In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back,” one repeated motif is the idea that Parker’s tattoos exist with a life of their own. Each tattoo has its own being and Parker seems unable control them. This is especially true when one considers the necessary fact that tattoos are subjective, and for better or worse are subject to the interpretation of observers. While these tattoos to some degree exist for themselves, O’Connor also hints at the fact that they reflect the world that Parker inhabits on his own body.
O’Connor writes that Parker began to create his tattoo himself with “lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles” (428). Following his original exposure to tattoo and his submission to his mimetic desire to obtain one, his initial tattoos lacked the “life” that characterized his later creations; they were the result of his travels with the navy – at time at which he felt lifeless himself as “a natural part of the grey mechanical ship” (428). Quickly, however, his tattoos appear to have taken on a different nature; specifically, they appear to have a life of their own: “the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a ranging warfare” (429). As his tattoos charted Parker’s history, they also controlled his future, compelling him to seek an unknown satisfaction through this art. It is his dissatisfaction that ultimately leads him to the tattoo the Byzantine Christ. The fact that he limits his tattoos to the front half of his body is significant: it is a place where he can read them and assign significance to them himself.
The Byzantine Christ appears as an example of purposes and effects of tattoo, and perhaps of writing. The figure has spiritual, “all demanding eyes” (436) which parallel Parker’s eyes from earlier in the story: they reflected the “immense spaces around him” (428) on his navy ship. The Christ both reads and reflects the world around Parker and the world within Parker. To some degree it even causes action, such as the bar fight. Importantly, as an element of writing, it was still subjected to interpretation: the men at the pub believe it was simply a symbol of spiritual “witness;” Paker’s wife Sarah Ruth ultimately denounces it as idolatry. In these ways, the tattoo both exists as a “live” being within itself, and at the same time is reflective of Parker and the world around him.