As the hot days of summer draw to a close, I find myself possessed of a full inventory of images. I certainly knew about the recent fashion of tattooing. But in the summer season of exposed skin, I found myself surprised by how widespread it has become.

A morning under an umbrella on the patio of the local coffee shop gave me a typical view. In the pleasant early sunshine, a man and woman strolled by with their retriever on a leash. His left leg was doodled up with decorations, and his wrists and lower arms featured colored bands. As they walked past, I noticed that his companion sported a delicate design on her semi-exposed lower back. A woman in her forties sat at a nearby table. She had a small tattoo on the backside of her right shoulder. The young lady who served me my coffee was heavily illustrated¯and pierced. A man jogged by with his shirt off, exposing two strange looking figures on his right and left sides.

In my perplexed state of mind, I consulted a younger friend (who has some tattoos). It wasn’t long ago that tattoos were for Marines, sailors, and guys on Harley Davidsons. Now, women in graduate school doing dissertations on Elizabeth Gaskell are getting tattoos. What gives? “Well,” she said, “I guess it’s just a way to express your individuality. Everybody’s doing it.”

Individuality¯and everybody’s doing it. Hum. That pretty much sounds like the ethos of middle-class culture since the 1960s. Blue jeans and tee shirts. The Rolling Stones. Punctuating conversation with emphatic expletives. It’s a wave that has been crashing onto the beach for a long time now. Everybody tossing off the horrible, oppressive conformities of bourgeois culture¯together.

Mass non-conformity has always been a fantasy, of course. In fact, by my lights, it’s the great and abiding fantasy of my lifetime. And it’s a fascinating fantasy, one well worth contemplating in its latest, flesh-altering form.

The first thing to observe is surely the psychological reassurance that a tattoo can provide. I haven’t examined the specimens, but I’m willing to wager a large sum that significant number of Harvard Law School students have tattoos. These students can seem terribly privileged, but we need to understand their profound dilemma. They epitomize the striving young men and women who discipline themselves to produce exactly the right resume to ensure the fullest possible participation in our productive and rich society. But our post-1960s culture holds such conformist personalities in disdain. Thus the profound appeal of the symbols of transgressive individuality: a pierced eyebrow, hair dyed a fluorescent color, a tattoo. It’s a way of saying, “There’s a real me that can’t be reduced to everything I’ve had to do in order to be successful.”

As a middle-aged college professor who observes the lives of his students, I find myself sympathetic. I can confidently report that our contemporary society demands far more extensive and detailed compliance from young people then was the case in my day. They take batteries of standardized tests, and face a long slog through undergraduate and then graduate education in order to be assured a place in the professions. Every facet of their personal lives is assaulted with exhortations. Be sure to have protected sex! Don’t smoke! Avoid fatty foods! With so much of their lives sacrificed to the gods of health and success, is it surprising that they want to take a piece of their bodies and do with it as they please?

I’ve often looked at young men and women with tattoos and shaken my head. Don’t they realize how quickly fashions change? You can throw away the old bell-bottom pants, but a tattoo? But the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that permanence is part of the appeal.

When we take a sober look at contemporary society, we can see that one of the main results of the cultural revolution of the last half century has been the demolition of soul-binding permanence. Marriage and family are the most obvious examples. It’s a simple fact: An astonishing number of well-educated and successful Americans delay marriage and forego children. They live a great deal of their lives without the weight of family responsibilities.

In a more subtle way, our postmodern culture of irony and critique also works against permanence. The old binding loyalties of faith and patriotism are openly mocked. The ability of truth to compel the soul is reinterpreted by our culture of critique as an ideological ploy to mask and advance the interests of power. Thus we are taught that nothing rightly compels devotion of heart and mind.

So we are free, freer than any people have ever been in the history of humanity. The old bonds of commitment hang loosely about us. How this came about would require telling the complex history of modern western culture, but the current consequences are not hard to identify. A free soul is a slave of desires for success, desires for social acceptance, desires for all the goodies that our wealthy economy so efficiently provides, to say nothing of our primitive passions. Increasingly uncommitted¯free from the limits of marriage, children, faith, devotion, and loyalty¯we are more purely and more entirely defined by our social roles as productive workers and eager consumers, and by our passing desires for satisfaction and pleasure. Again, I ask myself, is it surprising that in an age with so few binding commitments postmodern men and women seek symbols of permanence etched into their bodies?

By all accounts, we are heading toward a more fluid cultural situation. These days I am struck by how mobile young professionals have become. Shanghai, Berlin, London, Dubai¯they seem to end up all over the globe, only to relocate a year or two later. I don’t doubt that the socially acceptable sexual “partnering” options will continue to expand, along with all sorts of new reproductive technologies. We’ll be increasingly free to do as we please¯and undo as we please.

As the tide of impermanence rises, I’m fairly sure that the tattoo fashion will expand. The human heart hungers for permanence. We don’t want to be dispersed into endless possibilities; we want to be held responsible for being a particular person. Thus, absent strong cultural forces that encourage and enforce limitations on the will, in the coming decade we will see all sorts of strange self-mutilations and radical commitments of the body. Self-mutilation will provide a powerful symbolic compensation for our inability to commit and bind the soul.

And it will become socially acceptable, perhaps even fashionable. Because at the end of the day, manipulation of our bodies creates an impotent symbol of permanence. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., it’s the content of your character that matters, not what you do with your skin. Like tattoos, clipping off the tops of your ears or removing your little toe won’t stand in the way being a slave to your desires and society’s demands. Tasteful self-mutilation is perfectly consistent with any life-trajectory (and in our tolerant society, even the tasteless gets a free pass). In contrast, the most individual man or woman is the one who cannot do or be otherwise¯and that comes from a heart circumcised by convictions that we allow to command our lives.

R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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