20 September 2004

The Tattoo

Fashion Supplement

The tattoo started as a mark of obedience. The Navy and the Federal penitentiary weren’t what you were hoping for out of life. But you had this odd satisfaction: You let someone cut and ink your skin with institutional signs, to identify your body with a fate that you couldn’t escape anyway.

Tattoos belonged to institutions. And accompanying them were all the contradictory feelings that go with having your will ground down under the weight of an institution. There was fear, hatred, adoration, and identification. Because everyone on the inside had these marks, tattoos expressed your solidarity. Because the tattoos were inflicted permanently on your body, they gave you a weird relief. You got violent with yourself, before the institution got violent with you.

Did tattoos individuate people? Certainly, but only by lining them up with powers antithetical to individuality. The tattoo memorialized the big house, or the boat. Each design in black and blue, colors of bruises, had a double meaning, when you carved yourself permanently with the symbols of an authority that you hoped would be temporary, and that you were willing to, but really didn’t want to, obey.

For a long time, the tattoo retained its double meaning. You felt the exquisite melancholy of tattooing the name of your mother on your chest because you really should have listened to her, and not gone boozing and stealing, and wound up in the clink—but, well, you didn’t want to listen. And you probably wouldn’t listen today. You remembered this with guilt, and pride, and paid it off in ink. And you put the name of your steady woman on your chest because odds were you’d rather be whoring and messing around—and you might be doing it still.

Soldiers got tattoos. Sailors got tattoos. Sports teams, in latterday times, get tattoos on the old model. Street gangs get tattoos. Prisoners get tattoos. Bikers are known for their tattoos. But nowadays somebody new gets tattoos—you.

It was bikers who extended the rebellious aspect of the tattoo (formerly subordinate), while they diminished the need for any cruel fate to make rebellion make sense (formerly predominant). Bikers were very modern clowns. They saved up money for motorcycles and tooled around, free as any member of a bowling league, but called themselves outlaws. If bikers discovered a new fate, they didn’t know it. Theirs was only the contemporary fate of constantly having to act out rebellion, constantly prove it to yourself, as if your whole happiness depended on it.


Somewhere on a coffee table in a loft a hipster has a thick 25×25in2 volume published by Taschen or Rizzoli on the “Art of the Tattoo,” which will prove to me that tattoos were not symbols of obedience but daring and colorful works of art, the art of the outlaws, the badasses. Or that tattoos have a deep communicative meaning, they are Chartres stained glass for the modern poor. Bullshit. The cult of the tattoo right now had to reconstruct itself around originality and artistry because the middle-class tattoo promises originality and individuality rather than obedience.

I’m not against tattoos. I know of a flower, a sand dollar, and a lion, whose wearers I feel the greatest affection towards. And those designs are lovely. Nevertheless, the near universality of tattoos, within a youth culture and a social class I happen to belong to, and their failure to gain acknowledgement as pleasant little symbols of universal brotherhood and conformity and sameness—their association, instead, with individuality and rebellion!—seems a little insane.

When you undertake an act of conformism, you should understand what you’re conforming to, and be able to say why you’re doing it. Otherwise your life will be narrowed dangerously.

As far as I know, the usual focus of critics of tattoos is on the way the trappings of social inferiors became cosmetic adornments for the rich and middle-class. I’m not against cosmetics. Or perhaps the main interest in tattoos is still just that they’re so hard to remove. A better question might be, what does it mean to see so many tattoos that don’t point to any institution, or belonging, or obvious obedience, but do follow exactly identical patterns of placement, and design, and provoke the same repeated attitudes among the people who get and wear them? What obedience is this?

You always see them on the same patches of skin, where they do no harm to employment prospects but stand revealed by the gapping-open of the contemporary uniform of youth. Gentle reader, do you, if you are a woman, have an inked motif on your lower back, at a point where it will be revealed between the top of your low-rise jean (fashion of the 1990s) and the bottom of your cropped contemporary shirt? Is it, instead, in a similar position up front, a revelation of the pelvic midriff? Do you show off a little mandala, or rising-sun, or trailing flower, or arabesque? Did you put something like that on your ankle, to be revealed by Capri pants, or crossed by the strap of high heels? Or is it on a shoulder-blade, lovingly divided by a spaghetti strap?

And if you are a man, do you happen to have a tattoo on your calf or forearm? Did you skip your girlfriend’s name, or former prison locale, but choose instead something abstract that signifies nothing but the presence of a tattoo itself, for example, a braided “tribal” motif, or a couple of characters in any Asian language you don’t read, or just a black band? Ten-fifteen years ago, the thing to do was to put a tattoo on the outside of your shoulder where the peg goes on a marionette. Maybe you have one of those.

The rationale for tattoos among despised people might have had something to do with the following: other kinds of miserable invisible stigma were already in force, so why not inscribe them permanently where you could see them? In contrast, the ease with which the middle-class and non-despised put on tattoos today, and the spots on their bodies they tuck these marks away, allows a perfect freedom from stigma.

Permanence, however, is still the issue. For the meaning of the contemporary tattoo depends on a deep wish for permanence, of just one kind: the permanent retention of a turn-of-the-21st-century character trait known, in middle-class slang, as “wildness”; if you can prove to yourself, usually when young, that you have it, then you will be “wild” your whole life long.


Wildness is not so very different from self-help. It just unites the healthy bourgeois traits that prove today that a person is alive and independent—spontaneity, expression, pleasure, and “experience”—with outlawry.

In self-help, you prove the existence of the self through intimacy and passion. In wildness, you prove it through sex, drinking, and so-called extreme pranks, sports, or pastimes. In self-help, spontaneity turns inward, and you are invited to share your discovery of deep feelings with partners and dear friends. In wildness, spontaneity goes outward, and you prove your ability to manipulate your own body in front of strangers.

The self-helping bourgeois drinks the deep draught of her own cup of love, and tells her parent, husband, or child what she never could have said. The wild bourgeois does a keg-stand, and lifts her shirt when the crowd chants “show us your tits.” Wildness is, in youth, the same story that will be told by Hallmark in middle-age. The tattoo is a promise to oneself that one will always tell the first story, never succumb to the second.

I am a frequent viewer of televised reality dating shows. On these shows, episode after episode, you witness an endlessly repeated game of challenge and reply between potential lovers, each of whom tries to prove how “wild” he is while debunking the claims to wildness of every other. Wildness seems to have become a positive social ideal.

But the game of proving wildness to anybody else is very painful, socially speaking. It’s a struggle for dominance. Those who can’t back up their claims of wildness with convincing exploits are labeled fools, or prudes, and mocked. Those who go too far, revealing the wrong experience or sexual peculiarity, are labeled freaks, psychos and sluts, and equally mocked. It’s a hard thing, to try to be wild. Or, worse, to have to say you are, in ordinary words.

The complications of proving wildness led to one of the most unfortunate exchanges ever aired on these dating shows, when an innocent-looking 20-year-old, milkfed, eager, tried to prove her wildness to an interviewer. To the question, “Are you a bad girl?” she breathlessly replied: “Oh yeah, I’m bad. I mean, I’m not bad bad, I’m like, only bad in bed.” And that was the end of her—the sharks on the show ate her for lunch.

The tattoo does nice work, because it promises wildness without having to resort to those slippery items, words, or, worse, the unreliability of your own thoughts. The tattoo proves that one has hidden and secret parts of one’s body, which somebody has seen. As a matter of fact, it was probably some ex-biker, since behind the tattoo is always the image of the tattoo artist bending over your ass, grubby, lascivious and probably diseased. It suggests you know secret places, on your own body, and know what they mean to you (wildness!), and how to care for them. The tattoo accomplishes all this even though the design itself speaks no deep meaning; in fact, it’s almost necessary that the tattoo be uncommunicative, proving only that it’s there. And the benefits are proportionately greater, the more the wearer otherwise seems, on the surface, completely “straight.”


So: The muteness of the tattoo makes it super-reliable. And its very satisfactory way of announcing “I’m not like everybody else” leads everybody to wear one. When our notions of character changed meaning, the tattoo changed its role. The conformism of the tattoo, which has followed a path outward from many incompatible subcultures (punk, biker, goth, crunchy, ghetto), all of them invested in showing off the inner feeling of rebellion, to a cloud-like universal monoculture, invested in the proof of bourgeois “wildness,” points an accusing finger at our sad world, in which the need to distinguish yourself becomes the only universal fate. One no longer knows if he wants to be different because he really is different, or because he has been induced to be the same.

We will all be rebels together in the grave. I always think of this when I see tattoos on people who are aging. Like the tattooed middle-class mothers and fathers on the beach, with their goose-bumped and pot-bellied children, someday to be tattooed; like the tattooed rich actresses pictured in the gossip rags; like the tattooed nurse who put on my blood pressure cuff; in death, we will all be rebels together.

And in the cemetery, where all the corpses of this generation rest, you know that the last things to go, as the bodies shrink or liquefy, will be those blue-black emblems. Still recognizable to the end, tribal designs and solid bands, circles and swords, they will say to the worms: “rebel.

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