Tattoos are weird, for any number of reasons. For one thing, most black inks are made from bone charcoal, meaning you’re literally trapping dead animals beneath your skin for aesthetic reasons. For another, even though you (maybe) spent a lot of time considering your tattoo, and even though you went through a lot of pain to get it done, once the tattoo is healed, it’s really easy to forget it’s there.
Which is why I was reminded of one of my own tattoos when I listened to the most recent episode of The Allusionist. If you’re not already aware, The Allusionist is a podcast about language, usually looking at strange and interesting uses of language, the history of words, as well as detailing people’s personal stories about words and their uses. Basically, if you’re a word-nerd you’ll probably enjoy it.
Episode 85 is about Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project, in which Jackson put out a call to find people who would be willing to get a word tattooed on their body. The words came from a story she had written, and the only way to read the story is to get a part of it tattooed on your body (I have a copy of it buried deep in a box of old stuff). There’s more to it than that, but all the main points are covered in the podcast. Either go listen, or see the guidelines and FAQ at Shelley Jackson’s website.
I heard about the project in an Experimental Fictions class at Griffith University. Inez Baranay was running the class, and she told us about the project because it was nothing if not an example of experimental fiction. I was intrigued. At that point I had 2 or 3 tattoos already, and absolutely loved the idea of taking part. How many people could say they were involved in something so strange? How many people would have a story like that for when people asked them about their tattoo? (Well, 2,095, as it turns out).
I reached out to Shelley Jackson, went through the various steps required, and went and got my word tattooed on my wrist. When I showed it to Inez, she was kind of freaked out, from memory. When she told us about the project, she apparently didn’t think any of her students were going to go out and actually get tattooed.
Part of the process of having a word assigned to you is that you don’t have any say over the word that you’re given. Once you receive your word, you can elect not to have it tattooed on you, but you can’t apply for a different word. While I was waiting for the word, I thought that if I didn’t like it, I could simply get it tattooed somewhere that no one would see it, but if I did like it, I always planned to have it placed on my wrist.
The word I received: paper.”
Still now I can hardly believe it. I was studying creative writing at the time, and all I wanted was to be a writer, and the word I received through sheer chance is paper.”
It seemed like an omen then, and honestly, looking back, it still feels like one. Maybe moreso, now that I’m here at this early but very exciting stage of my career as an author.
Tattoos are weird, for any number of reasons. Sometimes they seem like magic.