The earliest recorded use of the word “tattoo” is found in descriptions of a Tahitian ritual, written by British explorer Capt. James Cook during a 1769 voyage through the South Pacific.
Tattooing is an act of indelible self-expression. As such, it serves as an ideal vehicle for Jill Ciment’s new novel, “The Tattoo Artist.”
The book tells of Sara, a shop girl on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who, at the age of 18, trades her Yiddish-speaking parents and their crowded railroad tenement for an artist’s garret shared with Philip Ehrenreich, her genteel, bohemian husband. Philip loses his family’s fortune in the Depression, and he and Sara, an avant-garde painter herself, are sent to Ta’un’uu, an island in the South Pacific that is celebrated for its intricate tattoos and carved masks, to collect its exotic bounty for a shadowy and rich German industrialist. But their ship never returns to the island to pick them up.
Not unlike Gauguin’s “Tahiti,” the couple’s accidental home is lush, with natives luminescent in their tattoo-covered bodies. When tragedy strikes, Sara takes up the tattoo needle as a source of solace. The ties to her New York life are relinquished, and replaced with a priest-like position as one of the island’s tattoo artists.
Ciment has crafted the survival story of a woman who draws herself a history and identity using the needles and inks of another people.
The island’s tattoo artists sing a prayer while inserting the needle that, like a Torah, must be read in portions. Instead of chanting the Ta’uu’nin stories, Sara “sang the only songs I remembered, the ones my father had sung to me about the storybook yeshiva on the windy Russian steppes or the little union girl who takes on the boss.”
Midway through “The Tattoo Artist,” Philip explains to Sara the reason she needs to leave their adopted island: “because it’s not real.” He is correct. Borrowing from cultures she knows and cultures she has researched, Ciment has invented geography, a simplified composite containing strains of Polynesia and the Jewish Diaspora. Yet it is exactly the un-realness of the mix and the beauty of Ciment’s borrowings that make the island worth visiting.
Article courtesy The Forward.
Ariella Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn.