Monday, July 28, 2008

The secret language of Cure tattoos

Colorful imagination
Originally uploaded by bluheron
I'll start off by saying that this post is about my tattoo and the reasoning behind it, as well as being about the symbolism of Cure tattoos in general. As always, this is my opinion, and is not meant to be an in-depth thesis on the topic. Your mileage may vary and other disclaimers apply.

The topics are interconnected in that the reasons that people get Cure tattoos based on the album/single/other artwork are extraordinarily varied, however many people feel that the artwork of any given album is an integral part of the experience of Cure records, and may even be the reason that even now, in the digital age, fans of the Cure tend to buy the actual physical records, often in addition to downloaded MP3s.

For instance, note the recent entry of the latest Cure single, released on July 13th, Sleep When I'm Dead, which debuted on the Billboard Hot Singles sales list at #1, even above Madonna's newest song, which debuted at #4. This, despite an almost complete lack of radio play in America! How are we (or the band) supposed to reconcile this extreme disparity?

My personal theory behind this phenomenon is that it has to do not only with the lengthy success of the Cure as a band, but also has much to do with the idea that Cure fans know that when buying a physical record (CD or vinyl), they will be participating in the full experience of the music. When the Cure release an item, they normally do not skimp on the details of the packaging, with artwork, pictures and song lyrics often included. For instance, on the recent series of remasters, the double-cd set could easily have been released in a simple double-cd jewel case with front and back artwork. It would have been simpler and certainly much less expensive than to produce a full-color fold-out CD box with cover and 20-page illustrated booklet with photos. However, they did not skimp, and we are treated to a mini-history of the Cure along with each remastered album.


During the Cure's early years, given the lack of instant-on communication and lightning speed information that the internet currently offers, the artwork which came with a particular album offered a visual and visceral glimpse into the music, and the process of creating it. Given that much of the early artwork was actually done by someone completely immersed in the creation of the music itself, it is little wonder that the art seems to "channel" the emotions and mood of a particular album or single into a distinct and coherent whole. This is reinforced by the creation of fonts or lettering, specific icons and visual styles that went along with each studio album.

For many people who were first introduced to the Cure in the pre-digital era, listening to an album for the first time was a cherished ritual that included sitting in front of an actual record player (or cassette player, depending) carefully slitting the outer wrap open, and perusing the album art intently while listening, and perhaps even reading the words along (after the initial listening session) until they had been learned by heart. One might even try to make sense of the way that things in the album art were put together, or reused for different purposes on the singles. For instance, the instantly-recognizable and yet eternally ambiguous bird-fish which graced the cover of Wish only as line-art, and yet became the main symbol on the cover of High, when it was released as a 12" single. In the pre-digital era, this artwork was a form of communication between the band and its fans, many of whom read it eagerly, as if it were a set of important hieroglyphics needing to be decoded and translated.

The Tattoo

For Cure fans, the reasons for choosing a specific tattoo are as unique as each individual being inked, however, very often the choice is linked to a specific album or it's artwork in some way. For instance, on the Chain of Flowers Tattoo Gallery, there seems to be a high percentage of tattoos which reflect the Wish-era artwork, particularly the nearly-abstract rendering of the word CURE, along with the aforementioned bird-fish, which are often seen together in some way. There are also a few renderings of the eye from the Friday I'm In Love single, however they are without the surrounding heart full of clouds. Many people consider Wish to be one of the Cure's most immediately accessible albums, and the preponderance of tattoos from this album artwork may bear that theory out.

Another factor likely contributing to the high incidence of Wish-era symbolism in tattoos is the high availability of recognizable iconography from that album. Some album artwork is more difficult to distill into tattoo form, most notably, the photo of the smeared lips from front cover of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me - however some fans use the font style from that cover to embellish their bodies with words, instead of trying to reproduce the picture. Other album covers which are relatively rare in tattoo form include the soft, out of focus photographs from the covers of Faith and Seventeen Seconds (although there are tattoos inspired by both of these albums). The severely lined face of John Button from the cover of Standing on a Beach and the frenetically-blurred hands on The Head on the Door are likely also more difficult to render in ink on skin, however some single artwork of the same era - such as Quadpus and the silhouette from Boys Don't Cry are both popular. Also, despite its chart popularity and masterpiece status, I have yet to see a tattoo of the cover of Disintegration.

There are also fans who sport inked portraits of Robert Smith, whether more straightforward or more abstract, and some who have one completely unique to them alone, and there are even a lucky few who have had Robert Smith and the other band members use their skin as a canvas. There are even some individuals who can't decide on just one Cure tattoo!

Cure tattoos can even be viewed as being a secret language between fans, with some of the lesser-known designs and fonts being known only to people who have ardently collected and enjoyed the Cure's music over the years. Having a tattoo that proclaims your love for the band unequivocally is fine, and many people do include the band's name somewhere in their design. However, I have noticed that there are many tattoos which are composed of song lyrics, or a symbol or design, and in most cases, these would be unrecognizable to more casual fans or the mainstream public as a Cure tattoo without further explanation from the wearer. A visible tattoo of a symbol or text that is recognizable mainly to other Cure fans can be a way of finding others who share a similar level of passion about the subject and love for the Cure and their music.

The choice of tattoo can even give other fans important clues regarding your interest in the Cure.
A friend of mine calls tattoos "our own personal bumper stickers", and in this respect I believe that is a very accurate assessment, particularly given the unique mood of each album. A knowledgeable fan would be able to understand more about the person simply given the content of the tattoo. A Cure tattoo provides a common ground of interest, and almost provides an instant feeling of camaraderie. For instance, if I saw someone with a Cure tattoo in a coffee shop or airport, I wouldn't hesitate to strike up a conversation. Robert once mentioned that Cure fans dressing in a certain way or wearing similar makeup was a way for Cure fans to recognize one another, and my belief is that the Cure tattoo is the modern equivalent to this, as many of the Cure's fans have aged somewhat and are no longer as apt to wear the interesting clothing or heavy makeup every day.


While some tattoo wearers may have chosen a specific album style or design because it resonates with some important time or theme in their lives, there may be some who have gone deeper into the underlying symbolism of some of the artwork, and chosen it based on the symbolism as well. One symbol which seems to resonate with fans as a tattoo is the cover artwork for the single version of Lovesong. The song is widely known to have been written as a wedding present from Robert to Mary, but many fans also know that the cover artwork for the single is an abstract painting done by Robert of himself and Mary, showing their faces merging. With the combination of the meaning of music, song lyrics and the painting, a tattoo of this design could symbolize a powerful belief in enduring romantic love, such as that between Robert and Mary, who are arguably, one of the most long-married couples in modern rock history. With their 20th wedding anniversary coming up in August 2008, and having been previously together for 15 years before the wedding took place, this means that they have been a couple for nearly 35 years in total. So that particular symbol can be a very meaningful tattoo as an affirmation of the wearer's belief in long-term love or their relationship with their significant other.

In my particular case, I chose two symbols which have deeper meaning to me than simply the surface meaning of being part of the album artwork. Firstly, I will talk about the heart with an eye in it from the cover of the Friday I'm In Love 12" single. Musically speaking, although I love the A-side song, the B-side of Halo is the perfect Cure love song, and I have always enjoyed it as such. The cover artwork of the heart-shaped sky with an eye in the center is very impactful and iconic, with meaning resonating throughout the design. The most important thing to me, though, is that this design neatly represents the concept of seeing the world through my heart. The ideal of treating others with love and compassion is central to the way I try to live, and the image of the heart composed of blue sky and white clouds can be seen to represent the world and the universe beyond it, encompassing "all sentient beings" as the Buddha would say.

The eye with the moon in the center also represents being able to delve into the depths of consciousness, as the moon has long been associated with the mysteries of human emotional life, as it waxes and wanes throughout each month. The moon in the center of the eye is the waning moon, which has been balanced by the inclusion of a waxing moon symbol above the main design. The full circle of The Top logo can also be used to symbolize the full moon, so that all three aspects are included in the final design.

The circular "logo" from The Top album is included for several reasons, including that just mentioned. It was the first Cure album that I ever purchased, so it served as my introduction to their music, after the single "Lovecats" (which was the first song that I ever heard). The logo resembles Egyptian hieroglyphics and circular seals of the pre-dynastic period, which is also a personal interest. The inclusion of the bird is important to me as my own spiritual path has been very associated with different types of birds as totem animal guides. The snake is an icon of sex, death, regeneration, the powers of prophecy and a symbol of the Goddess. The stars in the final version speak of my interest in astrology and astronomy as well as relating to several Cure songs which are personal favorites, particularly the yet-to-be-released song, Underneath The Stars. So from the beginning of my love affair with the Cure, up to and including my most recent experiences with the band, this tattoo encompasses 26 years of their music and artwork being woven throughout my life.

Regardless of the reason for getting it, a tattoo is a deeply personal and intimate decision, and it is obvious that the symbolism of the album artwork resonates deeply with individuals worldwide. I am of the opinion that the more meaning a tattoo has to the wearer, the more satisfied that individual will be with it on a long-term basis. Regardless of the person's motivation, it is clear to me that Cure fans are deeply passionate about the band and their music, and some of us are even willing to literally wear our hearts on our sleeves.

Update: I've had some questions about my statement that Robert painted the lovesong single cover. The single artwork credits Maya for the artwork, butI had previously read somewhere that Robert had experimented with painting and had produced the a self-portrait with Mary for the album. Although I have researched it a little, I have not been able to find a source for this idea, so I hereby retract that statement. Thanks!


Caterpillar Girl said...

Beautiful post! I love the tattoo as well. I use the bird-fish as my icon on most sites I frequent, so I know where you're coming from. I don't have any tattoos of my own but have thought about getting one on my back and if I do, I can assure you it will be Cure related. Their music moves me like no other.

cure_kitty said...

Awesome blog post rev! Your tattoo looks really cool! I'm really thinking about gettting a Cure tattoo some day & I would love to do something like you did. Your article has inspired me to start thinking about what type of design I'd like to come up with. My sister already volunteered to do the design once I decided what to do. And all I need to do is build up the nerve to go through it.

mersault said...

I am looking for a tattoo artist to ink on my arm the old signature to "The Cure". I live in Hollywood Ca. Please reply.

Thank you.

Rev. Heron said...

Mersault, I'm not sure what you need from me. I'll be happy to put you in touch with my artist, but you would probably have to come to Salt Lake to have him work on you.

auriez said...

what a brilliant read, i have 3 cure tattoo's interestingly i have the wish hand on one shoulder, the quadpus on the other (as a night like this is my favourite song, i also have on my lower back a tattoo from the catarpilla 7" as the b side reminds me so much of being in college as i always played it on the juke box

christl d. said...

hmm i think the only way i can describe what youre writing is like to me -

the music, everything involved with it from the people to the lyrics, its like a cryptic puzzle. you know which way the pieces fit, how they fit each other, and why. when its all done, we can see the big picture, and all the little pieces that make it complete.

Steve: The Lightning Man said...

Okay, I'm a bit late to the party, commenting a couple years after the fact, but better late than never. The tatt is amazing. Beautifully done, and I can relate, as my entire right bicep is a tribute to Depeche Mode.