The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall
Cy Parks grew up in the seaside town of Morecambe Bay, living with his mother Reeda in the guest house they run. Reeda’s nursing tendencies make the guest house a haven for elderly residents or holidaymakers suffering from consumption (Tuberculosis). Exposed to the downfalls of the human body and the ravages of illness from an early age, Cy is repulsed to begin with but eventually becomes immune to it all. Opening the guest house to the sickest of the community also guarantees their income and as Cy’s father passed away at sea on the day he was born, it’s down to him and his Mother to support themselves.
One day, while out with friends, Cy briefly meets a man that will change his life forever. Years later the same man, Eliot Riley, admires Cy’s drawings and offers him a tattoo apprenticeship. Oblivious to the skills required to tattoo, all Cy knows is the stigma that surrounds the business. Eliot’s an outcast, a drunk that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be associated with but after the first time he set foot in Eliot’s tattoo studio, he was smitten by the sights and smells. Never before had he seen images on skin that were so fluid and beautiful.
Years pass before Cy is allowed to tattoo a customer, he’s forced to build equipment and practice on himself in both the traditional tapping method and electric driven styles. His love-hate relationship with Eliot drives him to the edge of madness, his constant berating, put-downs and drunken escapades often make Cy wonder if he’s made the right decision but he never gives up.
Times change in Morecambe Bay and Cy finds it riddled with more ghosts than hope so he gathers what few possessions he owns and heads to America. He soon finds himself in the one place that welcomes his talent with a needle, Coney Island; home to freak shows, misfits and tattoo artists from across the world. In one of the most unique places on Earth and during a time of extreme change, Cy discovers a new home, the love of his life, incredible friends and pain he will never shake.
The Electric Michelangelo may start slightly slowly, setting scene and characters that influence the plot direction but once Cy starts his tattoo apprenticeship the story really comes to life. The first thing that will strike you is Sarah Hall’s evocative and cutting writing style. She manages to find beauty in what others may pass by as mundane or even grotesque. Her style and plot pull no punches and there are certain paragraphs on death and violence that are so vividly brutal that they take your breath away.
Throught The Electric Michelangelo, Sarah Hall’s insight into the tattoo world across this period of time and the views on tattooing are also incredibly realistic. The characters are bursting with life and every now and then she unravels one so clearly in just a handful of sentences. An example of this is when she exposes the mental anguish of one of the ‘strong women’ of Coney Island in a truly heart-breaking way, breaking down any expectations you might have about a person whose image is based on strength and exposing her weaknesses.
Although Sarah Hall conveys a love and respect for the art of tattooing, there is no romantic whimsy that some novels imply but a truly honest portrayal of a man pushing his art. Unflinching, powerful, passionate and gritty The Electric Michelangelo is moving in a way that will stay with you for years and has become one of my favourite books of all time.
If you like this then you’ll love Until I Find You by John Irving