Tell Me A Tattoo Story: a sensitive picture book on the importance of memories and the way tattoos can describe one’s personal history

Alison McGhee, Tell Me A Tattoo Story. Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Published 2016 by Chronicle Books, 32p


We are our memory Jorge Luis Borges used to say. Dutifully, we tend to suppress the unpleasant and painful details of our lives and fill our memory with images and projections of events that fulfill us and bring happiness in our lives. But memory is an unlimited space so we often use auxiliary ways to keep our memories alive – some write, some collect photos, some draw the memories on the skin.

Although tattoos have been associated with subculture, in the last decades there has been a re-evaluation of the practice and we can now see wonderful stories behind most of them. As the subject is no longer taboo and as I discuss with my daughter anything that crosses our minds, we had a very interesting conversation about tattoos and stereotypes, using this modern story as the source of our dialogue.


A father shows his little son the tattoos on his body, recalling memories and taking the boy on an autobiographical journey. The first tattoo, representing a dragon flying over some mountains, is a character from the man’s favourite childhood book, a story that his mom used to read him over and over again (The Hobbit). The second, on the arm, is a strong message – Be Kind, a phrase his father used to tell him. The moment the man met his future wife in a café is also marked, together with the birthday of their son.


The story is an ode to life and family, a creative form of keeping memories alive. Alison McGhee’s text is warm and touching while Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations beautifully synthetize the love and happiness of the family. Like all children, the little boy is curious and excited to hear the story of the tattoos again and again, as it is the story of his family, insisting on the date of his birthday as the most precious tattoo of all.

This last one?

Just a little heart, is all.

Those numbers inside it?

Just somebody’s birthday, I guess.

Whose birthday?

Oh, some little man I know, is all.

That one’s my favorite, too.

Tell Me A Tattoo Story is a good book about parenting. Modern parenting that praises values and principles in all forms. It is a good example that we should eliminate stereotypes, as tattooed men can be the good guys as well.


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