Tattoo Tarot Tantra Part I
NOTE: For those who have already read the following, TATTOO TAROT Part II is now available in SilKMilK MagiZain s p o o l #2
Tattooing is an artform finally coming of age. Although thousands of hack tattooists are still churning out the same old love hearts, skulls and bluebirds, there is an increasing realisation of tattooing's potential for original and creative innovation, while simultaneously being recognised as an ancient sacred initiation rite.
Reclaiming this tribal heritage is a major aspect of the modern tattoo. While contemporary iconography is still employed, the vast resources of designs and symbols from ancient cultures around the world are being incorporated into new work as people acknowledge their origins.
For example, a few years ago a half-maori, half-caucasian friend asked me to design an arm-band for him. I blended together Maori tribal tattoo forms with traditional Celtic knotwork to create a new hybrid design.
In my own experiments with tattoo design I have often drawn upon the Tarot, that ancient language of symbols which so successfully encompasses the spectrum of human experience. There are a vast range of contemporary tarot decks available which incorporate different mythologies and cultures. For despite all their infinite variations and diversities, any exploration of different mythologies will reveal countless correlations. For all these different mythologies are one mythology, the mythology of humankind; and Tarot is the primary visual (symbolic) language of this universal mythology.
Having worked and played with this language for many years and designed my own deck, 'The Book of ChAos' (formerly 'The Tribal Tarot'), it was a natural inclination for me to relate my tattoos to the tarot. When a lover suggested that if she saw me again in a decade or two I would probably have an entire tarot deck tattooed over my body, it sent me into a spin of possibilities, and despite my great weariness prior to her statement, I then found myself up all night pondering different potential locations of each card, and how all these designs would fit together in the overall pattern of a tarot body map.
A few days later when I was expressing my excitement about this concept to my good friend Squid, he posed the question, 'How would you then do a tarot reading with your body?'
This began my exploration of what I call the art of 'Tattoo Tarot Tantra', a path which began conceptually but has since manifested also as practical experiences.
Tantra is the ancient art of using the body as a means to spiritual enlightenment; of attaining altered states of consciousness through physicality, usually sexually. Tantric sex involves the transmutation of sexual energy into creative/spiritual energy, while still using the body as a means of raising this Kundalini energy.
Tattooing, when it fulfils its potential as a ritualistic symbolism of initiation and progression, is also an art which is both physical and spiritual, so it is actually quite natural to combine the two, although both tantric purists and 'daggers and roses' tattooists alike would probably condemn me for associating them.
Tantra involves spiritual transcendence via physical pleasure, tattooing via physical pain; but like all opposites these polarities of pleasure and pain if taken to their extremes become equal. I have been exploring these boundaries in my practice of tattoo tarot tantra.
The idea is to build up sexual energy, over a period of time, without release via orgasm, so that when a tattoo is begun such an intensity of pleasure is being maintained that it cannot be properly differentiated from intense (and simultaneous) pain, thereby transmutating agony into ecstasy.
The word Tantra comes from the Sanskrit 'tan', which means 'to weave', 'continue', or 'in the loom'. The word Tarot comes from the Latin root 'rota' meaning a wheel or cycle. Tarot represents the cycles of life (from zerO the Fool through to zerO the Fool) as the wheel of fortune turns. (The words 'rotate' and 'Tarantella' (a circular death dance) come from the same Latin root.) In Sanskrit a wheel or spinning disc is called a 'chakra'; in the tantric arts this name is used for the seven main energy vortex centres in the body. Thus the serpentine threads of Kundalini (creative/sexual energy) are spun by the chakras and woven through the body's web-like nervous system, in the tantric loom.
Thus a body map of tattoos incorporating tarot symbology and considering chakras ('spinning wheels') when determining locations would be a Mandala (visual circle) map. A Mantra is a circular sound -a chant which comes around to its beginning again- and a Mudra is a symbolic or ritual body gesture/posture/movement. 'Kama-Kali' -ritual sex- is basically a mudra, 'Kala' a ray ov colour emanating from the yoni of Kali, Black Goddess of Time. Thus the lines 'Mandala Mudra Mantra' and 'Kama-Kali Kala' in my 'Tattoo Tarot Tantra' song; -which (assuming your computer has speakers!) you are now hearing or will hear soon depending on your wwwebconnection. (The recording is from Mutation Parlour's ThanatEros CD).
The first time I tried actually combining tantric sex with tattooing was towards the end of winter '94, tripping in a treehouse. I and the woman I was to tattoo had been raising kundalini energy together, without release, for a week or so prior to the rite. This tension was then further heightened with the third person involved via intermittent loveplay over a period of 20 hours or so. When the time came for the tattooing, the third partner continued to orally stimulate the other while I concentrated on tattooing her. Concentration on the tattoo at such a point was of course extremely difficult for me, but I was intent on exploring the possibilities of pain/pleasure convergence. The initiate did experience a point where she could not differentiate between the two, as her strange cries testified.
Because of the location of the tattoo on the base of her spine (the base chakra, Muladhara), it was possible to actually be inside her while tattooing, however I found that the extreme focus necessary to ensure that the tattoo was properly executed prevented me from really getting into this.
Later I attempted this again, without a third person present, continuing the same tattoo up the spine onto the naval chakra. While we could move around immediately before and after each stroke of the tattoo gun, while I was actually drawing in her skin we of course had to keep very still. Interestingly this is one of the most important lessons of traditional tantric sex -to remain very still at some stages during coitus, feeling every subtle energy pulsation, rather than the frantic thrusting so often typical of 'western' sex.
My second experience of tantric tattooing was followed up two days later, but I had to catch a train to another state that evening, and the pressure of this combined with tension from several days of magic mushroom eating and intense intimacy exploded instead into a 'tattoo tarot tantrum'! And so the navel chakra part of her tattoo was not completed until on return we put into practise the lesson of this experience -that neither tantric sex nor tattooing (and especially not the two combined) can be hurried or have any time limit. The mandalic mudra maps involved in this tattoo are still being charted. Imagery from nordic and celtic mythology, naturally relating to the tarot, are being incorporated. Exactly how these images from the wheel of life overlap her body's wheels of energy (chakras) is still being resolved as the work evolves.
As I discover how different magical symbol systems correlate, I am also beginning to weave the ancient Greek Caduceus staff (the twining serpents representing the rising kundalini, the staff the spine, the wings the illumination), and aspects of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, into this tantric tattoo tapestry.
Besides its incorporation in the imagery of the tattoo, the tarot was also a major tool in its execution. Each session I drew cards appropriate to the rite from my personal deck. Towards the end of the first session, the energy we were raising within the treehouse was reflected in the weather swirling around it. An intense windstorm rose around us, shaking the treehouse dramatically. With the swirling energies within as well, it was a great effort to focus on the tattoo. To centre myself within that tempest I had to become the calm at the centre of the storm, the 'eye of the cyclone'.
A few days later I discovered that one of my tarot cards had blown away in the wind -the five of cups, the card of regret. My personal deck still only has 77 cards. I cannot regret losing that card, for it is gone!
Meanwhile my own body map continues to unravel. When first contemplating the idea of an entire tarot deck over my body, it seemed a major problem that I had already begun before considering the pattern of the whole.
The first tattoo I had done (before I began tattooing myself) was an image of Pan -the Greek deity of music, nature and sexuality- upon my right hand, designed by myself and executed by my friend Ooze. This little figure's furry black legs are my middle fingers, and he dances (upon the strings of my guitar, the branches of trees and the bodies of lovers). It was an intense first tattoo to get, with all the shading on the fingers, and was my initiation into transcendence through pain. During the ritual I was covered (by Rumplestiltskin) in honey and goats'-milk, the sacred substances of Pan, and chanting verse I had pre-written and memorised. However the intense pain soon carried me into an ecstatic trance and I began spouting new, better verse in my state of inspiration, which I later could only remember fragments of.
If tantra is defined as 'the physical body as a means to spiritual enlightenment' then this was truly my first experience of Tattoo Tarot Tantra (although it was not until five or six years later that I began to actually incorporate sex into such practices). How appropriate then that it was Pan I was initiated with, for he is one of the only Gods who lived on earth; he is divinity embodied in the flesh.
In my 'Book of ChAos' Pan is ATU 15, replacing the Devil who is basically a Christian perversion of him. For Pan, the Horned God who existed under different names in most pre-Christian cultures, represents matter, nature, sensuality and sexuality, the dance of life on earth. It is only when Christian morality and guilt, separating spirit from matter, are overlayed on him that he is construed as evil.
My next tattoo was the Sphinx upon my left foot -begun in the desert and completed in a studio entwined with ivy amidst amber smoke- to counterbalance Pan's male energy with female, right with left, active with passive, body with mind. The Sphinx is the riddler, the woman who waits, the High Priestess, ATU II. In ATU VII of the Book of ChAos the Sphinx and the Satyr (mind and body) unite to draw The Chariot of the soul (the verse of my tattoo-puppet-play expressing this union through dialogue, 'Said the Satyr to the Sphinx', will eventually be added to this site). How the Chariot will connect my hand and foot on my tattoo body map is a difficult one!...
I tattooed the Caduceus staff on my right wrist to represent ATU I, The Magician behind The Fool ATU 0, for Pan on the other side of my arm is also this. There are photographs of each of these tattoos in 'The Mutation En-cyclops-edia' section of this site.
So I have begun at the extremities rather than the centre, and my body map was proving difficult to chart. The solution came from relating it all back to Chaos Magick, which is after all the magic of the fool who leaps... Chaos magick as proposed by Austin Osman Spare then Peter Carrol in their 'Alphabet of Desire' (see Carrol's 'Liber Null and Psychonaut', Samuel Weiser), involves the very convergence of polarities which I have been experimenting with in my tattoo tarot tantra rituals of pleasure and pain.
What evolves from these rituals remains to be seen. Spare's use of sigils (magical symbols using letters, i.e. SPELLings) in sex magick to take desires to subconscious levels, together with the use of sexual sacraments, has inspired many further concepts for me to explore with my practises of tattoo tarot tantra; ideas I am adverse to elucidating until they have been more thoroughly tried and tested. An old friend (and enemy) of mine once threw my concepts of tarot into complete chaos when I attempted to do him a reading. He began shifting the cards around, then playing 'Snap!' with them using matching numbers and suits. It was a great joke at the time, but as with many such jokes (again, the magic of the Fool) it evolved into some intriguing prospects of ChAos tarot. We realised that tarot could be 'written' as well as 'read'; that if one didn't like a reading, one could change it. If this is done properly, tracing disliked 'outcome' and 'future' cards back to their origins in the present situation and not just changing these root cards but delving into and changing one's actual present life situation accordingly, tarot can be used for 'affirmation' as well as 'confirmation' and the outcomes thus altered.
Applying these ideas of chaos tarot to my body map puzzle reminded me that there is of course always a random element in tarot anyway -the cards fall where they may, allowing intuition to guide us. So it is good that I began tattooing before logically mapping it all out. Where each card falls at random on my body (and the rituals undergone during their application) -this is my tantric tattoo tarot reading! (...writing? ... ...drawing?)...
Art, text and music Copyright (c)02 Orryelle Bascule
MUTATION EN-CYCLOPS-EDIA with pictures of some of the tattoos mentioned in this essay and many more, plus brandings, suturing etc.
TTT song (extract currently playing/downloading) lyrics on ThanatEros CD page.
The BOOK ov ChAOS -Online samples from my Tarot Deck.
This Tattoo Ring site owned by Orryelle Defenestrate.
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