Forever scarred: Tattoos and their stories are re-imagined in 'Pen & Ink'

The Tumblr page Pen & Ink was created by San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and The Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald. The pair illustrate tattoos the old-fashioned way, in pen and ink, along with the story behind each bodily work of art. Anyone can submit their photos through Tumblr and see their story be shared beautifully to the world.

I came across Pen & Ink by accident clicking through links on Tumblr. The second my eyes met the beautiful drawings I was in love. Having 7 tattoos myself and being asked constantly -- both by strangers and by friends -- what do they mean, I was determined to track down the genius minds behind this idea. 

And I did, so I asked them all about this project and what they have in store for the future.

How did you guys come up with the idea for pen & ink?

Isaac: Even as a kid I was obsessed with the stories behind people's tattoos. What story could be so important that you would scar yourself forever? When I had the idea for Pen & Ink, I knew Wendy had to be a part of it.

I have always been in awe of Wendy's amazing ability to capture a story with her drawings. She draws narrative, her lines make a story. It is so amazing. So who better to have than a person who makes stories out of lines? I guess that really doesn't answer your question, but I just had this idea, asked Wendy, she was game, and we got going.

Wendy: "Yeah, like that."

Why on Tumblr?

Isaac: Tumblr is the home of some of the most creative people on the Internet and a community of writers and artists and millions of fans all sharing the work that they love. They've been supportive of Pen & Ink right from the start -- we were a Tumblr Tuesday pick, which helped us gain over 10,000 followers in our first week, and recently were featured on Tumblr's Storyboard. On top of all that, Tumblr is so easy to use that it was the obvious choice. We could start the site for free and then easily edit the site's theme (the way it looks) without having to learn a coding, etc.

Wendy: Even though Isaac handles all the back end stuff on this, but it's so simple even someone like me could do it. And it's super social -- the whole point of what we're doing is to collaborate with people and share their stories, visually. Tumblr is the perfect social platform for that.

What's your system for updating the Tumblr?

Isaac: We try to get a Pen & Ink up every week. I edit the story, and send it to Wendy. She draws it. When she's finished a piece, she'll email it to me (usually at some un-godly early morning hour, as Ms. MacNaughton tends to work very late) and I'll get it up on the site as quickly as possible.

Wendy: Isaac, you're usually up, too.

What was the most inspirational story that you came across?

Isaac: I love Eric Fletcher's story. I'm biased, because Eric is a close friend of mine, but despite our friendship I had never actually heard the story behind his tattoo. So to have him share it like that, in such a public forum, really amazed me.

Wendy:  They're all great, but I'm especially a fan of Roxane Gay's story.

Any crazy submissions?

Isaac: Plenty, but one could argue that the idea of getting a tattoo in the first place is crazy, you know? No matter how crazy a story or a tattoo, I am fascinated by all of our submissions, and love that so many people are willing to share their stories.

Wendy: The crazier the story, the happier I am to draw the tattoo.

I know you both have tattoos, what's the story behind those? 

Isaac: I have nine tattoos, and each one marks a moment of my life... a friendship or relationship, an achievement, a memorial. My tattoos are a scrapbook of my life, and each one, even the ugly ones, maybe especially the ugly ones, are important to me.

Wendy:  I have two, and each mark a very different time in my life. sometimes they make me cringe, remembering the earnestness behind them. But that's why they're so great. Like a lot of other people's tattoos, they are a good reminder not to take myself as seriously as I used to.

Do you ever see this project becoming a book?

Isaac: I would love to see it become a book.

Wendy: Yes, I would say Isaac and I are fans of the book form.

Do you see this ever becoming a full time thing?

Isaac: Not really. This is a passion project. Making a book out of this would be nice, but we both have other projects we love as well, and that pay the bills and take up a lot of our time.

Wendy: It's really a project. as soon as something turns into a full time "job" it's not as fun. And as soon as it's not fun, we'll stop.