To Tattoo or Not(too)

Talking about body manipulation, and in particular tattoos, is hard to do. This is because, as Sweetman tells us, tattoos are showing up on more and more people, of different genders, socio-economic classes and ethnicities. Tattoos, as well as piercings, are no longer just for young working class men. Different people get different tattoos for different reasons. Inking one’s body as such has no one meaning, and even within a defined cultural context, and onlooker’s judgment of someone sporting tats really cannot espouse any concrete understanding of the wearer. An onlooker of body art can only lend to the cultural database their emotions rooted in their own cultural upbringing and context. Ed Hardy said, “Tattoos always tell you more about the people looking at them, than the people wearing them.” Perhaps there is some truth to this statement – for we can only irk meaning out of we know in our life schemas, from our relationship to subcultures, to our ideology about body modification.
Though this may seem to leave tattoos as indefinable, Sweetman says we can read body modification through the lens of consumer culture. In this sense, we can try to understand tattoos as trends, just another example of the mainstream fashion world appropriating subculture fashion back into the mainstream. Karin shows this well with her image of Rihanna sporting a Mohawk. The popular figure is attempting to be edgy, but by bringing this symbol of punk transgression to the forefront of contemporary culture, she is altering its meaning for a new context. Perhaps there is a consumer aspect to body modification, but there are many, many more ways to read tattoos. Our jobs as onlookers, stuck into a particular cultural niche, must expand our attitudes to encompass the possibility of many different readings and furthermore realize that though the tattoo is a form of physical presentation, it is also highly personal.
Catherine Lundoff sheds light on a few possible reading of tattoos in “Tattoo Me.” The major point that she is trying to get at is that tattoos can be both about transgression and/or control. They can communicate to the world that their wearer is different, tough, or bad. This seems to be representative the meaning of tattoos in a classical, biker sense. But I think the more interesting reading of tattoos is their role as a means of power. They can help one in taking back life into their own hands, when some outside, mainstream force is judging them for being different. This control creates for you a personal story, which you can choose to share, or not. Tattoos become much more artistic for me when I think of them in this sense. Samantha’s image of a ballet dancer covered in tattoos reflects this idea brilliantly. The dancer’s tattoos work in the same way that the structured form of ballet dance does to communicate control of one’s body. I don’t know that her tattoos are necessarily communicating that ballet does not control her life. Rather, it seems to communicate that she is a person entirely in control of her body, in numerous ways. This is to say that the ballerina uses multiple art forms to show that she has mastery over her body.
Control however is not an easy thing to obtain in society. Perhaps that is why those who participate in body manipulation do, because the only thing you truly have control over is yourself. What Vale and Juno talk about in Modern Primitives is only grazed on the surface in this week’s pins. Karin shows with her picture of a woman with horns that the body is a canvas, to do with what we so please. She explains that it often seems that the body is the only thing we do have control of. Vale and Juno further explain why this is the case in modern society. Today we are facing a strange combination of technological advancement and revival of primitive visual body modification practices. The tattoo, for example, can be seen as a romanticized appropriation of something from a primitive society; a tribal culture whose members were in touch with ‘authentic’ spirituality. In this sense, a tattoo can only be properly understood in relation to the history and mythology it represents. Vale and Juno believe that art, including body modification is meant to stimulate the mind, and as such, tattoo wearers become important mediums of expression.
Control takes on another meaning in Stallybrass and White’s conversation about Carnival. Both Karin’s and Samatha’s images show the dramatic nature of the festival. They both explain that during this time, traditional hierarchies are dropped. I would like to further add that this is a result of people become increasingly aware of their human immortality and gain an understanding that authority and truth are relative terms when they become liberated from both. This is allowed for because of the loud rituals and costumes, which take people out of their norms social roles.
Something more that I think is crucial to emphasize in the reading of tattoos is their permanence. Sweetman talks about this as making tattoo “anti=fashion.” While tattoos may be trendy, they are in essence the opposite of a trend. Trends ebb and flow with the seasons, ever being replaced and deemed cool or uncool. But tattoos represent a much bigger decision than investing in a trend one season; they really are a life decision. Sweetman even argues that tattoos may help people cope with the sense of impermanence consumer culture and the fashion industry create. In this sense, tattoos are much more meaningful than shape of your pant leg or the tone of orange that’s popular one year. Karin touches on this idea with her image of a tattooed man wearing a leather jacket. She explains how the idea of getting a leather jacket it drastically different that getting a tattoo, though they are often grouped with each other in subcultural terms. The jacket can be easily taken on or off, but the tattoo implies not only permanence, but also the physical strength to go through the pain of getting it and the process of consumption involved in picking it. Body modification is difficult to generalize into meaning.  Perhaps the larger meaning has to do with the fact that it is inherently personal, overt and mysterious at the same time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: