The motives for tattoos are many, but they all have a common subtext. A tattoo can mark a group identitysailors, soldiers, inmates, gangs, motorcyclists. It can memorialize a person or event, as in a virtual archive of snapshots of tattoos showing names and faces of deceased loved ones (I attended a presentation of the archive by two academics in Toronto last year). Sometimes they happen by blunt peer pressure, a set of 20-year-olds on Saturday night getting drunk, knowing not what to do until one of them blurts, “Let’s go get a tat and a ring!” (a good friend tells me of pulling out just as his turn came up).
Beneath the variety, though, is the same call: “Look at me.” The bearer may think it’s cool or lovely or poignant, a certification of membership, a work of art, or a testimonial, but a selfish demand accompanies each message, not because of what they say but where they say it. Tattoos go on a person’s skin, and so they can’t be separated from the ego of that person. It’s always there as part of one’s being, and others must register it as much as they do one’s face and speech. A tattoo has form and color and meaning, but it also solicits a social recognition, a “This is me, check me out.”
At least that’s how many people regard the sight of a tattoo on a nearby shoulder. Perhaps it’s an ungenerous attribution, but they can’t help finding tattoos obnoxious. The tattoo seems to summon their eyes, to draw their focus even if they have other things they wish to think about. In that sense, a tattoo is narcissistic, and narcissism is coercive. It lives off of others’ notice, and when the narcissist fails to draw attention, he feels disturbed and wounded.
Whenever we sense that need, we recoil from it. Unless you’ve learned to favor those forms of self-expressionand, certainly, a segment of our culture is now devoted to approval of such personal displaysthey strike you as distasteful no matter the overt details of the body art. The psychedelic arms of the NBA player at the free throw line aren’t benign or conventional. They’re aggressive.
Maybe this is too narrow an understanding. There is, also, a philosophical rationale for a tattoo, though it may not extend far beyond the more hip academics in the humanities. I heard it when a professor-colleague muttered once in conversation, “Oh, it’s very important that everyone does something to the body?” He meant it as a general moral injunction, a necessity. We must change the bodies we are born with, we must. It could be a tattoo, a piercing, or plastic surgery, but some deliberate alteration must be worked upon what nature has created.
Why? Because while the body satisfies human desire, it also impedes it. Women want to be thinner and their hips won’t comply. Men want to bulk up, but it takes too much work. Young women think their breasts are too small, and their boyfriends agree. People wish that their skin were lighter or darker, their hair had more curl or less. Men feel trapped inside a woman’s body, women in a man’s.
The body, too, is a focus of judgment, whether we like it or not. It excites or repels. It lends itself to unwanted racial and sexual stereotypes.
To overcome the problems, the academic argument goes, we must displace a longstanding conception. People have idealized the human body, treated it as a temple, a purity, and that mystification must end. The body is NOT a natural thing or divine form. It has no natural or supernatural status. That’s what my friend meant when he insisted on coloring hair, writing words on forearms, inserting studs in tongues, and otherwise modifying the physique. We must de-naturalize the body, redefine it as a human construct. A tattoo helps turn this object we seem to have been given into material we may shape and revise. Yes, each one of us is stuck with the one we’ve got (at this point in time), but we can re-create it, fashioning it into an expression of the identity we prefer.
That’s the theory of body art. It spells a transition from the body as physique to the body as text. You can write yourself upon it. As a friend put it to me: A tattoo isn’t the Word made flesh, but the flesh made word. It may strike old-fashioned types as pedestrian narcissism and adolescent conformity, and sometimes it surely is. But in a deeper and more troubling way, it is canny and subversive artifice, spiced with a moralistic claim to personal liberation. A tattoo is a personal statement but also an anthropological position that accords with the prevailing transvaluations of our time. It’s a wholly successful one, too, judging from the entertainment and sports worlds, and youth culture. With the mainstreaming of tattoos, another factor in the natural order falls away, yet one more inversion of nature and culture, natural law and human desire. That’s not an outcome the rationalizers regret. It’s precisely the point.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.