Reading “Parker's Back” by Flannery O'Connor provides an interesting contrast to the other stories and novels we have been reading concerning tattoos. Parker's multiple tattoos are first presented as a statement of identity, a particular characteristic that makes him unique among the world. This concept is not unlike the motivation that drives most Westerners to get tattooed. It is, however, much different from the attitudes surrounding the traditional tatau of the South Pacific. The tatau is a unifying mark that represents obligation to the community at large. If anything, Parker's tattoos drive him away from any community he has known. He flees his family and travels the world with the navy until he attempts to escape them as well. The tattoos isolate Parker from more than the world; his wife refuses to look at them and considers them marks of sinful vanity. He grows thin and ragged in marriage because his ego is no longer inflated on a regular basis by awed admirers of his inked body.
Parker displays a trend of growing tired with the tattoos he already possesses and feels a persistent itch for a new one. However, he does not see the purpose of getting his back (the only blank spot on his body) tattooed since he would not be able to easily see it. Such sentiments make it clear to the reader that Parker is extremely self-absorbed. His tattoos hold no significant meaning, even to himself in time. Therefore, it is surprising that a freak accident inspires him to get Christ tattooed across his back. He is unsettled throughout the entire process, feeling the strange eyes of Christ on him through the night. Even after the tattoo is completed, Parker is unsure of what he has accomplished. Searching for divine inspiration, he seeks comfort from the most religious person he knows, Sarah Ruth. She is appalled by his actions, however, calling Parker an idolater for possessing a false image of God, who cannot be seen by man.
By the end of the story, Parker is inconsolable. He has covered himself with hollow, empty images that mean nothing of any significance to himself or anyone else. What makes this a tragedy, though, is the fact that Parker had defined his entire life with the images on his flesh. As a result, he is forced to confront his own pointless and unhappy life. This is an unfortunate story in light of the way tataus are treated in Samoa and other island nations in our other readings. They are not mere ornamentation though they do define the bearer in a sense. The tatau gives the young man a purpose and a responsibility to his family and his community, enriching his existence rather than denying it.