Infinite Summer

Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos
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Author:  paris [ Sat Jul 11, 2009 2:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

From a longer post about racism at ... d-tattoos/

It is on the issue of tattoos (and especially prison tattoos) that I have had my first genuine irritation with DFW. At pp. 205-211, DFW describes Tiny Ewell's fixation on tattoos to compensate for "removal of the enslaving Substance" (p. 205).

The first annoying problem comes with Don Gately's deliberately misleading Ewell as to the source of jailhouse tattoos, presumably done with sewing needles dipped in ink and jabbed into the skin at different depths: "this is why jailhouse tatts always look like they were done by sadistic children on rainy afternoons" (p. 210). Does he really think that prisoners are given sewing needles?! These are totally contraband. Jailhouse tattoos are typically done with homemade (i.e. cell-made) electric tattoo guns, using wire or guitar string connected to a small motor (say, from a radio) and fed through a pen cartridge. Is this Gately simply toying with Ewell, or does DFW simply assume how most jail tatts are made?

There is one more strange - and maybe so far as ignorant? - comment from Ewell: that "Black people's tattoos are rare, and for reasons Ewell regards as fairly obvious they tend to be just white outlines" (p. 208). Huh? Most readers have seen an N.B.A. basketball game, and won't see any white outlines draping the outsized arms of Rasheed Wallace or, a fine example from the years of IJ's writing, Dennis Rodman. Or from any other Black man or woman, whose skin, as we all know, can take on many different hues of brown. This comment, I find genuinely disturbing.

Author:  good old neon [ Sat Jul 11, 2009 3:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

Joint ink starts out as one color. Blue. It may turn black or purple according to the sun and the skin pigment but it usually starts out blue. If you see other colors besides blue, or it’s variations, the tat probably is not a true joint tat. There are two ways of giving a tat. Free hand, which most are, or machine. Free hands a no brainer. You get some ink, usually out of a pen, and you dip a needle, usually a straight pen, and you use the Polynesian method. That is a series of dots to form a picture or word. These tats are crude and sloppy and very noticeable.

The second method is the machine. A home made tat machine consists of a slot car motor, a hollowed out ball point pin, some guitar string and a 9 volt battery. Oh ya and the ink. The hollowed out pen is wired or taped to the motor facing away from it. The guitar string is wrapped around the arm of the motor and run through the pen so it sticks out about a 16th of an inch out the end. Hook up a flashlight battery and its tat time. When the battery is hooked up, the motor arm vibrates which moves the guitar string back and forth rapidly in and out of the end of the pen and as long as you keep dipping the end in the ink, you can create a tattoo. Machine ink jobs are more detailed because of the method but also because they are usually done with stencils. Getting caught giving a tat or getting one in the joint is a serious crono. You remember, a 115. A write up. It spreads decease inside the institution.

source - ... /index.htm

Author:  MikePemulis [ Sat Jul 11, 2009 3:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

Both of these niggling problems for you occurred to me too. Thing is, I don't think we should necessarily assume that the ignorance of these characters = DFW's ignorance. They are, after all, characters with opinions, varying degrees of intelligence etc. While it is absolutely possible that these instances highlight ignorance on the author's part, his characters say and do A LOT of stupid shit that are a part of their character, not DFW's. I'm comfortable giving him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, in such a large text, there are bound to be little details that any one of us will feel compelled to challenge because we might be privy to a more accurate insight than the author (re: the equipment used to make jail tattoos). I see no reason why DFW would know the ins and outs of the process, nor any real reason to criticise for making a mistake. It's not of any great bearing on the novel, if indeed it was a mistake on Wallace's part rather than Ewell's.

Author:  troybob [ Sat Jul 11, 2009 3:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

Well, IJ makes no claims to historical accuracy; techies could probably fill a book with what they view as technological inaccuracies, improbabilities, and impossibilities; um, lemon pledge; a filmography that includes works that are not filmable; children throwing themselves in front of trains; and also, the novel is set in (at the time of its writing) in a vague near-future in which, who knows, prisoners might be allowed to sew and white-outline tattoos might have gained some popularity. Why suspend disbelief on any range of other speculative elements and expect accuracy in others?

Some authors of fiction strive for scientific/historical/cultural accuracy in their work in order to make it a richer experience, but many authors do just fine forgetting about it and creating a universe with rules they make up as they go along; and really, often an inaccurate fictional representation of something real is more compelling and serves the author's purpose more readily.

I think the truth in IJ is found in its commentary on certain aspects of the human condition--and even that is valid, really, in a limited range of human experience.

There are people who enjoy applying a kind of scientific analysis to Star Wars and Star Trek, which is interesting up to the point where they find fault in (and in some cases, resentment toward) the author for not getting it "right." When it has gone that far, the critic has likely missed the point of the work altogether.

Author:  paris [ Sat Jul 11, 2009 8:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

Thanks, Neon, for the reminder that free hand tattoos still exist. (And by the way, nice job on the signature line by Cormac M., that's beautiful!)

Mike P., I'm definitely open to the idea that these are affectations of the characters above all. I'm glad I wasn't the only one to be nagged by this. These comments, excerpted from my blog, actually come at the end of a lengthy defense of DFW's "yrstruly" passages, which are currently getting some Infinite Summer scrutiny.

Troy, you're right about creating a world, though inquiring into the details of that world doesn't mean that we have to lose the terrific vision of the human condition we are offered. Many of us are indeed here to see if that world turns out to be a sufficiently tensile strand from which we may haul ourselves from a broken, stupid world into one that has hope for human experiences.

Author:  joel [ Sun Jul 12, 2009 10:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

I completely agree with troy. The aspects about which people seem to be bothered most about seem to be there for story and character purposes anyway, and to say that DFW is being "inaccurate" is, I think, missing the point.

I don't think that art's purpose is to directly reflect the real world. The truth is that the real world rarely makes a good story. The structure of a good narrative usually has to be unified, and it relies upon so many neat coincidences and authorial manipulation to achieve this unification.*

The anger that Oprah welled up across the nation toward A Million Little Pieces shows a simple misunderstanding of the nature of writing. Sure, it may have been wrong to describe the book as a completely true story. But to think that the story becomes worthless once it can no longer be viewed as completely truthful misses the point entirely. I'd be willing to argue that an author who is good enough can create a fabricated story that is far more meaningful than a story that perfectly relates events of the real world.

*You might argue that IJ isn't actually unified, but I'd beg to differ. It's simply not unified in the traditional, chronological, linear manner. DFW unifies IJ with a serious amount of repetition, of themes and motifs and otherwise. He diverges more than others, but he unifies for sure, perhaps even better than most.

Author:  Emkay [ Mon Jul 13, 2009 4:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tiny Ewell (& DFW?) gets it wrong about Tattoos

I think we need to distinguish between factual writing and fiction-writing. In factual writing, the writer has a duty to report what has actually happened, to the best of their knowledge/observation. It is a given that everything the reporter experiences will be run through their own perceptual filter, and also that they may misremember/misinterpret such. However, if a writer is going to present their writing as factual, they have a duty to stick to actual occurrences as closely as possible, or at least notate when they stray. The issue with A Million Tiny Pieces was not that Frey took a few liberties with the facts, it is that he out-and-out lied about the book being "true", as in not just peripherally based on a few things that happened to him, but an actual account of his experiences in the grip of addictive Substances. It is well-known that he initially tried to sell the manu as fiction, and failing there, chose to re-present it as autobiographical. What wrought Oprah's wrath was less that he spun some tales and more that his story was presented to her as a record of his difficult-yet-ultimately-successful struggle with his addictions; touting him as an inspiration and finding him a fraud was what angered and embarrassed her.
Fiction-writing is composed of, well, fictions. Fictions that may have some or a large basis in fact, that have also been run through the writer's perceptual filter(s), or that may be complete fabrications (Lemon Pledge as sunscreen, anyone?) as dictated by the creator's whimsy (and/or big ol' brain). A large part of the fun in fiction-writing is having the constraints of fact loosened, and a large part of the fun in fiction-reading is being able to let go and follow their sometimes loopy application, or lack thereof.
Also, I have personally observed indelible tattoos applied via a)fountain pen (inadvertently) and b) a pushpin dipped repeatedly in ball-point-pen ink, then thunked into flesh.

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