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A tattoo story by Meredith MacLeod Davidson: Illuminated

I was raised with a firm no-tattoos policy.

It might have been borne of a standard Judeo-Christian “your body is a temple” ethos, or perhaps it was merely American middle-class aspirational respectability aesthetics. While the idea of “marring your skin” with tattoos certainly permeated the strictures my parents passed down regarding the acquisition of skin ink, there was perhaps more prevalently a panicked climate of “but who will hire you with tattoos?!” Either way in my family, the climate of fear perpetually generated around the understanding of tattoos was quite desperately concerned with their permanence.

I didn’t particularly interrogate this anti-tattoo mentality until 2018 when I finally read Ali Smith’s spectacular novel How To Be Both. I was captivated by the story Smith brings to light concerning the work of the Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, whose work went misattributed or forgotten altogether until the discovery of the Hall of the Months frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, centuries after his death. Smith’s work itself flits through the ephemeral effects of art upon the artist in ways conscious and not, while also pressing at the bounds of death and gender – such forms imposed on the body.

In a late-capitalist society, the sanctity of art becomes quite muddled – in order to “make it” as an artist, there is, presumedly, an element of “selling” – many of us dedicated to the creative arts in 2023 necessarily exercise this dedication in ways less romantic than that of say, Byron and the Shelleys reveling in the sublimity of a glacier or writing poetry lakeside for whole summers, but rather in the form of particularly gripping ad copy or social media graphics.

My family lives in the suburban surround of Washington, D.C., and while home for a holiday, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery, which hosts the del Cossa painting of Saint Lucy – from which many iterations of Smith’s novel find their cover artwork – Saint Lucy’s hand delicately holding the sprig of eyes. The sublimity of the painting before me paired with my experience of Smith’s novel lent to a prolonged sense of wonderment surrounding del Cossa’s work. A wonderment which, admittedly, I do not expect to ever cease. A wonderment at the tenacity of an artist to commit to a lifetime of creative work, regardless of the potentiality for accolade in one’s lifetime. The idea that one’s dedication to their artistic craft might not be attributed or recognized until well after your death – in this case by nearly half a millennia. I wondered about this too in relation to the incredibly detailed and devoted work of countless monks and nuns in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Does making something without the expectation or awareness of accolade (be it social, financial, or otherwise) honor more closely the artistic ideal?

Though I had never once particularly wanted a tattoo, after visiting the National Gallery, I suddenly found myself certain that were I to acquire one, it would be of del Cossa’s Saint Lucy. I was of course, quite curious about this abrupt certainty, not least of all because of its apparent theological alignment – surely to have a Christian martyr tattooed would make no sense against the Christian belief of a heavenly life-after-death, body-as-temple? What was it about this painting, Smith’s novel, and my meaning-making surrounding these two works of art, that compelled me toward tattoo? It all came down to permanence.

Tattoos are considered quite permanent, sure, because to acquire one invites a lifetime of its presence upon your body. But in the scope of all art, tattoos are some of the works with the shortest lifespans, because they quite literally have lifespans. The tattoo dies with the body it is etched upon. What then are tattoo-artists offering with their craft? It is an incredible detachment and trust in their work. To me, it feels the most removed from capitalist thought, especially capitalist thought concerning a person’s approach to art as craft, the alchemy of creativity, and an effort toward a tangibility of the human spirit.

It then becomes imperative, I think, to acknowledge the ritual of tattoo almost as much as the tattoo itself. Tattoo in many indigenous cultures was integral to various rituals, and I am heartened to read of many modern-day tattoo artists who view the tattoo appointment as a sacred energy exchange between two persons, body to body.

My short story “Illuminated” – soon to be published in Guts Publishing’s Tattoos Anthology, seeks to explore all the ideas outlined above – to hold in the same space the sometimes-conflicting elements of art, death, creativity, gender, ritual, capitalism, communion with other persons, the internet and social media, permanence, and ownership. It represents a segment of my ongoing interrogation of internalized ideas surrounding art, spirituality, and politics, and I hope it duly honors tattoo as an art form and tattoo artists as incredible practitioners of a (divine) creative medium.

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Meredith MacLeod Davidson is a poet and writer from Virginia. A graduate of Clemson University with a degree in English, her work has been published in The Bookends Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Red Ogre Review, and elsewhere. Meredith serves as senior editor for Arboreal Literary Magazine, reader in fiction for The Maine Review, contributing editor in poetry for Barren Magazine, and as co-editor of From Glasgow to Saturn, the literary journal at the University of Glasgow, where she is currently pursuing an MLitt in Creative Writing.

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The Transformative Power of Tattoo will be released by Guts in September 2023. Pre-orders are available on our website with a discount: £8.95 instead of £10.95. You can pre-order a copy here:

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