Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them
08:52 AM
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Considering just how many tattoo books have been recently published, it's interesting to see how much media attention has been focused on Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them -- a collection of illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton depicting people's tattoos along with the stories behind them. MacNaughton and editor Isaac Fitzgerald, who based the book on their Tumblr (of the same name), highlight the tattoo stories of rock stars as well as "ordinary people" in an "exploration of the decision to scar one's self with a symbol and a story."

Overall, the book's reception (from outside of the tattoo industry press) has been favorable. For one, Maria Popova had quite a positive review of the book on her Brain Pickings blog (of which I'm a huge fan). In her review, which offers extensive excerpts and illustrations from the book, Popova writes:

From a librarian's Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma's independence, the stories -- sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal -- brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton's true medium.
These stories are not necessarily well received by all. As Margot Mifflin writes in her review in SF Gate, she found Pen & Ink to be "a slight and parochial collection of anecdotes that reinforces some awfully weary tattoo cliches." She explains:

One [anecdote], occupying an entire page, written by someone who wears the words "pizza party" across her toes, says only, "I really f-- love pizza." Most of the other contributors muster a paragraph or two, saying in print what you can hear on any tattoo reality show, if you must: backstories for memorial tattoos, pet tattoos, relationship tattoos and "reminder" tattoos -- those permanent Post-its bearing personalized platitudes.
The entries that do rise to the level of storytelling demonstrate how good this book could have been if the authors had just thrown their net wider. Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy tells of her beating and sexual assault by riot police in Egypt, and the image she chose as a way of reclaiming her body afterward: Sekhmet, the goddess off retribution and sex. "I'd never wanted a tattoo before," she writes, "but as sadness washed away and my anger and the Vicodin wore off, it became important to both celebrate my survival and make a mark on my body of my own choosing."
Those of us in the tattoo community like to say -- especially in light of the endless reality shows -- that not every tattoo has a story. We can get a tattoo simply because we like it, and the design itself need not be imbued with grave significance and meaning. But really, every tattoo does have a story in some way -- the story of the experience of getting tattooed. And a key component to that experience is the artist. That seems to get lost in Pen & Ink. As Margot notes, "[...] respected tattooists [are] consigned to the back pages of this collection as footnotes to bar tales, some of whom are not even identified by name, but instead by "parlor.'"

As a lawyer, I was naturally intrigued over whether the tattooists ever gave permission to have their tattoos reproduced as illustrations. As I have written about endlessly regarding tattoo copyright, tattooers generally hold the copyright to their designs, or at least share them with the client, unless those rights are otherwise transferred, licensed or assigned. I wonder if the tattooers were ever even contacted to give permission to have their artwork reproduced. [In general, the copy need not be exact, and creators could retain their rights even if their work is translated in other forms.] I'll leave an extensive legal discussion out of this post, but only wanted to mention it in the context of how this book falls short by not giving the proper credit and respect to the very reason why the book exists -- that there were tattoo artists behind every story.
Nothing in this post should be relied upon as legal advice. Obviously.

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