Sorry, I don’t speak tattoo.

Photo credit: Margot Mifflin

Maud Wagner, the first known female tattooist in the U.S., 1911. In 1907, she traded a date with her husband-to-be for tattoo lessons. Their daughter, Lotteva Wagner, was also a tattooist. Photograph credit Margot Mifflin (from The New Yorker – see link below*)

Nowadays it seems as though everyone has a tattoo – even David Dimbleby, proving once and for all that the modern tattoo has become decidedly less rebellious. In true Hegelian fashion the tattoo has followed that dialectic process from antithesis to synthesis, and inked skin now appears to be the new norm.

There is still an element of stigma attached to tattoos. As someone with heavily tattooed arms who works in a professional environment I make a point of keeping them covered in an effort to be taken seriously. I’ve never had an employer tell me I need to do this but I implicitly feel it’s the right thing to do. I’ve received far more compliments and genuine questions than negative comments and dirty looks, but it just doesn’t seem right to show them off at work. I wouldn’t reveal them at an interview, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get fired for taking off my cardigan either.

Arguably the tattoo’s journey away from the subversive and into the mainstream began well over a decade ago with popular network TV shows like LA Ink, Miami Ink, London Ink and so on. Pre-watershed programmes like these showed the personal side of the ‘rough-around-the-edges-but-has-a-big-heart’ artists and the ‘they’re-just-like-me!’ clients, and proved to most unbelievers that a bit of permanent ink on skin really is okay. That many of the tattoos on these shows are very high quality pieces of art has helped destigmatise tattoos as well.

But around the world prior to the 20th century, where tattooing was practiced, tattoos were very much ‘mainstream’ (See: National Geographic: Pigments of Imagination). Granted, before they came into contact with tattooed Picts from northern Britain the Romans reserved tattoos for branding slaves, criminals and the condemned, and the yakuza of nineteenth-century Japan used tattoo imagery as a language of their criminal subculture, but for the most part, pre-modern tattoos were an important symbolic part of the ritual practices of various cultures. For South Pacific islanders they marked important rites of passage, they were used by crusaders to identify themselves as Christian so that if they died in a foreign land they could receive an appropriate burial, and to the inhabitants of the Alps over 5,000 years ago they served as healing charms or remedies. For sailors they told a story of where they’d been; for prisoners they told of what they’d done or for how long they’d served.

Speak to anyone alive today in Western Europe or North America who has a tattoo and you’ll likely hear a story that has parallels with any of these reasons. A young woman getting a tattoo to celebrate her 18th birthday shares something in common with a Tahitian woman having her buttocks tattooed black when she comes of age, a soldier having their date of birth and service number tattooed could relate to a crusader tattooing a cross on their arm, and anyone with a Om tattoo over a chakra shares something with an early European such as Ötzi.

We use tattoos for many of these same traditional reasons, but we do so in ways that aren’t necessarily readable to those around us. What makes modern (or perhaps postmodern?) tattoos so very different is not meaning but language. The cult of the individual that gave rise to the popularity of tattoos has blocked any hope of their symbolism having any readable meaning. We now need to ask someone what a tattoo means because there’s no obvious language, or there’s such a plurality of language we can’t decipher one from another. Whereas traditionally most tattoos served to identify a person’s place within a community able to read the symbolism, today tattoos are used to demonstrate how someone is unique. At most you could probably figure out from the artistic style which pop culture sub group a person identifies with, but likely nothing more than that.

Tattoos do still carry meaning, but now it is a meaning held and frequently created by the individual. We’ve appropriated other cultures’ symbolism and adapted the meaning to suit our own personal values as we see fit. Geometric Maori patterns, Japanese koi and dragons, kanji (sometimes with unfortunate hilarious consequences) have given us infinitesimal ways of expressing ourselves – a butterfly tattoo on one person can represent the birth of a child, the loss of a parent, recovery from addiction or a love of butterflies. I have the Virgin Mary and part of the Hail Mary tattooed on my arm, but I’m not Catholic, nor is my family. Nor do my Japanese tattoos reveal any of my gang affiliations. I don’t have any.

We are, of course, a product of our culture and the tattooed are being different in very similar ways, but that’s a different topic altogether. Modern tattooed bodies are scrapbooks of self fashioning, which, like their predecessors makes them incredibly interesting cultural artefacts. Even if you can’t understand what they’re saying they, at the very least, are a great conversational icebreaker.


Further Reading

3 thoughts on “Sorry, I don’t speak tattoo.

  1. Yes, the idea of a shift from tattoos focused on communual meanings to individual ones seems very clear in recent history. Then again, I think this could be taken too far. Surely some of the most common tattoos today (e.g. a butterfly, etc.) are – perhaps unconsciously – partly saying something like ‘I’m a normal, fun-loving 18 year old’, a very communual meaning.

    Mairin Odle has a great piece on the history of tattoos and, especially, their removal at The Appendix. It’s worth a look:

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