A (Not So) Complete History of Literary Tattoos
Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in Germany in 1439. Samuel O’Reilly invented the modern tattoo machine in 1891. And sometime around the turn of the century the first literary tattoo was born. Whether nostalgic for the characters from a favorite children’s book or as a tribute to a favorite writer’s words, the book tattoo is a classy way to go. The lowbrow nature of the tattoo juxtaposes nicely against the highbrow art of the book. Here now, a look at some of its many forms.
The aforementioned Guttenberg’s most famous work was the Guttenberg Bible. It was so major it signaled the beginning of its own age — the Age of the Printed Book. It makes sense then that folks would be inclined to tattoo their bodies with their favorite passages.
Scripture as fuck art. Nice.
Whether a line from “Hamlet,” his 18th sonnet, or Megan Fox’s favorite passage from “King Lear,” you can’t go wrong with something from Sir Billy Shakespeare.
Plath, Dickens, Frost, Kerouac — all icons of modern literature, and all great-looking tattoos.
Nostalgia for youth is a strong emotion, thus the proliferation of tattoos of characters from classic kid’s books. Here are a couple of Curious George.
Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” is timeless, which is good, since these suckers don’t wash off.
Lewis Carroll’s “Alice and Wonderland” and Margery Williams’ “Velveteen Rabbit” have been enjoyed by children for decades. And the bodies of adults for almost as long.
“The Little Prince” by Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupéry isn’t just profound, it’s one of the 50 best-selling books of all-time.
When Max is punished for making mischief and sent to his room without dinner, he puts on a wolf costume and goes to “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Is that a Lorax on your bicep or are you just happy to see me?
What would Harry Potter tattoo?
Elvish writing from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is a popular literary tattoo. The middle one translates to: “Never been laid.”
These guys are the lords of the Rings tattoos.
These pay tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” The phrase “So it goes” is repeated throughout the book whenever death is mentioned, while the other phrase appears on a tombstone.
Here we see a collection of tattoos that pay tribute to sci-fi’s finest — Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell.
These two are members of the cult that is “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”
Most writers, even the most successful, can live an anonymous life. Any idea who these two are? That’s Henry David Thoreau on the left, William Faulkner on the right.
When in doubt, tattoo the cover of your favorite book. The outside two are from Chuck Palahniuk books, while the center image is a classic cover of “Catcher in the Rye.”
Update: Hats off to our readers for submitting a few of their own. The top tat is from Jessica, whose butt recently acquired an “Alice in Wonderland” tattoo. And the bottom pair came from Dominic, both inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. The top one reads “Nevermore,” an ode to Poe’s most famous poem. “And the unfinished Raven wings to go with it,” he wrote.
And they just keep on coming! The top tattoo is from Dayton in Reno, NV who writes: “I have a literary tattoo to add you your collection. It’s from one of my all time favorite novels “The Handmaids Tale” by Margret Atwood. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” an old and bastardized form of Latin.” And Aleia wrote to say: “I recently got a “Watership Down” (Richard Adams) tattoo, a character from the film adaptation. The character’s El-ahrairah or The Prince of a Thousand Enemies. He will eventually be running on “grass” consisting of Tool lyrics.” Thanks guys, and please keep ‘em coming.
More, more, more reader tats! Kellan’s is on top. “It’s a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson,” he writes. Gonzo, indeed. The middle one comes from Janet, who loves Harry Potter, though not exactly the way her tattoo came out. “It’s going to be edited,” she says. “Because I dislike the text. It looks like a USDA stamp.” And Emily sent us her Vonnegut tattoo, which she got when she turned 18. It’s a quote from “Breakfast of Champions.” “I’d maybe pick a different font now,” she writes, “But I wasn’t really thinking. I’ll fix it up one day.”
Kristin sent us the tattoo on the left, from her inner right bicep, which was inspired by John Alcorn’s illustration of a dust jacket from “Books!” by Murray McCain. The original jacket accompanies it. Dana emailed us a shot of her “Velveteen Rabbit” tattoo to say, “This is the ‘after he became real’ tattoo from my right hip. The ‘before’ will be on my left as soon as something signifigant enough to memorialize happens to me.”
Adam sent in the top pic of his “Slaughterhouse 5″ tat from his right shoulder. The “Who is John Galt?” quote is from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” and belongs to Christine. On the bottom is Amy’s tattoo of a Mark Twain quote from his book “Life on the Mississippi.” Her reason for getting it? “Sometimes I get overly anxious about life,” she said. “And I punish myself for things that happened in the past. This makes me feel better.”
These two are both worn by women. The top one is from the coming of age tale “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky and is inked across Tara’s chest. The below is a poem by Sonia Sanchez and lives on the left arm of Amanda, who says, “It’s my third tattoo and the first literary tat. I got it to represent my interest in poetry and as a reminder to stay strong. I work in the public schools as a speech therapist and I need to wear long sleeves. But it’s worth it.”
These two Harry Potter-inspired tattoos belong to Laura, who’s got the Potter logo on her hip and the single word “Always” in white ink on her wrist. Why “Always?” Laura says: “It is the single word answer Snape gives to Dumbledore when he asks him if he still loves Lily after all this time.”
On the left is a beautiful backpiece that reader Dana got from Tom Berg at SoCal Tattoo in San Pedro. It took 12 hours over the course of four sessions to complete. The middle tattoo belongs to Kara and comes from the Terry Pratchett “Discworld” series. Kara says, “It’s the death of rats, SQUEAK and his companion Quoth the raven. It took three painful sittings to get this done.” She says she’s hoping to get Terry Pratchett’s signature tattooed alongside it. And the image on the right is the name of one of Lord Byron’s most famous poems, as adorned on the arm of reader Tania. Byron was one of the leading figures of Romanticism.
Amy has the tattoo on the left of Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird” on her ribcage. Ouch. And Ross, the owner of the “Slaughterhouse Five” elbow tattoo on the right says, “I’m also getting a B-25 (the U.S. Air Force plane from Heller’s “Catch-22″) tattooed on me in about a month.”
Got a book tattoo of your own? Send it to us.