What I Think about Tattoos

On occasion I think about what kind of tattoo to get . . . if only I were a tattoo person. IMG_3354I rather like them, actually. Especially the really colorful sleeves that some people are bold enough to wear.* Is that the proper lingo? Do people wear tattoos? See, I’m not even really sure how to talk about it. Nonetheless, I find them fascinating on some level, and periodically I kind of want one.

The reality, however, is that there’s a disconnect between my notions about tattoos and my notions about myself, and it seems to be rooted in this: tattoos are permanent, and I am not. I don’t simply mean that I am mortal (in case you wondered); I mean that I am forever changing. In my forty earthbound years, I feel like I’ve been at least ten different people. My wife probably sometimes wonders who she married. And I’m not bold enough to say that I won’t be a couple more people before it’s all over. I just hope that a constant enough thread ties together all the rambling parts, so that my loved ones can recognize me.

On a recent beach trip, standing on our fourteenth-floor balcony, I couldn’t resist the notion of impermanence. It radiated from every rippling color field, the waves ever trudging landward–rank upon endless rank of swelling and ebbing and lapping seawater, mocking our human vainglory, our desperation to hold onto anything. It was in the air: laughter, inaudible and implied–even seen–in the spiraling bullet dives of terns; the aloofness of brown pelicans, gliding in groups or bobbing in solitude just beyond the breakers; the sand itself, lying dumb on the damp declination, yielding itself to the tide’s relentlessness.

It’s as if all of nature–the ocean, the beach, the birds, the breeze–knows this secret at which we humans can only guess. It goes about its business in full knowledge, and it pities us, watching from the shallows and deeps while we erect temples of impermanence. It was born into searchlessness, while we, grasping, were born into questions, with the consciousnesses of gods but the bodies of beasts, pulled in two directions always.

Art is our brush with permanence, the closest that we come in this life. It’s why we know the name Achilles, 3,000 years after it was first spoken. Because something of the immortal hides in Art–some distillation of the permanent; an echo of the angelic realm, sounding in perpetuity, as though it had a form and could be touched.

Perhaps a tattoo, in being art drawn on the skin, is a way that we can approach earthly permanence. Yet this feels ultimately futile, too, for even the name Achilles will pass some day. Earthly permanence is simply not one of our options (though we may crave it). It makes far more sense to get one merely because you like it, regardless of permanence or impermanence–that’s reason enough. After all, I do love looking at the tattoos of others–their colors, their details, their artistry. But for some reason, when it comes to my own skin, I just can’t seem to do it. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I become one of the other two people I mentioned earlier.

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*Liza Nordqvist is a tattoo artist in Gothenburg, Sweden. I discovered her work on Instagram (@filthyswede) and fell in love with her colors and imagery. You should visit her Instagram page!

Seeing Is Being

     As an idealistic undergraduate student, some twenty years ago, I held capital-r Romantic ideas about nature. I identified with William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their spiritual, transcendental writings; I took walks in the woods, believing humankind to have some kind of symbiotic relationship with the earth. Stopping short of worshiping nature, it nevertheless seemed that there was something spiritual at the back of it. There was something that my soul needed, embodied in the dusk: orange light sifted through bare branches; mystery descending in the cool air; the way that near-darkness teases the eyes. Dusk was (and is) the most magical time.

CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.
CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.

     I still feel those sensations, but now something else has settled into my bones, a feeling unshakable: nature does not need us. Nature accommodates us, but she doesn’t need us. If a plague rubbed us all out of existence, she would go on. In other words, nature is indifferent to us. Sure, certain plants benefit from our care; certain animal populations thrive because of conservation efforts. But on the whole, nature was fine before we got here and she’ll be fine when we’re gone.* And haven’t I always suspected this? Haven’t I always known that this affection only traveled one way?

Yet I won’t end on that dreary note. A greater realization has replaced that earlier longing. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men to put man into possession of his own earth.” If you substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘architecture,’ then you’ll begin to get what I’m driving at. Taking ownership, i.e., creating order, i.e., creating meaning, or what Wright calls “the triumph of the imagination,” is a way that we humans excel. (We also excel at creating chaos, but that is not what this post is about.)

The way that this ties to nature lies in the way we look at nature. It’s the very thing that I didn’t realize I was doing as an undergrad: I was seeing in nature what I needed to see. In a world that can be hostile to the imagination, and that values efficiency,productivity, and economy over art, I needed mystery and beauty. And I still do. Nature, with all her forms and textures and colors–her caprices, excesses, and austerity–is the perfect canvas on which to project these needs.

     So this is what we do, I’m convinced. We project onto things, and by projecting, we create meaning. We have this ability to see what we need to see. And this faculty of ours is a glorious gift. It helps to smooth abrasions and to intensify that which already shines. It swells our capacity for hope, and it renders us more humane. It is an overflow of the very consciousness within, a flicker of the divine, and we would do well to embrace it. We can be what we choose to see.
*Photo of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia courtesy of Grant Dixon Photography (http://www.grantdixonphotography.com.au/). Check out his stellar work!

Today, I Became a Member

Today, I put my money where my mouth is, or I bit the bullet, or I took the plunge, or I [insert over-worn idiom]: I bought a year-long membership to Nashville’s high-profile, post-office-turned-gallery Frist Center for the Visual Arts. And it feels right. Of all the things I could support, this is a thing that makes sense–for me, I mean. This is something, culturally-speaking, worth investing in. The time was right. Of course, getting the student discount didn’t hurt. But I want to believe that I’ll continue my support beyond grad school, beyond the student discount.

After purchase of said membership, I spent two-and-a-half hours wandering through the current headlining show, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting. Here are some notes scrawled with a gallery pencil:

–“Being in the presence of old paintings by old masters takes me out of myself. It doesn’t matter how unmodern the work may be–when I lean in to see the gradations of fleshy pink used to describe a man’s cheekbone or the fragility of his fatigued eyes, I am transported. It happened in front of a routine portrait (the third Duke of Alba, 1628), no doubt cranked out tediously and for a healthy sum, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is it about paint that transcends the usual? Cameras may master natural color, but paint transforms the natural into the spiritual.”

–“I rounded a corner and was awestruck by a painting that had to be at least ten feet tall, positioned for maximum effect, of a man on horseback. I got lost in it, sketching it very hastily. In my sketch, the rider appears to wear a mask, and the horse has a kangaroo’s head–Guy Fawkes in the Australian outback.”

–“The feeling of standing before something 2,400 years old–the two busts: “Head of Bacchus” and “Head of a Female Divinity.””

–“Statues that seem to breathe.”

–“A first edition of Don Quixote (1605).”

I recorded these impressions in the order that I had them. The three short ones seem random, but I wanted to stay true to my format. Think of them as an ongoing narrative, often broken but always meaningful. Most of the work in the show was from the 16th century-forward, so you can imagine my surprise at suddenly standing before two ancient Roman sculptures and all the eerie feelings of passing-time that such a position stirs, staring at the head of the god of wine and revelry and knowing that not only did ancient hands form this piece but that people probably worshiped it–real breathing, bleeding human beings, like you and me! Eerie, indeed. And certain statues were so lifelike that I would be remiss to spend an evening alone with them–too many horror movies, I suppose. But then there’s the other side of that: amazement at the craftsmanship of the sculptor, to imbue a hunk of marble with such life.

As I drove away, I began to wonder why these guardians of aristocratic “treasures” saw fit to send their art collection around the world, traveling from palaces in Spain to humble Nashville, Tennessee. Was it a desperate effort to shore up revenue for a dying, or dead, social class? Life support for an outmoded hierarchical system? As skillful and admirable as the work is, it is mostly made up of portraits of aristocracy, having little relevance for the common person. Did I benefit from seeing this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. At my most pessimistic, I see the collection as one large reminder that I am not “to the manner born,” wandering among their gaudy, gold-gilt furniture, upholstered with French tapestry fabric. But the optimistic side of myself sees history and the artistic effort of hardworking, industrious painters and sculptors. My feelings about this show are conflicted even now: there is spectacle, but is there substance?

Note: the Frist allows no photography, not even cellphone shots without flash–even the Met allows flash-free photography! I don’t like this but I abide by it. So that’s why there are no photos of the actual show. Only my crude sketch and a couple of shots of the printed program.