. Its owner is identified as only “Michael C.”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The third major portrait of Thoreau that was done during his lifetime is the ambrotype photograph by E. S. Dunshee, from 1861 [Slide 16]. And here is a tattoo version of the Dunshee ambrotype, done around 2009 by the tattoo artist “Shorty” of Creative Designs, a studio in Richmond, Virginia (and posted on fyeahtattoos.com on Dec. 8, 2009) [Slide 17]. In this case, we can see that the tattoo artist wants to be as faithful as possible to the original from which he is copying.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Tattoos of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond are also quite popular these days. Here’s the cabin as it looked in the earliest editions of Walden [Slide 18], and here it is in a recent tattoo [Slide 19] that is remarkably close to its source. And here (Slide 20) we have another tattoo inspired by the title page of Walden, but enhanced by a quote from “Holocene”, a Grammy-nominated indie folk song from 2011 by the band Bon Iver. The quote reads, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” Justin Vernon, front man of Bon Iver, once explained that the song “is about redemption and realizing that you’re worth something; that you’re special and not special at the same time.” Vernon, I recently discovered, has made a large number of young people aware of Thoreau in the last decade or so, by retreating to a hunting cabin, Thoreau-style, when he feels the need to re-evaluate his life and music.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Here are two views of Thoreau’s re-constructed cabin near Walden Pond (Slides 21-22). In the interior view, we can see that there are three chairs, two at the table and one at the writing desk. Thoreau is famous for writing, in Walden, that: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” This quote has become one of Thoreau’s most popular sayings among younger Americans of today, and it is emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee cups, travel mugs, boxer shorts, keepsake boxes. and even thongs (of all things!). And here we see the three chairs tattooed on someone’s arm.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 So what are we to make of this veritable wave of Thoreau tattoo art? As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, it’s too early in the process for me to have any grand theories about why this phenomenon is occurring. But it’s clearly part of the general loosening of the social taboos, in recent years, against tattoos. And it’s definitely part of the craze for “literary tattoos” which has developed among younger Americans in the last decade or so.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 If you google the phrase “Thoreau tattoos” on the web, you’ll come up with 378,000 “hits” in less than 2 seconds. Those of us who may be concerned that Thoreau is passing out of the national memory, need not worry. He’s alive and well! Thank you very much.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/friday-july-8/getting-inked-henry-david-thoreau-and-american-tattoo-art/