The Tattoo Artist


The Tattoo Artist, by Jill Cimemt is an enchanting short novel, beautifully executed and deceptively simple in plot.

The story begins in 1918. Sara Ehrenreich, daughter of Jewish immigrants, works as a shopgirl on Manhattan's Lower East Side. One night at a lecture series, she hears a man speak about art, politics, and revolution. This man is Philip, and it is with him that Sara falls in love, learns about Marxism, and discovers she is an artist. Philip has money from his parents, Sara sells her paintings, and they live this way until the Depression when the money runs out. When an art collector offers Philip a job collecting masks from native islanders in the South Seas, the two jump at the chance.

Accidentally marooned on the first island they stop at, Philip and Sara attempt to make a life with the Ta'un'uus. Thirty years later Sara returns to New York City, completely covered in tattoos, famous for a photo of her in Life magazine. As is the way of the native Ta'un'uus, each design represents an important piece of Sara's life, and as we get to know what they mean to her, Sara's story really unfolds.

Beautifully and simply written with haunting distance, it is almost impossible not to fall into this book and keep reading until it is finished. What starts as a dream of revolution and peaceful utopia ends in a much quieter examination of the meaning of home, from Sara's Eastern European ancestry to the cramped apartments of Manhattan to the sunlit shores of Ta'un'uu. Written on a scale both grand and small, this might be the perfect book for anyone whose ever had that dislocated feeling of returning from a journey but not really coming home.

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