When I was growing up in the eighties, only criminals or ultra-cool denizens of the margins of society who could transcend boundaries, possessed tattoos.
As my parents determined at a very young age that my skill sets precluded me from membership of either group, the sporting of a tattoo was a pursuit that was relegated firmly and clearly to the realms of the forbidden, this applying also to the tattoo transfer papers one used to be able to purchase in the delectable faux-cigarette confectionery FAGS, now known as FADS, also forbidden, so that I would not develop an appreciation of pipe weed.
As a teenager, while daydreaming at Greek school, I once distractedly drew an enhanced version of the owl that formed the logo of my Greek school textbooks on my lower arm, in biro. Glimpsing at it later that afternoon, my grandmother grabbed my wrist with Hephaestian firmness and marched me to the laundry. There she proceeded to slave off my epidermis with a wire brush that I am sure was once used to scrub down employees at the Chernobyl power plant. As she did so, she delivered an impromptu homily on Leviticus 19:28: «καὶ ἐντομίδας ἐπὶ ψυχῇ οὐ ποιήσετε ἐν τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν καὶ γράμματα στικτὰ οὐ ποιήσετε ἐν ὑμῖν ἐγώ εἰμι κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν,» rendered in English as: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.”
This, by the way is true. She was our god, and my protests, to the effect that I had not etched «γράμματα» upon my personage but rather, a very artful cartoon, fell upon deaf ears. So too, did my attempt to explain that while I conceded that in ancient Greece tattoos were seen as a mark of punishment and shame and that according to the historian Herodotus, Greeks learned the idea of penal tattoos from the Persians in the sixth century BC and used them to tattoo criminals, slaves who tried to escape, and enemies they vanquished in battle, I was merely re-enacting, as a Samian, the famous tattooing of the defeated Samians with an owl, by the Athenians, by way of solidarity.
So many decades hence, every time the vague urge to decorate myself emerges within my consciousness, my right arm begins to itch and burn uncontrollably and I go on to seek more wholesome and productive pursuits.
Consequently, the only person in my immediate family that is marked by a tattoo is my mother-in-law, a cross on her wrist, to mark her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the number 20, the rest of the year remaining ambiguous as the process was too painful for her to complete.
READ MORE: Tattooed glamour
I also have vague memories of coming across a weather-beaten old lady in my extreme youth, who bore a tattooed cross between her eyebrows. Dressed in threadbare clothes, as she would shuffle down the main street clutching her string bag, the more well to do ladies of our community would whisper: «η βλάχα, η βλάχα,» or cluck their tongues and pronounce: «η σημαδεμένη.» I know not where she was from or what language she spoke and it was only after spending time in the Vlach villages of Pindus decades later and noting the prevalence of the custom among the elderly ladies there, that I began to appreciate the tattoo as a personal abstraction, or a glyph, a key or rather a deliberate intervention into the interpretative process invited by the viewing of one’s countenance.
Given then that the glyphs or symbols we embellish ourselves with, in order to demand that others unravel the mysteries encoded within our features, are the key language in which this interpretative process takes place, the art of tattooing, Leviticus aside, is an inordinately personal one. Our choice of pictures, logographs and abstractions go to the core of what we want others to believe us to be. In the case of the traditional Vlachs, it is their identity as Christians that is asserted when one first sees them. In the case of modern body art, with its babel of semantic and pictorial connotations, assertions are both contrapuntal and legion.
It is for this reason that the incidence around Melbourne, of proud Greeks who want their patriotism indelibly etched upon their skin, so that said patriotism can never be removed, especially in light of recent events regarding the Macedonian name dispute, having their patriotism and assertions of racial purity impugned, either by malicious design or oversight, by incompetent tattoo artists that cannot understand, let alone spell Greek, is so deeply disquieting.
Of course how one asserts their Greek identity via body art is highly subjective given that there exists no common vocabulary in which to do so. An inebriated friend, who, enmeshed in the paroxysms of new love, was compelled to seek a tattoo of a Versace sun instead of the Vergina Sun by his Italian girlfriend, in the interests of good taste, is merely indicative of the general cacophonous trend.
The photograph illustrating these words further illuminate our plight. How can our tattoos compel others to accept our Hellenic credentials when we ourselves, thanks to our incompetent and possibly traitorous tattooists, can’t even get our Hellenic words right?
The gentleman who claims enough affinity with the ancient Greek philosophers in order to have his arm proclaim: “Know thyself,” to all and sundry would benefit from knowing that the phrase is γνῶθι σεαυτὸν, not γνῶθει. The misspelling however, creates an interesting ontological dilemma. If you don’t know how to spell thy own tatt, how can you claim to know thyself? Is this the real point of the tatt? That identity defies definition?
Obviously, when seeking to proclaim affinity with one’s tribes, it assists greatly if one is able to write the name of that tribe correctly. Thus, in the example of the hapless gentleman portrayed, Έληνας should be Έλληνας, unless one is claiming that one is actually the Diet Coke of Hellenism, and thus, with lambda lacking, not quite Hellenic enough.
Similarly, though it is easy to swoon at the beauty and sheer power of the Greek language, it would be useful to inform the lady pictured herein that the quote she literally painstakingly had transcribed upon her arm, from Saint Paul in the New Testament: «ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει,» means love never fails. If one writes ἐκπίπτω, as she has, then one is making the rather ungrammatical statement: “Love never I fail” or possibly in a variant interpretation: “Love I never give a discount to,” which makes next to no sense, but then again neither does love, on the odd occasion.
My favourite tattoo however, is the one perched proudly upon its owner’s pectoral muscle. No doubt, the independently minded gentleman, wishing to express the sentiment that he is self-willed and subject to no one, sought recourse in online translation services for the Greek rendition of the word “free.” Sadly, «δωρεάν» means free of charge, gratuitous, or complimentary, thus debasing his street currency precipitously and rendering his ontology as a commodity, outside the market.
Tattoos in antiquity
The ancient writer Pausanias reports that when the seer and philosopher-poet Epimenides died, his skin was found to be covered with mysterious tattooed writing. The last tattoo accompanying these words, mirrors that experience, departing from it only, in that it illustrates exactly what takes place when one’s tattooist’s computer is not configured to read Greek Unicode fonts. But then again, maybe the intention here is to declare, as one walks in the shadow of the valley of the cacophony of 4,000 years of diverse Greek tradition, that it is all Greek, if not to us, then at least to the tattooist.
The tattooed Epimenides, who even my grandmother respected because his work was quoted in the New Testament, enjoyed the privilege of having his skin preserved at the courts of the ephors in Sparta, conceivably as a good-luck charm. Considering that future archaeological exhibits and testaments to our Hellenicity walk amongst us, it is high time that the Greek community take immediate steps to educate its own tattoo artists so that pseudo-Hellenic slogans are eradicated from our discourse and the pure and unadulterated Hellenic sentiments of our tattooed people are preserved free from corruption. Failing that, it must establish a strict monopoly over the licensing of Hellenic language tattoos whereby it can oversee and enforce proper grammatical standards that shall prevail among our tribe for all time. Let «Ορθογραφία ή Θάνατος!» be our watchword, as we ponder whether we should just stick to patriotic images instead. The Byzantine historian Zonaras relates that Emperor Theophilus used tattoos to punish two monks who publicly disparaged him, by having eleven verses of vulgar iambic pentameter inked across their foreheads and faces. Give me a FAG transfer of a butterfly any day.