What Does Your Tattoo Say About You?

In “From Carnival to Transgression,” expressive behavior that inverts and opposes conventional cultural values, norms, and codes is considered transgression. People can use transgressive literature, art, religion, or politics to play an active role in the construction of their own identities. Though tattooing and other forms of body modification are permanent acts of transgression, Carnival and other forms of celebration exemplify temporary transgression.

Mardi Gras and other celebrations of Carnival are state-sanctioned events where revelers feast, drink, and dance freely. Stallybrass and White describe in, “From Carnival to Transgression,” how Carnival allows people to express and release their energy in a controlled setting. The inversion of social hierarchy during Carnival is idealistic and allows people to engage in both high and low culture. Most importantly, Mardi Gras, raves, bachelor parties, etc. exist simply because they are allowed to exist. As Karin pointed out in the final photo of her board, Mardi Gras is an official state holiday in Louisiana. Is Carnival truly transgression if its existence depends on the approval of the hegemonic powers that be? Mardi Gras, the Gay Pride Parade, and other similar events allow the public to engage in a catharsis of sorts. Transgression is supported by the dominant culture when it is temporary but how does this culture deal with those who wish to permanently transgress? How does mainstream society interpret those who depart from the dominant culture permanently, blatantly, and proudly?

Tattoos and other forms of body modification have existed for millennia as means to construct identity. As a form of transgression, tattoos often communicated information about one’s political beliefs, sexual orientation, or chosen profession. Having a tattoo can also communicate that a person is strong enough and brave enough to get a permanent, physically painful symbol of opposition to hegemony. Catherine Lundoff writes of how her tattoos allowed her to be comfortable with her sexual orientation and to communicate to others that she is in control of her body. Tattoos and piercings let outsiders re-claim their own bodies in a way that does not confine to or cater to the dominant culture. Since the Enlightenment, the body has been considered the source of what is natural and legitimate. Lundoff and other “outsiders” must express what is natural to them, thus the body is the place of transgression. Those who challenge heternormativity, and what is considered “natural” by the dominant culture, often get tattoos to take control of their own bodies as evidenced by Samantha’s final photo. A tattoo can give a person confidence because it is a permanent reflection of the conscious choice a person made in altering the body by acquiring a tattoo. Although tattoos are often defined by their transgressive properties and artistic value, their permanence is arguably their most important characteristic. Inking an image or string of words on your body communicates that you permanently oppose mainstream culture. Unlike the leather jacket in Karin’s second photograph, a real tattoo cannot be taken off and put back on. While many people get tattoos because of their permanence, many others get henna tattoos because they are temporary. Henna and washable tattoos are preferred by people who wish to adorn their bodies with works of art temporarily. Though they allow a person to express themselves creatively, temporary tattoos are acts of transgression that exist within the confines of the dominant culture. What once appeared to be an act of transgression then becomes an act of compliance.

Tattoos and other transgressive elements are no longer looked down upon once they are appropriated by the mainstream. In the 1990s, barbed wire and tribal tattoos became trendy and fashionable when Nick Lachey, Pamela Andersen, and other famous celebrities had them. Soon after, butterflies and fairies became trendy when Britney Spears and other pop stars donned them on their pelvic or lower back areas. At the height of their popularity, these tattoos allowed the mainstream to appropriate elements of subculture for their own purposes. As evidenced by Karin’s photo of pop star Rihanna contemporary fashion (and trendy tattoos) combine elements of the mainstream and of the counterculture. Though punks shaved their hair into mohawks and tattooed and/or pierced their bodies, the mainstream has appropriated these transgressive symbols and normalized them. This normalization explains why a tattoo of a skull and cross bones and a head of dreadlocks are often frowned upon by mainstream society while Britney’s tramp stamp and Rihanna’s “mohawk” are popular and even sought-after.

In Karin’s fifth photo , the model’s back is beautifully adorned with highly intricate designs. Famous tattoo artist Ed Hardy wanted people to appreciate tattoos as works of art and more than just challenges to mainstream society. Many tattoo artists carefully sketch out their creations which makes each piece unique. Stars and peace signs can be tattooed by even the most novice tattoo artists so there is less artistry involved. Trendy tattoos that often line the pages of photo albums in tattoo shops challenge both the transgressive characteristic of the tattoo and the artistic value of the piece.

In class, our discussion of Week 7’s readings brought up the issue of electronic music festivals and raves. Though they are “Carnivalesque” by Stallybrass and White’s definition, the appropriation of rave fashion by the more mainstream ravers is a current issue. With the commercialization of electronic dance music, the stripping of raving’s most transgressive elements is evident. Neon clothing and the wearing of beaded bracelets, called “kandi,” symbolize rave culture. Hot Topic and Claire’s are two retail chains that sell kandi though this is a complete desecration of kandi culture. Traditionally, dedicated ravers would spend hours with their rave families preparing for raves by making kandi. While they danced to their favorite artists and encountered strangers, kandi kids would trade kandi in a ritualistic way. In rave culture, PLUR stands for Peace Love Unity and Respect. It is a way of being that is exemplified by this exchanging of kandi. Recently, new fans of electronic music have mistaken kandi for piece of jewelry, accessories to their “rave outfits.” The commercialization of kandi has removed the true message of the kandi exchange by catering to the aesthetic needs of the ignorant.

Tattoos, piercings, and kandi traditionally symbolized a person’s departure from the mainstream culture. As certain subcultural elements have been appropriated by the dominant culture, they have been stripped of their original meanings. Fairy tattoos and faux hawks allow people to appear transgressive while confining to what the dominant culture deems “acceptable.” The appropriation of subcultural elements by retail stores commodifies transgression and removes transgression from traditional means of transgressive expression.


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