Mimetic desire describes the motivation a person feels when they see something that another person has and then he/she wants it too. In Albert Wendt’s “The Cross of Soot,” the boy sees Samasoni’s shimmering eagle tattoo and immediately wants a tattoo of his own. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Parker’s Back,” the protagonist goes to a fair and sees a man whose body is covered in tattoos; Parker gets his first tattoo a short time later. Both the boy and Parker get tattoos as a result of mimetic desire; however, the characters do not experience mimetic desire in the same way. Tattoos represent different things to the boy and Parker so they are drawn to the art by different desires. The boy in Wendt’s short story sees Samasoni’s tattoo as a symbol of strength; Parker sees the carnival show man’s tattoos as distinguishing marks. “Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed” (O’Connor 427). While the boy wants to be respected as a mature, strong member of the (prison) society, Parker merely wants to be viewed as something, anything so long as he is distinguished. By becoming distinguished from others, Parker also hopes to be accepted and to find his place among others.
The tattoos not only signify different things to the boy and Parker, they also bear different results once on their bodies. The boy in Wendt’s short story becomes a man when he gets his tattoo. Although his tattoo is not the traditional full body male tatau, it still puts his young body “through the pain to be endured to prepare for life, and recognizes its growing maturity and ability to serve the community” (Wendt “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” 401). For the first time, the boy is “no longer afraid to stare straight at her [his mother] when she was angry with him. He had changed, grown up” (Wendt 20). When the boy receives his cross of soot, he realizes for the first time the fate that awaits Tagi and the other prisoners. His trips to the prison are no longer amusing excursions, but a place where he must leave his childhood behind. He becomes connected with Samasoni, the old man, and Tagi and his tattoo represents his maturation and new strength.
Parker’s tattoos do not represent strength or growth, but rather weakness and isolation. Instead of connecting him with society, his tattoos separate him from everyone, including his wife. Parker’s fascination with tattoos springs from his desire to be different from the people around him, yet at the same time to be noticed as special and to be accepted by others. In his essay “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Wendt notes, “In a deep psychological, mythological, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood, of testing it to see if it can bear the pain of being in a human body, of storying it, giving it human design, shape, form, and identity (Wendt “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” 409). Parker stories his body with tattoos; whenever he is angry or emotional, he relieves his feelings, thereby making permanent that moment of heightened feeling, with a new tattoo. Parker wants a story, significance and he believes that tattoos will transfer meaning into his blood and being. O’Connor writes, “Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he [Parker] would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched” (O’Connor 428). Parker does not ever find fulfillment with his tattoos because they do not reflect any inner growth, as the boy’s tattoo does in “Cross of Soot.” Inking the skin does not change what is inside. Together, O’Connor and Wendt’s stories suggest that tattoos only have connective power when maturation and growth have already occurred.