It is often mentioned that our culture is sick. The ubiquity of tattooed Americans is held as one piece of proof of that statement. If the culture is sick – as opposed to the individuals themselves – it’s as if the well from which we’re collectively drawing our water is tainted with arsenic. When we criticize tattooed individuals we aim to criticize the culture-wide change that has led to more people obtaining what we consider either vapid displays of narcissism or overt signals of counterculturalism.
But it’s worth taking a deeper look at what tattoos represent. It’s no surprise that tattoos are correlated with lower socioeconomic class or criminality. Social commentator Theodore Dalrymple wrote that tattoos are the greatest indicator of criminal behavioral tendencies other than cigarette smoking. But tattoos also signify other things such as membership to a group whether it be soldiers, sailors, or gangsters. Tattoos can also represent a token of accomplishment or a rite of passage.
The increased prevalence of tattoos is readily observable. While only 6% of people in the 1930s had a tattoo, in 2006, one in three people in the 18-29 demographic and one in four in the 18-59 demographic had one. It’s also safe to assume that today an even greater portion of the population have multiple tattoos or “sleeves”. Surely, the increase of the fad and access to tattoo parlors is part of the equation. But something about the inked images and their increased prevalence indicates a deeper meaning behind the trend – if that’s what it is.
In “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self?” Paul Sweetman writes:
…corporeal artifacts [tattoos] are approached and experienced as distinct from other, more free-floating products in the `supermarket of style’. Whether or not their meaning is fixed in these terms, tattoos and piercings are employed by some as a form of anti-fashion and as a way of fixing or anchoring the reflexively constructed self.
Jill Fisher writes in her paper “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture” that tattoos represent an individual reclaiming his or her body in the face of a desiccating capitalist system. Capitalism, Fisher writes, commodifies the body. The State, once external to the body and contra an internalized self, has moved into the body. The externalized self then marks the body with a tattoo to “tame the unruly body-state”.
These arguments make a strong case that modernity and post-industrialism have helped atomize society and the individual. The irony is that the very reason that people may have turned towards tattooing as an outlet may be the very same reason that tattooing became ubiquitous in the first place. The erosion of values and traditions snuffed out puritanical anti-tattoo sentiment, but a void remained in the collective unconscious which sought to anchor back in to the values that had eroded.
Most of the literature on the subject doesn’t pay much attention to the things that people are actually getting tattooed on their bodies, which seems like important information.
Dalrymple wrote in a 1995 essay which ended up in his collection Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass:
In the reception area are posters illustrating the patterns from which most of the clients choose, bespoke tattooing being considerably more expensive. The patterns seem inspired mainly by sub-Wagnerian Norse mythology, the female figures deriving in equal measure from Brunnhilde and Ursula Andress, the male from Siegfried and Arnold Schwarznegger. Snakes winding their way around skulls, saber-toothed tigers, and bulldogs bearing fangs are also popular.
Many tattoos are the result of a great welling up of romanticism in the collective unconscious. The images that many people get inked on their bodies are archetypal – representing ideals of nature, fraternity, fidelity, nationality, and family. Ironically, these are all institutions that are reportedly eroding which leads to the tacit approval of superficially engraved skin.
As Sweetman argued, tattoos can help anchor the self which is now, in this nihilistic world, devoid of any value-providing point of reference. Humanity floats in a buoy-less sea, but the archetypes of tradition and romantic idealism still exist somewhere within us.
So when that energy escapes – even under the most childish or vapid of circumstances – it will grab for some steadying agent. In a weird way, the move towards tattooing is an individualistic excursion towards a collective ideal. It seems like an expression of individualism, but it is actually a wandering toddler looking for its teddy bear.
There are elements of nature that the self romanticizes in the face of our modern rift with nature. The co-worker I wrote about yesterday wanted to get her torso treed. Trees represent the height of nature and spring forth with life. Birds are also popular archetypes – probably stemming from their history among British sailors who inked their bodies with sparrows which signified both freedom and hope.
Another co-worker has a Bengal tiger etched on his forearm. The tiger, I assume, is an archetype that represents masculine energy, virility, and ferocity. It is difficult to overtly embrace such qualities. National flags, family crests, the faces of children, the names of loved ones, the face of Jesus, prayer-clasped hands – these are outward representations of the values systems of the people who choose to get tattooed.
There is also the gaudiness of Nordic or other-worldly mythological creatures and beings which Dalrymple mentions. Interestingly, the archetypes run parallel to the ones we see in Death or Black metal which is an art form that has been characterized as being a helpless lashing out against decimating nihilism. That music genre – the most extreme and gaudy blowback from the decimated culture – seems outwardly nihilistic and value-drained, but it seems instead to be rooted in a desire to reclaim a life-giving pagan traditions.
All of this follows from the very simple observation made by Nietzsche – which is trite of me to recall here – that “God is dead.” There are no values – nothing for us to hang our collective hat on. As Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind:
Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss.
While, as Bloom argues, Nietzsche is solidly of the Right – against democracy and OK with inequality – he has been coopted by the Left’s egalitarians and democrats which merely compound the problem of the realization of nihilism. A Leftist embrace of Nietzsche takes his acceptance that objective values don’t exist and flips it on its head by encouraging people to make their own values. The young sea-steader – lost and out of sight of land – is then left with the idea that he can find value in something, and it seems that he currently thinks he can find it by taking it from within and putting it on his skin.