A mark of immortality

Jill Ciment's 3rd novel, succinctly titled 'The Tattoo Artist,' juxtaposes art and the human condition.

tattoo artist novel 88 (photo credit: )
tattoo artist novel 88
(photo credit: )
Jill Ciment's third novel, succinctly titled The Tattoo Artist, juxtaposes art and the human condition. Protagonist Sara Ehrenreich is a Jewish shopgirl from the Lower East Side, whose life is transformed when she befriends a revolutionary avant-garde artist. Philip exposes Sara to early 20th-century art and political theory: surrealism, Dadaism, cubism, Marxism (every "ism" as she points out) and in the course of their intimate relationship, she begins to cultivate her potential as an artist. Even as Sara's art progresses in her formative years and she becomes immersed in the high-brow, sometimes illusive world around her, she remains rooted to her humble beginnings. Sara, unlike Philip, is pragmatic and sees art as what it is: a form of expression. Philip, cursed with an inability to create art, is forever tormented by his jealousy for Sara's inherent gift. As Sara notes, "Philip revered art as other men revere money, or war." While their relationship is continually compromised by Philip's jealousy and his desire for "varietism" in female companions, the Depression marks an end to the decadent bohemian life they had grown accustomed to. Their benefactors are no longer able to support their livelihood and as they are forced to find meager work, Philip and Sara, become, more and more, alienated from the very ideals/"isms" they once clung to. Amidst the economic hardship, Philip is commissioned by an art collector to travel to Ta'un'uu, in the South Seas, to collect primitive masks. Unbeknownst to both Philip and Sara, this fated journey dictates the course of their lives and shapes their shared perspective on love and the role of art. Marooned on the island, Philip and Sara are subjected to a gruesome punishment of ritualistic face tattooing. Initially horrified by their faces, Sara and Philip come to view tattooing as the ultimate form of artistic expression and their bodies as perfect canvases. Sara's body becomes an experiential map, outlining her life's struggles. Her symbolic tattoos are situated in strategic places along her body. Each is engrained carefully with meaning, brought to life with colorful dyes that are as poignant as the symbol of choice. "My tattoos are my very finest work, the closest I'll ever come to genius. As native as I'd become, I still clung to the Western illusion that if my art was any good, it would enter the ranks of art history and outlast my mortal body." In this way, Sara's art takes on an immortal quality. Once she situates herself on the island and becomes accustomed to its rhythm and its people, she opts to stay. Even with its influx of missionaries, astronomers, random Swedish swimmers, and marines that visit the island throughout the years, Sara stays put. One gets the impression that this is not so much a heroic or particularly noble act, but a choice bred from fear and shame. Her face torments her, even in its artistic splendor, and she is constantly haunted by the idea of what others outside Ta'un'uu will think of her. Thus the irony is that Sara does little to assuage her fears or change her condition. To the contrary, she immerses herself more and more in the art of tattoo by becoming the official island tattoo artist and continuing to tattoo her body. Perhaps one might argue that ultimately Sara had found her place in life on this remote island and her life's work, being her body art, is more spiritually fulfilling than painting templates of fleeting 'isms' in a New York studio. Whatever the case may be, Sara resigns herself to the island life, much as she resigned herself to the extravagant live she shared with Philip at the start of their relationship. Throughout the course of the novel, however extreme her emotion might be, it always rings true to her character and is never taken out of context. Moreover, we never get the impression that this novel is feigning to be anything more than it is - simply a story about artistic intent and a relationship running parallel to that. The Tattoo Artist is an easy read. It's a page-turner that feeds its readers enough cute little ideological snippets ("What would Philip and I take? Our fathers' tefillin? Cages unto themselves, really, holding within their tiny leather cells the words from the Exodus reminding every Jew that before he was a wanderer he was a slave.") and existential comparisons on the quality of life on a "backward"/primitive island vs. "advanced"/modern metropolis. The conclusions, however generic, aren't what's being emphasized so much as one woman's journey full circle, into the "heart of darkness" and back, or perhaps beyond. Upon which, she discovers that the "heart of darkness" is a relative concept after all.