13 July 2008

Ink and needles

After I graduated from high schoo, my crosscountry coach advised me not to get a tattoo in college. It's a time of personal growth, he suggested, and the last thing you're going to want later on is an inked-in reminder of your larval stages.

It seemed like sound advice, so I never thought seriously about tattooing myself. When one of my friends, who had transferred out to Deep Springs College, showed up with a handdrawn tattoo of the Deep Springs cattle brand on his ass, Coach's advice seemed somewhat vindicated.

I don't think that it's a great idea to get a tattoo immediately after leaving college, either, for basically the same reason. Let's face it: We come up with a lot of stupid shit in our twenties, and we're not going to want to explain it all to our kids later on.

Nevertheless, I have thought up a few good designs. I started out with the idea of a circle - just the outline, in black.

After all, the problem with tattoos is keeping them confined. Apparently it goes like this: You start out with something small, like a two-letter homage to your mom, and then one day you wake up and you're tattooed all over like a lizard or a zombie. But if you confine the little buggers, it's much harder for them to escape to the rest of your body.

I can think of a few different things that I would like to fill the circle with.

One: The most vivid image I have encountered within a theoretical text is from Walter Benjamin's On the Concept of History, in which he is describing his view of history:

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

This is a text that has shaped my way of thinking. It rejects the linear notion of historical progress, in which time passes on smoothly, leaving in its wake a string of successes. It injects longing for completeness into the persona of the historian - and desperation at having to constantly face an unrepairable past. Most of all, it reminds one that we are being blown, endlessly, into the future.

In other words, Paul Klee's Angelus Novus would be a fitting interior to the circle. An image with a secret affinity to other Benjaminians.

Two: Do you recall the maps of the 18th century? The globe had long since been discovered, and most of it mapped, using an azimuthal projection onto two side-by-side hemispheres. It was a time of dawning imperial ambitions and shipbuilding optimism. New Zealand, the most recently settled landmass, had been mapped by a British explorer in 1769; Australia, which had been inhabited for over 42 millennia, was set up as a penal colony in 1788. They had this Western Hemisphere thing figured out, as this 1779 map shows.

It also shows how recent European history is in this half of the world. The U.S. was begun only three years before the making of this map. Not even two and a half centuries. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed sixy-one years later. New Zealand has spent less than 160 years incorporated under that name. California broke away from Mexico six years after that: It is even younger.

Fill in the circle, therefore, with an antiquated image of the Western Hemisphere, to remind me that I exist in a "new" hemisphere, settled recently by the Europeans, who patted a thin layer of dirt over the ashes and historical ruin piled up in their conquest.

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