Literary “Ink”: Behind Penguin’s Tattoo Covered Modern Classics

In Guest Contributors by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

• Literary “ink” is hip and Penguin has reissued six modern classics with cover art drawn by famous tattoo artists.

• Repackaging backlist every couple years requires a leap of the imagination to keep the covers fresh and the customers buying.

NEW YORK: The late novelist David Foster Wallace was inked. A writer famous for his footnotes, he even had one tattooed on his body: Earlier in his life he had the name of his one-time girlfriend, author Mary Karr, tattooed on his arm inside a heart. Later, when he met his wife, recounted D.T. Max in the New Yorker following his death,“Wallace put a strikeout through Mary’s name on his tattoo and an asterisk under the heart; farther down he added another asterisk and Karen’s [his wife-to-be’s] name, turning his arm into a living footnote.”

I have no idea if Helen Fielding, J.M. Coetzee, Martin Amis, Keri Hulme, or Ian Fleming have or had tattoos. Still, each of them have been given the tattoo treatment by their publisher Penguin, which has re-issued editions of their seminal works with covers designed by tattoo artists, including Duke Riley, Christopher Conn Askew, and Bert Krak, as well as Tara McPherson, who is not technically a tattoo artist –- but is covered in them.

Literary tattoos are a familiar site these days ( One of our favorite contributors, Chad Post, has the mysterious postal horn from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 on the inside of his arm, as does the L.A. Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg (W.A.S.T.E. Is also a popular Pynchon tattoo). A book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, edited by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor will be published in the fall by HarperPerennial, and Shelly Jackson is still recruiting volunteers to help her publish her short story “Skin,” what she calls a “mortal work of art,” which is being tattooed one word on individuals. She began in 2003 and is up to 1875 volunteers thus far.

The new editions in Penguin’s “Ink” series include Wallace’s The Broom of the System (illustrated by Duke Riley), Coetzee’s Waiting for Barbarians (illustrated by Christopher Conn Askew ), Amis’ Money (illustrated by Bert Krak), Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (illustrated by Tara McPherson) as well as, Fleming’s From Russia with Love, and Hulme’s The Bone People –- all of which went on sale this week.

Penguin associate editor Tom Roberge, who was at Penguin only a few short months before becoming responsible for developing the series, said that the original idea was initiated by art director Paul Buckley.

“Paul’s been a longtime fan of the art of tattooing,” said Roberge. “So, I don’t think Paul cares too much about whether or not tattoos are everywhere at the moment -– he just thought that this was a group of artists with iconic styles that hadn’t yet been used to design book covers. When he came to me with the idea, as someone with a few tattoos inspired by literature and others as well, I was of course enthused. When it came time to choosing which books would be a part of the series, we decided that instead of redesigning Penguin Classics, we’d select modern classics, if you will.”

Roberge himself has three literary tattoos: Including a quote from The Satanic Verses, “What kind of an idea are you?”, the woodcut of the “Dreamtiger” done by Antonio Frasconi for the University of Texas’s edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s book of the same name -– which will be featured in Word Made Flesh –- and a reproduction of the image of Vladimir and Estragon traversing a moonlit hill, with the lonely tree some way off from an older Grove edition of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Asked if this was an attempt to market to a younger demographic, Roberge said it wasn’t. “The idea for the concept was based primarily on an aesthetic vision, and the trick was matching that with titles from our backlist,” he said. “In my opinion it worked. I suppose that we’ve inadvertently put together a collection of titles that every college senior should read, but that wasn’t the goal, and the same could be said of our Classics, as well. After all, these books have settled into the culture the same way modern tattoo art has, so it felt like the right thing to do was pair the artists we liked with contemporary books from our list.”

Four covers from series are featured in Penguin 75, a showcase of 75 Penguin paperback covers from recent years, published to coincide with Penguin’s 75th anniversary. The book features some revealing commentary from the designers and the authors themselves about how they feel about the covers. (It’s full of little gems, such as the debate that rages over the cover art for the book 100 Things About Pandas which ends with the authors facetiously calling the team at Penguin “crappy publishing jerks.”)

In Penguin 75 art director Buckley notes that the amount of talent in the field of tattoo artistry is “staggering.” He, added, “and while I can’t say it’s ‘untapped,’ I do think it’s fair to say that they are ‘underutilized’ as far as commercial assignments are concerned.”

Of course, tattoo artists come from a different world, one where people come in, request a drawing, the artist does the work and gets paid, often in cash. Some, writes Buckley, were frustrated with the geriatric pace of the publishing process, with one guy getting so peeved during the revision process that he kept yelling into the phone “Do you have any idea JUST WHO I AM??!”

Overall, though, Buckley deems the experience a positive one, albeit one with a “steep learning curve.”

With the monkey-see, monkey-do world of book cover art, you can expect to see to see tattoo-inspired covers to crop up again on covers sometime soon. After all, just this morning I saw a new Harper editions of books by the Bronte sisters, with black and red cover art that looked nearly identical from a distance to Stepehenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

Of course, it will take a certain kind of edgy book to fit the paradigm.

“A cover for The Mill on the Floss designed by a tattoo artist just wouldn’t make sense,” said Roberge.

DISCUSS: What inspires you to buy redundant classics for your library?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.