The Tattoo Artist
Yesterday, on the corner of Broadway and 57th Street, a perfect stranger introduced himself to me and said, “I just want to tell you how very brave I think you are.” I was about to flee on foot (no small feat at my age), when the stranger qualified his statement, “I mean, you’ve done nothing to disguise yourself, you look just like your photograph in Life magazine. Desecrated.”
Another time, another stranger came up to me in the lobby of my hotel, and, without prelude or warning, touched my cheek. “How could you have done this to yourself?” the woman asked.
The question, of course, isn’t how, but why.
“Please tell me it washes off,” the woman said.
The tattoos that most disturb people are the ones on my face. There’s no way of getting around them. There’s no way of asking me, “Ma’am, you think the Yankees will take the pennant?” or “Mrs. Ehrenreich, do you believe that Bauhaus furniture is coming back into fashion?” without the tattoos turning the cordial exchange into a mockery of chitchat.
That is the point. That’s the reason for their existence.
They begin on my cheeks and work their way down, covering every inch of me, my lips, tongue, throat, breasts, hips, thighs, even the soles of my feet. Though I didn’t actually do all the procedures myself (how could I have? The pain renders one insensible), I am responsible for their design; all except for the tattoos on my face. As for my facial tattoos, I am more than responsible; I am culpable. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and you don’t even know what my tattoos look like. They are not your usual crude sailor’s fare, though to give credit where credit is due, I did incorporate a certain garishness, a seaman’s vulgarity, into some of the imagery. Nor are my tattoos the intricately patterned signature of the Ta’un’uuans, the Michelangelos of South Sea tattooing, though once again, certain traditions have been alluded to. No, my tattoos, like all my art, are mine and mine alone, and herein lies my need to steel myself before revealing them to you. To have to endure one’s own art, to be covered by it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, seeing every flaw over and over again, or worse, every act of unnecessary bravado, is simply unbearable.
My tattoos, like all the tattoos of my island, are a pictorial narrative, an illustrated personal history, though not necessarily a chronological one. Time, as you know it, modern time with its clocks and calendars, has no place on my island. The location of each vignette is determined by the body, and how much pain a particular limb or bone or muscle can withstand, and how much agony, or pleasure, a particular event caused the subject. And this is where the true art of Ta’un’uu’s tattooing comes in. The artist must not only create a suitable image to embody a crucial ordeal, or victory, she must also find a suitable place for it on an ever changing, forever decaying canvas.
To fully appreciate my story, you must view my tattoos in their entirety, front and back, every square inch of me at once, including the crumpled skin and sagging muscles upon which my tattoos are engraved. The islanders believe the way a body ages is as vital to the final design as the imagery. They believe that age is the final patina of art. This is why the modern world can’t bear to look at me. I mean, really look at me. They can ask, Mrs. Ehrenreich, do you consider yourself a Cargo Cultist? Mrs. Ehrenreich, what does it feel like to be back in the modern world after thirty years as a castaway? They can say, Sara, we just want to tell you how very brave we think you are.
But look at me?
I was born in 1902 on the Lower East Side, that open sore on the hip of Manhattan. My parents had immigrated to America the year before from a shtetl outside Warsaw. The Ta’un’uuans have taught me, however, that a journey never begins at the point of departure, but at the point of origin, and so, I envision my parents, neither taller than five feet, my father’s face bewildered and terrified, my mother’s arrogant and terrified, fleeing the pogroms of Russia for the pogroms of Rumania, Rumania for Budapest, Budapest for Warsaw, Warsaw for Antwerp, and finally arriving at a cold water flat on the Lower East Side. My parents were not only exhausted by the journey, they were stupefied. In the end, the only question that truly preoccupied them was one that, in my bohemian youth, I dismissed as greenhorn sentimentality, and now, in old age, is the only question I, myself, ask: Where is home, and how do I get there?
Like the children of most fresh-off-the-boat Jews, I attended the only school my parents could comprehend, let alone afford; a landsman’s quasi-Hebrew school conducted in a cellar and lorded over by a succession of rod-wielding, self-appointed rabbis. My education consisted primarily of chanting Hebrew songs without having the least notion of, or reverence for, what I was singing.
The islanders believe that language originates in song, and that the human throat is a musical instrument, a flute of flesh and blood, and that the breath reverberating through the flute is the soul, and that the music emerging from the flute is the spirit.
Aside from a few deeply ingrained Hebrew songs, everything else has been lost to me from those years. I have, after all, been gone so long. The only keepsake I have is an ancient newspaper clipping, a gift from the archivist at the Yiddish Library who’d read about me in Life: it’s a 1916 Bintel Brief, the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward, in which a letter of my father’s was printed.
Dear Esteemed Editor,
I hope you will advice me in my present difficulty. I come from a small town in Russia, where, until I was twenty, I studied the Torah, but when I came to America, I quickly changed. I was influenced by progressive newspapers, and became a freethinker and a Socialist. But the nature of my feelings is remarkable. Listen to me: every year when the month of Elul rolls around, when the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approaches, a melancholy begins to eat at my heart, like rust eats iron. When I go past a synagogue during those days and hear the cantor singing, my yearning becomes so great I cannot endure it. I see before me the small town, the fields, the little pond, the yeshiva. I recall my childhood friends and our sweet childlike faith. My heart constricts, and I run like a madman till the tears stream from my eyes and I become calmer.Lately, I have returned to Synagogue, despite the scorn of my freethinker daughter. I go not to pray to God, but to hear and refresh my aching soul with the cantor’s melodies. I forget my unhappy weekday life, the dirty shop, my boss, the bloodsucker. All of America with its hurry-up life is forgotten.
What is your opinion of this? Are there others like me whose natures are such that memories of their childhood songs are sometimes stronger than their convictions? I await your answer.
I offer you my father’s letter not to woo you with nostalgia, but because if there was an untouched square of skin left on my body, I would engrave it on my flesh.
Jewish law forbids tattooing: Thou shall not make in thy flesh a scratch over the soul. But what if the Ta’un’uuans are right, and the soul is breath? Then aren’t the scratches left on my soul by my needles really just the moments when my breath caught, my voice cracked, unable to find song?
By sixteen, I had become, in my father’s words, a freethinker, and by my own definition, a bohemian and an anarchist, a girl for whom religion and its trappings were irrelevant. To bring the point home to my parents, I would invariably light my after dinner cigarette in the flame of the Sabbath candles.
I was a seamstress by day, a waist maker, the eighteenth girl in a row of twenty at the windowless end of the warehouse. Shopgirls worked their way toward the light by seniority. By week’s end, my fingers would be so scratched and marred by the needles that one can’t attribute all the abrasions on my soul to the tattoos. But on Saturday nights, I’d don my shopgirl’s version of bohemian–a felt hat with purple plumage, a gypsy skirt, and two immoral shanks of red stocking. My destination was Greenwich Village. The cultural gulf between the Lower East Side and Washington Square was probably greater than the one my parents had encountered when they left the steppes of Russia for Avenue D. At best, I’d covet a bench at the base of Stamford White’s fluted arch, sharing cigarettes with versions of myself, gaudily feathered shopgirls in whose discontented stares one could just make out little compressed diamonds of ambition. At worst, I’d wander the square by myself, catching glimpses at what anyone could plainly see were the real bohemians–paint splattered artists, mustachioed socialists, regal-necked poetesses arguing away while ash spilled from the gold tips of their cigarette holders. In my red stockings and cheap plumage, the schism between them and me seemed as impossible to surmount as that between the gods and man.
For shopgirls like myself, East Side Jews who spoke with guttural accents, the only lifeline out of workaday hell was the Educational Alliance, the center of Yiddish intelligentsia, a curious mix of night school, public forum, gymnasium, and revolutionary cells. The center had been a gift from a few philanthropic German Jews to their hard-scrabble, Eastern European brethren. Sunday afternoons, young Zionists who could barely remember to water their mothers’ rubber plants took to the stage to call for the transformation of an arid desert into a Jewish Eden. Ex-yeshiva shopboys, for whom the threading of a sewing machine was a daunting task, called for a futuristic mechanized utopia on earth.
My union, the Ladies Waist-Makers Union, bought blocks of tickets for the Alliance’s Sunday night lecture series: “Jews and the Graven Image.” “Is Marxism Scientific?” “Revolution: If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?” “The Jewish Themes of Ibsen.”
One evening, an artist, an American Jew who had been educated in Zurich and Berlin, who had lived in Paris and Moscow, who spoke with intimacy about Picasso, Freud, and Trotsky as I might gossip about the girl at the next sewing machine, addressed us waist makers, and the boys from the Button Hole and Collar Makers Unions, on the 20th century collision between Art, the Subconscious, and Revolution.
A giant of a man, he had to stoop to reach the lectern. He had shoulder-length blond hair that he tossed to make his points. In a buckskin jacket and red silk vest, he dressed, to my mind at least, like a cross between Buffalo Bill and what I assumed was a Parisian painter. He told us that the art of the future would be made by the proletariat, workers just like us, then described the squalor of our shop life in enough glorious abstraction that it actually seemed possible. He explained how our subconscious, the ante-chamber of our unconscious, held within its misty foyer all the symbols we’d ever need. He urged us to have faith that art, with its noble and redemptive powers, would use those symbols to provide our beleaguered souls with the metaphors by which we could transform our misery into meaning. And when the time was right, he insisted that art would even spur us into revolution.
Did I believe him? A ragtag army of seamstresses and ex-yeshiva buchers advancing on Park Avenue brandishing needles and symbolist paintings? What was the alternative? Fifty more years at a sewing machine? A tiny airshaft apartment facing a teenier one, my only view my neighbor’s life? Whimpers, moans, hacks, grunts, fits of coughing, fits of prayer resounding through the thin walls? On the Lower East Side, the unconscious was not the symbol-laden fog of Freud and art. The unconscious was sleep or, if it lasted long enough, death.
Whatever doubts I had about his lecture I quickly quashed, as one might instinctively step on a dark shape in the periphery of one’s vision.
When he climbed off the podium, I, and a dozen other shopgirls, surrounded him. He glanced down at us with bemused curiosity and teased us that his lecture would be followed by an impromptu quiz. He reached into the fringed pocket of his jacket and plucked out a gold cigarette case. Tapping his thumbnail on the tooled casing, he asked if any of us ladies would like to try a French cigarette? I was the only one to accept. I leaned into his lit match as defiantly as I leaned into the Sabbath flame. The rumor was that when he’d lectured at the Alliance the year before, he’d bedded only the prettiest of his admirers, comely girls with dreams as fragile as soap bubbles, girls who giggled at his rarefied allusions as others might nervously guffaw at a funeral. I wasn’t particularly pretty, and I never giggled.
It would be easy to pretend that after thirty years among the islanders with their forthright sexuality, their worship of the body, I’ve lost all tolerance for the curtsies and bows, the feints and feigns of Western courtship. But even as a young woman, I detested coyness. Suffice to say, when the other girls dispersed, it was I who followed him home, and I who seduced Philip.
His portrait graces my left breast. It is the first tattoo I engraved on myself. The portrait, however, in no way resembles the face I kissed that night; an unlined, untested face of cavalier certitude that the future would be as easy to read as a palm. The face on my left breast is desecrated, pillaged of all illusions, and though it breaks my heart to admit it, it is also the weakest part of my design–the point on my flesh where my emotions exceeded my skill–and no amount of virtuosity can disguise that weakness. The face on my left breast is a living death mask, as far removed from the young Philip as I am from the girl I was.
He lived in a refurbished livery stable on Washington Mews, refurbished with Carrera marble, Art Nouveau windows, Persian carpets, a Brancusi bronze, a gilt-framed Gauguin, and a collection of South Pacific masks. I was so illeducated, I didn’t even know enough to be impressed. I thought the masks were examples of Modern art. I walked up to the Gauguin and asked if Philip had painted it. When he laughed and shook his head, his hair whipped against his throat. I was too embarrassed to ask anything else. Just to end my ungainly silence, I unbuttoned my blouse and put my own collateral on display. I could see how amused he was by my brazenness. I was hardly amused, I was astounded by my daring. I let him finish the job, undoing the buttons, eyelets, hooks, and laces that confined me. I was and I wasn’t a virgin. I’d had rudimentary sex the month before with a button hole maker on the Alliance’s tar roof. Afterward, the boy and I declared ourselves free-thinkers and never spoke again.
Philip made love to me on his Hindoo blue settee. A practiced and precise lover, he believed his sojourns into the subconscious, his experiments with what he called “surrealism,” had lead him to new levels of sensuality. I was hardly prepared to be the judge of that. I was still learning how to kiss.
I stayed with Philip for three nights and two days. He introduced me to the practice of automatic drawing after sex. With him, I tasted my first glass of champagne, my first bite of trayf. But what impressed me most, what trumps all my other memories despite half a century, is that Philip owned a telephone, an elegant black instrument on a fluted pedestal. I’d never seen one in a private house before. Whenever it trilled, Philip grew exasperated, but I felt we were at the center of the world.
When I finally returned home, my frantic mother demanded to know where I’d been, and when I shamelessly told her, she called me a nafka, a whore, and wouldn’t speak to me. The logistics of our not talking in a two room tenement were complex. We had to steal past each another without so much as our breaths mingling. I had to bear witness to her mumbled quips without so much as a snipe back. Only my father, who had begun residing more and more in the bucolic fantasy of his Russian childhood, would speak to me. And only when my mother wasn’t home.
“Sara, do you see that wall?” He had taken to believing that not only our tenement, but the sweatshop, his boss, all of America with its hurry-up life, was only a figment of his dreams. “That wall isn’t a wall. That wall is the inside of my coffin.” He took out his t’fillin and prayer shawl, then kissed my cheek. “But you’re not to worry, mein kint, I’ll soon wake up.”
I packed what little I had and left him davening toward the east, an airshaft strung with laundry, singing what must be the most heartrending of prayers, “thank you God for returning to me my soul, which was in Your keeping.”
I found lodging with six Litvak sisters from my union in a cellar apartment on Ludlow Street. My bed was the board that covered the kitchen tub. All night long, directly under my ear, the faucet leaked in fits and dribbles. My dreams sputtered and raced in time to that watery metronome, save for the nights that I slept beside Philip.
I wasn’t his only lover: he made that unequivocally clear. He also made the conditions of my spending the night in his bed as complicated as a wedding contract. I couldn’t stay for more than three consecutive nights. I couldn’t keep any of my possessions in his closets or drawers. I was never to answer the telephone, though when it trilled, I pined to. He practiced what he called “free love,” the unrestrained taking of lovers, which he patiently explained to me was the logical culmination of being a free-thinker. He believed that sex was one of the few connecting links of the human with the divine. He saw bourgeois marriage as the ultimate subjugation of the spirit, an economic union at best, a form of bondage at worst, having nothing to do with passion. He spoke about idyllic South Sea societies outside western capitalism, islands of free love, where sex was a form of prayer. Of course, he granted me the same freedom to take as many lovers as I wanted, encouraged me to, in fact, though I couldn’t imagine whom I’d bring home to my tub. Besides, I didn’t want anyone else. Watching him perform even the most workaday tasks–crushing out a cigarette, the way a tributary of blue veins appeared on his forehead when he was trying to make a point, the sheer dimensions of him as he stooped through a Victorian doorway–absorbed the whole of my attention. His shoes were as large as shoeboxes. He tasted of French tobacco and English port, whereas my buttonhole maker had tasted of herring and cheap vodka. He bought me a vermilion silk turban, which he claimed all the bohemian ladies were sporting. He automatically included me in their number. At five feet tall, even wearing my turban, I barely cleared Philip’s elbow, but he didn’t seem to mind. He had me parade naked before him at the foot of his bed. He had me lie perfectly still while he shut his eyes and touched me all over. He called it “a sexual offering.” Whenever his hands momentarily paused, I felt something within me grow taut. I was still unformed in those years, little more than romantic ectoplasm waiting to be molded, and Philip seemed eager to give me shape. I could sense how intrigued he was by the idea of transforming a shopgirl into a revolutionary, a shtetl meydel into a bohemian. I could feel his excitement. It was as close as I had ever come to having power over someone, and I equated it with love.
I caught a fever one night and couldn’t go home. When I tried to get up, Philip’s bedroom floor seesawed, his hallway folded up like the bellows of an accordion. I could hardly navigate my way to the bathroom, let alone through the streets of New York. Philip made me lie down again and sponged me with alcohol. He used cotton swabs to cool the whorls of my ears. He insisted I drink tea laced with whiskey. When I started to shiver, he made love to me. He gave me pen and paper, and asked me to draw my fever dreams. Even racked with chills, even under the sway of Philip’s unshakable belief that the future of art lay with the masses, I didn’t think my shopgirl visions were worthy of depiction. So, I drew my father’s visions instead. I drew a city of coffins–coffin skyscrapers, coffin sweatshops, coffin Els streaking past coffin tenements–and within each and every coffin room, I drew my poor, davening father with shekels taped over his eyes. When I finally put away the pen, Philip looked down at my drawing with the same rapt awe he bestowed on his mask collection, on his Gauguin. He said, or I hallucinated that he said, “If I could draw like you, mein lieb, I’d will myself a fever every second of my life.”
My temperature spiked and troughed for a week. When it finally abated, Philip cooked me softboiled eggs and rice. He insisted I remain in his bed for another few days, lest my fever come roaring back. He bathed me in a concoction of rose water, lemon, and soap, then changed my damp bedding for the tenth time. I luxuriated in his fastidious care-taking. I was in no rush to recuperate. Without so much as a word spoken between us, I simply never left.
On the bottom of my right foot is tattooed a plain wooden coffin. Jews do not believe in extravagant death rites. Thou shall not be shamed, no matter how poor, by the simplicity of the shroud or box in which thou is buried. The coffin, however, is not for my father, who died that winter in the Great 1919 influenza pandemic, nor is it for my bereaved mother who followed him shortly afterwards. The coffin, the plain wooden vessel of a coffin, is reserved for my own voyage home.