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January 13, 2011

Book Notes - Eva Talmadge ("The Words to Every Song: Tattoos That Rock")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

This Book Notes essay is a first, a playlist for a work-in-progress.

Eva Talmadge co-edited last year's fantastic The Word Made Flesh (pictured), which collected photos of literary tattoos as well as the stories behind them. One of my favorite photo books of the year, The Word Made Flesh uniquely captured the enthusiasm of book lovers.

Talmadge is currently collecting music tattoos and their backstories for her next book, The Words to Every Song: Tattoos That Rock. If you have a music tattoo, send it her way, you might get featured in the book.

In her own words, here is Eva Talmadge's Book Notes music playlist for her book-in-progress, The Words to Every Song: Tattoos That Rock:

The Words to Every Song: Tattoos That Rock is a project-in-progress, one I started in December after the release of my first book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, which I co-edited with Justin Taylor. The Word Made Flesh is a full-color collection of photographs of tattoos inspired by literature -- favorite lines from novels or passages of verse, author portraits, and children's book illustrations -- accompanied in most cases by a few words from the tattoo-bearers about what a particular writer or book meant to them, and why they decided to make it part of their bodies permanently. The Words to Every Song will follow the same pattern, this time made up of photographs of music-related tattoos: song lyrics, band logos, sheet music, and artist portraits -- again accompanied by a statement from the person who got the tattoo about their devotion to a particular singer, band, or song. This time around I'm also interested in the temporal nature of tattoos: their physical permanence on a person who inevitably changes with time, and how their meaning changes with it. A lot of tattooed people, myself included, talk about going from pride to embarrassment to ironic pride to plain old acceptance of their artwork throughout their lives -- and of course a lot of newly tattooed people say they don't ever plan to change. So as I meet and exchange e-mails with people from around the world with music-themed tattoos, I'll be asking them about that -- and picking their brains for answers to those typical questions that so many of us tattooed people hate: Why'd you get your tattoo? Why that band? And the big question: Why do you think a certain song or band or singer affected you the way it did?

In lieu of a mixtape for this project, here's a short list of some of the songs and artists who I've found (in tattoo form) so far, along with a wish list of bands and genres I'd like to see.

"One Step at a Time" by Jordin Sparks

Mandy Porto, of Cachoeirinha, Brazil, wins the award for first person to send me a music tattoo after I posted my first call for submissions on HTMLGiant. She has the complete lyrics of a Jordin Sparks song, "One Step at a Time," on her right shoulder. (She's also a double winner because she appears in the first book, too, with a Harry Potter tattoo on her neck.) Needless to say, I was pretty psyched when her e-mail popped up. But I was also a little lost. Jordin who? I don't own a TV (books, music, and the internet are enough to keep me entertained), and I've never watched a single episode of American Idol. Apparently I live in a cave: her debut album went platinum in 2007, and to date Jordin Sparks has sold over 9 million singles worldwide. Early on I made it my goal listen to every new song or artist I came across while working on this project, and you know what? Her tunes are pretty good.

"Handsome Devil" by The Smiths

This tattoo, sent in all the way from Australia, is simply a short line of lyrics from the Smiths' "Handsome Devil" -- but what a line: "There's more to life than books you know, but not much more." I hope to find more tattoos like these -- a few short words that say everything.

"Resist Psychic Death" by Bikini Kill

Two Brooklyn women, Jaime Anno and Jessica Silk, decided to get matching Bikini Kill tattoos after finishing their Master's degrees and getting full-time, "grown-up" jobs. The tattoos are black hearts wrapped in a banner that reads "Resist Psychic Death." In their own words: "The Riot Grrrl movement and the band Bikini Kill changed both of our (then separate) lives when we discovered the music as teenagers. It challenged our thinking, exposing us to feminism, anti-racism, and various social justice issues. Our discovery of this punk rock feminism made it feel OK to be outsiders, to be ourselves, to have a strong voice, to feel a sense of community, and to want to change the world."

"Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash

Another first: A truly badass portrait of Johnny Cash, sent in by Dana Ehret of Gainesville, Florida, was the first musician portrait to appear in the tattoolit inbox. As someone with a loved one currently residing at state expense, Johnny Cash is a big hero of mine -- I'm so happy to see him included in the book. Check out this vintage music video of a young Johnny Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues" on YouTube.

"Oh Darling" by the Beatles

Twenty-six-year-old Haley Gonzales will always remember her mom listening to the Beatles when she was a kid. Her tattoo is a classic Sailor Jerry-style girl blowing a kiss, with the words "Oh Darling" flying from her palm. Haley writes: "I always liked The Beatles, but never really listened to them much once I got older and wasn't around my mom as much. Then I saw Across The Universe and remembered how much I loved their music, and decided to get a tattoo."

"Enjoy Yourself" by the Specials

This is the first -- and perhaps only -- "accidental" tattoo I've come across in working on either book. Amber Bouman got the words "It's later than you think" tattooed inside her wrist after encountering the phrase on a bathroom wall. The words, Amber says, are "a reminder to focus on things that are important to me, not to simply please other people, as well as a graffiti'd Momento Mori: our time is limited and should be spent wisely." When a friend pointed out that these were lyrics to a song by the Specials as well, Amber was delighted . Luckily she's a Specials fan, too.

WISH LIST: Joy Division's pulsar

The first call for submissions features the pulsar from the cover of Joy Division's debut album Unknown Pleasures tattooed on someone's forearm. But this photo was plucked flagrantly from the web, with no credit information available, and one of the rules of both tattoo books is that the person with the tattoo has to be the one to send in their photo. I know somewhere among Laregehearted Boy's readership there has to be a Joy Division tattoo. There just has to be. Call me?

WISH LIST: anything about old blues

Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, a 12-bar scale or even just a bass line -- this sound has influenced so much popular music that I'm really hoping to see it represented in The Words to Every Song. I've seen one excellent Tom Waits tattoo, the closest thing to blues I've found so far. Ideally I'll track down a few people with artwork and a story to tell.

WISH LIST: Anyone out there with a They Might Be Giants tattoo?

Just for the sheer fantastic nerdery of the thing. I'm picturing a lighthouse, a purple toupee, and a rock to wind a piece of string around -- or maybe something from one of their many children's albums?

WISH LIST: The Clash

This book is not going to happen without at least one Clash tattoo. It's just not. I will stalk the East Village with my camera day and night until I find one, but I'm assuming there are enough Clash tattoos out there (lyrics, album covers, portraits of Joe Strummer, all of the above) that I won't have to try very hard. Right?

WISH LIST: the band that changed your life

Over the next few months I'm hoping to find and photograph as wide an array of music and song lyric tattoos as I can, and get the stories behind many of them, too. This means you: I want to hear about the band that made you join a subculture, or the love song that gave you happiness and hope -- or the singer who gave you an outlet for your fury when you were 13 and wanted to run away from home. Or, you know, your awesome Lady Gaga tattoo with a few words about how she's the most original thing to happen to pop since Madonna released "Borderline." Send photos and words to me at

Eva Talmadge and The Words to Every Song: Tattoos That Rock links:

HTMLGIANT call for music tattoos for the book
The Measure interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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