Monday, November 30, 2009

The Tattoosday Book Review: 7 Tattoos

First and foremost, let me clear something up: 7 Tattoos by Peter Trachtenberg is a memoir and is not a book about tattoos. Oh, there are tattoos within, and stories about them and how they were obtained. But tattoos help form the context of the story within, and the ink is often secondary to the action at hand.

7 Tattoos is a riveting narrative, "a memoir in the flesh," about the author's inner struggles with his identity and the world around him. His tattoos form the structure of the book, serving as chapters around which Trachtenberg's life revolves.

Imagine a first tattoo: assuming that it wasn't inked on the fly, everyone's first tattoo comes with context. On Tattoosday, I try and tell the story behind the tattoo. But even I know that I am only scratching the surface of the narrative skin.

Each of the author's seven tattoos serves as a focal point out of which a life chapter spins.

From a tribal piece that is inspired by the ink of Southeast Asia (and subsequent trips there) to tattoos that mark chapters in a life punctuated by drug addiction and strained parental relationships, we are given a warts-and-all tour of Trachtenberg's life. As important as the tattoos may seem, they are really just sign-posts with memories in the ink.

Ultimately, 7 Tattoos is about relationships - Trachtenberg's relationships with women, his father, his mother and, ultimately, himself.

He is a writer and his skills show throughout as he describes tattoos with admirable simplicity:
"The tattoo Slam had given me was a drawing of a wrench placed diagonally between two gears. She'd rendered the spinner with punctilious thoroughness, down to the highlights on the chrome-plated shaft, while leaving the gears black silhouettes, and she'd unified the composition by framing wrench and gears with a red triangle that sat athwart my deltoid."
This passage describes the tattoo with political undertones, in a chapter entitled "I Keep the Red Flag Flying". He does a remarkable job taking a 1992 tattoo and narrating back twenty years earlier to 1972. Again, the tattoo anchors the chapter and is the glue that holds it together.

Trachtenberg has skillfully built a personal history around seven works of art. It doesn't matter where they were inked or if any of them are "good" or not. Each piece is a jumping-off point that elevates the memoir above the standard personal history.

7 Tattoos was recommended to me last Spring when I was interviewing poets and writers for my Tattooed Poets Project. I wish I could remember who suggested I read it, because I would love to thank them.

The tattoos in the book are not at center stage, yet they manage to grab a hold of the imagination throughout as we are carried along by the story of Trachtenberg's life. It's an experience I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in good writing, with a penchant for ink.

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