Some time ago, the Denver Post carried an article about a local tattoo artist who redesigns and disguises gang-related tattoos for people who have had a change of heart (or affiliation) — a gang-related bulldog is transformed into a remarkably bulldog-looking gypsy woman; AK-47s become beautiful senoritas in sedate country scenes and a former white supremacist’s swastika-covered back becomes a Japanese-themed lake scene (yes, but can senoritas be made into AK-47s or a lake into a swastika?).
Some reactionaries may cluck, Why would you put on your body a design that, if it had been a birthmark, you would have hidden with hair, clothing, and/or makeup?
I might have joined that chorus but for an article by Lux Eterna, in the journal Art History, entitled New Evidence on an Enduring Question: Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling? And Other Fascinating Secrets of Portraiture, which reveals that many of our most famous portraits actually carry tattoos, though we may not see them. For example:
Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington: In an early sketch, Stuart painted on Washington’s outstretched right hand the words, A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar, but then painted that over with, Among the vicissitudes incident to life (the beginning of Washington’s first inaugural address), and finally, so it seems at least, gave George the clean hand we know and love.
These successive paint-overs were long considered doodles by a fun-loving artist, who got serious on the final version. But Eterna shows that Washington really did have A rabbi, etc. tattooed on his hand as a crib note (he loved to tell jokes but couldn’t remember the openings). Washington was also a good speaker, but a dunce at memorizing, so, just before his inauguration, he had the opening of his address tattooed over the initial tattoo, also as a crib note (and to make sure he didn’t inadvertently start off with a joke). With the inauguration over, embarrassed that his right hand looked more like a blacksmith’s than a President’s, he had a tattoo of a tattoo-free hand put on over the inaugural tattoo.
Stuart was obsessive about detail, which explains his insistence on representing the Rabbi tattoo accurately. But he was also slow, and was finishing up Washington’s legs by the time the President got his inaugural-address tattoo, so Stuart redid Washington’s right palm faithfully and in detail.
Interestingly, it was not Stuart who painted over that second tattoo. He was proud of his display of technique in the perfect rendering of the tiny letters and wanted to keep it, but Washington thought it undignified, so he snuck into Stuart’s studio one night and daubed flesh-tone over the tattoo in the portrait. Stuart, who was too cheap to get new glasses, never noticed the change. This explains why Washington’s right palm resembles Mickey Mouse’s more than it does a normal human hand.
Michelangelo’s David: Millions of viewers have missed what scholars have long known: low on David’s left calf is carved the word Okay and, on the back of his left knee, So far so good, and finally, on the inside of his left thigh, NOW WE’RE TALKIN’ BUSINESS! Scholars had speculated that these were Michelangelo’s notes to himself — encouragement as he worked his way up the figure, words he had intended, but forgotten, to remove. Eterna, however, contends that, in that case, the words would have been in Italian, but are, in fact, in Hebrew, and are faithful reproductions of actual tattoos on David’s left leg. Eterna leaves the puzzle of their meaning to his readers.
da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: Speculation on why she appears to be smiling have ranged from Won the lottery, but just a little to Recently found out she’s pregnant, but just a little. The answer comes down to two tattoos (try saying that after three martinis).
Lisa traveled regularly among Tuscan cities to arrange franchises for her husband’s pizza empire. But different cities, formerly hostile Guelph or Ghibelline-dominated territories, were now divided between the Sharks and the Jets (i Sharki and i Jetti).
Lisa had a Sharki tattoo just below her right ear, where the fall of her hair covered it, and a Jetti tattoo similarly below her left ear. When she had to cross from one gang turf to the other, she would pull back her hair to reveal the appropriate tattoo, and be allowed to pass.
da Vinci’s work on the painting came just after Lisa had concluded a particularly challenging trip when, crossing constantly from territory to territory, she had to think fast and present the right tattoo. Her face shows relief tempered by apprehension. We can sense her whispering to herself: Sharki a destra; Jetti a sinistra.
To be accurate, but still to keep her little secret, da Vinci painted i Jetti below her left ear, but then painted over it with the natural fall of her dark hair. I Sharki, he didn’t worry about since it’s out of sight anyway.
So, there we are. American bodies nowadays may sport more ink than the Sunday New York Times but at least there’s artistic precedent. As George, David, or Lisa might have said: Tattoos aren’t so bad looking and they’re also practical. Unlike lipstick, eye shadow, or acne cream, they never smudge and never have to be reapplied. That’s important if you need them in a pinch.