Becky Quiroga Curtis, children’s book buyer for Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., wears her passion for picture-book illustration on her sleeve—literally. On her arm are tattoos of some of her favorite children’s book characters, all original designs by the books’ illustrators.
“About three years ago I found out that Eric Carle was coming in to the store to sign some stock,” Curtis says. “As a joke I said that I should ask him to draw the [very hungry] caterpillar on my arm. His presence was so overwhelming when he walked in the room I just knew I had to have the caterpillar on my arm.”
Carle obliged, and outlined his creation in the designated spot. Curtis then went to a local professional to have it made permanent. "I have a tattoo artist that I trust so much," she says. "He has a knack for perfectly transferring the image on the arm. He always gets the colors just right." And to guide him with his palette, Curtis brings a copy of the picture book along with her to a tattoo session for reference.
Curtis notes that after her first foray into the world of tattoos, "A friend said, ‘You should fill your whole arm with those.’ And it just snowballed from there." Mo Willems’s pigeon was next, followed by Lane Smith’s Monkey from It’s a Book, Loren Long’s Otis the tractor and, just last week, Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama.
The characters she has chosen are favorites, from "any book I’ve fallen in love with from the moment I saw it," Curtis says. As for the illustrators, "They need to be totally on board. And they need to draw right on my arm—no photos or other drawings," she says. And, because she so favors her tattoo artist, she usually makes her requests of illustrators who visit her store or the Miami area for an event. Though she has been turned down by one subject (who will remain unnamed), "they’re usually all for it," Curtis says of the illustrators she approaches. "And now that they see what’s already been done, they say they are in really good company."
Asked about the pain involved, Curtis notes that "It depends on the spot.” So far, the Monkey tattoo has hurt worst because it was on the inside of the arm, which is a more tender area. “And Llama’s hooves are so close to my elbow, there was a lot of vibration near the bone,” she recalled. “But now I know what to expect. I haven’t cried yet, so that’s good!"
Curtis plans to keep adding to her collection. "I have a little list going in my head," she says. Is there a particularly special "get" she’d love? "Oh yes—Maurice Sendak 100 percent! I’d fly to his home, wherever he lives, and fly back in the same day just to have an original Maurice Sendak on my arm."
Going forward, she says, "I would like a full sleeve, which is from shoulder to wrist. It’s my right arm, and I draw myself, so it’s such an inspiration to me to see that when I’m working." As the skin space fills up, she muses that illustrators might need "to get creative with their characters, to fit in with what’s already there." And after that? "The left arm, I’ll maybe save for illustrators who are no longer with us," she adds.
Reaction has been positive all around. "Everyone just loves them," Curtis says. "I get lots of elderly women who tell me, 'I don’t like tattoos, but yours are adorable!' " She has made a splash locally and has already received lots of attention in the publishing world. She even landed a spot in the book The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor (Harper Perennial, 2010). "It’s been lots of fun," Curtis says. "And I’m excited to see who the future holds for my arm."