Kelly Mendenhall’s heavily tattooed body forms the foundation of her memoir, SKIN IN THE GAME: The Stories My Tattoos Tell, with each inked image acting as a kind of memory box in which life’s foibles, heartaches and triumphs are stored. The stories unlock several episodes of Mendenhall’s life, beginning with her first tattoo at the tender age of 17.
Mendenhall is a strong-minded, rather provocative teen, who brooks no parental interference when her choices are challenged. Her arguments for getting that first tattoo, rife with youthful logic, are nevertheless solid. To assuage her mother’s hand-wringing, for instance, she posits, “It could be worse, Mom – I could be doing heroin.” She backs that up with a reminder that she wasn’t aiming for anything as edgy as a genital piercing and, in a telling admonition, she points to her crack-smoking, car stealing, brothers for moral contrast.
Not that Mendenhall was a poster child for clean living. The book is brimming with stories of teen sexual escapades, drinking and pot-smoking, and an overall penchant for living-on-the-edge. While it’s not exactly the stuff of adult literature, it helps that this memoir is largely told in teen-speak and highly colloquial language that gives the author’s voice a non-pretentious authenticity. Not every tattoo decision revolves around rebellious teen angst, though. There are powerful moments to be savored that foster connection and empathy. The loss of her father is one such example. Likewise, tie-ins with an unintended pregnancy, friends who fall victim to risky behaviors and wars, short-lived relationships and even a dog, give Mendenhall a platform for sharing details of her tattoo experiences right down to how much it hurts and how you should care for a new piece of body art. While the tone becomes a bit preachy as she crashes her way into adulthood, it’s a slight, forgivable sin. A juicy reward awaits those who follow through: images of the actual tattoos, many of them as colorful and compelling as the stories they represent.
The tattoo theme of SKIN IN THE GAME can seem, at times, secondary to the story as a whole, serving as a platform upon which the author makes a series of rambling confessions. Still, each story stands on its own, and therein lies the book’s redemption. Because of the way she uses tattoos to string together the cautionary tales of her life, Mendenhall, now an adult, could be considered a modern-day illustrated woman.
Using her extensive collection of body art to tell the stories of her life, SKIN IN THE GAME, author Kelly J. Mendenhall inks her personal experiences into reader’s consciousness and illustrates the poignant reasons people turn to tattooing for self-expression.
~Libby Wiersema for IndieReader