SKIN DEEP by Karol Griffin


Tattoos, The Disappearing West, Very Bad Men, and My Deep Love for Them All
Email this review


Life of a bad-girl tattoo artist with retrograde tendencies, set in a rapidly changing West.

“Growing up western,” writes Wyoming native Griffin in her debut memoir, “I bought into the romantic myth of tattoos as a mark of the outlaw.” She reacted to her sensible parents’ urgings of education and career by apprenticing herself to Slade, a rough-edged tattooist whose shop stood out amid Laramie’s early-’90s gentrification. Griffin brought a discerning artistic eye to custom tattoo work and to the ordinary designs, known as “flash,” that most customers preferred. In addition to providing a livelihood, tattooing allowed her entree to a seemingly endangered underworld of muscle-car fanatics, embittered ex-ranchers, drug dealers, and other rebellious blue-collar types. Griffin developed acute awareness of tattoo sociology, and she shrewdly comments on the mix of exhibitionism and desire for community that lured both dilettantes and the hardcore “full sleeved” into her shop. Her facile prose captures the harsh yet intriguing Wyoming landscape, and she is perceptive to the point of exhaustion on tattooing’s history, methods, and ramifications. Otherwise, this is mostly a story of men and miles: a brief marriage to an uptight lawyer, the platonic relationship with Slade, and affairs with macho criminal types who meet bad ends (including one who impregnates, batters, and stalks her) in an ongoing narrative of road trips, substance abuse, steamy/coy sex scenes, and ritualized nipple piercing. Elsewhere, Griffin’s observations seem filtered through a tiresome culture-war prism that divides humanity into scorned poseurs (college students, dude-ranch guests, late-blooming yuppies, “candy-assed middle-class punks”) and avatars of authenticity (bikers, cowboys, felons, tattoo obsessives), whom Griffin unabashedly worships. Since her condescension toward the “straight” people who commodified tattoos and gentrified Laramie is matched by her dizzy embrace of brutal, primitive men, her story develops a nagging undertone of dissonant hypocrisy.

Somewhat novel in its concerns, less surprising in its execution.

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 2003
ISBN: 0-15-100884-1
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2003