Saturday, April 16, 2011
Tattoos in fantasy
I’ll never get a tattoo – don’t like either needles or permanent alterations to my body – but I do like reading about them in fantasy.
Especially when they’re beautiful, as in the case of the marque of courtesans in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Dart. Each courtesan owes a debt to their House, but can use the money they earn to pay for a marque, or tattoo, on their backs. When the tattoo is complete, the debt is paid.
With some effort, I recogmized the underlying design, which was based on a very old pattern, the briar rose. Somehow Master Tielhard had kept the dramatic vigor of the archaic lines, yet infused them with a subtlety that spoke at once of the vine, the bond and the lash. The thorny lines were stark black, accented only in a few choice hollows with a teardrop of scarlet – a petal, a drop of blood, the mote in my eye.
Tattoos, as such, are a mark of station and status. As in real life, they can indicate what a person is, and what organization they belong to. Since it takes time and skill to construct a sufficiently realistic and detailed tattoo, in a fantasy society this can be a sign of a person’s ability to afford one.
I also liked the tattoo in Matthew Woodring Stover’s first novel, Iron Dawn. An assassin has one in the shape of an Egyptian glyph meaning Destroy. Maybe other people, in such a society, might wear prayers for the purpose of defense. Would a vampire be able to feed off someone who had a cross tattooed on his throat?
But tattoos can be a sign of shame and punishment as well. The inmates of concentration camps were forcibly tattooed with identification numbers. In a fantasy society it’s often easier to brand a person, since tattooing means they have to be still for an extended period of time. If that’s feasible, though, and if branding is not desirable, they could be marked accordingly. Maybe someone who narrowly escaped the gallows could have the tattoo of a hangman’s noose around one eye.
In a role-playing gamebook I once read (Blood Sword 5: The Walls of Spyte), a character’s tattoos contained bound demons which she could summon, and there’s a Boris Vallejo painting of a man with a dragon tattooed on his upper arm. The dragon’s upper body rises out of the ink, becoming three-dimensional, and turns its neck to sink tiny fangs into the man’s flesh.
Tattoos can be studded with rhinestones or might incorporate thin slivers of metal embedded into the skin as well. They can be as elaborate as you like – and serve a dozen different purposes.
What tattoos do your characters have?
Picture from here: http://www.ebaumsworld.com/pictures/view/80600827/