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The Story Behind the Financial Crisis Tattoo

Earlier this week, Easy Street brought you a picture of the financial crisis in tattoo form: a man's forearm, newly and impressively branded with the Gaussian copula function. Striking, no?

It looks complicated- and it is. So are its implications. It's notoriously known as the formula that caused the financial crisis. As Felix Salmon - a friend of Easy Street - wrote in 2009 in Wired, the Gaussian copula function was the formula that allowed traders to sell new securities at unimaginable frequency. It is, in many ways, the idea that caused Wall Street's risk-taking to metastasize enough to launch a global crisis.

Easy Street - like many of our readers - was intrigued by the tattoo, which we first learned about from Marketplace senior editor Ben Adair. It's not just the contrast of the complicated numbers and the spare, elegant font; there was the question of how we were supposed to interpret it. So we caught up with its owner, Portland, Oregon resident Jared Elms, to learn what inspired him someone with no connection to finance to imprint his body with finance's most infamous symbol. Our interview is below.

Easy Street: We wanted to talk to you because your tattoo drew a lot of attention when we posted it. Many people even questioned whether it was real - but we saw that it looked red and raised.

Jared Elms: Yeah, I had my friend take that picture when I was literally 30 seconds out of the [tattoo chair.]

Easy Street: How many other tattoos do you have?

Jared Elms: Let's see. One...two...three...four....this is my fifth. My first was a quote from a Samuel Beckett novel, Worstward Ho: "Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I just have the "fail better" part.

I really got into Wittgenstein for a while, so I have his duckrabbit. It's taken from a woodblock illustration, and it looks pretty absurd.

I have a Basquiat quote that says "Pay For Soup/Build A Fort/Set That On Fire".

Then I got one a few months ago that's a quote from Comte de Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror: "Beauty above all is the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table." He's a proto-surrealist. The surrealists found that quote poignant for the seeming dissimilarity between unrelated ideas. I got that graphically represented with three icons: a sewing machine, an umbrella and a dissecting table.

All my tattoos are all concepts that are smarter than me that I'll be chasing my entire life. It's how I know I will never regret getting them, because these are concepts I never want to forget.

Easy Street: What made you want to get the tattoo of the Gaussian copula, then?

Jared Elms: I've been really attuned to a lot of political and economic theory lately: seeing Inside Job, reading a lot of David Harvey. I've been reading a book called The Violence of Financial Capitalism.

I used to copyedit for this press, Semiotext(e), so that got me looking back at the financial crisis and looking at these post-Fordist capitalist strategies.

It's pretty corrupt. It's been hitting me pretty hard what happened just a few years ago. Then you see [Senator] Carl Levin and the Senate looking to bring criminal charges against [Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd] Blankfein.

There are some key learnings that came out of that period in history, and it felt like it was a really appropriate thing to eulogize on my body.

Easy Street: Some might have thought you were a die-hard capitalist. So your decision to get the tattoo was a subversive one.

Jared Elms: Yeah, to me this represents the recipe for human greed. It was severely misappropriated by traders, the way it was oversimplified and reduced it to a single gamma number - and they couldn't stop using it even knowing the inherent fallibility in it. I'm going to come off like such a f------g socialist in this, but to me it perfectly embodies what went wrong. And in that way it was the closest thing I've seen to the economic paradigm that we're in.

Easy Street: You work on the creative side at advertising agencies, right?

Jared Elms: Yes. It's definitely a conflict in a way. My MFA is in critical studies and creative writing from an arts school. But I enjoy what I do, which is dealing with ideas and concepts on a daily basis. It's a pleasure and a detriment that it's connected to a brand at the end of the day.

I do enjoy being part of the ongoing dialogue between art and commerce. I'd rather be part of that conversation rather than sidelined and having no voice in it. That's how I've become comfortable with what I do. I think there's inherent value in that process.

Easy Street: What did you think of the financial crisis as it was happening? What was your reaction?

Jared Elms: It was one of utter shock. You're watching your 401k go down the drain, as well as hearing about all of these guys getting amazing million-dollar bonuses. At the same time, [at work] we were launching a new bank when all of this was all happening - which was a particularly interesting professional challenge.

That aside, I'm only now learning what was taking place and how it happened, because there are all these amazing books and documentaries, like David Harvey's Enigma of Capitalism. And obviously Inside Job did an amazing job of articulating what happened, how it could all ripple and global.

Easy Street: When did you first come across the Gaussian copula?

Jared Elms: I was just reading The Violence of Financial Capitalism, and that book got really deep into what was going on [during the crisis] from a trading standpoint. It's a world I have very little knowledge about, how trading occurs and what those guys are doing. I wondered: Was there something they were all paying attention to, what were the tools they were referencing?

I remembered googling it and coming across that Wired article. It was an amazing article. I was really thankful for pieces like that. It was such a powerful concept to me, and when you realize how much [the Gaussian copula] embodies the potential for human greed, it ends up being a pretty powerful and poignant lesson. [The way companies communicate financially is] all predicated in obfuscation, like if we don't understand, we don't question. We should be vigilant and not forget, and this is the way I do not forget it.

About the author

Heidi N. Moore is The Guardian's U.S. finance and economics editor. She was formerly the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace.

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