The Tattoo Artist
By Jill Ciment
Pantheon Books, 224 pages, $23.
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The earliest recorded use of the word “tattoo” is found in descriptions of a Tahitian ritual, written by British explorer Captain James Cook during a 1769 voyage through the South Pacific. Imported into English vocabularies to describe the indelible body art that inked sailors brought back to Europe, the word derives from the Polynesian word “ta,” which means “to tap,” and from the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means “to mark.”
Soldiers emblazon themselves with battle dates, angry daggers and mermaids. A woman I know inked herself with a Chinese symbol of peace after the sudden death of her husband. Tattooing is an act of indelible self-expression — a permanent marking of one’s own individualism. And as such, it serves as an ideal vehicle for Jill Ciment’s new novel, “The Tattoo Artist.”
In this book, Ciment tells the story 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. If all goes well, their South Pacific voyage will culminate in “a primitive art museum to end all primitive art museums,” with a wing named for Philip and a fresh store of influences for Sara. But, as might have been predicted by the caginess of the German industrialist-wannabe curator, their ship, Pearl of the East, never returns to the island to pick them up, the steamship’s hull to reappear only as a tattoo between Sara’s shoulder blades.
Not unlike Gauguin’s “Tahiti,” the couple’s accidental home is familiar and beautiful, with mountains that appear as “ancient, dripping, green terraces” and a native population luminescent in their tattoo-covered bodies, which Philip describes as “living art.” But when tragedy strikes the remote idyll, Sara chooses to remain there alone, taking up the tattoo needle as a source of solace. Soon enough, the ties to her avant-garde artist’s life in New York are relinquished, and replaced with a priestlike position as one of the island’s tattoo artists.
Using lush details and an articulate if distant narrator, Ciment has crafted the survival story of a woman who draws herself a history and identity using the needles and inks of another people. Like a mohel chanting as he circumcises his eight-day-old patient, the island’s tattoo artist sings a prayer as he inserts the needle. And like a Torah that must be read in portions, the tattoo prayer consists of origin myths with verses that would take a week to chant in their entirety. Instead of chanting the Ta’uu’nin stories, Sara chants her own: “I 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 that 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.
Ariella Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn.