The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment

In The Tattoo Artist, Sara Ehrenreich is an Amelia Earhart of avant-garde art, a disappeared person who re-enters the United States thirty years aftertattoo artist she and her husband are presumed dead on a distant South Pacific island.

As a restless teenager drawn to radical ideas, Sara is seduced, physically and mentally, by Philip Ehrenreich, a flamboyant free-thinker who is an incessant lover of art, if not much of an artist.  He discovers and nurtures Sara’s talents and the two ride high in the heady world of New York City during the roaring 1920s.  When the Great Depression hits, their finances vanish.  As Philip negotiates the sale of his valued set of masks, the buyer offers to finance the couple’s journey to remote areas of Polynesia to collect more masks and artifacts for his collection, and they leave the country in 1939.

What appears to be an easy commission goes wrong very quickly.  At first, Philip and Sara gain a tentative trust from a tribesman and his granddaughter, and come close to making a deal with them.  However, the tribe blames the Ehrenreichs for a tragedy that happens during a brutal storm, and exact revenge on them by tattooing their faces.  Disfigured and marooned, they eventually accept their fate and adopt the ways of the islanders.  But back luck is not finished with the couple – Philip and several other men are killed when Japanese soldiers invade the island.

Sara mourns Philip, perseveres, and continues to add art onto her body until tattoos cover most of it.  The tribe accepts her as one of their own, and she becomes an esteemed member of the community. 

Around late 1969, rumors of Sara’s continued existence prompt a team from Life Magazine to come calling, and they convince her to return to Manhattan – a culture shock for sure, but with some things still familiar.  She sees a videotaping of the moon landing, negotiates the confusing traffic of the city, and sneaks into a museum to view her own early art – all while relearning how to wear shoes.

I found The Tattoo Artist a fascinating read, an interesting study of how one manages to straddle two widely different cultures.  The end of the book leaves you hanging, in that we’re not sure whether Sara will stay in the modern world or go back to the island.  The last brief chapter expresses her longing when she draws her final tattoo, which will explain the book cover.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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