Clarissa Murphy will tell you she is two things through and through — an Islander and a bookseller. Murphy first entered the book world at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, and now manages children’s books at the MIT Bookstore in Cambridge.
Last year she decided to take some images that evoked her childhood in Chilmark and her love of books and fables and translate them into body art.
“It was a 25th birthday present to myself,” she said.
Murphy solicited Brooklyn tattoo artist Pony Reinhardt to realize her vision. Three and a half hours and about $900 later, a narwhal, otter, moon, and skates connected by constellations graced her back.
The narwhal, a tusked arctic whale, speaks to her love of myth and Inuit fables, she said. The otter, being a very social animal, symbolizes family to her.
“My mother has always really loved them. I’ve always really loved them. And sea otters, specifically when they sleep, they hold hands. They have very tight-knit communities, which is very Islandy.”
The skates evoke childhood fishing with her uncle, Chris Murphy. Skates were a common catch. Murphy also has fond memories of juvenile skates wriggling under her feet at the beach.
The constellations also speak to her childhood, to stargazing. “That came from sitting on the beach at Quansoo growing up,” she said, “having little fires and watching the stars come out, sort of lying there.”
The images on her skin are not only symbolic but elements in a story.
“The narwhal, she’s Mother Universe,” Murphy said. “She is in charge of the night sky. The three skates are her helpers. And they help her change the constellations through the sky … And then the otter at the bottom of the tattoos, he’s sort of like Father Earth, and he’s holding the moon. He’s in love with Mother Universe. But he can never reach her because he’s tied to the moon, and the moon’s gravitational pull and earth. So he watches for the Milky Way to see where she’s been.”
Murphy is working to transfer the story to printed form.
“I’ve written part of the story, and in doing that sort of found other pieces that maybe someday I’ll add to the tattoo, other creatures and other elements,” she said. “But I haven’t officially finished the story. It’ll be sort of like a creation story like the ones you read when you were a kid.”
Buffalo heart, Brooklyn strings
Lulu Robinson is an occasional Island visitor from Brooklyn. In New York, Robinson is a mental health clinician who advocates for inmates incarcerated on Rikers Island through the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES).
Inmates there often have body art, Robinson said. The environment is “super tough,” and her own body art can act as an icebreaker. It helps to ease first encounters with inmates, she said. “There’s a connection I can have with a client,” she said, regarding their body work and hers.
While her tattoos can bridge certain encounters, in other instances, Robinson said, especially at formal events like dinner parties, she’s felt snubbed unfairly by folks. “Interesting to see how people innately judge you when you’re at those affairs,” she said.
Robinson plays classical bass with the New York Repertory Orchestra. An homage to that is a G clef in two halves atop each of her feet. Together they form a heart.
Many of Robinson’s tattoos evoke her native Buffalo. One of the most dear is a recreation of the logo for the 1901 Pan American exhibition in Buffalo. The tattoo was executed by Buffalo tattooist Jon Mirro. It depicts the anthropomorphized continents of North and South America holding hands at the Isthmus of Panama. Not only does the image hearken back to Buffalo, but it resonates with Robinson’s mother, which was important to her: “It’s exciting to me. It’s the symbolism of home. It’s a piece of art that I know she is familiar with.”
Robinson explained she wanted something vintage, a pictograph capturing Buffalo that’s fully appreciated only by another Buffaficionado: “It’s just a prideful city. A lot of people like to get a Buffalo tattoo, whether that be 716 or whether that be the image of a buffalo or a Buffalo Bill. I was like, let me have an homage to Buffalo that unless you really love and know Buffalo enough in historical context, you would never really recognize.”
Folks can be reminded of their own interest in getting tattoos by observing hers, she noted. “Always a question about the pain, which I continually preface is temporary. Always a question of regret, which I do not have. Sometimes a question behind the meaning, but I stay true to my stories behind each piece, and don’t often share those meanings with everyone. Tattoos are part of me, and in a social context, it’s part of accepting me. I have accepted myself, for my faults and failures to my successes. Tattoos are part of my story, but they are not the whole story, they are simply postcards I’ve picked up along the way.”
Muffaletta spiced with Shai-Hulud
Chris Look is sous-chef at Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. On two sides of his left calf is a polychrome tattoo of his cat, Muffin, who goes by Muffaletta. Muffaletta, who’s 9 years old, hails from a Framingham shelter. The cat was born with an oddly floppy tail. The image of Muffaletta was executed on Look’s leg by an artist originally trained in watercolors, Jessica Guillory.
Look and his girlfriend, Alexandra Pratt, come home to Muffaletta every night. “She was a bit of a whimsy decision,” Look said. “I just really love that tail of hers. She’s pretty awesome in general as well. Whenever I think about Muffin, I always end up thinking about Alexandra, and home and love, so it’s a good reminder.”
In addition to Muffaletta, Look has some book-love ink in the form of a gaping Shai-Hulud, the species of colossal sandworm from Frank Herbert’s magnum opus, “Dune.” “‘Dune’ was my first foray into the unknown, the greater world inside imagination,” he said. “I played the video games, read the books, and finally later in life reread them and understood so much more; at least I think I did. One never knows.”
Widely considered the greatest science fiction novel ever written, “Dune” has commonality with “Moby Dick” or even “Citizen Kane” as a work underappreciated at the outset.
Look described the Shai-Hulud as the linchpins to the whole Dune universe — creatures revered religiously and coveted commercially for the spice they generate that enhances space travel. “They also have a super-cool life cycle, going from living in water as nymphs to absolutely hating it, and even dying from water poisoning once they transform into a proper worm,” he said.
Recently Look and Pratt received tattoos emblematic of the Vineyard — a scallop shell and sargassum. Bay scalloping with his father is something Look treasures. He described his scallop shell tattoo as “one that had a growth problem, so it’s a bit awkward and misshapen. The idea is that life can be messed up, but you can live through quite a lot of [expletive].”
The shell offers the opportunity to ink a timeline, he noted. “I could always add next year’s growth ring. Scallops just keep growing without changing all the [expletive] that came before.”
For his girlfriend, Look said the sargassum seaweed evokes old and new. “Alexandra grew up in Connecticut, and she has lots of memories of coming to the Cape with her family,” he said. “So the seaweed reminds her of those times, as well as her new times here on the Island, and the warmth of summer and the silly times playing with seaweed, being a mermaid, just good times.”
A Greensboro Lumbee in the land of Moshup
Jason Kimball lives in Aquinnah, and works with Cybele McCormack at the Menemsha Deli. Across Kimball’s forearm are a number of Native American motifs interlaced: a tomahawk, an arrowhead, headdresses, and a Lumbee medicine wheel.
“I’m Native American, from the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina,” he said. “My grandmother raised me with a real rich history. My grandfather was the first chief in Greensboro, where I’m from.”
Back in North Carolina, Kimball was a tattooist. All the inkwork on his arm is done by his own hand — not an easy task, he said: “A lot of focus involved.”
“It reminds me of home,” he said of his tomahawk tattoo. “We used tomahawks as tools … we used some for peace pipes as well.”
Kimball said his grandfather influenced his tattoos and his choice to journey to the Vineyard: “[As] the first chief in my hometown, [he] definitely inspired others to follow and not be afraid to venture off on your own.”
For Kimball, the tomahawk and the arrow nearby summon Greensboro at every glance.
“[They] remind me of my culture and where I’m from,” he said, “and how my people used these tools, which automatically puts my mindset to home.”
Kimball said he’s learned a lot about the Wampanoag people through his girlfriend, Faith Smalley, who is Wampanoag. “I’ve definitely thought about incorporating something from the Wampanoag tribe,” he said. “[Their] whaling history is phenomenal.”
Long a whaling people, Wampanoags put the sacred giant Moshup on their seal, depicting him holding a sperm whale aloft by the tail. Ever fastidious in his depiction of 19th century whaling, Melville made sure to include a Wampanoag harpooner aboard the Pequod.
The Lumbee people still fight for full federal recognition, Kimball said. Among the most notable events in Lumbee history was the Battle of Hayes Pond in 1958, when after suffering repeated harassment by the Klu Klux Klan, the Lumbees overwhelmed a Klan rally meant to further intimidate them. The Lumbees prevented the Klan from igniting a cross, routed them, and subsequently burned their abandoned regalia. The battle anniversary is celebrated as a Lumbee holiday.
Kimball also inked the Lumbee medicine wheel on his forearm — a four-quadrant, polychrome disk which is the official seal of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina.
When immersed in other cultures, such as on the Vineyard, Kimball said he always wants to be in touch with his own culture, and his tattoos do that for him. “They definitely give me a sense of home,” he said.