It’s not so much a question any more of whether I’m getting a tattoo but rather of what and where. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo. That there are a couple of shows on cable right now showcasing the art has probably influenced me. It’s a strange yearning for me. Many people get tattoos to symbolize or commemorate something in particular — the death of a loved one, for example, or religious faith. I don’t have anything in particular I want to say with body art. I just think it might be neat to have a tattoo.
Not having anything in particular I want to express causes a bit of a dilemma in that I have to come up with something meaningful to me or go with something arbitrary and probably boiler-plate (so to speak). In trying to come up with something not completely lame, I’ve felt a little like a high school student told to write a thesis and working hard to come up with a thesis and support it.
I thought about doing something with pi, but I don’t think pi stands alone as a tattoo for a guy who can barely tell you what pi even is (for the record, it’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter). Carl Sagan said beautiful and interesting things about pi in his novel Contact (the movie version of which I recently re-watched). Pi in some form or another is something that I notice on a more or less daily basis. Beginning in college, I noticed that I frequently happened to look at the clock when it read 3:14, and M and I settled on pi day (March 14, or 3/14) for our wedding date when we had no other special day in mind. In response to my mini-obsession with pi, my parents recently got me a pi dish (a pie dish with the pi symbol in the bottom and a few dozen digits of pi around the rim). Pi by itself has no special significance to me, but it is a number and a symbol I have enjoyed in a layman’s way for several years, so it’s a solid candidate. I still hold that it doesn’t stand alone as a pictogram to be engraved on my body, though.
So what else? M proposed a whale. If you know me reasonably well, you probably know that I have another mini-obsession with Moby Dick. Tattooing is very much present in that venerable tome, and it’s not lost on me that scrimshaw (animal bones and teeth carved with elaborate designs by whalers, which art form I have yet another mini-obsession with) and tattooing share something of a kinship as carving arts. So a whale tattoo maybe makes sense for me. But it’s a little too close to blue-anchor-retro to really be fitting for me. I think maybe there should be a law against getting a whale or otherwise seriously nautical tattoo unless you actually have something to do with whales or sailing. Plus I think it’d be really easy to get a crappy looking whale tattoo.
Now what? Let’s turn to word-origin and -play.
According to Melville (who was wrong, but quaintly wrong), a whale is a fish with its tail turned sideways. So, whale = fish. The latin word for fish (plural, I think) is “pisces.” So whale = fish = pisces. And pisces, if you’ll grant me some license here, is a homophone for “pi seas” (which calls to mind for me the phrase “chicken of the sea,” which is actually a word-playful way of saying “fish”). So whale = fish = pisces = pi seas = fish = whale = one nice big circle of equivocation and linguistic chicanery that appeals to me while at the same time touching at least tangentially (recall from high school geometry precisely what a tangent is?) on a couple of the ideas that have appealed to me for tattoos.
But wait, there’s more.
In college, I latched onto the fish (and the hunt for the fish and catch and release and the fish as a religious symbol and losing the fish and all manner of other similar things) as a metaphor meaningful enough that it became the centerpiece (and a part of the title) of a manuscript I wrote while completing my writing minor. This was all before I read Moby Dick, mind you, and Melville did a much better job in his treatment of the metaphor than I managed, naturally. The point, though, is that the pi and the whale ideas crystalizing in my mind through word-play (something else that’s a largish part of who I am) to converge on the idea of the fish, which has also been meaningful to me in what I once considered my own little art and thought — well, it’s nice. It’s appealing, if not as significant as paying homage to a dead loved one by duplicating his or her tattoo (for example).
What remains is to figure out exactly what kind of fish I want to get, if I do in fact determine I have the stones to get a tattoo. I’m not interested in a colorful fish or even a realistic one (see note above about how easy it probably is to get a bad whale tattoo). Stylized Koi look great on some people, but they’re just not my bag. I’ve looked around at a lot of images online and finally settled (at least for the moment) on a derivative design of my own creation (or derivation), two drafts of which are pictured here. The basic shapes, especially toward the front of the fish, come from a tee-shirt design I found. The innards of the fish pictured on the shirt are rather more maze-like and less fish-like than the treatment in my current draft. I added gills (note that they look a little pi-like) and modified the spine and tail pretty substantially. I’m not terribly happy with the back half of the fish, which seems a little inconsistent stylistically with the rest of the image, so I’d probably take one of these images to a tattoo artist to provide a starting point.
So there you have it. The “what” I mentioned initially is more or less resolved, and I need now to figure out the where (on my body), which may require the advice of a tattoo artist.
If I chicken out (and if I do, I think it’ll be because I harbor a tiny worry that I’d regret a tattoo in 20 years), I hope you’ll think of me as the chicken of the sea = pi of the seas = pisces = fish = whale. And we all know how messing with the whale turned out for Ahab, now, don’t we?