David Shields’ new book, Other People is an intellectually thrilling and emotionally wrenching investigation of otherness: the need for one person to understand another person completely, the impossibility of any such absolute knowing, and the erotics of this separation.
Can one person know another person? How do we live through other people? Is it possible to fill the gap between people? If not, can art fill that gap? Grappling with these questions, David Shields gives us a book that is something of a revelation: seventy-plus essays, written over the last thirty-five years, reconceived and recombined to form neither a miscellany nor a memoir but a sustained meditation on otherness. The book is divided into five sections: Men, Women, Athletes, Performers, Alter Egos. Whether he is writing about sexual desire or information sickness, George W. Bush or Kurt Cobain, women’s eyeglasses or Greek tragedy, Howard Cosell or Bill Murray, the comedy of high school journalism or the agony of first love, Shields’s sustained, piercing focus is on the multiplicity of perspectives informing any situation, on the irreducible log jam of human information, and on the possibilities, and impossibilities, for human connection.
We’re extremely excited to present a chapter of the book, 44 Tattoos.
A tattoo is ink stored in scar tissue.
Archaeologists believe, based on marks they’ve seen on mummies, that human beings had tattoos as early as 4000 to 2000 bce in Egypt. Around the same time or perhaps even earlier, tattooing developed in Japan and spread from there to Myanmar.
In 1998, thirty-five percent of NBA players had tattoos. Now, well over eighty percent have tattoos. Twenty percent of American adults have tattoos.
Asked by Playboy what he’d like people to know, NBA star Allen Iverson, now retired, said, “Tell them not to believe what they read or hear. Tell them to read my body. I wear my story every day, man.” At the very end of the interview, Iverson said, “The minister at [his close friend] Rah’s funeral said to look at your life as a book and stop wasting pages complaining, worrying, and gossiping. That’s some deep shit right there.”
In “contact” sports, such as basketball or football, there’s a much higher percentage of tattooed players than in more “cerebral” sports, such as baseball, golf, or tennis.
While watching a basketball game on TV, Dakkan Abbe, founder of Fifty Rubies Productions, came up with the idea of NBA players selling space on their bodies to plug products with temporary tattoos. Abbe wanted someone with “bad boy” appeal, so he approached Rasheed Wallace, who once set an NBA record for the most technical fouls in a season, about a candy-bar tattoo. Wallace’s agent, Bill Strickland, said there’s “nothing in any basic agreement [between the players’ association and the league] that forbids advertising on the human body.” An NBA spokesman said, “We don’t allow commercial advertising on our uniforms, our coaches, or our playing floors, so there’s no reason to think we’ll allow it on our players.” Abbe said, “The NBA is defining tattoos as part of the players’ uniforms, but a player’s skin is not part of his uniform. I find it offensive that the league would not allow something on someone’s skin. Whenever the topic of tattoos comes up, the league says things like, ‘We prefer if players didn’t have tattoos.’ The very nature of tattoos is disturbing to the NBA. The league is a little bit out of touch with the players and fans. Tattoos are a very explicit example of that. They just don’t understand what tattoos are about.” Strickland said, “Being a lawyer, I thought it presented some interesting free speech issues,” but he finally decided not to press the case. Stephon Marbury, who used to play in the NBA and now plays for the Beijing Ducks, asked if he’d wear a tattoo advertisement, said, “Depends on how much money they’d pay. If they’re paying the right money: yeah.” Selling, say, his left shoulder to a shoe company, would Marbury be losing control over his body or exerting control over capitalism?
In the Tattoo magazine supplement to the New Orleans tattoo convention, an inordinately buxom but somehow slightly demure-looking blonde is on the cover, wearing a sailor hat, fishnet stockings, a short red skirt, white gloves, a bra top, and a couple of tattoos. Behind her in black shadow is a dark-haired woman dressed in a leopard costume. The function of the blonde’s tattoo is to portray her in the process of being transfigured from sailor girl to jungle cat and back again (and to portray as well the Eros of this tension between civilization and savagery; “Eros,” as Anne Carson says, “is a verb”).
“As for the primitive, I hark back to it because we are still very primitive. How many thousands of years of culture, think you, have rubbed and polished at our raw edges? Probably one; at the best, no more than two. And that takes us back to screaming savagery, when, gross of body and deed, we drank blood from the skulls of our enemies and hailed as highest paradise the orgies and carnage of Valhalla.”—Jack London
According to a third-century account of the Scythians’ defeat of the Thracians, Scythians tattooed symbols of defeat upon Thracian men, but as a way of turning “the stamp of violence and shame into beautiful ornaments,” Thracian women covered the rest of their bodies with tattoos.
On my thirtieth birthday, under my then girlfriend’s influence, I got my left ear pierced and bought a diamond earring. I wore various earrings over the next ten years, but wearing an earring never really worked for me, and on my fortieth birthday, under the influence of Natalie, who thought it made me look like a pirate, I took out the ear- ring I was then wearing—a gold hoop—and haven’t worn an earring since. Earrings forced me to confront the nature of my style, or lack of style. I’m certainly not macho enough to wear an earring as if I were a tough guy, but neither am I effeminate enough to wear an earring in my right ear as if I were maybe gay-in-training. Instead, I’m just me, muddling through in the middle, and the earring forced me, over time, to see this, acknowledge it, and respond to it.
Marcus Camby’s first name is tattooed on his arm; Kirby Puckett, who died of a stroke in 2006, also had his first name tattooed on his arm. Scottie Pippen has small tattoos on his biceps and legs. Michael Jordan has a horseshoe-shaped fraternity tattoo. Dennis Rodman’s tattoos include a Harley, a shark, a cross (the loop of which encircles his pierced navel), and a photo of his daughter. Mike Tyson has tattoos of Che Guevara on his abdomen, Mao on his right upper arm, Arthur Ashe on his left shoulder, and a New Zealand Maori tribal design on the left side of his face. Shaquille O’Neal has a Super- man tattoo on his left shoulder. Ben Wallace has a tattoo of the Big Ben clock tower on his right bicep, with basketballs for clock faces; he also has two tattoos of Taz, the Tasmanian devil from Looney Tunes.
“Human barcodes are hip,” declared the Wall Street Journal, that arbiter of hip. “Heavy-metal band Slipknot has a barcode logo, with the stripes emblazoned across their prison-jumpsuit outfits. Barcode tattoos are also big, says New York tattoo tycoon Carlo Fodera.”
Who owns these words?
In Galatians 6:17, Saint Paul says, “From this time onward let no one trouble me; for, as for me, I bear, branded on my body, the scars of Jesus as my Master.”
“Since a tattoo to certain levels of society is the mark of a thug, it becomes also the sign of inarticulate revolt, often producing its only possible result: violence.”—Amy Krakow
In order to demonstrate their corporate loyalty, many Nike employees wear on their leg a tattoo of a swoosh.
The Greek philosopher Bion of Borysthenes (circa 300 bce) described the brutally tattooed face of his father, a former slave, as “a narrative of his master’s harshness.”
Philadelphia 76ers guard Jason Richardson says, “If you’re a good basketball player, you’ve got to have some tattoos to go with the pack- age. Basketball players have tattoos; that’s the way it is. It’s a way of showing who I am.”
Asked what his tattoos mean, Iverson replied, “I got cru thik in four places—that’s my crew, that’s what we call ourselves, me and the guys I grew up with, the guys I’m loyal to. I got my kids’ names, Tiaura and Deuce [Allen II], ’cause they’re everything to me. I got my wife’s name, Tawanna, on my stomach. A set of praying hands between my grandma’s initials—she died when I was real young—and my mom’s initials, Ethel Ann Iverson. I put shit on my body that means some- thing to me. Here, on my left shoulder, I got a cross of daggers knitted together that says only the strong survive, because that’s the one true thing I’ve learned in this life. On the other arm, I got a soldier’s head. I feel like my life has been a war and I’m a soldier in it. Here, on my left forearm, it says nbn—for ‘Newport Bad News.’ That’s what we call our hometown of Newport News, Virginia, because a lot of bad shit happens there. On the other arm, I got the Chinese symbol for respect, because I feel that where I come from deserves respect—being from there, surviving from there, and staying true to everybody back there. I got one that says fear no one, a screaming skull with a red line through it—’cause you’ll never catch me looking scared.”
Aaron McKie, a former NBA player who is now an assistant coach at Temple University, said, “A lot of guys get tattoos because they think they look nice and sexy wearing them, but I don’t need them. One reason is because of my old college coach, John Chaney. He didn’t allow players to wear tattoos or earrings or stuff like that. The other reason is because I guess I’m old-fashioned. I don’t see any good reason to pierce or paint my body. I’m comfortable with my natural look.”
“The publication of International Archives of Body Techniques would be of truly international benefit, providing an inventory of all the possibilities of the human body and of the methods of apprenticeship and training employed to build up each technique, for there is not one human group in the world that would not make an original contribution to such an enterprise. It would also be a project eminently well fitted to counteracting racial prejudices, since it would contradict the racialist conceptions which try to make out that man is a product of his body, by demonstrating that it is the other way around: man has, at all times and in all places, been able to turn his body into a product of his techniques and his representations.”—Claude Lévi-Strauss
What Lévi-Strauss means, I think, is this: Before we started, she said she needed to tell me something. She had herpes. Madly in love with her witchy bitchiness, I found occasional enforced celibacy insanely erotic, the way a chastity belt glamorizes what it locks out. We wound up living together, and as we fell out of love with each other, her herpes became a debate point between us. She suggested that we just get married, and then if I got it, I got it, and who would care? I suggested she at least explore some of the possibilities of which modern medicine avails us. For a multitude of reasons, the two of us didn’t belong together, but what interests me now is what, for a lack of a better term, a free-floating signifier the virus was. When I was in love with her, it eroticized her. When I wasn’t, it repelled me. The body has no meanings. We bring meanings to it.
Ex–NFL fullback Brock Olivo, who has only one tattoo—an Italian flag, on his back, to honor his ancestry—said, “That’s my last tattoo. No more. I don’t want to scare my kids or affect things in the business world by having all kinds of crazy stuff on me.”
According to Rolling Stone, Paul Booth is “the tattoo artist of choice for rock stars who love death, perversion, and torture.” His “black-and-gray tattoos of blasphemous violence echo the same nihilist madness of the metalheads he inks,” musicians from Slip- knot, Mudvayne, Slayer, Pantera, and Soulfly. His East Village shop features cobwebs, rusty meat hooks, a moose head, a mummified cat, medieval torture devices, a gynecologist’s black leather chair with sil- ver stirrups, a human skull given to him by a Swedish gravedigger, a note from a customer written in blood. His arms are covered in tattoos, his face is studded with silver loops, and he’s enormously fat. Some of his most popular tattoos are “weeping demons, decapitated Christ figures, transvestite nuns severing their own genitals, cascading waves of melting skulls, muscled werewolves raping bare-chested women.” He has a two-year waiting list. His clients—including the “hardcore-metal elite”—come to him “because they share his frustration and rage, his feelings of anger and alienation. He understands those emotions and brings them to the surface with his needle. His gift lies in transforming the dark side of his clients—their hurt, their torments—into flesh.” Evan Seinfeld, the bassist for Biohazard, says, “We’re all trying to release our negative energy, our frustration with the world. Through our art and our music, we’re getting it all out.” Shawn Crahan of Slipknot says, “I have a lot of dark ideas in my head. Paul develops these same emotions in very powerful pieces.” Booth says, “If I woke up one day and became happy, I probably wouldn’t tattoo anymore, because I wouldn’t see a need to do it. I would lose my art if I became happy.”
“In Samoa there is a legend that tattooing was introduced there by the goddesses of tattooing. They swam to Samoa from Fiji, singing on the way their divine message, ‘Tattoo the women but not the men.’ With constant repetition the message became confused and twisted. When the goddesses finally arrived on the Samoan shore, they found themselves singing just the reverse, and so, says the legend, the tattoo became the undeserved prerogative of the men and not the women.”—Albert Parry
Who owns these paragraphs?
Revelation 17:5 says of the Scarlet Woman, “And upon her forehead was a name written, mystery, babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.”
Former NBA player Jud Buechler said that Michael Jordan wanted “me and Steve Kerr [Jordan’s then teammates, both of whom are white] to get tattoos” after the Bulls won their fourth championship in 1996. “I thought about it but didn’t do it because I knew my mom, wife, and mother-in-law would kill me.”
“The human body is always treated as an image of society.”—Mary Douglas
“By the early seventeenth century [in Japan], a generally recognized codification of tattoo marks was widely used to identify criminals and outcasts. Outcasts were tattooed on the arms: A cross might be tattooed on the inner forearm, or a straight line on the outside of the forearm or on the upper arm. Criminals were marked with a variety of symbols that designated the places where the crimes were commit- ted. In one region, the pictograph for ‘dog’ was tattooed on the criminal’s forehead. Other marks included such patterns as bars, crosses, double lines, and circles on the face and arms. Tattooing was reserved for those who had committed serious crimes, and individuals bearing tattoo marks were ostracized by their families and denied all participation in the life of the community. For the Japanese, who valued family membership and social position above all things, tattooing was a particularly severe and terrible form of punishment. By the end of the seventeenth century, penal tattooing had been largely replaced by other forms of punishment. One reason for this is said to be that at about that time decorative tattooing became popular, and criminals covered their penal tattoos with larger decorative patterns. This is also thought to be the historical origin of the association of tattooing with organized crime in Japan. In spite of efforts by the government to sup- press it, tattooing continued to flourish among firemen, laborers, and others at the lower end of the social scale. It was particularly favored by gangs of itinerant gamblers called Yakuza. Members of these gangs were recruited from the underworld of outlaws, penniless peasants, laborers, and misfits who migrated to Edo in the hope of improving their lot. Although the Yakuza engaged in a variety of semi-legal and illegal activities, they saw themselves as champions of the common people and adhered to a strict code of honor that specifically prohibited crimes against people, such as rape and theft. Like Samurai, they prided themselves on being able to endure pain and privation without flinching. And when loyalty required it, they were willing to sacrifice themselves by facing imprisonment or death to protect the gang. The Yakuza expressed these ideals in tattooing: because it was painful, it was proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them forever outlaws.”—Steve Gilbert
“You put a tattoo on yourself with the knowledge that this body is yours to have and enjoy while you’re here. You have fun with it, and nobody else can control (supposedly) what you do with it. That’s why tattooing is such a big thing in prison: It’s an expression of freedom—one of the only expressions of freedom there. They can lock you down, control everything, but ‘I’ve got my mind, and I can tattoo my body, alter it my way as an act of personal will.’”—Don Ed Hardy
Didn’t American slave owners brand slaves so they could be identified, like cattle? I’ve always thought there was a connection between the gold jewelry worn by rap artists and the chains of slavery— transformation of bondage into gold, escape from slavery, but not quite. . . .
During the early Roman Empire, slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words tax paid. Words, acronyms, sentences, and doggerel were inscribed on the bodies of slaves and convicts, as both identification and punishment. A common phrase etched on the forehead of Roman slaves was stop me—i’m a runaway.
Peter Trachtenberg, the author of Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh, told me, “The most obvious reason African Americans didn’t get tattooed until relatively recently was that the old inks didn’t show up on black skin. Newer, clearer pigments didn’t come into use until the mid-eighties, which coincides with the introduction of tattoos into the African American community. I also wouldn’t be surprised if tattooing’s association with working-class culture—redneck culture in particular—made it unpopular with African Americans. You don’t come across many black country-music fans, either. (Charlie Pride’s fan base is entirely white.) My guess is that there were two principal routes of diffusion: the first from rap, the second from black college fraternities (some of which also used branding as an initiation rite). Starting in the late eighties, a number of gangsta rappers adopted tattoos, most notably Tupac Shakur, who had thug life tattooed in block letters down his torso. It would be interesting to go back through magazines of that period and see if photos of tattooed rappers predate those of tattooed ballplayers.” They do, by a lot. “Also, to find out what percentage of NBA players belonged to black college fraternities.” Some, but not a high percentage. “The tattoos mark their wearers as gangstas or gangsta wannabes, and one of the hallmarks of black gangsta rap is its appropriation of white organized-crime ter- minology, for instance, BLACK M.A.F.I.A. and admiring references to John Gotti in several songs.”
A decade ago, Charles Barkley, explaining why NBA attendance was down, said, “White folks are not going to come see a bunch of guys with tattoos, with cornrows. I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks different, they’re stupid.”
In 1999, the shoe company And1 created a controversial advertisement in which Latrell Sprewell, who was suspended from the NBA for a year for choking his coach, said, “People say I’m America’s worst nightmare; I say I’m the American Dream.” In the background, a blues guitar played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s version of the anthem (And1 couldn’t afford the rights to the original). Seth Berger, the cofounder of the company, said that MTV created a youth market in which blacks and whites are indifferent to color: “It’s a race-neutral culture that is open to endorsers and heroes that look different. These people are comfortable with tattoos and cornrows.”
Who owns these statements—the people who said them or the people who wrote them down or the person who has gathered them together here or the person who reads them?
Concerning the people who are featured in the book Modern Primi- tives, and who are devoted to body modification, mutilation, scarification, and tattoos, Whole Earth Review said, “Through ‘primitive’ modifications, they are taking possession of the only thing that any of us will ever really own: our bodies.”
In the 1890s, socialite Ward McAllister said about tattooing, “It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat.”
Upon being told that the NBA’s Hoop magazine had airbrushed his tattoos off the photograph of him on the cover of the magazine, Iverson responded, “Hey, you can’t do that. That’s not right. Who gives them the authority to remake me? I personally am offended that somebody would do something like that. They don’t have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It’s an act of freedom and a form of self-expression. That’s why I got mine.”
When John Allen was a high school star in Philadelphia, he said, “I think that on the court, if I didn’t have as many tattoos as I do, people would look at me as—not being soft—but people would look at me as average. When they see me come in with my tattoos and the big name that I’ve got, before you even play a game, it’s like, ‘Whoa, this guy, he must be for real.’”
In the nineteenth century, Earl Roberts, field marshal of the British Army, said that “every officer in the British Army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage esprit de corps but also assists in the identification of casualties.”
I recently had the pin removed from my left leg, for no particularly compelling reason other than it spooked me to think of one day being buried with a “foreign object” in my body (for one thing, it’s a violation of Jewish law). Not that I’ll be buried; I’ll be cremated. Not that I’m religious; I’m an atheist. Still, leaving the pin in seemed to me some obscure violation of the order of things. As one tattoo artist has said, “The permanence really hits other people, and that is linked to mortality. And that is why skull tattoos really ice it.”
Who owns this body, this body of work?
Other People is available now
For more details, visit davidshields.com