Tattoo me noir too



tattoo year of glad

In an earlier post, we had a look at Jack Flowers’ tattoos in Theroux’s Saint Jack, set in 1950s Singapore. Now we get a range of early-1990s attitudes to tattoos as described by David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest, which in parts can safely be described as noir. Very noir, in fact. In this excerpt, we find a broader sample population of tattoo aficionados, a variety of urban flotsam and jetsam conveniently washed up together in a halfway house for recovering year of glad 2

Note. I’ve excerpted the passage below sans endnotes — of which there were only two  in what amounts to a positive endnote desert compared to most of the book, just one infamous feature of Infinite Jest being the 96 pages of notes at the end of the book (self-edited down from 500 pages at the behest of his publishers, I believe).

DFW also loved to confound the stylistic sticklers with idiosyncratic punctuation, including plenty of hyphens and parentheses (even parentheses within parentheses [if not parentheses within parentheses within endnotes within endnotes {or, in at least one case, within an endnote within an endnote within an endnote}]).

He also believed in finding the precise word he wanted, no matter how obscure or how many readers would be sent scurrying to dictionaries. We’ll say nothing here of his propensity for long, complex sentences or his nice mixing of formal and informal registers or his use of more acronyms on many pages than you’ll find in a US Army field manual such that, unless you have an eidetic memory, you sometimes have no fucking idea what’s going on. What we will say is that, despite all these wee quirks, his prose often qualifies as genius. And I should mention that the voice of the following excerpt is only one among many he adopts in this novel.


infinite-jest1If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out… for instance… [t]hat a person… will do things under the influence of Substances that he simply would not ever do sober, and that some consequences of these things cannot ever be erased or amended. Felonies are an example of this.

As are tattoos. Almost always gotten on impulse, tattoos are vividly, chillingly permanent. The shopworn ‘Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure’ would seem to have been almost custom-designed for the case of tattoos. For a while the new resident Tiny Ewell got first keenly interested and then weirdly obsessed with people’s tattoos, and he started going around to all the residents and outside people who hung around Ennet House to help keep straight, asking to check out their tattoos and wanting to hear about the circumstances surrounding each tattoo. These little spasms of obsession—like first with the exact definition of alcoholic, and then with Morris H.’s special tollhouse cookies until the pancreatitis-flare, then with part of the way Tiny E. temporarily lost his mind when his enslaving Substance was taken away. The tattoo thing started out with Tiny’s white-collar amazement at just how many of the folks around Ennet House seemed to have tattoos. And the tattoos seemed like potent symbols of not only whatever they were pictures of but also of the chilling irrevocability of intoxicated impulses.

Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they’re permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten—which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo)—but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline of the moment itself, not (in any depth) the irrevocability that produces the adrenaline. It’s like the intoxication keeps your tattoo-type-class person from being able to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse and even consider the permanent consequences that are producing the buzz of excitement.

Tiny Ewell’ll put this same abstract but not very profound idea in a whole number of varied ways, over and over, obsessively almost, and still fail to get any of the tattooed residents interested, although Bruce Green will listen politely, and the clinically depressed Kate Gompert usually won’t have the juice to get up and walk away when Tiny starts in, which makes Ewell seek her out vis-à-vis tattoos, though she hasn’t got a tattoo.

But they don’t have any problem with showing Tiny their tatts, the residents with tatts don’t, unless they’re female and the thing is in some sort of area where there’s a boundary issue.

As Tiny Ewell comes to see it, people with tattoos fall under two broad headings. First there are the younger scrofulous boneheaded black-T-shirt-and-spiked-bracelet types who do not have the sense to regret the impulsive permanency of their tatts, and will show them off to your with the same fake-quiet pride with which someone more of Ewell’s own social stratum would show off their collection of Dynastic crockery or fine Sauvignon. Then there are the more numerous (and older) second types, who’ll show you their tattoos with the sort of stoic regret (albeit tinged with a bit of self-conscious pride about the stoicism) that a Purple-Hearted veteran displays towards his old wounds’ scars. Resident Wade McDade has complex nests of blue and red serpents running down the insides of both his arms, and is required to wear long-sleeved shirts every day to his menial job at Store 24, even though the store’s heat always loses its mind in the early a.m. and it’s always wicked motherfucking hot in there, because the store’s Pakistani manager believes his customers will not wish to purchase Marlboro Lights and Mass. Gigabucks lottery tickets from someone with vascular-colored snakes writhing all over his arms. McDade also has a flaming skull on his left shoulderblade. Doony Glynn has the faint remains of a black dotted line tattooed all the way around his neck at about Adam’s-apple height, with instruction-manual-like directions for the removal of his head and maintenance of the disengaged head tattooed on his scalp, from the days of his Skinhead youth, which now the tattooed directions take patience and a comb and three of April Cortelyu’s barrettes for Tiny even to see.

Actually, a couple weeks into the obsession Ewell broadens his dermotaxonomy to include a third category, Bikers, of whom there are presently none in Ennet House but plenty around the area’s AA meetings, in beards and leather vests and apparently having to meet some kind of weight-requirement of at least 200 kilos. Bikers is the metro Boston street term of them, though they seem to refer to themselves usually as Scooter-Puppies, a term which (Ewell finds out the hard way) non-Bikers are not invited to use. These guys are veritable one-man tattoos festivals, but when they show them to you they’re disconcerting because they’ll bare their tatts with the complete absence of affect of somebody just showing you like a limb or a thumb, not quite sure why you want to see or even what it is you’re looking at.

A like N.B. that Ewell ends up inserting under the heading Biker is that every professional tattooist everybody who can remember getting their tattoos remembers getting them from was, from the sound of everybody’s general descriptions, a Biker.

W/r/t the Stoic-Regret group within Ennet House, it emerges that the male tattoos with women’s names on them tend, in their irrevocability, to be especially disastrous and regretful, given the extremely provisional nature of most addicts’ relationships. Bruce Green will have MILDRED BONK on his jilted right triceps forever. Likewise the DORIS in red-dripping Gothic script just below the left breast of Emil Minty, who yes apparently did love once. FUCK NIGERS on a left biceps he is heartily encouraged to keep covered, as a resident. Chandler Foss has an undulating banner with a redly inscribed MARY on one forearm, said banner now mangled and necrotic because Foss, dumped and badly coked out one night, tired to nullify the romantic connotations of the tatt by inscribing BLESSED VIRGIN above the MARY with a razor blade and a red Bic, with predictably ghastly results. Real tattoo artists (Ewell gets this on authority after a White Flag Group meeting from a Biker whose triceps’ tattoo of a huge disembodied female breast being painfully squeezed by a disembodied hand which is itself tattooed with a disembodied breast and hand communicates real tattoo-credibility, as far as Tiny’s concerned) real tatt-artists are always highly trained professionals.

What’s sad about the gorgeous violet arrow-pierced heart with PAMELA incised in a circle around it on Randy Lenz’s right hip is that Lenz has no memory either of the tattoo-impulse and -procedure or of anybody named Pamela. Charlotte Treat has a small green dragon on her calf and another tattoo on a breast she’s set a Boundary about letting Tiny see. Hester Thrale has an amazingly detailed blue and green tattoo of the planet Earth on her stomach, its poles abutting pubis and breasts, an equatorial view of which cost Tiny Ewell two weeks of doing Hester’s weekly Chore. Overall searing-regret honors probably go to Jennifer Belbin, who has four uncoverable black teardrops descending from the corner of one eye, from one night of mescaline and adrenalized grief, so that from more than two meters away she always looks like she has flies on her, Randy Lenz points out. The new black girl Didi N. has on the plane of her upper abdomen a tattered screaming skull (off the same stencil as McDade’s, but w/o the flames) that’s creepy because it’s just a tattered white outline: Black people’s tattoos are rare, and for reasons Ewell regards as fairly obvious they tend to be just white outlines.

Ennet House alumnus and volunteer counselor Calvin Thrust is quietly rumored to have on the shaft of his formerly professional porn-cartridge-performer’s Unit a tattoo that displays the magiscule initials CT when the Unit if flaccid and the full name CALVIN THRUST when hyperemic. Tiny Ewell has soberly elected to let this go unsubstantiated. Alumna and v.c. Danielle Steenbok once got the bright idea of having eyeliner-colored tattoos put around both eyes so she’d never again have to apply eyeliner, not banking on the inevitable fade that over time’s turned the tattoos a kind a nauseous dark-green she now has to constantly apply eyeliner to cover up. Current female live-in Staffer Johnette Foltz has undergone two of the six painful procedures required to have the snarling orange-and-blue tiger removed from her left forearm and so now has a snarling tiger minus a head and one front leg, with the ablated parts looking like someone determined has been at her forearm with steel wool. Ewell decides this is what gives profundity to the tattoo-impulse’s profound irrevocability: Having a tatt removed means just exchanging one kind of disfigurement for another. There are Tingly and Diehl’s identical palmate-cannabis-leaf-on-inner-wrist tattoos, though Tingly and Diehl are from opposite shores and never crossed paths before entering the House.

Nell Gunther refuses to discuss tattoos with Tiny Ewell in any way or form.

For a while, Tiny Ewell considers live-in Staffer Don Gately’s homemade jailhouse tattoos too primitive to even bother asking about.

He’d made a true pest of himself, though, Ewell did, when at the height of the obsession this one synthetic-narc-addicted kid came in who refused to be called anything other than his street name, Skull, and lasted only like four days, but who’d been a walking exhibition of high-regret ink — both arms tattooed with spiderwebs at the elbows, on his fishy-white chest a naked lady with the same kind of overlush measurements Ewell remembered from the pinball machines of his Watertown childhood. On Skull’s back a half-m.-long skeleton in a black robe and cowl playing a violin in the wind on a crag with THE DEAD in maroon on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below; on one biceps either an icepick or a mucronate dagger, and down both forearms a kind of St. Vitus’s dance of leather-winged dragons with the words — on both forearms — HOW DO YOU LIK YOUR BLUEYED BOY NOW MR DETH!?, the typos of which, Tiny felt, only served to heighten Skull’s whole general tatt-gestalt’s intended effect, which Tiny presumed was primarily to repel.

In fact Tiny E.’s whole displacement of obsession from bunks’ hospital corners to people’s tattoos was probably courtesy of this kid Skull, who on his second night in the newer male residents’ Five-Man Room had shed his electrified muscle-shirt and was showing off his tattoos in a boneheaded regretless first-category fashion to Ken Erdedy while R. Lenz did headstands against the closet door in his jockstrap and Ewell and Geoffrey D. had their wallets’ credit cards spread out on Ewell’s drum-tight bunk and were trying to settle a kind of admittedly childish argument about who had the more prestigious credit cards — Skull flexing his pectorals to make the over-developed woman on his chest writhe, reading his forearms to Erdedy, etc. — and Geoffrey Day had looked up from his AmEx (Gold, to Ewell’s Platinum) and shaken his moist pale head at Ewell and asked rhetorically what had ever happened to good old traditional U.S. tattoos like MOM or an anchor, which for some reason touched off a small obsessive explosion in Ewell’s detox-frazzled psyche.

Probably the most poignant item in Ewell’s survey are the much-faded tattoos of old Boston AA guys who’ve been sober in the Fellowship for decades, the crocodile elder statesmen of the White Flag and Allston Groups and the St. Columbkill Sunday Night Group and Ewell’s chosen Home Group, Wednesday night’s Better Late Than Never Group (Non-smoking) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital just two blocks down from the House. There is something queerly poignant about a deeply faded tattoo, a poignancy something along the lines of coming upon the tiny and poignantly unfashionable clothes of a child long-since grown up in an attic trunk somewhere (the clothes, not the grown child, Ewell confirmed for G. Day) See, e.g., White Flag’s cantankerous old Francis (‘Ferocious Francis’) Gehaney’s right forearm’s tattoo of a martini glass with a naked lady sitting in the glass with her legs kicking up over the broad flaring rim, with an old-style Rita Hayworth-era bangs-intensive hairstyle. Faded to a kind of underwater blue, its incidental black lines gone soot-green and the red of the lips/nails/SUBIKBAY’62USN-4-07 not lightened to pink but more like decayed to the dusty red of fire through much smoke. All these old sober Boston blue-collar men’s irrevocable tattoos fading almost observably under the low-budget fluorescence of church basements and hospital auditoria — Ewell watched and charted and cross-referenced them, moved. Any number of good old U.S.N. anchors, and in Irish Boston sooty green shamrocks, and several little frozen tableaux of little khaki figures in G.I. helmets plunging bayonets into the stomachs of hideous urine-yellow bucktoothed Oriental caricatures, and screaming eagles with their claws faded blunt, and SEMPER FI, all autolyzed to the point where the tattoos look like they’re just under the surface of a murky-type pond.

A tall silent hard-looking old black-haired BLTN-Group veteran has the terse and hateful single word PUSSY in what’s faded to pond-scum green down one liver-spotted forearm; but yet the fellow transcends even stoic regret by dressing and carrying himself as if the word simply wasn’t there, or was so irrevocably there there was no point even thinking about it: there’s a deep and tremendously compelling dignity about the old man’s demeanor w/r/t the PUSSY on his arm, and Ewell actually considers approaching this fellow re the issue of sponsorship, if and when he feels it’s appropriate to get an AA sponsor, if he decides its germane in his case.

Near the conclusion of this two-month obsession, Tiny Ewell approaches Don Gately on the subject of whether the jailhouse tattoo should maybe comprise a whole separate phylum of tattoo. Ewell’s personal feeling is that jailhouse tattoos aren’t poignant so much as grotesque, that they seem like they weren’t a matter of impulsive self-decoration or self-presentation so much as simple self-mutilation arising out of boredom and general disregard for one’s own body and the aesthetics of decoration. Don Gately’s developed the habit of staring coolly at Ewell until the little attorney shuts up, though this is partly to disguise the fact that Gately usually can’t follow what Ewell’s saying and is unsure whether this is because he’s not smart or educated enough to understand Ewell or because Ewell is simply out of his fucking mind.

Don Gately tells Ewell how your basic-type jailhouse tatt is homemade with sewing needles from the jailhouse canteen and some blue ink from the cartridge of a fountain pen promoted from the breast pocket of an unalert Public Defender, is why the jailhouse genre is always the same night-sky blue. The needle is dipped in the ink and jabbed as deep into the tattooee as it can be jabbed without making him recoil and fucking up your aim. Just a plain ultraminimal blue square like Gately’s got on his right wrist takes half a day and hundreds of individual jabs. How come the lines are never quite straight and the color’s never quite all the way solid is it’s impossible to get all the individualized punctures down to the same uniform deepness in the, like, twitching flesh. This is why jailhouse tatts always look like they were done by sadistic children on rainy afternoons. Gately has a blue square on his right wrist and sloppy cross on the inside of his mammoth left forearm. He’d done the square himself, and a cellmate had done the cross in return for Gately doing a cross on the cellmate. Oral narcotics render the process both less painful and less tedious. The sewing needle is sterilized in grain alcohol, which Gately explains that the alcohol is got by taking mess-hall fruit and mashing it up and adding water and secreting the whole mess in a Ziploc just inside the flush-hole thing of the cell’s toilet, to, like, foment. The sterilizing results of this can be consumed, as well. Bonded liquor and cocaine are the only things hard to get inside of M.D.C. penal institutions, because the expense of them gets everybody all excited and it’s only a matter of time before somebody goes and eats cheese. The inexpensive C-IV oral narcotic Talwin can be traded for cigarettes, however, which can in turn be got at the canteen or won at cribbage and dominoes (M.D.C. regs prohibit straight-out cards) or got in mass quantities off smaller inmates in return for protection from the romantic advances of larger inmates. Gately is right-handed and his arms are roughly the size of Tiny Ewell’s legs. His wrist’s jailhouse square is canted and has sloppy extra blobs at three of the corners. Your average jailhouse tatt can’t be removed even with laser surgery because it’s incised so deep in. Gately is polite about Tiny Ewell’s inquiries but not expansive, i.e. Tiny has to ask very specific questions about whatever he wishes to know and then gets a short specific answer from Gately to just that question. Then Gately stares at him, a habit Ewell tends to complain about at some length up in the Five-Man Room. His interest in tattoos seems to be regarded by Gately not as invasive but as the temporary obsession of a still-quivering Substanceless psyche that in a couple weeks will have forgot all about tattoos, an attitude Ewell finds condescending in the extreme. Gately’s attitude toward his own primitive tattoos is a second-category attitude, with most of the stoicism and acceptance of his tatt-regret sincere, if only because these irrevocable emblems of jail are minor Rung Bells compared to some of the fucked-up and really irrevocable impulsive mistakes Gately’d made as an active drug addict and burglar, not to mention their consequences, the mistakes’, which Gately’s trying to accept he’ll be paying off for a real long time.

tattoo what I am







And this tattoo goes some way towards saying what that i am in here

3 thoughts on “Tattoo me noir too”

  1. Blew my deadline, Collin. Ta verry mooch. Assume you didn’t type this in yourself.

    — DFW addict (may get his initials tatted into me skull.)

  2. I wondered whether it was okay to post an excerpt of this length (3,044 words), but, given the overall length of Infinite Jest (483,944 words), that’s only about 0.006 percent of the total so maybe it’s okay. The earlier ‘tatts’ post focusing on Saint Jack, a much shorter novel, was just 1,142 words, or 0.017 percent of the total 85,000 words or so.
    Christopher G. Moore (, a Bangkok-based novelist and trained lawyer, offers the following opinion in this matter:

    “The law as you might imagine is all over the place. The factors include whether the excerpt is a large chunk of the original. Thus if the original is 2000 words then 1500 words would likely be over the top. Also the judge looks at the purpose: if it is critical review and analysis then that is fair use. In reality most authors would be flattered to have 1500 words discussed and analyzed especially by another writer. IP cases are very expensive to launch and the damages are usually very small that’s why you don’t see many of them especially in Canada.
    Disclaimer: Every case is different and if you are in doubt, consult a lawyer.
    I hope this is of some help.”
    (Christopher G. Moore, from a 12 October 2015 email to me.)

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