Personal Ink: Adrian Van Young’s “quoth the raven” tattoo story

Whether it’s a decision based on love or tequila, a tattoo remains on your skin forever. Inspired by the book Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them, our monthly column, Personal Ink, showcases the art that illustrators and authors have decided to permanently display on their bodies. In their own words, they let us in on the secrets and stories behind their tattoos, sharing how the images relate to both their lives and their work.

This month we’re featuring Adrian Van Young, author of the short story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. His first novel, Shadows in Summerland, is forthcoming in 2016 from ChiZine Publications, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate, The Believer and The American Reader.

He is also, as you’ll learn, a great lover of Edgar Allen Poe—so much so that he tattooed the iconic author’s face on his arm. Here’s the story of Van Young’s tattoo, and how loving one writer’s work has influenced his own:

Adrian Van Young: I got this tattoo of the so-called “Ultima Thule” 1848 daguerrotype of Edgar Allan Poe at Fine Line in NYC’s East Village from the talented and gregarious Mihai when I was 23 or 24. There was good music on in the shop at the time—Electric Wizard, Orange Goblin. Mihai had done a previous tattoo for me when I was in college—a still from 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—and we talked about the movie, I seem to recall, and maybe we talked about Poe a bit, too.

Since he lives on the tenderest part of my arm, the shading for his under-eyes and jowls was pretty rough, though nothing compared to Caligari, who lives in a spot high and left of my back (that German Expressionist mis-en-scene has lots of geographic frills). All in all, Poe took three hours.

I got the piece, initially, because I thought tattoos looked cool. I grew up in San Diego in the 90’s and was very much involved in the punk/hardcore scene there, in which everyone basically had tattoos and so I developed a taste early on. But more than that I am a writer of slow burn, 19th-century-inflected supernatural fiction who has been enamored of Poe from a very young age (for a funnier, longer take on this see Michael Chabon’s wonderful essay “I Was Edgar Allan Poe”).

Indeed, so far as I can recall, Poe was the first writer for whom I truly felt an affinity. I’m guessing this is not uncommon amidst the age group where you typically first read him: middle school and early high school. The takeaway at that age, though, is often the more gruesome elements of him: his murderous apes and his flesh-eating rats and his kindly old men left to rot beneath floors. Your teacher could even be teaching him right—unreliability, symbology, etc.—and you’ll still come away with the splatter, the screams.

When I revisited Poe in college and then with some frequency in the years that followed, all the while becoming more and more serious about my ill-advised career as an author of highly idiosyncratic fiction, I was increasingly struck by the intellect operating behind all that depravity. Not in a Titus Andronicus-way (poor Poe, he had yet to come into his own!) but rather of someone who’s carved out his niche, ennobling the bloodshed and the madness he exults in. His stories are these little charges, calibrated precisely to have their effect, and when that effect has died down in the reader—when M. Valdemar has decayed on the slab, the House of Usher cracked asunder—the echoes spiral down and down into caverns of mystery and moral displacement with what strikes me now as a modern technique. Alice Munro’s stories end in this way. So do Dan Chaon’s, Karen Russell’s, Brian Evenson’s— all of them, surely, descendents of Poe. This always keeps him fresh for me.

Young’s Poe tattoo.

In many ways, having his face glowering out from the inside of my bicep represents not only my commitment to being a writer (Poe, who died in poverty in 1849 partly due to this inability to excel at anything else, was nothing if not committed) and a lifelong immersion in Gothic aesthetics, but also my journey as a writer out of the stomach-churning grotesqueries of boyhood and young adulthood and into the terrifying ambiguities of adulthood. The work has turned this way, then that. Poe has been there all along. The “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype has Poe looking rough after a recent laudanum-fueled suicide attempt. His expression is grave, melancholic and searing—maybe even a bit existentially arch.

A few years after I got the portrait at Fine Line, I would undergo surgery in Boston (where Poe was born) for a long-standing cholesteatoma in my right ear. Since the enzymes produced by the growth had started to corrupt the small conducting bones behind my eardrum, in surgery the eardrum had to be destroyed and recreated with skin that was grafted from my inner arm. The epidermis, in this case, came from under Poe’s cravat. While my life, with a little luck, will never be as hard as Poe’s, you cannot say my love for him has come without its share of pain.