The Body As A Canvas: The Art & Symbolism Of Johnny Marr's Tattoos
For most of us, our tattoos say a lot about who we are as people, and represent our interests and values. The permanent nature of body art means implies a great deal of personal significance is attached to those images. Through both independent research and details this zine's editors have kindly shared from their own conversations with Johnny (with his permission), this article will attempt to analyse the symbolism behind a selection of the great guitarist's tattoos.
It's worth noting that Johnny didn't actually get his first tattoo until the age of 45 - an age where more people are regretting the tattoos they got decades earlier than deciding to get their first one. This alone implies how seriously Johnny takes the permanence of body art, and how seriously he would have thought about his choices before getting inked.
North & South
The North and South symbols are Johnny's most visible tattoos on account of their positions on his lower forearms - but what do they mean?
There's a clear element of duality in the symbolism of North and South combined. They're opposite forces that complement each other, like the yin-yang, or two sides of a coin. Many ancient philosophies attribute specific meanings and characteristics to the symbols of north and south. In Chinese philosophy, and especially in the I Ching, north and south are both represented by the trigrams Chi'en and K'un in a Fu Xi (or "Earlier Heaven") Ba Gua arrangement. Fitting with Johnny's personality, Chi'en and K'un also represent energy, both expansive and receptive.
In Native American philosophy, north and south represent the adult and child spirit respectively, which again is in tune with Johnny's combined traits of adult wisdom and youthful enthusiasm, while some other divination practices believe that north and south represent period of time: south representing the present, and north representing the timelessness of infinity. (West and East, in turn, represent the past and future respectively.)
All these symbols of duality can be seen to represent the sense of balance Johnny possesses as a person.
On a more personal level, North and South, through the initials 'N' and 'S', also represent his children, Nile and Sonny.
"It was that or Popeye", Johnny once joked about the image of Shiva on his left forearm, but this particular tattoo - his very first - is deeply symbolic.
Shiva,the Hindu god of creation and destruction, on one level also represents the same duality of the north and south tattoos discussed earlier. In addition to his dual roles as creator and destroyer, Shiva is represented in Hindu art and literature in both fearsome and benevolent forms, as both a fighter and a householder.
The particular visualisation of Shiva that Johnny chose for his tattoo is the Nataraja ("Lord of the dance"), which shows Shiva performing a divine dance called Tandava, through which the universe is created, maintained and destroyed in a cyclical fashion. The Nataraja is depicted within a circle of fire in which the entire universe is said to be contained, tranquil of expression, with four arms and two legs. In the upper right hand he holds a small drum called a damaru, which symbolises creation, and in the upper left hand, by contrast, a fiery flame that symbolises destruction. Under his right foot, the dwarf-like demon Apasmara (also known as Muyalaka) is being trampled, indicating Shiva's
victory over the ignorance Apasmara represents.
The image of Shiva is likely also of special significance due to its connection to English writer Aldous Huxley, a hero of Johnny's. Shiva as the Nataraja was a recurring symbol in Huxley's work, spoken of extensively in his final novel Island as well as in essays on religion and transcendence. Huxley describes the Nataraja as the ultimate symbol: "The whole thing is there...the world of space and time and matter and energy; the world of creation and destruction." (Speaking Personally, recorded 1961)
Johnny's Shiva tattoo also has an extra, special personalisation: instead of the damaru, Johnny's Shiva holds a guitar pick, symbolising the tool and source of Johnny's own creations.
One of Johnny's most recent tattoos is the image of a swallow on the left side of his neck. Traditionally swallow tattoos, particularly on the neck, hands and chest, were
used by sailors to indicate sailing experience (one swallow marked the milestone of 5,000 nautical miles; two swallows marked 10,000), or as an omen of protection and safety at sea. A tattoo of a swallow can also symbolise loyalty and devotion to loved ones, since swallows return home every year.
It's unclear exactly what Johnny's swallow tattoo means to him on a more personal level, but as somebody who travels frequently to tour (and is often away from his loved ones as a result), both safety while travelling and loyalty to loved ones seem fitting. Johnny has also mentioned in conversation that the swallow is a symbol of swiftness - a trait valued by Johnny on both mental and physical levels.
Johnny's other most recent tattoo is one rarely seen (as it's on his upper left arm and usually hidden by shirts, even short-sleeved ones), but full of important symbolism. Contained within the visualisation of an atomic explosion are an array of small symbols with specific meanings, some of which he's explained in conversation with Dynamic's editors.
The number 8, for example, represents both the 8th sign of the zodiac (Johnny is a Scorpio), and "infinity" (as turned on its side, the number 8 is in fact an infinity sign) - infiniteness being an important concept to Johnny. Some symbols' meanings are fairly straightforward: the plus-sign represents positivity, while the small ‘M' stands for the first initial of Johnny's surname. The equation "1 - v" represents physics, and kinetics (the study of motion) in particular. (In physics equations, the letter "v" represents velocity.)
In a more sentimental turn, "Jy" is a reference to Johnny's father: the capital letter J representing their shared first name, and the lowercase y symbolising Johnny's individuality, as it is the latter two letters that differentiates his name from his father, John's.
One other meaningful symbol within Johnny's atomic explosion is the series of three short, straight horizontal lines towards the top. In the I Ching, this is the trigram known as Ch'ien (also mentioned earlier in relation to Johnny's north and south tattoos), and is a symbol of creative energy - another important concept to Johnny.
Although Johnny now has a total of eight tattoos, including the above, he's mentioned he still intends to get more - proving perhaps how addictive body art can be. What his future tattoos will depict are anybody's guess right now, but I can only assume they'll be as interesting and meaningful as the ones he has already.