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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Afraid of Tattoos?

Herman Melville was.


Here are two quotes from a laudable study of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. In Melville (2005), Delbanco discusses Herman's first novel, Typee.


"Warriors of the Typee (or Taipi) tribe were rumored to practice cannibalism on their enemies and known for their ferocity…They decorated themselves with tattoos so dense

and intricate that untinted flesh was hardly visible…. (p. 41).


On page 82, Delbano writes:

"More than anything… more even, than his sporadic dread of being cannibalized, he (Melville) feared that his hosts would mark him as a convert to their tribe by tattooing his face and forearms, those public parts of his body that, if decorated Marquesan- style, would forever define him at home as a freak."



Early in Moby-Dick, the reader meets Queequeg, a South Sea Islander with the same tattoos that Melville feared. Queequeg becomes Ishmael's good friend on the Pequod.


How do I feel about tattoos? Ambivalent. An experience in an Iowa City restaurant years ago, however, made me write this poem the following morning in a writing class.

The Oasis in Iowa City on a Rainy Night

He brings the food

his arm stretching before me,

setting down my three-portioned plate

like a child’s,

to keep the hummus from the tabbouleh and couscous.

My eyes on his arms,

eyes without glasses,

so the actual design of

dark swirls eludes me

from his wrists to the seams

of his T-shirt and quite possibly beyond.

Below his orange hat

a smile, and teeth

like mine, irregular.

He holds my eyes…

How is it to be so old?

I hold his…

Did your long-armed tattoos hurt?

Or am I merely ignorant of needles and dyes?


This psychedelic wandering on skin

I do not understand,

but in his eyes a kindness.

The self-same look

I wish she had seen in mine,

my daughter,

when she pulled down her jeans

and turned, asking:

“Is the dragon on my back to your allure?”

A simple thing to say,

which I did not say.

This I do not understand.



Next week: More on the genius of Herman Melville…




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