When I visited Paris a couple of years ago with an ex, we did the tourist thing for a bit, which of course included a visit to The Louvre. We saw the Mona Lisa, some Van Goghs, a few other extremely famous paintings–then while we were descending a stairway to look at a room full of sketches, I caught sight of something truly arresting. I’ve always appreciated art, but I must admit that I’m not really stricken with awe by most paintings. I prefer photography and, I discovered on this trip, sculpture. There, in the stairway, was the only piece of art that has given me goosebumps: the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
The sculpture is of the goddess Nike, the goddess of Victory, and dates back to sometime B.C. (I’ve forgotten the date and am not feeling the necessity to look it up). It was discovered, partially destroyed, centuries after its creation. The goddess’s head and arms are missing, but a massive set of imposing wings are intact, outstretched behind her. I stopped in the stairwell and stared, while my ex anxiously shuffled his feet–to him, this visit was merely a “must-see,” and he didn’t appear truly awed by much of anything we saw, much less paralyzed on a stone step as I was, completely transfixed.
Ever since I saw the Winged Victory, I’ve wanted to get it as a tattoo. I’ve spent hours online looking for the right image–one that would translate correctly to the flesh, retaining the power of the image as much as possible. About a year ago, I was trading images of the sculpture with my friend Dave, a MySpace buddy who I’d never met in person. He sent me a few shots that I liked, and I added them to my library of “Winged Victory” images. In addition to finding the right shot, I needed to decide where on my body I’d like to have the Victory. I pondered putting it on my upper arm, but I’ve shied away from tattooing my arms for unknown reasons. I concluded that the best place to put it would be on my shoulder–my right shoulder, so that the wings would reach up and out from my shoulderblade and appear almost as though I had a wing of my own.
A couple months after the initial image trade with Dave, I received a picture message on my cell phone from an unknown number. The photo was of a girl’s back, with an amazing tattoo of the Winged Victory in exactly the place I wanted to get it. Damn, I thought. I guess I’m not so original after all. It took me a minute to realize that it was Dave who had sent me the message. I figured, since Dave is sort of an internet research guru and can find almost anything online, that he’d found the image on a website somewhere. Still, I asked: Whose back is that? For a couple hours, I received no response. Finally, a message came in: My psycho ex.
For a moment, I considered the possibility that my cyber-friend, whom I’d never met and should therefore not really consider a friend (though I did, and still do, and we’ve actually met now), had thought my idea was so cool that he’d shared it with this girl and she’d gone and swiped my idea. No, Dave told me when I asked him if this was the case, she came into town and boasted of a new tattoo, and when he saw it, he was shocked.
Though there is an incredibly small chance that I will ever meet Dave’s “Psycho ex,” or even encounter anyone who has met her besides Dave, I am nonetheless reluctant to get the tattoo now. The tattoos I do have, with the exception of the first one I got professionally (the Chinese symbol for “pleasure” on my back, which I had done when I was 18) are carefully chosen, and as far as I know, unique to me. While I understand that it’s a near certainty that there will be other people in the world who have the Winged Victory tattooed on them, as there are millions who have seen the sculpture and surely some of them were as taken aback by it as I was, still it makes me uncomfortable to know that I have a friend who’s seen the tattoo. In the exact spot I wanted to put it.
I’ve toyed with the idea of putting the tattoo in a different place, but the only place it belongs is on my right shoulder blade. That’s all there is to it. So, I either get it where it belongs–and have the exact same tattoo as someone’s Psycho Ex (not exactly someone I want to share a taste in ink with), or I do not get it at all. This, along with poverty and procrastination, is the reason my flesh is not currently adorned with the goddess of victory in all her stone glory.
My friend Jamie is coming up either tomorrow or next week, and we are going to get tattooed. Jamie knows exactly what she wants, and where she wants it. I would love to get the Victory, but a) can’t afford it, and b) have yet to make up my mind as to whether I want it at all anymore.
I know that my reluctance may sound unnecessarily indignant, but to me, a tattoo is a statement of identity–a marking which makes a claim not only of that person’s likes, loves and history, but of who they are. With this thought in mind, I’ve considered my other tattoos–”Belonging to the ocean” in Sanskrit; “Wander” and “Experience” in Japanese on my ankles; a Beastie figure on my neck in honor of my mother–and I’ve started to wonder if I have any business putting the Victory on my body at all, regardless of the other girl who’s already done it. After all, victory and the quest for it are not very high up on my list of important ideals. I don’t believe in war, and I feel most often that people who are on a quest for victory are willing to do almost anything in order to attain it, including damaging other people without regard–and that is an ideal I do not agree with. On the flip side, what the mythological significance of the sculpture is was never what drew me to it, or had me eager to preserve the image for posterity on my skin. The thing was just so goddamned beautiful, and I do appreciate beauty, particularly damaged beauty.
On Wednesday, I will most likely have a Latin phrase inked on the inside of my right wrist: Verba volant; Scripta manent. Translation: Spoken words fly away; Written words remain. As far as I know, this is mine and mine alone, tattoo wise. And it’s small, which means it’s cheap, and that’s what I can afford.
On a more philosophical level, a writer cannot afford to go chasing after victory, anyhow. They must be satisfied instead with the pursuit of small, indelible truths–because in time, the ever-pursued victory will spread its legendary wings and fly away too, ceasing to matter in the long run. But then again, there’s a certain melancholy beauty to destroyed victory…