On Literary Tattoos

Amanda Nelson

Staff Writer

Amanda Nelson is an Executive Director of Book Riot. She lives in Richmond, VA.

Literary tattoos are strange. They brand you as a lover of this specific kind of art, of these specific words, of this specific work. If your tattoos are visible, it becomes easy for strangers to judge you (which happens with any tattoo, not just bookish ones). You’ll get stopped by people on the street so they can “read you”- an experience that I suspect is a trial for most avid readers, who tend to be introspective and not prone to social interaction. For me, they’re also a caution sign to new people entering my life: this is who I am- a person who gets Fitzgerald’s lines permanently etched into my skin.

My bookish ink consists of a combination of poetry, book covers, Bible verses, and quotes. I have Daniel 12:3 and John 1:5 sprinkled in various spots. I have the cover of The Early Ayn Rand on my left arm- not because I’m a fan of her work now, but because I was as a young teenager and I wanted to somehow catalogue my youthful flirtation with what I now consider to be a dangerous philosophy.

My most ambitious literary tattoo is still a work in progress. It’s a large, all-text back piece. When finished, it will be a torso-long poem that I am crafting out of my favorite lines from literature. So far, I have just two lines (having babies can put a damper in your ink-getting, both financially and time-wise). It currently reads: “in secret, between the shadow and the soul/ enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The first line is from Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII” (my husband has the first part of the line on his arm), and the second is from The Great Gatsby.

For some inexplicable reason, the things that have changed me most have not been the people in my life, or my circumstances. Books are the things that change me most- they have made me more understanding, more compassionate, more liberal, hopeful, sure of my personal faith. Other people’s THING may be music, paintings, climbing mountains, whatever. I have chosen to map this literary journey on my skin. When I’m old and wrinkly and unreadable, I’ll still know what’s written there. I’ll be able to remember when I was 15 and foolishly in love with John Galt. I’ll remember the ridiculous and deep love I felt (and still feel) for my husband during the earliest years of our marriage. I’ll remember how, in my mid 20s, I felt both part of this world and completely an outsider. My books have articulated these impressions in ways I never could myself. My bookish tattoos are not about appearing a certain way to the world, or about being part of a subculture. They’re about defining myself and, when that self has unavoidably changed, remembering.

What about you- do you have any literary ink? What are your motivations for getting it (or not getting it, if that’s the case)? Also, if you’re looking for inspiration, check out some of my favorite literary tattoo resources: Contrariwise and The Word Made Flesh.