One of the ideas that we talked about in class was that of mimetic desire. In Albert Wendt’s “Cross of Soot,” the young boy is impressed with the tattoo on the character Samasoni. When the muscle-bound role model flexes, the bird comes alive to the boy and all at once, he knows that he wants a tattoo, too. His sudden decision to get a tattoo is based on his desire to be like Samasoni; he believes that getting inked (or sooted) will bring him closer to his goal.
In Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back,” the character of young O.E. Parker has a similar experience. While at a fair, he sees a man completely covered in tattoos from head to toe. This ignites a slow, but wild desire within him to get a tattoo, “It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.” (p.427)
Both boys were young when they were first exposed to tattoos, and both had the same reaction: to paraphrase, “I want that!” In both cases, the initial desire is to get a tattoo because- to put it simply- they look cool. Upon further character analysis, however, it seems that both the characters of the young boy in “Cross of Soot” and Parker in “Parker’s Back” want the tattoo as a sort of compensation. The young boy associates Samasoni’s tattoo with his masculinity, his muscles, and his adulthood. He thinks that if only he can get a tattoo as well, he, too, could be something of a man.
Parker’s character also sees the tattoo as a vehicle through which to propel change. He thinks that his tattoos make him attractive to girls that would otherwise not give him the time of day. He tries to keep adding on to his collection of tattoos, only to end up feeling a general disappointment. Something is missing in his life, and no amount of tattoos will ever be able to fill that void. This is evident because the more tattoos he attains, the more unhappy he becomes. The impulsive branding does little to help him become the person he wants to be.
In both stories, what originally seemed to be mimetic desire, simple mimicry, are actually attempts to compensate for a larger inadequacy (or mental supposition of an inadequacy). We learn that a tattoo is not able to change a person, augment or improve their life or person. The only changes that a tattoo can bring about are mental ones, which can then bring about physical or personal results. In this way, a tattoo has a kind of placebo effect. The lesson is as old as the art itself: if you’re not enough without something, you’ll never be enough with it.