4.2.2008

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.

And if you dig this post, make sure to take a look at our other pop culture tattoo histories: Bands | Movies | Television | Corporate Logos

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?

Tattoo Pooh.

Tigger too.

What would Harry Potter tattoo?

Dumbledork.

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.

For more of our (Not So) Complete Tattoo Histories, please see our versions on: Bands | Movies | Television | Corporate logos

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74 comments:

  1. PhatChance says:

    Wee correction to make, Dickens was not in any way at all an American author. Of course, I assume you’re talking about Charles Dickens. Good article though.

  2. YuppiePunk World HQ says:

    Thank’s PhatChance. We’ve made the correction.

  3. Spanky says:

    I’m not sure they even tried to make that point, PhatChance.
    It says “icon(s) of modern literature” in relation to Dickens. Further, neither were Shakespeare or Tolkien. Not the point of this compiler, I don’t think.

  4. RateMyLeftArm.com says:

    Cool pics. Check out my site under “geek tats”.

  5. Pretty Lush says:

    Vonnegut and Adams tattoos – I’m all blissed out and giddy. I love this.

  6. http://www.floors4u.net/ says:

    wow, some good ones there

  7. KR Blog » Blog Archive » Links says:

    [...] More literary tattoos – probably the best collection I’ve seen on the ‘net. The captions are sassy, so you can skip them and just admire Shel Silverstein’s work if you prefer. (Thanks, Sarah.) This poem won’t fit in your pocket. (Thanks, Cari.) [...]

  8. mike scalise dot net › Monday Time Wasting 4/21 says:

    [...] YuppiePunk has an impressively comprehensive array of literary tattoos. [...]

  9. NadiaH says:

    I love the handmaid’s tale one. I may have to get a form of that myself in the future.

  10. nerdcore.info - geeky hip-hop news » Blog Archive » Nerd News in Brief says:

    [...] Hobbits and bunnies: Today’s episode of Nerd Ink is brought to you by Church Hates Tucker and lit geeks everywhere. It also makes me wonder why I haven’t gotten a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tat yet. [...]

  11. booktwo.org | Stop Press for April 21st says:

    [...] Literary Tattoos – Via Kenyon Review [...]

  12. tim says:

    These are awesome awesome awesome, but I wish you had linked to higher-res versions or original sources, since may are kind of illegible.

  13. Tina says:

    The tattoos of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are really makes me desire to get a tattoo from his book Outside Over There. It’s my favorite kid’s book.

    I also like the “So it goes.” tattoo, though I haven’t finished the book yet. In (somewhat) relation to that “So say we all” could be a cool tattoo.

    But I am vaguely needlephobic (on top of being diabetic), would have no idea where to get one and wouldn’t want to pay for something that expensive.

    Ah well. These are very awesome. I’ll just envy from afar.

  14. madeleine says:

    It’s funny, my husband is a tattooer, and as often as he does script/quote/text tattoos, he often finds himself covering them up.

    Since getting tattooed seems to have a quantitative quality to it, people always seem to come back around to getting an image instead of words.

    Not that I myself oppose a verbiage tattoo or two…I too love the power of words…its just an observation.

  15. Permanent Ink | books @ brian cassidy dot net says:

    [...] Nice assembly of literary-themed tattoos. [Via Bookslut]. [...]

  16. Pychy says:

    What, no muted posthorn? I thought that was like standard lit geek tattoo.

  17. Tattoo Ed says:

    Hey very cool article. I added your site in my tattoo board:

    http://www.fantasmforum.com

    Continue your great job !!!

  18. Danni says:

    OMG…the “so it goes” tattoo on the back of that girl’s neck….i’m now obsessed with it.
    That’s sssooooo amazing. I def want a tatoo now lol

  19. bmlouk says:

    Okay so i want to get a great poem or bible literary tat on the side of the foot….also that goes along with lossing someone. This I want to be for someone I’ve lost. If you know of anything or another website I can look at …let me know. Thx

  20. bmlouk says:

    Oooo…my email is bmlouk@yahoo.com …thx !!

  21. Literary Tattoos says:

    [...] A not so complete history of literary tattoos. (Link pinched from the blog of Jonathan Carroll. 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. [...]

  22. lisa says:

    i love the story of the velveteen rabbit. some of these are absolutely beautiful. :)

  23. Lenny says:

    I love that Alice in Wonderland tattoo! Do you happen to have more phot’s of it? Please post them at http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1525 because there are a lot of people who’d be interested in it!

  24. Dave says:

    Very impressive collection of some truly wonderful tattoos. Especially liked the Vonnegut ones.

  25. Links and Thinks » Tattoos for geeks of all stripes says:

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  26. Slim Fit Tee says:

    These are some crazy Tattoos, i want to see a t shirt tattoo.. a tatoo that looks like you are wearing a t shirt.

  27. Spencer says:

    Two friends got gonzo fist tattoos, only the dagger and opiom button were crimson and “Gonzo” war written in black fear and loathing letters

  28. Miss Curiosity says:

    I want to see more Hunter S. Thompson tattoos!!

    I’m seriously considering getting a chest piece of an albatross on my chest… Like in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

  29. Megan says:

    The middle Tengwar one actually translates to Alan Burrows. ;)

  30. leaf says:

    these tattoos made me cry, especially the ones about slaughterhouse five and the little prince, books that changed my life. i love when people are passionate about anything enough to put it on their bodies.

  31. ashley says:

    I’m happy to see my tattoo up there! That’s awesome!

  32. MP says:

    Wow, I’m so glad I found this site. I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo for a long time now, but I haven’t really made my mind up on a design. Since I love books so much, it might be a great idea for me to get a line of one of my favorite books… I’ll be on the lookout.

  33. Everything You Know About English Is Wrong » I don’t want to know how people bookmark these things says:

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  34. Dana says:

    I have a literary tattoo I’d love to share… (my entire spine is a stack of books, a library ladder and a little girl) but I can’t seem to access your ‘contact’ information. If you’d like the picture, please e-mail me… The tattoo was done by Tom Berg out of SoCal tattoo (Prison Break/Red Dragon fame and an amazing, innovative artist).
    Great site, thanks!!!

  35. Tattoo you… « Peedeel’s Blog says:

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  36. Mike says:

    Tattoos are so lame.

  37. I Love BOOKS! A Study in Literary Tattoos… | Cherrybombed says:

    [...] surprisingly, this tattoo was not on the list of the Best Literary Tattoo’s. But props to Chuck Palahniuk for making this rather sad coveted “a tattoo really is [...]

  38. Ross says:

    I’ve got “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt” from slaughterhouse five around my elbow:

    http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c211/punkberry/tattoo1.jpg

    Also, I’m getting a B-25 (the planes flown in catch-22) tattooed on my upperarm in the next month. I’ll send that along once i get it done + heals! :)

  39. April says:

    I am inspired.

  40. Bookish Tattoo’s « Kimbooktu.com says:

    [...] you want to see more, check out this post on bookish (literary) tattoo’s. Or even this entire website about them.   Leave a [...]

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  42. Got Ink? « Daily News says:

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  44. qtr says:

    You guys aren’t updating :/

  45. lisa says:

    LMFAO! the always one….
    yeah.. i “always” wanted the brand name of my favourite feminine PADS on my wrist. lmao!…

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  47. Ekoe yen says:

    nice but carnal Romans 10:9

  48. Chris says:

    I don’t think its right to call Winnie the Pooh and Tigger tattoos ‘literary’ I think thats giving way too much credit to the sort of people who get those tattoos

  49. boopity says:

    The middle curious george tattoo is a parody of a Norman Rockwell painting.
    http://www.postersguide.com/posters/norman-rockwell-triple-self-portrait-311841.html

  50. Emery says:

    I got the little prince flying away with the birds on my shoulder last year. it turned out really great and it means a lot to me. its nice to see it done another way on this website.

  51. Free for All Friday , vol. 2 no. 15 | Sarah Et Cetera says:

    [...] A lot of pictures of, and some discussion about, literary tattoos. Looks like many of them come from Contrariwise, or at least are featured in both places. Of my two tattoos (got number two while I wasn’t blogging there for a while), one is a movie quote. Is that considered literary? [...]

  52. Sarah says:

    I love these! I actually have a muted post horn on my ankle.
    I’ll be visiting this website more often!

  53. Exchange Rate says:

    Thoreau was a great writer and thinker! I put together a pamphlet version of Civil Disobedience,”Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does any one think that justice or God awaits [Judge] Mr. Loring’s decision? “

  54. Brian Carpenter says:

    So so stoked to see Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of being a wallflower up here. Amazing book and one of my all time modern favorites

  55. Stone Cladding Guy says:

    Very inspiring stuff, i’m getting some ink done soon, and this is a great reference point. Cheers for the post.

  56. insulated structural panels says:

    Good to see some people doing more than the normal trash people put on their bodies. Relationships end but a good book will be forever printed on your mind (and body too!)

  57. under floor insulation says:

    I love the “Where the Wild things are” tattoo’s. I’m giving some serious thought to at least on on my calf?

  58. antenna installation says:

    Sweet tatts, don’t know if i’m into this literary stuff though?

  59. if you like it then you shoulda put ink on it says:

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  68. Brittany says:

    Can anyone please tell me if they know the name of the font for the “come windless invader i am a carnival of stars a poem of blood” tattoo?

    Thank you!

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  73. Renee Reindeau says:

    Sharing some thing is better than keeping up-to our self, thus the YouTube video that is posted at this time I am going to share by means of my relatives and colleagues.

    PoIuYt

  74. Chris says:

    So many hideous cliches here. Imagine being a 37-year-old with a giant LIttle Prince tattoo splayed over your beer belly — it’s so twee I want to barf.