Tattooing the land

Apologies, apologies to Tanizaki and all great Japanese writers

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Presently, our world is ruled by tattoos. Our morality, our sense of what is good and what is evil rests triumphantly on how we are able to convince great men, or those whose greatness has been contrived by a government that is full of trickster of conjurers, to show us they have clean bodies first, never mind the soul.

Here we are contemplating on truth and all that depends on whether a man indeed has a tattoo that is going to free us all. Truth after all can set us free, so a tattoo can lead to freedom. I know, my logic is twisted but who cares. We have become freaks. We have become mutants of who we were. In ideal times, I could while away meditate on blues and tango music. But these are tough times and so I want to bring you to a period of violence and pain, but one that was more elegant and refined.

This happened many years ago, a thousand cultures away. This is a story called The Tattooer, written by the great Tanizaki Jun’ichiro.

Let these few lines from that story of a great tattooer speak to us first.

From among the bottles and needles on his shelf Seikichi selected a vial containing a powerful narcotic.

The narrative continues:

…Having fetched his tattooing instruments from the shelf, Seikichi uncovered the girl’s body and began to apply to her back the point of his pen, held between the thumb, ring finger and little finger of his left hand. With the needle, held in his right hand, he pricked along the lines as they were drawn…. It was as if the tattooer’s very spirit entered into the design, and each injected drop of vermillion was like a drop of his own blood penetrating the girl’s body.

He was quite unconscious of the passage of time. No one came and went, and the quiet spring day moved gradually toward its close. Indefatigably Seikichi’s hand pursued its work without ever waking the girl from her profound slumber. Presently the moon hung in the sky, pouring its dreamy light over the rooftops on the other side of the river. The tattoo was not yet half done. Seikichi interrupted his work to turn up the lamp, then sat down again and reached for his needle.

Now each stroke demanded an effort, and the artist would let out a sigh, as if his own heart had felt the prick. Little by little there began to appear the outline of an enormous spider. As the pale glow of dawn entered the room, this animal of diabolic mien spread its eight legs over the entire surface of the girl’s back.

The Tattooer soon finished his task: …And at last Seikichi brought himself to put down his brush. Standing aside, he studied the enormous female spider tattooed on the girl’s back, and as he gazed at it, he realized that in this work he had indeed expressed the essence of his whole life. Now that it was completed, the artist was aware of a great emptiness.

“To give you beauty I have poured my whole soul into this tattoo,” Seikichi murmured. Never again will you know fear, as in the past. All, all men will be your victims…”

Did she hear his words? A moan rose to her lips, her limbs moved. Gradually she began to regain consciousness, and as she lay breathing heavily in and out, the spider’s legs moved on her back like those of a living animal.

“Master, let me see the tattoo on my back! If you have given me your soul, I must indeed have become beautiful.”

She spoke as in a dream, and yet in her voice there was a new note of confidence, of power.

From that dark, elegant world of Japanese literature, let us move to our world. It is still dark, it is not so elegant because politics is never elegant, it is vulgar. How would Tanizaki put it? Or how would Tanizaki put it as I imagined him putting it, in words that are less of his than more of me reared in the dirt of this republic?

Here is how it goes:

The Ruler of the Land, he with the Legendary Prick, looked at the candidates with tattoos on their back: Standing aside, he studied the enormous female spider tattooed on their back, and as he gazed at it, he realized that in this work he had indeed expressed the essence of his whole (terrible) life. Now that it was completed, the artist was aware of a great emptiness. (But of course, he was always empty.)

The short story ends with lines that are terrific demonstrations of how the Japanese have mastered the art of the subtle and elliptical:

“Let me see your tattoo,” he told her. “Show me your tattoo.”

Without a word, she inclined her head and unfastened her dress. The rays of the morning sun fell on the young girl’s back and its golden gleam seemed to set fire to the spider.

Now imagine these lines and picture a scenario where the media of the land have all gathered in front of the white-skinned factotum, he with the voice of loyalty to the boss. The former assistant has turned around and has started to pull over his head his shirt.

Now let us pilfer the words of Tanizaki as he closes his short story:

“Let me see your tattoo,” the eager reporters told him. “Show me your tattoo.”

Let us continue pilfering with our Tanizaki ways even as we change pronouns:

Without a word, he inclined his head and removed his shirt. The rays of the morning sun fell on the man’s back and its golden gleam seemed to set fire to the spider.

In Tanizaki’s, the Tattooer is gone at the end of the narrative. In our story, the media have taken his place: And as the back is revealed, the oh-so white back of the man, a red spot was seen on the upper part of the back near the shoulder.

“Something was abraded, removed!” the woman very near the man shuddered.

Ventosa, ay Ventosa,” chorused the others.

See, not even good literature can save our back.

[The translation of The Tattooer, which I used is by Ivan Morris]


E-mail: [email protected]

Image credits: Jimbo Albano

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