Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cartographic Tattoos

Of the several hang-ups that prevent me from inking myself, a big one is how a tattoo will last your entire life: no matter how much you may change as a person, you'll always have some emblem of your past stamped on you. A note to my 70-year-old self: you might be cringing at the turn-of-the-century prose here, but you owe me some thanks for not embarrassing you with a puckered White Whale on your flabby bicep.

Nevertheless, here's a tattoo that strikes me as more interesting because it's almost explicitly designed not to stand the test of time: the cartographic tattoo. Here's one of the city of Portland, via the Strange Maine blog (an 1891 map of the city is on the right, for comparison):

Sure, the cartographic tattoo has some of the same hazards: what if the wearer moves out of town? Or loses her interest in maps? But as the person changes, so will the city: the tattoo will maintain its interest as a historic artifact of how we understood the city in the early 21st century. The city in the tattoo, and it our contemporary mind's eye, is defined by its coastline (in blue), and its highways and principal streets (in red). The railroad lines that featured prominently in the nineteenth-century map are absent from Julia's tattoo, and the coastline has changed, too, as low-lying marshland got filled between the Civil War and the establishment of wetland protection laws in the 1970s.

But fifty years from now, the city's maps will have changed again. The coastline will be somewhere else, as rising sea levels inundate some of the land-filled neighborhoods again; maybe some of the highways will have be gone, and transit routes will figure more prominently. The pleasure of looking at a historic map and reflecting on how a city has changed, in this case, would be amplified by talking with the person who is tattooed. "Hurricane Gordon back in 2012 destroyed this bridge, here. The government couldn't afford to rebuild it so they decommissioned the freeway," she might tell you. Or: "All this was solid ground until 2020, when I was living near this mole, here. That's when they restored the marshes that are there now."

More: Portland, Maine in historic USGS topographical maps

The Strange Maps blog also has a post about a woman who inked an 1896 map of Hannover, Germany on her entire back.


Rachel said...

Who loses interest in cartography?

Julia said...

oh hey, this tattoo belongs to me!

I can say that this map wasn't totally accurate and up to date even when I had it inked onto my arm, accuracy was of course not the point.

It is entirely a sentimental tattoo, Portland is my hometown (I can point out on it where I was born, where I went to high school, my first job, etc.) and of course we've all heard someone say that they'll never regret this or that tattoo, I can't say for sure I won't but of all of my tattoos this is my favorite and means the most, and would still even if someone decided to bulldoze the whole peninsula (god forbid!).