All Things Related – Volume Two

At Tattoo Temple we believe that just as in any form of art, there is no limit to sources of inspiration. Equally there is an eclectic range of topics that may help guide an educated decision around your own compositions. The following articles have been compiled for those wishing to explore some broader fields of study

Cosmetic Tattooing

a brief overview of the types of cosmetic tattoos available

Cosmetic Tattoo Art

For most, getting a tattoo is an exciting extravagance encapsulated in a world of choice. The most difficult question many tattoo seekers are forced to ask themselves is ‘what style do I prefer’? However, for a small percentage of people receiving a tattoo is also a medical, albeit cosmetic, procedure.

We asked Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong for an insight into the other uses of tattoos. Although traditionally more popular in Asian countries such as South Korea, instances of cosmetic tattooing in Hong Kong are on the rise. Cosmetic tattooing is particularly popular amongst women and, although not yet a traditional and culturally mainstream practice here in China, it can be viewed as a burgeoning and empowered choice. Irrespective of one’s personal inclination towards or against such ‘inking’ there are numerous technical and safety issues not often considered.

Cosmetic tattoo art can be broadly divided into three types: permanent makeup, skin coloration and tattooing over scars. Permanent makeup tattoos are when the client requests color pigmentation or even tattooed dots representing beauty marks to be placed on their face or body thus replacing conventional cosmetics. These permanent markings range from tattooed eyebrows, eyeliner, blush to even lip-stick. Thinner highly precise tattoo needles are used for many of the cosmetic tattoo procedures. The second type of cosmetic tattooing is known as ‘skin coloration’. This is performed when, for a variety of reasons including the repercussions of surgery and burns, a small section of a persons’ skin color no longer matches the rest or most of their body. Tattoo Temple told us of one extremely brave client who came in for this procedure. The aspect that separates this client from all the rest was that the area to be re-colored was a portion of his testicles. And yes, he made it through the entire session.

The first two types of cosmetic tattoos require not only a steady hand but also an artist who is a color expert. Most anyone is able to select and match a type of tattoo ink from the many on the shelf however only the experienced artist can anticipate the end result. As a persons’ natural skin color will sit on top of the tattoo and as the tattoo is often intended to be readily visible, the visual mathematics of this practice is best left to only the experienced professional.

According to Tattoo Temple the third type is the most requested form of cosmetic tattooing, tattoos over scars. In most cases there exists the perception that a tattoo piece could be placed over a larger area somehow incorporating the scar into the design and therefore hiding the scar. As a very general and broad rule, this can often be the case. Yet each scar, medical history, healing capability and design has to be individually reviewed by the tattoo artist.

Very simply, scars differ according to the amount of collagen the body produces. Hypertrophic and keloid scars are where excess collagen has been deposited over the area; these are the raised or bumpy’ types of scars. Atrophic scarring is an indentation of the skin. Atrophic scarring is most commonly from acne, chickenpox, accidents or surgery.

Tattoos are permanent because they sit beneath the layer of skin that is constantly sloughing or shedding. Most types of mild scars will be able to retain the color of a tattoo. Scarred areas more often than not form stable canvases (from the tattoo artists viewpoint) however it is still tricky territory when bearing in mind the intricacies and complexity of many tattoo designs. When considering tattooing over a scar the key point to keep in mind is that tattoos are simply changes in coloration whereas scars are physical alterations. No matter the style or type of tattoo design, the skin onto which it is applied will not be physically altered except for the underlying coloration. The raised or indented areas of skin (i.e. the scar) can at best be expertly crafted into the design so as to minimize any untoward attention.

Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed tattoo art and are the only qualified cosmetic tattoo artists. Their waiting list is approaching the two year mark and it seems as though the demand for cosmetic tattooing is only on the rise.

Written By Dr. J Chou, published May 15th, 2011

Tattoos From Counterculture To Campus

a look at the younger generations increase of tattooing

Radical body modification has experienced expanded expression, appropriation and visibility within the last several decades. Most scholarly interest has cast such practices in the context of pathology, class-bound deviance or subcultural ideological expression. Decisions to obtain tattoos and radical body piercings (locations other than ears), as modest forms of body modification, are examined among a sample of college students at a midwestern, regional university. Subjects with and without these body modifications are empirically compared. Overall, evidence suggests that tattoos and body piercings are being deconstructed as expressions of pathology, deviance and subcultural expression and are becoming increasingly part of a consumer inventory for selection. Hence, decisions to acquire tattoos and radical piercings are no longer bound by social class, expressions of deviance and pathology, or themes of ideology, but are purchased merely as commodities in a consumer culture.




Gary S. Foster and Richard L. Hummel

Eastern Illinois University
*A version of this paper was presented at the annual meetings of the Midwest Sociological Society, Chicago, Illinois, April 21, 2000. We are grateful to the late Donald J. Adamchak, colleague and brother, Kansas State University, for his encouragement. Direct all correspondence to Gary S. Foster, Department of Sociology, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL 61920; cfgsf@eiu.edu


Physical appearance, as expression of identity, is modified in ways that are regarded as routine and normative (e.g., shaving; cosmetics; waxing/electrolosis; hair styling; tanning; orthodontal correction; body sculpting, ranging from dieting and body building to breast modification, plastic surgery and liposuction) or extreme and disvalued (e.g., tattooing; piercing;1 scarification; branding; body sculpting, such as feet binding or implanting2; see Pitts 2000, pp. 444-5; Sanders 1989, pp. 1-4). From a western bias, the more extreme body modification, with roots in non-western traditions, is often cast as radical,  as a stigma symbol (Goffman 1963, p. 43) because of historical association with deviant or marginal groups (DeMello 2000; Pitts 1999; Sanders 1989, p. 30).

Despite claims that tattooing (and other forms of body modification) are becoming increasingly diffused and embraced by a middle class (e.g., see DeMello 2000; Hill 1972; Martin 1997; Pitts 2000; Rubin 1988; Sanders 1988; 1989), DeMello (2000, p. 125) suggests that perhaps the middle-class presence has been over-emphasized and over-estimated. Moreover, scholarly research, which influences public perceptions of body modification (DeMello 2000, p. 33), explicitly or implicitly reiterates and perpetuates the stigma because . . . few studies make use of control groups [and] research subjects are drawn from highly selected populations . . . (Sanders 1989, p. 37).
Most studies examine body modification only in the context of marginalized groups, and research focusing on marginalized groups inevitably yields or implies correlations between body modification and stigma (Sanders 1989, p. 37). Some research casts such practices as psychopathological (e.g., Favazza 1996) or deviant (e.g., Vail 1999a), or associated with criminality (e.g., DeMello 1993). Though Vail (1999a, p.271) addresses tattoos from a deviance perspective, he calls on sociologists to . . . demystify the processes involved in enacting a cultural phenomenon that is rapidly losing its deviant status.  Other studies, focusing on nonwestern traditions of body modification (e.g., Barker and Tietjen 1990; Hage, Harary and Milicic 1996), implicitly contrast such primitivism  with notions that . . . the proper, natural body is pristine and unmarked  (Pitts, 2000 p. 445). Even postmodern discourse fails to liberate body modification from stigma, instead juxtaposing dominant normative sensibilities  with the identity politics of bodily-modified subcultures (e.g., sexual underground, see Pitts 2000; modern primitivism, see Klesse 1999) contesting the . . . hegemonic ideology of subordination and the patterns of inequality . . .  (Marable 1995, p. 364). Such groups, already stigmatized, employ body modification as expressions of defiance, protest and identity. Moreover, studies focusing only on marked  populations and not on general populations lack the comparative potential between those subscribing to and those rejecting radical body modification. Finally, the ethnographic approaches generally embraced offer rich detail and depth. However, survey research may offer breadth and comparative value. We survey (research) a nonmarginalized population, undergraduate college students, with and without body modification, enabling comparative analysis, to assess the liberation, appropriation and prevalence of tattooing and radical piercings (those other than ear piercings), the most common radical  body modifications among college students.3 As Pitts (2000, p. 461) notes, while body modification has recently raised a good deal of interest, the sociology of body marks in cool societies,  as Turner calls this literature, is still emerging . . . and . . . will benefit from a more comparative analysis . . . . 


Radical body modification has experienced increased expression, appropriation and acceptance in recent decades (Pitts 2000). Tattoos and radical piercings are the most (visibly) assimilated forms of body modification among college students. Tattoos and piercings, as with other forms of body modification, have (had) association with marginalized groups, emphasizing the oppositions of self/other, modern/primitive, gay/straight, lower class/middle class, deviant/normative, and reducing . . . complex relations to fixed . . . binary oppositions that are hierarchically ordered  (Banks, Billings and Tice 1993, p. 292). Given the stigmatized contexts of tattoos and piercings, they have been sanitized and divorced from marginal associations, complete with justifying ideologies, to enter a broader cultural assimilation (DeMello 2000). Such cultural imperialism  (Gans 1971; Hirschman 1981) denies practices grounded in socio-economic and ideological marginalization based on . . . sailors, prostitutes, criminals, . . . bikers [or] . . . a mythical, primitive past 4 (DeMello 1995, pp. 48-49; e.g., modern primitivism  or urban tribalism s  (Vale and Juno 1989) notion of finding self-expression through the body as a medium, or the queer  (Pitts 2000) confrontation and provocation of heteronormative culture), and instead, reconstructs their historical associations via the emergence of legitimating,  middle-class ideologies (see DeMello 2000). Most recently, it seems body modification has been or is being objectified as retail consumer commodities (e.g., see Klesse 1999; Turner 1999), enabling appropriation without embracing ideology or identity (working class or deviant). Appropriation and ideological denial are also facilitated by a lack of awareness. For example, only five (1.7%) in our college sample expressed any explicit recognized association between body modification and the gay community. Without restraints of identity and ideology, tattoos and piercings are becoming more prevalent among college bodies. Such body modification is . . . not dissonant with . . . mainstream culture in any meaningful way except to the extent that it is deployed as such  (Pitts 2000, p. 454). The appropriation of stigmatized practices by those who do not risk having attributed to them stigmatic status has been noted (e.g., DeMello 1995, p. 47; Foster and Hummel 1995, p. 162). Acquiring higher education is a manifest expression of social commitment, upward mobility and class aspirations, all goals historically assumed inconsistent with radical body modification. Traditional college students are of the age to be defining a sense of self and to legally incorporate body modification as expressions of that self, though little is empirically known regarding this or more general populations.


A non-random sample approximating a representative sample of a public, regional, midwest university s student body was drawn from upper- and lower-division, general-education classes over two semesters. A 55 item questionnaire with both closed and open-ended questions, to be completed outside of class, was distributed to all 331 students enrolled in the courses. Some 90.9% (301) returned the questionnaires within two weeks. Our research focus is two-fold. We test for empirical differentiation between those with and without tattoos and piercings and theoretically suggest that such body modification is being commodified, independent of ideology or class identity. Previous research, mostly addressing tattoos, employs class/deviance or ideological perspectives, suggesting hypotheses from those orientations. However, tattoos and piercings have become . . . ubiquitous, having entered the . . . mainstream . . ., and they have . . . become an increasingly common feature of our . . . youth (Martin 1997, p. 860). As tattoos and piercings transition to cultural expression, they become less markers of ideological or class distinction. If tattoos and piercings are becoming commodified, free of ideology or deviance and class, traditional, empirical patterns should offer decreasing differentiation (either no pattern or no statistically significant pattern present) between those with and without body modification. Hypotheses examined in this research pose the following as independent variables: familial and childhood stability (number of moves/ residences during childhood; marital status of parents during childhood; number of organized childhood activities); religiosity (measured by church attendance); measures of marginalization (social involvement via volunteerism, drug use, grade-point average, athletic self-concept); group affiliation; home community size; college major; and gender. These independent variables potentially differentiate those accepting and rejecting tattoos/piercings (our dependent variables).


Of the 301 undergraduates in the sample (2.9% of undergraduate enrollment), 69.3% were female and 30.7% were male; 81.5% were white, 8.9% were African American, 5.4% Hispanic and 4.2% other ethnicities. The age range was 17 to 28, with a median age of 20. Some 60.1% had neither tattoos nor radical piercings. Overall, 24.9% reported tattoos and 25.6% reported piercings.



There were 75 (24.9%; 43 with tattoos and 32 with both tattoos and radical piercings) tattooed subjects with 105 tattoos (range, 1 to 4). The age range was 18-26 (Md, 21). Some 27.3% of all females and 17.6% of all males were tattooed; 22.7% of all whites were tattooed, as were 39.1% of all African Americans and 12.0% of all others. The age at first tattoo ranged from 14 to 23 (Md, 18.0), with 96.0% getting their first tattoo before age 21, the legal age for obtaining tattoos (without the assumed fiction of parental consent) in the state of study. Virtually all (94.4%) did so with parental permission, though several admitted to parental consent ex post facto.6 Most (97.3%) were accompanied by others when being tattooed (most frequently (87.6%) by friends and significant others), consistent with previous findings (Sanders 1988, p.406; 1989, pp.42-3). Over half (53.4%) of those who accompanied the subjects also obtained tattoos. Nearly equal proportions of females and males (96.4% vs 93.8%) acquired tattoos prior to age 21. Some 69.7% of all females  tattoos were located on the torso (compared to only 25.0% of all males  tattoos), while 75.0% of all males  tattoos were located on the extremities (compared to 30.3% of all females  tattoos). This distribution by gender is statistically significant (Chi-Square: 34.662; DF=17; p=.01). Sanders (1988, pp.412-415; 1989, pp. 48-50) found a similar distribution by gender, suggesting females tend to regard tattoos as body decoration intended for personal pleasure and for intimates, while males regard tattoos as identity symbols and thus public display. Shoulder tattoos (15.2%, females; 29.2%, males) also showed gender differences.
Shoulder tattoos for males were generally at the top of the arm, while shoulder tattoos for females were generally on the back of the shoulder. Females were more likely (49.1% vs 31.3%) to report that tattoo locations were influenced by ease of concealment. Only females (27.2%) indicated chosen location as erotic or intimate; males were less reflective in choosing location. Ethnicity also influenced placement. Whites, compared to African Americans, were more likely to report ease of concealment (45.8% vs 22.2%) or both ease of concealment and display (25.0% vs 0.0%) as influencing location. African Americans indicated minimizing pain (22.2% vs 4.2%) as influencing location. Tattoo subject matter clustered around butterflies (16.8%), animals (14.9%), floral/vine (14.9%), and cultural (Gaelic, Eastern and tribal) symbols and words (11.2%). Subject matter was not influenced by ethnicity, but females exhibited greater preference for floral/vine and butterflies (41.3% vs 7.4%), while males exhibited greater preference for cultural symbols (30.4% vs 9.9%). The most frequent reason given for acquiring a tattoo was the subject just wanted one (67.1%), regardless of gender and ethnicity. However, only females (27.9%) externalized reasons for obtaining tattoos (friends, tribute, subject matter), while males were more likely (18.8% vs 9.3%) to internalize reasons (birthday, beliefs, personality). Most tattooed respondents (53.3%) gave considerable thought to buying tattoos, while 17.3% acquired them on a whim. Males more likely gave considerable thought to getting tattoos (62.5% vs 51.8%). Virtually equal proportions of African Americans and whites gave considerable thought to getting tattoos (55.6% and 56.3%), while a greater proportion of African Americans acquired tattoos on a whim (22.2% vs 16.7%). Only 11.7% reported regrets, and of those, 85.7% lamented either the subject matter or the location, but not having gotten tattoos. Sanders (1989, pp. 56-7) found 34.4% expressing regrets, but similarly, about quality, location or subject matter, and not about being tattooed.



There were 77 (25.6%; 45 with piercings and 32 with both piercings and tattoos) pierced subjects with 121 radical piercings (range, 1 to 6). The age range was 18-24 (Md, 18). Some 31.7% of all females and 12.1% of all males were pierced. While 27.5% of all whites were pierced, only 4.3% of all African Americans and 24.0% of all others were pierced. The age at first piercing ranged from 13 to 21 (Md, 18.0), with 38.5% getting their first piercing before age 18, the legal age for piercing (without parental consent); most (86.7%) had parental permission. Some 95.9% were accompanied by others when pierced, most frequently (80.3%) by friends and significant others. Nearly half (42.3%) of those who accompanied the subjects also obtained piercings. Like tattooing, getting pierced is a social activity. While only 23.1% of males  piercings were on the torsos, 68.8% of females  piercings were on the torsos, a distribution with statistical significance (Chi-Square: 21.091; DF=6; p=.01). The most frequent location for females was the navel (62.5%),7 for males, tongues (53.8%). Ironically, while 30.0% of all females  piercings were on the head, no female identified ease of display as the reason for location, consistent with females  claim of self-satisfaction for their piercings. The greatest influence identified by both females (54.4%) and males (42.9%) for piercing location was an ambiguous just wanted it there,  followed by friends for females (17.5%) and erotic (28.6%) for males. While 42.5% gave piercings considerable thought, 19.2% purchased piercings on a whim. Males were more likely to give piercing considerable thought (70.0% vs 38.7%) while females were more likely to give piercings some thought (41.9% vs 10.0%). Most pierced respondents (54.3%; 37.5%, males/55.7%, females) obtained piercings because they simply wanted to or liked the way they looked. Only 13.1% expressed regrets (involving location, parental objection, the judgement of others and scaring/infection), with no variation by gender.


Of the 301 subjects, 60.1% were neither tattooed nor radically pierced, and constitute our comparison group. Ages ranged from 17-28 (Md, 20). Some 53.7% of all females and 75.8% of all males were unmarked, as were 60.7% of all whites, 60.9% of all African American and 72.0% of all others.


To test for differences between those with and without body modification and to examine our assertion that tattoos and piercings are transitioning from class and ideological practices to commodities, we offer hypotheses positing relationships between such body modification and familial/childhood stability, religion, marginalization, affiliation, community size, college major and gender, all variables that would fail to distinguish those accepting and rejecting body modification if our thesis is correct.


The checkered  history and stereotypical assumption about tattoos promote a number of conclusions regarding those with such body adornment. Some (e.g., Grumet 1983, p.489; Howell, Payne and Row 1977) suggest that those with tattoos more likely experienced family discord and parental divorce, or that the permanence of tattoos counter the instability of childhoods marked by divorce (e.g., Martin 1997, p.861) or frequent relocations. We assessed the number of times families moved prior to subjects beginning college and the marital status of parents while subjects were living at home, as imperfect measures of childhood stability. Hy 1: The proportion of subjects with tattoos and piercings will increase with the number of moves during childhood. Data fail to support the hypothesis. The sample exhibited remarkable stability regarding moves; 71.7% experienced two or fewer moves. Moreover, our data show a pattern converse to that hypothesized. Those with two or fewer moves, compared to those with three or more moves, were more likely to have tattoos (14.6% vs 12.3%), piercings (17.1% vs 11.1%), or both (10.7% vs 9.9%), suggesting that stability in childhood is (at least now) not a factor in obtaining tattoos or piercings, and is not inconsistent with such modification being part of a consumer inventory. Hy 2: Subjects from two birth-parent households are less likely to acquire tattoos and/or piercings.

Our data offer no support. In fact, those raised in and those raised outside two birthparent households were just as likely to have neither tattoos nor radical piercings (60.6% vs 61.4%). Those raised by both parents were less likely to have tattoos (11.9% vs 18.6%) but more likely to have piercings (16.4% vs 11.4%), and more likely to have both tattoos and piercings 11.1% vs 8.6%). Thus, familial stability in childhood is not a predictor of tattoos and piercings in this sample, and again lends credence to tattoos/piercings moving from class- and ideological bound practices to broader consumer contexts. As some additional measure of childhood stability and socialization, subjects were asked about participation in organized childhood activities (e.g., scouting, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, football, band, dance team, cheerleading and so on). Some 88.7% of all females and 97.8% of all males had such participation, as did 93.8 % of all whites, 82.6% of all African- Americans and 84.0% of all other ethnics.
Hy 3: The fewer childhood activities reported, the more likely is body modification. The data exhibit the pattern predicted, though fail to support the hypothesis. Of those claiming no organized activities, 57.1% had tattoos, piercings or both; of those claiming one activity, 40.4% had body modifications; two to three activities, 36.7% possessed tattoos, piercings or both; four or more activities, 32.0% had such body modification. An examination of tattoos and piercings separately reveals more erratic patterns. Without a longitudinal perspective, we cannot say this is a change in pattern but involvement in childhood activities for our sample has only a mild (at best) prophylactic effect on body modification.



Perhaps also a measure of familial stability, though presented as a measure of religiosity, is church attendance. Stereotypically, at least, body modification is not consonant with those expressing importance of religion. Hy 4: . . . people who are less religious are more likely to get a tattoo [or piercing] than people who are religious  (Morgan 1999, p. 11). We assess religiosity imprecisely with church attendance. As expected, those who regularly attend church are more likely to be unmarked (74.3%) than those who occasionally or never attend (59.1% and 46.8%, respectively; see Table 1), and those with both tattoos and piercings increases as church attendance decreases. However, those who attend regularly are most likely to have radical piercings (16.2% vs 14.8% and 14.9%). The relationship between church attendance and body modification is statistically significant, suggesting that religiosity (at least as expressed by church attendance) is a proscriptive influence for tattoos but not piercings. This is likely a function of gender since more females than males (62.4% vs 53.9%) regularly or occasionally attend church and females are nearly three times more likely to be pierced (31.7% vs 12.1%), and only about one-third more likely to be tattooed (27.3% vs 17.6%).


Hypotheses asserting inverse correlations between tattoos/piercings and childhood stability and religious commitment suggest a marginalization (Sanders 1988, p.423-425) of those who acquire such cultural products. A number of variables  volunteerism, drug use, GPA, athletic self-image  as indicators of marginalization, were assessed. Subjects were asked about volunteerism for community projects/activies such as Habitat For Humanity, Special Olympics and so on. If body modification is some expression of marginalization or diminished social involvement, volunteerism might offer some measure. Hy 5: A greater proportion of those who do not volunteer have tattoos/piercings. Data fail to support the hypothesis. Some 25.6% were active in such projects, with no variation by body modification. Virtually identical proportions of those who do and do not volunteer had tattoos (13.2%/14.0%), piercings (15.8%/14.9%) or both (9.2%/10.9%), suggesting tattoos/piercings are independent of expressions of social conscience or responsibility. This is not inconsistent with tattoos/piercings becoming part of a consumer inventory available to all, regardless of class/ideological orientation.
Drug use, marginalized along two dimensions – illegal drugs and the illegal use of legal drugs (based on age) – might also distinguish those with and without body modification. Subjects were asked about current drug use and not about drug use when they acquired tattoos/piercings, but in most instances, the interval was relatively short. Hy 6: Those who use drugs are more likely to have tattoos/piercings. While tobacco is legal for those over 18 and alcohol for those over 21, no one under 18 used tobacco (though few respondents were under 18), but 64.9% of those under 21 consumed alcohol. Of the sample, 45.2% used tobacco, 68.4% used alcohol and 28.9% used illegal drugs. Table 2 almost consistently reflects the pattern predicted, though fails to support the hypothesis, the only significant relationship being between tobacco and body modification, with a
significantly smaller proportion (49.3% vs 69.1%) of those using tobacco possessing neither tattoos nor piercings. While those pursuing higher educations have already defied marginalized statuses, some might consider lower grade-point averages (GPA) an expression of marginalization that would accompany the acquisition of body modification. We excluded those who have not yet established GPAs.

Hy 7: The lower the GPA, the more subjects with tattoos, piercings or both. Data fail to support the hypothesis. Some 45.0% of students with GPAs of 3.50 – 4.00 had tattoos/piercings; 32.5% with GPAs of 3.00 – 3.49 had tattoos/piercings; 46.8% of students with GPAs of 2.50 – 2.99 had tattoos/piercings; 54.8% with GPAs of 2.00 – 2.49 had tattoos/piercings; and none of those with GPAs below 2.0 had tattoos/piercings (N size (2) was small since they cannot remain in school without improvement). Thus, GPA has little influence on body modification. Also emphasizing marginalization is the notion that tattoos are psychic crutches for crippled self-images  (Grumet 1983, p.491) and low self-esteem  (Howell, Payne and Roe 1971). While sense of self was not assessed, 62.8% of the sample considered themselves athletic, which we employ as some proxy of self-esteem. Hy 8: Those who consider themselves athletic, as an indicator of positive self-image, are less likely to have tattoos/piercings. Data do not support the hypothesis; in fact, those considering themselves athletic were more likely to have tattoos and/or piercings (40.6% vs 36.9%). A competing perspective suggests that those with tattoos harbor more positive feelings toward their bodies  in that they tend to be more muscular and well proportioned  (Grumet 1983, p.486; see also, Mosher, Oliver and Dolgan 1967; Eitzen (1998, p. 47) claims that athletic participation is an outlet for those already imbued  with self-esteem). By controlling for sex (Table 3), we are able to specify the nature of this relationship. The hypothesis holds for females to a statistically significant extent; for males, however, the relationship is obverse to a statistically significant extent. In other words, athletic women are more likely to be marked than non-athletic women while athletic men are less likely to be marked than non-athletic men. Table 5 shows that most males (87.9%) consider themselves athletic, though only 20.0% of such males had tattoos/piercings. Some 52.2% of all females considered themselves athletic, and 55.7% of them possessed tattoos/ piercings. Several females with navel piercings, all of whom regarded themselves as athletic, stated that they thought navel piercings would motivate them to stay in shape. There is then some minimal evidence to support the contradictory perspectives that non-athletic males and athletic females are more likely to have tattoos and piercings, reinforcing perceived gender differences of body modification already acknowledged.


Tattoos and piercings have been identified as marks of affiliation to significant groups . . .  (Sanders 1988, p.421; see also, Grumet 1983; Pitts 2000), whether mainstream or marginal. Sororities and fraternities, as mainstream groups of affiliation, lend themselves particularly to tattoos via Greek letters. Hence, Hy 9: Members of sororities/fraternities are more likely to have tattoos and nonmainstream piercings (Morgan 1999). Data fail to support the hypothesis. Nearly equal proportions of Greeks/non-Greeks (64.1% vs 59.9%) had neither tattoos nor piercings. Greeks were less likely to have tattoos (7.8% vs 15.1%), more likely to have piercings (21.9% vs 13.4%) and less likely to have both tattoos and piercings (6.3% vs 11.6%). Accepting Greek membership as some measure of group affiliation, tattoos/piercings have no statistically significant relationship to group allegiance. Those who are not members of fraternities/sororities are most certainly members of other groups/affiliations and their tattoos/piercings may be in reference to those memberships. However, as tattoos/piercings become more prevalent among a general population, affiliation with those who already have tattoos is sufficient to influence like decisions.



Stereotypically, body modification, such as tattoos and piercings, seem more an urban practice, larger communities being more worldly  and less conservative. However, implied is the marginalization of the decadent  urban compared to the wholesome  rural. Hy 10: People from larger communities are more likely to have tattoos and radical piercings (Morgan 1999). Data do not support the hypothesis. Communities identified as 2,500 or less, 2,501- 50,000, 50,001-100,000 and over 100,000 yielded the following results. While the proportion of those with tattoos or piercings was smallest (22.2%) in the smallest community category, it was next smallest (37.3%) in the largest category. Proportions of those with body modification were identical (44.2%) in the two middle categories. Proportions possessing tattoos were 8.5%, 14.5%, 20.9% and 11.9%, respectively  again, smaller in the smallest and largest community sizes. Proportions possessing piercings reflected a more erratic pattern  8.5%, 16.7%, 14.0% and 16.4%, respectively  though the smallest proportion was in the smallest community category. Finally, the smallest proportion having both tattoos and piercings (4.3%) was from the smallest community size, the next smallest proportion (9.0%) was from the largest community size, while proportions from the two middle community sizes were 13.0% and 9.3%, respectively. Given the diffusions of mass media, the only thing left to distinguish large communities from small communities is size, and just as mass media have diffused cultural practices and trends to communities, mass media have also diffused commodities and their acceptance.


In some sense, major makes a poor independent variable because 83.7% of all tattoos and 75.0% of all radical piercings were obtained before the end of the subjects  eighteenth year, and 93.3% of all tattoos and 86.5% of all piercings were obtained before the end of age nineteen. However, many consider careers and majors before entering college, and such consideration may influence acquiring tattoos and piercings. Stereotypically, majors fall on a continuum of liberal/conservative, and while such classification defies precision, fine arts and social sciences may be considered more liberal, while business and education are more conservative. Hy 11: Proportions of those with body modification will be greater in liberal majors (and 17 less in conservative majors). After majors were assessed, collapsing, following conventions of higher education, yielded seven categories. Proportions of majors having tattoos and/or piercings were fine arts, 46.4%; applied sciences, 42.9%; social sciences, 42.1%; undeclared, 41.9%; education, 40.9%; sciences, 37.0%; and business, 26.2%. Education majors were most likely (22.7%) to have piercings (virtually all torso piercings, and thus concealable) and least likely (9.1%) to have tattoos (all of which were concealable). Visible body modification would likely reduce chances of employment in many school systems. Concealable modification would not impede employment, while still allowing self-expression. Business had the smallest proportion with any body modification (26.2%), the smallest proportion with piercings (7.1%) and the smallest proportion with both tattoos and piercings (2.4%), consistent with the perspective that those entering this major are aware of the conservative business climate. Moreover, these tattoos and piercings were concealable. Fine arts majors were most likely to have modifications (46.4%) and most likely to have both tattoos and piercings (17.9%), reflecting an assumed, free-spirited nature of those selecting that major. Science majors were most likely to have tattoos (22.2%). Distributions of body modification across majors exhibited patterns that sometimes defied prediction, failing to support the hypothesis. However, this is consistent with our suggestion that tattoos and piercings are becoming more a part of a cultural inventory and less a part of an ideological or class inventory.


Historically in western culture, males have had greater license to acquire tattoos, regardless of class, but if tattoos are transitioning from class/gender/ideological inventory to 18 consumer inventory, and subject matter is softened, tattoos might be regarded as another expression of body adornment, and females are already more sophisticated in such considerations of the body. Piercing, already a domain of women, is extended via expanding notions of body adornment and sensuality. Hy 12: A greater proportion of females than males will be tattooed and pierced. Table 4 supports our hypothesis. While 46.3% of all females had tattoos or piercings, only 24.2% of all males were marked. Women were slightly more likely to have only tattoos, but substantially more likely to have piercings and both tattoos and piercings.


Of the unadorned portion of our sample (60.1%), 53.1% said they were likely to get tattoos, piercings or both; hence, only 28.2% of the sample claim an aversion to such body modification, suggesting a growing currency of body modification among college students and perhaps the more general population. A greater proportion of unmarked males, compared to unmarked females, (40.8% vs 33.1%) are more likely to obtain tattoos and a greater proportion of unmarked females are more likely to obtain piercings (17.3% vs 7.0%) or both (12.0% vs 5.6%). Conceivably, males regard piercings as more gender specific because of the gendered history in western society and because of the more sensual context females have constructed for piercings. Whites and other ethnics (50.9% and 58.8%, respectively) were less likely than African Americans (85.7%) to express intentions of getting tattoos or piercings. Some 35.1% of all unadorned respondents cited permanence of tattoos/piercings to explain their reluctance. Other objections expressed included immaturity (23.1%), concerns of appearance when older (10.8%), pain (8.1%), tacky (10.8%), religion (6.8%), parents (4.1%). Clearly, these claims of intent to acquire tattoos and/or piercings are consistent with an increasing prevalence as commodities.


Our research suggests that tattoos and piercings are being obtained by college students, substantially free of class and ideology, much as any other commodity is purchased in a consumer culture (e.g., see Vail 1999a, p. 270). The vast majority of respondents were generally inarticulate in explaining why they obtained piercings or tattoos and in expressing why they obtained the tattoos (subject matter) they did. If any of the respondents had obtained tattoos or piercings as expressions of subcultural ideologies, that was not expressed, though seven (2.3%) identified affiliation with LGBAU (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Allies Union). Perhaps this is a deficiency of open-ended survey questions and ethnographic field conversation would have likely been more fruitful, though it is conceivable that in-depth interviews would have merely compelled an articulation of ideological meanings by creating a context of expectation. Commodification of tattoos, bereft of ideology, is suggested by the 34 (11.2%) with cultural symbols (Gaelic, Eastern, tribal). Few (17.6%) remembered explicitly what the symbols meant, though they knew when they purchased the tattoos. Similarly, none of the respondents could be considered part of the tattoo community. Most were not aware of tattoo magazines and none read or could name any tattoo magazine. Most were not aware of tattoo conventions and none had ever attended a tattoo convention (see DeMello 2000, pp. 20; 97-135). Finally, none of the respondents, even the seven (2.3%) with three or more tattoos, are collectors. Multiple tattoos on single subjects were not thematically unified but were separate, discrete and autonomous (see Vail 1999a; 1999b). Certainly, it seems that tattoos (and piercings) are becoming more acceptable and more commonplace and the nature and style of tattoos have changed (DeMello 2000, p. 77). Initially, this may have been due to expanding and new ideologies, but seems now due precisely to an absence of ideology. They are becoming commodities in a consumer-culture inventory for increasingly more customers. Of the relationships that we examined, only four (church attendance, tobacco use, athletic perceptions by gender, and gender) were statistically significant, and only three (church attendance, tobacco and gender) as predicted. Given the small sample, examination of a larger, more general sample is warranted. Typically, when data lack statistical significance, the research lacks significance. However, in this research, the consistent lack of statistical significance holds sociological significance as some evidence that our contention regarding the transition of body modification is warranted. While in the past, tattoos and piercings were anticipated and patterned by various independent variables of social class and deviance, and later by ideology, our research offers credence for our contention that such body modification is transitioning to a cultural inventory for adoption without class or ideological reference. Tensions and dissention are substantially intergenerational, between the previous generation which casts tattoos as class-and deviance-bound and based, and this generation which sees them as simply another expressive item selected from the cultural menu. However, even such assumed tension is questionable. The vast majority of respondents who obtained body modification while underage claimed to have parental permission, though only 8.6% of all parents had tattoos and only 3.1% had radical piercings.

This research, unlike previous research drawing from highly selected populations, focuses on college students as a more general population, and again unlike previous research, makes comparisons between those with and without body modification. However, while there is no evidence to suggest that our sample is uniquely atypical of college students, it is not presented as more broadly representative. Hence, replicating this or similar research in other university settings would be warranted and valuable. Finally, survey research misses the richness of ethnographic study which allows subjects to speak more fully and represent themselves and such intensive study among less highly-selected populations, such as college students, would offer substantial dimension. Our inferred hypothesis that body modification has been objectified as commodity is not to imply that tattoos and piercings will no longer have ideological or class expression but will have increasingly diverse meanings for different groups, not unlike the Harley Davidson as symbol or commodity. As various expressions of body modification are appropriated and commodified, tolerance of body modification should increase, and perhaps, incrementally, tolerance of those displaying modification, regardless of ideology or lifestyle may increase. In this manner, hegemonic culture is incrementally deconstructed as the symbols of those embracing variant identities and ideologies permeate the mainstream.

1. Piercings can be minimized by removing the hardware. Another modification of the tongue splits it from the tip back about an inch, giving it a forked appearance. 2.Implants involve the subdermal placement of surgical steel or plastic objects to cause surface distortion of the skin. Cranial implants allow steel prongs and other appliances  to be screwed  into the top of the head.
3. Such examination has recently become prolific (e.g., Anahita, Keister and Perkins 2000; Bruton 2000; Foster and Hummel 2000; Morgan 1999; Noll 2000).
4. For example, tattoos achieved softer  subject matter, contrasting with harsher,  workingclass subject matter. This transition went from massive tattoos . . . depicting service insignia, eagles, or dripping daggers entwined with stylized snakes – as well as the more traditional naked broads, slavering wolves, cartoon characters, crucifixes, or such delightfully whimsical innovations as a drunken monkey swinging on a parking meter [to] . . . softer, more fanciful, more purely decorative and less violent designs. Signs of the Zodiac, occult and religious markings, and personal totems . . . (Hill 1972, p. 247; see also, DeMello 1995, pp. 48-49; Sanders 1988, pp. 401-402).
5. Students in and not part of the sample found the research of interest and would drop in, some several times, to discuss body modification. Such informal opportunity interviews enriched researcher insight into the subject matter.

6. Parental permission for tattooing under age 21 is a fiction. Illinois statute (720 ILCS 5/12-10) allows no exceptions for tattooing anyone under age 21, except as done by a physician. Piercing the body of a minor (under 18) is accommodated with written consent of a parent (720 ILCS
7. Navel piercings have become so prolific that they are now a form of fashion, but just a few years ago, they were cutting edge  among college students in the Midwest.

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Body Regular Occasional No
Modification Attendance Attendance Attendance TOTAL
% (N) % (N) % (N) % (N)
None 74.5 (55) 59.1 (104) 46.8 (22) 60.9
Tattoos 6.8 ( 5) 15.3 ( 27) 17.0 ( 8) 13.5 (
Piercings 16.2 (12) 14.8 ( 26) 14.9 ( 7) 15.2 (
Both 2.7 ( 2) 10.8 ( 19) 21.3 (10) 10.4 (
TOTAL 100.0(74) 100.0 (176) 100.0 (47) 100.0
*Chi-Square: 16.815 (DF=6; p=.010)
Body Tobacco1 Alcohol2 Drugs3
Modification No Yes No Yes No Yes
% % % % % %
(N) (N) (N) (N) (N) (N)
None 69.1 49.3 62.1 59.2 65.9 46.0
(114) (67) (59) (122) (141) (40)
Tattoos 10.3 19.1 13.7 14.6 11.2 21.8
(17) (26) (13) (30) (24) (19)
Piercings 11.5 19.1 12.6 16.0 13.6 18.4
(19) (26) (12) (33) (29) (16)
Both 9.1 12.5 11.6 10.2 9.3 13.8
(15) (17) (11) (21) (20) (12)
TOTAL 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
(165) (136) (95) (206) (214) (87)
1Chi-Square: 12.625 (DF=3; p=.006)
2Chi-Square: 0.741 (DF=3; p=.863)
3Chi-Square: 11.085 (DF=3; p=.011)
Females1 Males2
Body Not Athletic Athletic Not Athletic Athletic TOTAL
Modification % (N) % (N) % (N) % (N) % (N)
None 64.9 (63) 44.3 (47) 45.5 ( 5) 80.0 (64) 60.9 (179)
Tattoos 13.4 (13) 14.2 (15) 9.1 ( 1) 12.5 (10) 13.3 ( 39)
Piercings 16.5 (16) 21.7 (23) 18.2 ( 2) 5.0 ( 4) 15.3 ( 45)
Both 5.2 ( 5) 19.8 (21) 27.3 ( 3) 2.5 ( 2) 10.5 ( 31)
TOTAL 100.0 (97) 100.0 (106) 100.0 (11) 100.0 (80) 100.0 (294)
1Chi-Square: 13.200 (DF=3; p=.004)
2Chi-Square: 14.964 (DF=3; p=.002)
3Chi-Square: 2.047 (DF=3; p=.563)
Body Modification Female Male TOTAL
% (N) % (N) % (N)
None 53.7 (110) 75.8 (69) 60.5 (179)
Tattoos 14.6 ( 30) 12.1 (11) 13.9 ( 41)
Piercings 19.0 ( 39) 6.6 ( 6) 15.2 ( 45)
Both 12.7 ( 26) 5.5 ( 5) 10.5 (
TOTAL 100.0 (205) 100.0 (91) 100.0

*Chi-Square: 14.931 (DF=3; p=.002

Interdisciplinary Appreciation

outlining the eclectic array of information necessary for art

The Science of Art

Jodie Webb

Executive Summary
The future of education is in interdisciplinary study. Most professors and scholars are hard-pressed to find much research on the relationship of science to art. Thus, very few universities offer combined study in science and art. The University of Iceland should be an exception. While adding a new course to our already extensive catalogue does have its drawbacks, for instance time and funding, many benefits also exist. A course in the science of art taught in English has the potential to bring new international students to the university. We will be among the handful of universities to have a program with such a crossover area in the study of both art and science. Our students who are involved in the interdisciplinary program, the arts, or the sciences will gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between two seemingly very different topics.

I expect a range of students, mostly those in the interdisciplinary studies, visual arts, and humanities departments. Ideally, the class will be a requirement for interdisciplinary studies majors, and a core elective for those seeking at least a minor in visual arts, physics, or mathematics. Students of physics and mathematics tend not to elect visual arts classes, beyond what is required for graduation. The converse often occurs among visual arts students as well. These two clusters of students in particular should have an opportunity to explore the way in which their disciplines relate to each other.

The Science of Art is an interdisciplinary course that covers some of the scientific principles behind the visual arts. The bulk of the course focuses on electromagnetism as it relates to light and color, the mathematics behind perspective and design, and the relationship between modern physics and modern art. The first part of the course covers color and light. We will discuss the dual nature of light, electromagnetic radiation, and the visible spectrum. Also in this section, students learn about the nature of color – what it is and how it is used to create optical illusions.

Part two of the course is comprised of the study of perspective. The main topics of this section are the history of perspective, the geometry of perspective, and what happens when perspective is warped. In the latter, we will perform some analysis of warped perspective using works such as those of M.C. Escher. Part three goes deeper into the involvement of mathematics in art. Students will begin learning about phi, the golden ratio, and how it relates to nature and art. There will be some detailed discussion of Leonardo da Vinci, architecture, and aesthetics. The course closes with a glimpse into modern physics and its relation to modern art. The majority of this section encompasses space, time, and surrealism. Important topics include modern sculpture, the concept of spacetime, and surrealism through the study of artists like Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali and René Magritte…

Visual Basics
Visual art would not exist without light. Light is defined as “something that makes things visible.” In order to grasp the scientific principles behind visual art, we need a basic understanding of light and color. Modern physics has developed a description of light as being simultaneously waves and particles, known as photons. This concept, called the dual nature of light, is difficult to visualize, therefore light is often termed particle waves or “wavicles.” For theoretical purposes, light is described by either the wave model or particle model. I recommend Dr. Rod Nave’s “Wave-Particle Duality” (http://hyperphysics.phyastr.gsu.edu/hbase/mod1.html) for more detailed information on the dual nature of light.

Electromagnetism describes the inextricable relationship between electricity and magnetism. Changing a magnetic field necessarily produces an electric field and vice-versa. What we are concerned with here is electromagnetic radiation, self-propagating electromagnetic waves, which are categorized by frequency or wavelength.2 Researchers in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology most commonly use the particle model of light. The electromagnetic spectrum, shown in Figure 1, represents the range of electromagnetic radiation that we can currently detect. The partitions indicate the characteristic frequencies of the different classes of radiation.

Color Vision
The visible spectrum appears between the ultraviolet and infrared spectra, ranging in wavelength from approximately 400 nm to 750 nm, as illustrated in Figure 1. The anatomy of the human eye is the limiting factor in our inability to see beyond red and violet… One of my areas of research involves an explanation of the physics behind our visible color range. The basis for my current theory is a possible correlation between our sun as a type G yellow star (see Appendix for a chart of spectral types) and the color yellow as our median visible wavelength.

Op Art
The brain perceives the juxtaposition of certain colors as an optical illusion. The use of color in Op Art, or Optical Art, often creates the illusion of depth or movement in a two-dimensional plane. In Figure 2, Julian Stanczak uses “numerous shifts in color that give the visual appearance of an unfolding, rounded form, floating in an [ambiguous] space.”

If you look at a cube from directly overhead, it looks like a square. What happens to its depth? Turn your head to the side a bit and more surfaces appear. How can an artist show that the cube is an object in space, rather than just one surface? Representing three-dimensional space using two-dimensional media is sometimes an artist’s most difficult task. Imagine trying to sculpt a solid as it moves through time. Such a task is as daunting now as the idea of perspective was before the 1400’s. Euclidean Geometry defines two lines as being parallel if they never meet. Lines drawn in perspective, however, do eventually converge at what is called the “vanishing point.” If an artist presents a scene from a view parallel to one axis, any parallel lines drawn in that direction will converge at some vanishing point, thereby creating a sense of depth. If the scene were not drawn in perspective, how would those lines coming straight toward us be drawn? Edwin Abbott Abbott’s book, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, is an excellent discourse on dimensions and perspective

A Brief History of Perspective
Before the use of perspective, art was almost entirely inspired by religion. From Byzantine art, most famous for its icons, to Early Christian art, the emphasis was placed on the most important religious character(s) in the scene. Figure 3 shows the lack of space and depth in Byzantine painting. Perspective was “discovered” sometime in the early 1400’s by Florentine architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. Quite by accident, Brunelleschi noticed the way the outlines seemed to converge in his painting of a building on a mirror. Leonardo da Vinci took it one step further by describing the effect of distance on color and the sharpness of outlines. Figure 3: Lamentation of Christ (1164) The Science of Art -7- Jodie Webb Giotto di Bondone was the first artist to attempt the use of perspective in his work. A geometric detail of Giotto’s Jesus and the Caïf, shown in Figure 3, reveals that, though there is an illusion of depth, there is no common vanishing point. The problem with Giotto’s perspective was his use of an algebraic method to determine the placement of his lines.4 The European Renaissance painters further developed the concept of perspective and actually began using it as a basis for their work. Figure 5 shows the use of perspective to create only one scene, in which the viewer’s eye is drawn in to the vanishing point. Figure 4: Giotto di Bondone, Jesus and the Caïf Figure 5: Piero della Francesca, View of an Ideal City. In 1436, Leone Battista Alberti wrote the first ever account detailing the mathematics of modern perspective. His work, titled De Pictura (On Painting), offered a geometric approach to the painting of objects using linear perspective to indicate correct space and scale. De Pictura was almost a step-by-step guide to the use of vanishing points, horizon lines, and other concepts behind linear perspective

Warped Perspective
In some very special cases, artists can use perspective to create an ambiguous image. What allows this ambiguity is the phenomenon of multistable perception, which occurs when we perceive a “two-state” image. In Figure 6, the brain cannot see both interpretations at once, so it flips back and forth between the two. Ambiguity is also a very important component of Op Art. Knot Theory Warped perspective allows objects that are impossible in three dimensions to seem possible when drawn in a plane. Such objects are known as “impossible objects.”

Knot Theory, a somewhat esoteric branch of mathematics, and in particular the concept of “knots and links,” provides a mathematical explanation of impossible objects. Figure 7, “Penrose Stairs,” depicts a never-ending staircase, a knot created by “embedding one… closed curve… in 3D space.”

Maurits Cornelis Escher

Perhaps the most famous creator of ambiguous art is Maurits Cornelis Escher, better known as M.C. Escher. Though his well-known work has an obvious mathematical influence, he had no formal training in mathematics. M.C. Escher’s lithograph in Figure 8, Ascending and Descending, is an artistic elaboration on the Penrose Stairs, which appear on the roof of
Escher’s building. The monks on the stairs seem to move in an unending loop.

Phi: The Golden Ratio
The Greek letter phi is a mathematical name for the golden ratio, also known as the golden section, golden mean, or golden number. Phi … is an irrational number that “expresses the relationship that the sum of two quantities is to the larger quantity as the larger is to the smaller.” Equation 1 is an algebraic definition of phi. The idea that adding 1 to a number returns that same number squared is hard to comprehend. Through some algebraic manipulation, we get Equation 2, an expression of phi we can better understand.

Life, the Universe, and Everything
The golden ratio appears throughout nature in plants, lightning, and even the human body. In these expressions, we see the golden ratio as a mathematic extension of the Fibonacci sequence. Nautilus shells, galaxies, and hurricanes are nature’s illustration of what is known as the golden spiral. In a golden spiral, each quarter-turn of the spiral increases in width by a factor of phi. Figure 9 is a cut-away of a nautilus shell revealing the spiral within.

Art and Design
Since the ancient Greeks, people have used the golden ratio in art and architecture. The lines overlaying the photograph of the Parthenon in Figure 10 indicate that the structure was built in close approximation to the golden ratio, seen here as golden rectangles. Artists have applied the golden ratio to their works to bestow in them a sense of beauty. The three-volume volume work called De Divina Proportione, written in 1509 by mathematician Luca Pacioli, was a key influence for the application of phi “to yield pleasing, harmonious proportions.”

Leonardo da Vinci
One of Luca Pacioli’s closest friends was Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential “Renaissance Man.” In fact, Leonardo illustrated his De Divina Proportione. One of his illustrations, shown in Figure 11, demonstrates the application of the golden ratio to the human face. Some claim that Leonardo used the golden ratio to proportion the Mona Lisa. Though it seems in retrospect that his paintings are actually based on phi, he would never disclose whether it was true.

Space and Time
In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed his “special theory of relativity.” Within it, he described the “relativity of simultaneity,” which states that simultaneous events viewed by one observer may not be simultaneous to another observer. In 1907, Pablo Picasso was experimenting with what we now call Cubism. Cubist art allows the viewer to see all side of an object simultaneously, rather than having to move through space to see them. Figure 12, Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin, exemplifies his treatment of simultaneity. A later movement, called Futurism, explored time as an artistic model. Their 1905 manifesto proclaimed, “Time and Space died yesterday.”9 This statement is actually what is called a “Strange Loop,” a paradoxical self-referencing statement. The futurist proclamation begs the question, “If time died, then what is yesterday?” The futurists also played on the idea of simultaneity. Though they had no experience with Einstein’s theories, they developed a very similar concept in their artwork. In relativity, as an observer travels at speeds closer and closer to the speed of light, time slows down and actually stops when the speed of light is reached. Futurist artwork often depicts an event as it happens at one instance in time, as if time has stopped.

Three Dimensions
As discussed in the section on perspective, three dimensions can be hard to represent on a two-dimensional plane. Filmmakers have attempted to bring depth to a plane, a movie screen, using the process of stereoscopy. We are very familiar the results of this process, better known as 3-D films. In a three-dimensional world, though, doesn’t it make sense to use all three spatial dimensions for our creative endeavors? Sculpture is a natural expression of the world around us. Since the beginning of human history, artists have used sculpture to communicate emotions and chronicle history. Moving Sculpture Alexander Calder was an American artist and sculptor who invented the mobile, a type of “kinetic sculpture.” Kinetic sculpture is a physical form of kinetic art, which is art that either moves or gives the appearance of movement. Figure 13 is a photograph of one of Calder’s mobiles, Totem. The nature of sculpture dictates that it must adhere to the laws of physics. Kinetic sculpture, in particular, employs such principles as center of mass and kinetic energy. My favorite Calder piece is the mercury fountain, pictured in Figure 14, that he designed as a tribute to his good friend and contemporary, Joan Miró, who was credited for the invention of gas sculpture. The use of fluid substances in sculpture presents a sense of life within inanimate objects.

Four Dimensions and Beyond
The Surrealist movement was possibly the most concerned about space and time than any other artistic movement. Like cubists and futurists, surrealists utilized Einstein’s theories as a basis for their art. Unlike the other two movements, though, surrealist art was actually meant to be nonsensical. Was it a coincidence that at the same time when art started to make no sense, the public became unable to understand science? Two of the most recognizable surrealist artists are Salvador Dali and René Magritte. They were both very familiar with and had a great deal of respect for modern physics, which was proven in their work. René Magritte Magritte’s Time Transfixed, shown in Figure 15, is based on Einstein’s postulate that time slows dramatically as the speed of light is approached. Magritte actually exploits the same imagery that Einstein himself used to demonstrate time dilation, a clock and a train.

Magritte was also fond of creating visual imagery of Einstein’s conclusion that space becomes infinitely flat as speeds approach that of light. Similar to the Cubist treatment of dimensions, Magritte painted impossible scenes in which opposite faces are seen simultaneously. Displayed in Figure 16, La Blanc Seing gives the viewer a glimpse of both the front face and back face of the scene, just as we might see it if space were compressed to two dimensions. Salvador Dali Perhaps Dali’s most famous work is The Persistence of Memory, shown in Figure 17. Here he uses the imagery of melting clocks to symbolize time dilation.

Maybe the reason this painting leaves a lasting impression is because we always seem to be searching for a way to stop time or at least slow it down. Dali stepped boldly into the realm of spacetime with his controversial painting Corpus Hypercubus. He was the first artist to attempt a representation of four dimensions on a planar medium. Dali explores the idea that, just as three dimensional objects cast two dimensional shadows, perhaps four dimensional objects cast three dimensional shadows. The “cross” to which Christ is not bound in Figure 18 is called a hypercube, a hypothetical four dimensional projection of a cube. Modern sculptors and other artists have also produced representations of hypercubes in their work.

Summary and Conclusion
The Science of Art provides students with deep knowledge and understanding of art and science through their relationship to each other, allowing them to see the world around them in a whole new way. The basis for all visual art is light and color. Moreover, without light and color, we would be unable to see artists’ great works of beauty. My course allows students to delve into light and color through the study of electromagnetic radiation and the visible spectrum. Mathematical analysis of art through such concepts as perspective and the golden ratio gives students a medium with which to investigate the more mysterious aspects of art and math. Whether or not artists have used the golden ratio consciously is a great subject for further research. There is also the conundrum that the Cubist, Futurist, and Surrealist movements developed with no conscious knowledge of Einstein’s theories. However, as surrealism grew, artists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte began to apply Relativity Theory to the creation of their work. If you need more information, I’ve offered some suggestions for further reading throughout this paper. The possibilities of The Science of Art are practically endless…

Axis: An imaginary infinite straight line in a particular direction used as a reference to determine position, distance and direction. Center of mass: The specific point at which an object’s entire mass appears to be concentrated. Fibonacci series: A recursive sequence where the first two values are 1 and each successive term is obtained by adding together the two previous terms.
Irrational number: A number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers.
Kinetic energy: The energy of motion.
Nanometer (nm): A length equivalent to10-9 meters, 10 ångströms, or 3.94-8 inches.
Plane: A two-dimensional surface.
Space: An unlimited three-dimensional realm.
Spacetime: A four-dimensional system in which space makes up the first three dimensions and time, the fourth.

Figure 1: Electromagnetic Spectrum. Source: http://www.yorku.ca/eye/spectru.htm.
Figure 2: Stanczak, Julian. Spacial (1986). Source: http://www.artincontext.org.
Figure 3: Lamentation of Christ (1164). Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 4: Giotto di Bondone. Jesus and the Caïf. Source: http://www.ski.org/cwt/CWTyler/Art%20Investigations.
Figure 5: Piero della Francesca. View of an Ideal City. Source: http://www.eyeconart.net/history/Renaissance/early_ren.htm
Figure 6: Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 7: Penrose Stairs. Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 8: Escher, Maurits Cornelis. Ascending and Descending (1960). Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 9: Source: http://www.space.gc.ca/asc/eng/satellites/fuse.asp.
Figure 10: Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 11: Source: http://www.wikipedia.org.
Figure 12: Picasso, Pablo. Girl with a Mandolin (1912). Source: http://artchive.com/artchive/P/picasso/tellier.jpg.html.
Figure 13: Calder, Alexander. Totem. Source: http://www.chrysler.org/20century01.asp.
Figure 14: Calder, Alexander. Mercury Fountain. Source: http://www.ics.uci.edu/~eppstein/pix/bar/miro.
Figure 15: Magritte, René. Time Transfixed (1935). Source: http://www.artchive.com.
Figure 16: Magritte, René. Le Blanc Seing (1965). Source: http://www.kahlil.org.
Figure 17: Dali, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory (1931). Source: http://www.virtualdali.com.
Figure 18: Dali, Salvador. Corpus Hypercubus (1954). Source: http://www.msgr.ca/msgr-4/dali_gallery.htm.
Hofstadter, Douglas R, Gödel, Escher, Back: an Eternal Golden Braid, New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979.
Shlain, Leonard, Art and Physics, New York: Morrow, 1991.
“Alberti – ‘On Painting’.” Notebook: Context for Understanding Visual Art References and Resources. December 13, 2006, 1993. http://www.noteaccess.com/Texts/Alberti.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. December, 2006. http://www.wikipedia.org.


1 “Light.” Dictionary.com. December 2, 2006 http://www.dictionary.com.
2 “Electromagnetic radiation.” Wikipedia. December 2, 2006 http://www.wikipedia.org.
3 Art in Context Center for Communications. December 4, 2006 http://www.artincontext.org.
4 “Perspective.” Wikipedia. December 5, 2006 http://www.wikipedia.org.
5 Yevin, Igor. “Ambiguity and Art.” Ambiguity and Art http://www.mi.sanu.ac.yu/vismath/igor/index.html.
6 Cerf, Corinne. “A family of impossible figures studied by knot theory” Impossible World. December 7, 2006 http://im-possible.info/english/articles/knot/knot.html.
7 “Golden ratio.” Wikipedia. December 8, 2006 http://www.wikipedia.org.
8 Idem.
9 Shlain, Leonard, Art and Physics, New York: Morrow, 1991, p.207.
10 Ibid., p.222.

Meaning Descriptors and Attributions

an exploration of cultural tattoos

The Proceedings of the National Māori Graduates of Psychology Symposium 2002. 129

Cultural tattoos: meanings, descriptors, and attributions Linda Waimarie Nikora & Ngahuia Te Awekotuku
The Māori and Psychology Research Unit, University of Waikato


Body piercing and tattoo/ta moko were initially seen to be practiced by sailors, criminals, specific cultural groups (e.g., Māori), or sub-cultural groups (e.g., bikers, gang members, adolescents). In recent times, these practices have become part of mainstream popular culture, and are enjoyed by a wide range of people. In this study, we set out to explore patterns of body modifying behaviour engaged in, or commented on, by a sample of university students. We invited undergraduate psychology students from two courses to complete an ‘online’ questionnaire. Students logged on to a web site, were presented with an information sheet, and invited to respond. In this paper, we present the reasons why people in this sample decided to obtain a tattoo and the meanings they ascribe to their modifications. We will also consider the observations that people make of those who have culturally inspired tattoos.
To date, we know of no recent public attitude surveys conducted within New Zealand concerned with tattoos or body modifying behaviours. In this study we set out to explore patterns of body modifying behaviour engaged in or commented on by a sample of university students in anticipation of a survey of a more diverse and larger sample at some later time.

There were 24 men and 111 women in the sample1. In total, there were 137 respondents2. Just over one fifth (n=30, 22%) of the sample were under the age of 20 years. Fifty six percent (n=77, 56%) were aged between 21 and 30 years old. The remainder of the sample (n=30, 22%) were over the age of 30 years. The sample contained 30 respondents who identified in some way as Māori. The majority identified as Pākehā, European, New. We suspect that this figure is slightly inaccurate due to web based technical problems.

However, on examining the enrolments of men and women in the courses surveyed, the proportion of men to women suggests that the inaccuracy is only slight. Respondents could choose not to answer questions they did not want to. Zealander, or Kiwi3. Thirty-five of 136 respondents (26%) had a tattoo, and 48 of 134 respondents (36%) anticipated future tattoos.


We invited undergraduate psychology students from one 2nd year, and one 1st year course to complete an ‘online’ questionnaire. Students logged on to a web site, were presented with an information sheet, and invited to respond to the questionnaire. The online questionnaire contained 64 items and surveyed students’ behaviours and attitudes towards tattoos and body piercings. They included questions focussed around the following themes.

• Why get tattooed/pierced
• What tattoos/piercings mean
• Having tattoos/piercings removed
• Getting more tattoos/piercings and why
• Opinions about different types of tattoos/piercings

Participants were invited to describe their ethnicity as they wished to. In this paper, we present and discuss the reasons why respondents decided to obtain a tattoo, and the attributions that respondents made of cultural tattoos. Wearers’ motivations for obtaining a tattoo were acquired by simply asking wearers why they had become so. To gain an appreciation of what respondents thought about cultural tattoos we asked them to complete the following statement. I think that cultural tattoos are “…………” because “ …………”.

By using the above statements, we invited participants to create a picture in their own minds of what a ‘cultural tattoo’. We assumed that all respondents would be able to do this and that most would focus on Māori moko, in particular, facial tattoos – especially given the exposure of moko in mainstream media, and the increasing visibility of moko wearers across a variety of settings. As all of the data collected in this part of the study was qualitative, content analysis procedures were applied to the data and thematic areas identified. These were in turn used as a framework for coding data.

Tattoos – Motivations

People are motivated to mark their skin for a variety of reasons. We asked those in this sample who were tattooed (n=34) their reasons for doing so. We identified seven related emergent social identity themes. Although possibly an over-simplification of the data, the identification of themes is helpful to building an increased understanding of motivations and
meanings. The themes identified are listed in Table 1 along with the number and percentage of wearers who made mention of each theme in their responses.

Identity expression

That is, a personalised marking, an expression of oneself, a mark to identify my body – captures the idea of skin marking as an extension of ones personal self. I have always wanted a tattoo. For me it is a personalised marking of who I am I got all 3 tattoos to symbolise achievements, or certain events which happened in my life. They are an expression of self…
So some body can tell that it’s my body.

Table 1.
Why Get Tattooed? n=34 %
Identity 11 32%
Desire-design 9 26%
Event 5 15%
Group association 4 12%
Significant other 4 12%
Youth 3 9%
Image 2 6%

Desire Design

Expressions of desire can take many forms. Desire may be something as simple as admiration, liking, wanting, or longing. It may be motivated by the appeal of a design type and form, the symbolic representation, or, simply personal choice. Liked the design, a birthday present I like the look of them and really wanted to have one.


Life events and achievements were viewed as times to mark, symbolise, and remember. Involvements in sporting groups, obtaining an educational degree, or the death or departure of a significant other, are examples. I got all 3 tattoos to symbolise achievements… Both of my tattoos represent a special event or time in my life. Part One was to celebrate the Year
2000 and to reflect my involvement in waka ama. Part Two was to acknowledge the educational path I had just completed.

Group Association

Whom one associates with, or the social groups that one is a member of can create a context of expectation, or pressure. As the quotes below illustrate, prisons and gangs are social settings where marking the skin is not simply an expectation, but an integral statement of belonging. I got my tattoos while I was in goal and it was a mark to acknowledge that I had been there. My tattoos are known as boob-tatts and they are so styled, i.e., skulls, knives, symbols… To be part of the gang. This was expected.

Significant Other

Related to associating with some group or belonging to a particular social context, is one’s relatedness to some significant other. Some of these wearers marked their skins to symbolise a relationship with some other. These might be family members, children, or friends. I have always admired them. My Nana passed away 6 years ago, and I have a deep sense of loss for her as she was one of my main carers when my parents were at work. My Nana took me to her homeland when I was 5. Waking in the morning at 5 to attend morning service (Cook Islands) I smelt Frangapanis (flower) they remind me of Nana. So I decided to get a tattoo of a Frangapani – it has significance for me.


What people have done in their youth and adolescent years may be perceived quite differently when they are older. This category tends to deal with reflections that some participants had when looking back to a younger age when they had marked their skins. For many, they conclude a regretful position. I was under the influence and very young I was VERY young when I got my tattoo and I think it was mainly an attention thing, not that I’d flash people but I knew how I thought, at the time, that people with tattoos were cool, so I thought that others may think the same for me. It wasn’t a very good reason at all!


The character or personality of an individual as perceived by others is something that is in continuous negotiation through social interaction. For some participants, their skin art was an attempt to portray a particular image. To rebel, to look tough was young and thought it would be cool to create and make my own design and have it somewhere on my body I think that cultural tattoos are… I think that cultural tattoos are “…………” because “…………”.


All participants, wearers and nonwearers, were invited to make an attribution about cultural tattoos, and further, to provide an explanation of their attribution. Overall, the majority of participants (n=138) provided positive attributions with only 17% of participants providing negative. We felt that the attributions fell across seven thematic areas. The response rates for each of these themes appear in Table 2. Given that participants were invited to offer at least ‘one word’ attributions, the most popular have been presented according to thematic area in Table 3. These themes and sub-themes are not elaborated further as their meanings are somewhat obvious.

Explaining the attributions

Further information about what the attributions actually mean can be derived from the written explanations that participants gave after the “because” part of the statement that they were asked to complete. In Table 4 we report the major themes arising from responses that participants made (n=125). Overall, their explanations focussed on cultural tattoos 132
reflecting group belonging (87%), pride and confidence (39%), and a mark of identity either personal or social (36%). A small number (7%) of respondents highlighted the extent to which cultural tattoos may negatively position a wearer and attract unwanted attention and discrimination.

Table 2.
Themes – I Think Cultural Tattoos Are?
n=138 %*
Appealing 51 37%
Group identified 41 30%
Shows allegiance 38 28%
Assert their identity 30 22%
Negatively described 17 12%
Exhibiting themselves 9 7%
Here 7 5%

*Some responses have been coded into more than one theme.


The results suggest that becoming tattooed is mainly an expression of personal identity that is often related to social or cultural group membership and belonging. Attributions of cultural tattoos were focussed on appeal and group association factors. Although cultural tattoos were attributed negative descriptors, these seemed out-weighted by positive descriptors. The attributions made of cultural tattoos were rationalised by reference to group belonging, pride, and identity. The findings of this preliminary study suggest that a public survey of attitudes about cultural tattoos is likely to reveal positive responses to the resurgence of moko as an art form, and to contemporary day wearers.

Table 3.
Sub-themes – I Think Cultural Tattoos Are?
Appealing Group identified Shows allegiance
Living works of art
Culturally expressive
Culturally aware
Respectful to their culture
Very determined
Negatively described Assert identity Exhibiting themselves
Wrong to do so
Expressing themselves
Being unique
Are different
Are individuals
Are special
Are normal
Making a statement
Showing off
Displaying themselves

Table 4.
Cultural Tattoos: Explaining the Attribution.
n=125 %
…they reflect group belonging 87 70%
…they display pride 39 31%
…they reflect an identity 36 29%
…they make a statement 18 14%
…they look great 13 10%
…they have negative consequences 9 7%
*Some responses are coded more than once

PEW Tattoo Study

a survey into modern Western tattooing practices

Emerging from their often unsavory reputation of the recent past, tattoos have gained increasing prominence in the past decade. Life magazine estimated in 1936 that 10 million Americans, or approximately 6% of the population had at least one tattoo. Harris Polls, done in 2003 and 2008, shows those numbers at an estimated 16% (2003) and 14% (2008) of Americans now have one or more tattoos. For a complete breakdown of the Harris Poll numbers and trends, see below.

Thirty-six percent of those ages 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo, according to a fall 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center.

The National Geographic News stated in April 2000 that 15% of Americans were tattooed (or approximately 40 million people!)

Esquire Magazine estimated in March 2002 that 1 in 8 Americans was tattooed.

The Harris Poll done in 2003, estimated that fully 36% of those aged 25-29 had one or more tattoos. Another Harris Poll done in 2008 showed that same age group had dropped to 32% with one or more tattoos.

According to the American Society of Dermatological Surgery, they stated in 2005, that of all the people they treat with laser and light therapy, only only 6% are getting a tattoo removed.

A 2006 a study done by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24% of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed; that’s almost one in four. And the survey showed that about 36% of Americans age 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo!

Make no mistake about it, the tattoo industry is hot property. There are an estimated 20,000+ parlors operating in the United States, according to a U.S. News & World Report article, which said, on the average, an establishment is being added in the country every day. The article ranked tattooing as the sixth fastest growing retail venture of the 1990s, right behind Internet, paging services, bagels, computer and cellular phone service.


*Search Engine Lycos, ranked the Top 50 search terms every week. “Tattoos” was the third most popular search term in 2002, the fourth most popular search term in 2001, seventh most popular search term for the year 2000, and the eleventh most popular search term in 1999. “Tattoo and tattoos” is one of only seven search terms to never fall out of the Top 50 Search terms in the 199 weeks since Lycos has been keeping track. The other six are Dragon Ball, Pamela Anderson, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Las Vegas and the WWE/WWF.

*In July of 2002 “tattoos” reached its highest ranking ever, coming in as the number two most requested search term on the internet. “Tattoos” was requested more often than Britney Spears, marijuana or Kazaa, illustrating that skin ink is more popular than “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll!

Lycos dropped the term “tattoos” from it’s Poll because the term was so popular. According to Lycos, tattoos rarely drops out of the top ten search terms requested on the Internet and Lycos dropped the term because they wanted to make room for other searches.

Search engine Ask.com found these stats about tattoo searches:

LA fashion week reminds us once again that trends come and go. But, while the Devil may wear Prada, Search Engine Ask.com reveals that tattoos have been stealing the scene as the #1 searched beauty term since 2003. No longer taboo, the popularity of tattoos prove that skin is always in.

— Virtually every language is searched for in tattoo designs: from Aztec sayings to Russian phrases, but Japanese and Chinese characters/symbols are among the most frequently searched.

— Location, location, location: Backs rank the highest in searches (lower, upper and all over). But, not far behind: necks, arms, wrists and ankles. Unmentionables also rank high.

— Angelina’s number, choice and types of tattoos rank the highest in the celebrity category. Ask.com searchers are also intrigued by other celebs. Most notably, Nicole Richie, Alyssa Milano and heavy metal
rockers Metallica.

— As for who searches for tattoos more: given the top five ranked designs, which are tribal, cross, stars, butterflies and fairies, we’d say women.

Three in Ten Americans with a Tattoo Say Having One Makes Them Feel Sexier

Just under Half of Adults without a Tattoo Say Those with One are Less Attractive

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – February 12, 2008 – Tattoos are a much discussed form of body art. Who has them? How many do they have and what do they mean? And, what does having a tattoo make people feel/do differently? Currently, 14 percent of the population says they have a tattoo, just slightly down from 2003, when 16 percent had a tattoo. Certain groups are more likely to have a tattoo then others. One in five (20%) of those who live in the West have a tattoo, compared to just 10 percent of those who live in the Midwest.

Among age groups, one-third (32%) of those ages 25-29 and one-quarter (25%) of those 30-39 have tattoos, as do 12 percent of those 40-49. The youngest age group (18-24) is one of the age groups least likely to have a tattoo (9%), the same as the oldest age group of 65 and older. Men are just slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women (15% versus 13%) and Democrats are a little more likely to have tattoos (15%) than Republicans and Independents (13% each).

These are some of the results of a nationwide Harris Poll of 2,302 U.S. adults surveyed online between January 15 and 22, 2008 by Harris Interactive .

Not Many Regrets

Most people with a tattoo do not regret getting it (84%). As to why they have this regret, one in five (20%) say it‟s because they were too young when they got the tattoo while 19 percent say it‟s because it is permanent and they are market for life. Others say they regret the tattoo because they don‟t like it (18%) while 16 percent regret their tattoo because they fade over time.

How Tattoos Make People Feel

When presented with eight different personal characteristics, majorities say that compared to not having a tattoo, having one makes them feel no different. This is especially true when attributed to being healthy, athletic or intelligent, where more than nine in ten with tattoos say it makes no difference in how they feel. Over one-third (36%) of those with a tattoo, however, saying having it makes them feel more rebellious, up from 29 percent who felt this way in 2003, and three in ten (31%) say the tattoo makes then feel sexy. One in five (19%) each say having the tattoo makes them feel attractive and strong.

What People Without Tattoos Think About People With Them

One-third of those without a tattoo (32%) say people with tattoos are more likely to do something most people would consider deviant compared to 12 percent of those with a tattoo who say the same. Two-thirds (67%) of those without a tattoo say having a tattoo makes no difference in whether someone would do something deviant.

Over half of those without a tattoo (54%) do believe that someone with one is more rebellious, almost the same as those who thought this in 2003 (57%).

While those with a tattoo may think it makes them look attractive, those without do not agree as just under half (47%) say people with tattoos are less attractive (up from 42% who felt this way in 2003) and two in five (39%) of those without one, say people with a tattoo are less sexy. Just about one-quarter of those without tattoos, say those with are less intelligent (27%) and less healthy (25%).

What About Piercings and Henna Tattoos?

This year we also asked about other things people might have. First, half of all adults have pierced ears (50%) while half do not have them (50%). When it comes to other types of piercings, the number drops drastically. Just 5 percent of adults have a piercing on their body, but not on their face, while 2 percent of adults have a piercing on their face, but not their ears. The number of adults who have a henna tattoo, that is tattoos that are not permanent, is also very small, just two percent.

There is a difference among those who have tattoos and those who do not among these other items. Two-thirds (65%) of those with a tattoo have pierced ears compared to 47 percent of those who do not have tattoos. Other piercings are also more common among those with tattoos as 16 percent have something on their body, but not on their face, pierced and 6 percent have a piercing on their face, but not their ears compared to just 3 percent and 1 percent respectively of those with no tattoo.

So What?

In the past five years, much has been discussed about the stigmas of those with tattoos. But, that does not seem to have much of an impact of the number of people who have them as just 2 percent fewer Americans say they have tattoos. Also, the number who regrets their tattoo has also not really changed in the past five years. But, if the number of the youngest age group continues to shun tattoos, and that continues as younger teens hit 18, there may be a change in those having tattoos in the long run.

The Harris Poll #15, February 12, 2008
By Regina A. Corso, Director, The Harris Poll, Harris Interactive
                                 TABLE 1
                             WHO HAS TATTOOS?
          "How many tattoos do you currently have on your body?"
                      (People saying "one or more")
                                                        2003    2008
     Base:  All Adults
     All Adults                                          16%     14%
             East                                        14%     12%
             Midwest                                     14%     10%
             South                                       15%     13%
             West                                        20%     20%
             18 - 24                                     13%      9%
             25 - 29                                     36%     32%
             30 - 39                                     28%     25%
             40 - 49                                     14%     12%
             50 - 64                                     10%      8%
             65 +                                         7%      9%
             Male                                        16%     15%
             Female                                      15%     13%

             White                                       16%     15%
             Black                                       14%      7%
             Hispanic                                    18%     15%

    Party I.D.
             Republican                                  14%     13%
             Democratic                                  18%     15%
             Independent                                 12%     13%
             Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual                      31%     25%

                                 TABLE 2
                         REGRET HAVING A TATTOO?
                  "Do you ever regret getting a tattoo?"

     Base:  Currently Have a Tattoo
                                                         2003   2008
            Yes                                          17%     16%
            No                                           83%     84

                                TABLE 3
                       WHY REGRET HAVING A TATTOO?
                  "Why do you regret getting a tattoo?"

     Base:  Yes, Regret Getting a Tattoo

     Too young when I got the tattoo                      20%
     Permanent (marked for life)                          19%
     Don‟t like it                                        18%
     They fade over time                                  16%
     Location (too hard to hide)                          12%
     Poor choice/picked the wrong tattoo                  11%
     Was stupid/dumb thing to do                          10%
     Poorly done/doesn‟t look professional                 9%
     Cost too much to remove                               7%
     Ugly/doesn‟t look good                                7%
     Personality changes/doesn‟t fit my present lifestyle  3%
     Other                                                 5%

                               TABLE 4
                         TATTOOS AND DEVIANT BEHAVIOR
 “Do you think people with tattoos are more or less likely to do
  something most people would consider deviant?”

     Base:  All Adults
                                Totals        2008 - Have tattoo
                             2003   2008       Have   Do not have
            More likely       27%    29%        12%       32%
            Less likely        2%     2%         3%        1%
            No difference     71%    69%        86%       67%

                               TABLE 5
                     HOW HAVE A TATTOO MAKES ME FEEL
          "Please complete the following sentence:
          'Compared to not having a tattoo having a tattoo has made me feel...?'"

    Base:  Currently Have a Tattoo
                                           More   Less    No Difference
    Intelligent                              5%      2%           93%
    Sexy                                    31%      1%           68%
    Spiritual                               13%      5%           82%
    Rebellious                              36%      2%           62%
    Attractive                              19%      3%           78%
    Athletic                                 5%      1%           94%
    Healthy                                  4%      3%           93%
    Strong                                  19%      *            81%
    Note * indicates less than 0.5%

                              TABLE 6
                     HOW HAVE A TATTOO MAKES ME FEEL - TREND
          "Please complete the following sentence:
          'Compared to not having a tattoo having a tattoo has made me feel...?'"
          Those saying more

    Base:  Currently Have a Tattoo
                                           2003      2008
    Rebellious                              29%      36%
    Sexy                                    34%      31%
    Attractive                              26%      19%
    Strong                                  16%      19%
    Spiritual                               20%      13%
    Intelligent                              5%       5%
    Athletic                                 3%       5%
    Healthy                                  4%       4% 

    Note * indicates less than 0.5%

                                    TABLE 7
          "Please complete the following sentence:
          'Compared to people without tattoos, I think people with tattoos are...?'"

     Base:  All Without Tattoos
                                        More    Less     No Difference
     Intelligent                         1%      27%          71%
     Sexy                                6%      39%          55%
     Spiritual                           5%      25%          70%
     Rebellious                         54%       3%          43%
     Attractive                          4%      47%          49%
     Athletic                            5%      13%          82%
     Healthy                             2%      25%          73%
     Strong                              8%      10%          82%

                                   TABLE 8
          "Please complete the following sentence:
          'Compared to people without tattoos, I think people with tattoos are...?'"

     Base:  All Without Tattoos
                                      More             Less
                                  2003    2008     2003    2008
     Intelligent                   *       1%       31%     27%
     Sexy                          8%      6%       36%     39%
     Spiritual                     3%      5%       29%     25%
     Rebellious                   57%     54%        2%      3%
     Attractive                    4%      4%       42%     47%
     Athletic                      4%      5%       14%     13%
     Healthy                       1%      2%       21%     25%
     Strong                        8%      8%        8%     10%

                                  TABLE 9
                       PIERCINGS AND HENNA TATTOOS
                     “Do you have any of the following?”

       Base: All Adults
                                               Have   Do not have   Decline to answer
    Pierced ears                                50%       50%            *
    A piercing on your body,                     5%       95%            1%
    but not on your face
    Henna tattoos, that is tattoos that          2%       97%            1%
    are not permanent
    A piercing on your face, but not on          2%       98%            1%
    your ears

                                  TABLE 10
                       PIERCINGS AND HENNA TATTOOS
                     “Do you have any of the following?”
       Those saying have

       Base: All Adults
                                               Total     Have      Do not have
    Pierced ears                                50%       65%           47%
    A piercing on your body,                     5%       16%            3%
    but not on your face
    Henna tattoos, that is tattoos that          2%        3%            2%
    are not permanent
    A piercing on your face, but not on          2%        6%            1%
    your ears

This Harris Poll® was conducted online within the United States January 15 and 22, 2008, among 2,302 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents‟ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

About Harris Interactive

Harris Interactive is one of the largest and fastest-growing market research firms in the world. The company provides innovative research, insights and strategic advice to help its clients make more confident decisions which lead to measurable and enduring improvements in performance. Harris Interactive is widely known for The Harris Poll, one of the longest running, independent opinion polls and for pioneering online market research methods. The company has built what it believes to be the world‟s largest panel of survey respondents, the Harris Poll Online. Harris Interactive serves clients worldwide through its North American, European and Asian offices, and through a global network of independent market research firms. More information about Harris Interactive may be obtained at www.harrisinteractive.com.

The Harris Poll #15, February 12, 2008
By Regina A. Corso, Director, The Harris Poll, Harris Interactive

from VanishingTattoo

Process And Meaning

a look into the significance and ritual of tattooing

Process And Meaning In Getting A Tattoo

This essay explores the type of client interactions as well as the development of client/provider relationships in the tattoo business, a rapidly increasing service that has seen an increase in demand for its ‘products’ over the last 2 decades along with a cultural shift from the deviant to the mainstream. Out of the employment of a qualitative methodology the determined themes of ‘information search’, ‘approval’, ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘trust building and mutual involvement’ ‘becoming a collector’ and ‘developing a sense of loyalty’ are discussed. The following is a take on tattoo’s modern history:

Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton
John Follett, University of Wolverhampton
Michael Saren, University of Stratchclyde
Pauline MacLaren, De Montfort University


Over the last two decades there has been increasing interest on the part of consumer researchers in the relationship between identity and consumption. This interest has instigated a wide range of investigations (Featherstone, 1992; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995; Douglas, 1996) many of which are predicated on the view that in contemporary society the identity of an individual is in part a construct of his or her consumption . This is due not only to the physical and non-physical objects a person can consume, but also the symbolic nature of these products (Schouten, 1991; Sarup, 1996). Linked to the creation of identity are issues concerning the body, and in particular the role of the embodied self (Featherstone, 2000; Joy and Venkatesh, 1994, Mauss 1979/1936).

The relevance of this can be clearly seen in the growing literature on consumer behaviour relating to the body (Thompson and Hirschman, 1995; Falk, 1994; Featherstone, 2000; Featherstone et al 1991; Joy and Venkatesh, 1994; Sweetman, 2000; Synott, 1993) which includes a relatively recent focus on body modification such as cosmetic surgery (Schouten, 1991; Seebaransingh et al, 2001) and body art (Sanders, 1989, 1991; Goulding and Follett, 2002; Valliquette and Bamossy, 2001).

One popular form of body adornment which has a long and well documented history is that of tattooing. However it is fair to say that until recently tattooing has been regarded as socially unacceptable and excluded from mainstream fashion in western society. Nevertheless, as a consequence of celebrity role models such as Angelina Joilie and Johny Depp sporting tattoos, and shifts in fashion towards body adornment, including body piercing and tattooing, attitudes have changed, to such an extent that acquiring a tattoo is now seen as part of contemporary popular culture (DeMello, 2000; Camphausen, 2000; Mercury, 2000). Moreover the growing popularity of ‘body art’ has seen the development of a global multi-billion pound industry (Vale, 1999). In other words, the acquisition and meaning of tattooing has undergone a process of appropriation, first from the tribal, by sailors who used tattooing on particular parts of their bodies as a means of both spiritual and physical protection, and later by working class males (and some women), prisoners and gang members. As a result, tattooing came to be generally associated with criminal or deviant behaviour and carried with it a social stigma. Today, however, tattooing has not only been appropriated, but commodified as the choice of design, meaning, and quality, increases to meet accelerated demand for variety and variations on symbolic representations (Vale, 1999).

Moreover, it is no longer possible to classify consumers of tattoos on the basis of age, gender, subcultural activity or class, as increasing numbers from across the social spectrum are acquiring tattoos, all be it in varying quantities and for different reasons (Goulding and Follett, 2002; Armstrong and Murphy, 1997; Millner and Eichold, 2001). According to Irwin (2001) 7 million adults in the USA now have tattoos and they have now become so “thoroughly middle class that the only rebellious thing about them may be the decision not to get one” (p49). In effect there has been a cultural shift and a gradual destigmatization of deviance. Yet despite this, tattooing has received little attention from consumer researchers.

Indeed there has only been one study, which specifically interpreted tattooing as a service industry (Sanders, 1985), despite the fact that a survey reported by Vale (1999) indicated that the tattoo sector was one of the fastest growing service industries in the US. Indeed tattooing may validly be classified as a service due to the fact that it has providers (the tattoo artists), clients (those who purchase the tattoo), and involves payment. However, the tattoo, the ‘object’ that is purchased is unique both in its concept and practice, and has very few comparisons, largely due to the permanency of the act. This brings into question the nature of the relationship, the experience, and importantly, the role of trust due to the very high risk and high degree of involvement surrounding the exchange. This paper explores the nature of this relationship and the factors influencing choice of tattooist, the nature of the experience, and the development of enduring relationships.


The main aims of the research were to gain insights into the nature of the tattoo experience from a range of tattooees, varying in their commitment to adorning their bodies with permanent markings. Rather than starting with a predefined framework the authors adopted an emergent methodology (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) that consisted of the collection of qualitative data in the form of informants stories. Some areas of behaviour are notoriously difficult to research from an ‘outsider looking in’ perspective and may consequently involve the researcher going ‘native’ in order to gain access to informants and collect credible data (see for example Schouten and McAlexander, 1995). In the case of tattooing and tattooees Vale (1999) addresses some of the problems faced by the researcher, notably gaining access, trust and dispelling suspicion surrounding the motives of the researcher. Consequently one off interviews were not deemed to be adequate for the purpose of researching the tattoo experience. In order to collect data, one of the authors who is himself very heavily tattooed embarked on a relationship building exercise with a number of key informants including tattoo artists and tattoo consumers, ranging from moderate to heavily tattooed. Tattooists provided client contacts and a total of fifteen in-depth interviews were conducted over a three month period with eight males and seven females ranging in age from 18-38. These were followed up with further meetings and discussions in order to capture the breadth of the experience.

In addition to this, one of the researchers joined a discussion list dedicated to extreme body modification. In order to become a member, the applicant is required to write their story or history of becoming a ‘tattooee’ and submit a photograph of their tattoos. This vetting process is carried out to exclude the ‘voyeur’. However, once accepted the new member is given access to all the stories, pictures and email addresses of the list membership which allows him/her to enter into individual dialogues with informants. These stories helped to inform the analysis and supplemented the interview data. In terms of interpretation, all interviews were transcribed and subjected to a process of coding as described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) which involved descriptive analysis through the use of ‘open coding’ through to the identification of patterns or concepts based on their relationship to each other. This stage involved the use of ‘axial coding’ which moved the interpretation beyond the level of description to the identification of interrelated themes.


The tattoo market loosely defined, the market for tattoos may be divided into three types, namely:

1) Fashion and aesthetic tattooees:

These individuals usually acquire a tattoo for aesthetic purposes with little thought given to the symbolic or ‘tribal’ meaning. For example, a flower on the hip or shoulder which can be easily concealed. They are largely influenced by peer group referents and fashion trends and do not see themselves as part of a tattoo community.

2) Committed but concealed tattooees:

This label covers the experienced tattooees who have embarked on a tattoo career, often covering their entire bodies from the neck down with permanent images. Often, each tattoo marks a particular event in the individual’s life and may have personal as well as symbolic meaning. However, there is a reluctance to go ‘all the way’ by tattooing those parts that cannot be concealed, such as the hands and face. This allows the individual to engage in mainstream social and economic activities without incurring the prejudice and stigma that still accompanies extensive body modification (Pitts, 1999). On the other hand the extensive nature of the body art also allows acceptance into one or a number of the tattoo subcultures, such as ‘modern primitives’, that exist in Western society today.

3) Committed collectors:

These individuals do not see themselves as having a tattoo, but ‘being tattooed’ (Vale, 1999). Being tattooed is part of an ongoing career of becoming a ‘collector’ of tattoos whereby the individual’s life history is symbolically coded and written on the body. With regard to this group there are few boundaries or limitations to the placing of tattoos.

Most cross the line and have facial and hand markings which cannot be concealed. Consequently, many take a conscious and voluntary decision to exclude themselves from the mainstream opting into an alternative subcultural grouping, making their living, often in the industry, and socializing with like-minded individuals. Whilst work from consume behaviour has tended to centre on the notion of regret (Valliquette and Bamossy, 2001), it appears to be those individuals who have impulsively purchased a tattoo and have taken it no further who are more likely to experience regret than those who have consciously developed a personal ‘body career’. Nevertheless, longitudinal studies of life-passage may reveal different reactions. After all, having taken the decision to reject the mainstream, the permanency of the act does not easily allow re-entry. However, having acknowledged that the tattoo market is diverse in terms of motivations and usage, there are a number of common features of the experience, which will of course vary depending upon which stage of the process the individual is at.

These include the following: Information search
Whilst information search is a key aspect of many service encounters, the nature of tattooing probably provokes a greater degree of investigation, time and involvement. Tattoos are permanent. They are considered by most recipients to be works of art, to be created by ‘artists’ upon a canvass, the body. They are both public and private statements about the individual’s identity, and, significantly, the act involves an often extended period of pain and potential risk of infection. Consequently information search is usually extensive, involving the internet and website analysis, personal inspection of premises and tattooists at work, levels of hygiene, a study of portfolios of previous tattoos carried out by the tattooist, and most importantly, discussions with past and existing clients. For example: Mark aged 18: Having decided to have a tattoo: “The next step was to find an artist to do this for me. It wasn’t too hard. My sister had a tattoo done at Addictive Ink and was very happy with the work and general environment of the shop. I’d heard nothing but good things about this place. My sister and I decided to go up and talk to the artist, look around the shop one evening. I went over a few fact sheets that had information on what sort of thing to look for in a shop. I’d read them many times before, but I wanted to be as informed as possible.” Sarah aged 20: “I searched online for what I should look for in a studio, and sure enough I found what I was looking for in seconds. I was told that the best thing to look for is an example of work carried out by the artist, and sure enough an example was right before me! My Mum had gotten a small flower design on her wrist that looked neat and tidy, so I asked where she got it (It was a Devil Bitch).” First impressions are of vital importance in the decision to proceed and negative images can be an immediate deterrent: James aged 26: “After what seemed an eternity I went to a tattoo studio in my area (I won’t mention any names here). This place really put me off having a tattoo, it was so bad. The artists” didn’t wear gloves, wash their hands, and were eating and smoking while tattooing. If that didn’t make me run for the door, the attitude of one of the owners did!”

The tattooing industry has come a long way since the early days of back street ‘scratchers’ (unregulated, unlicensed tattooists operating from shabby premises or from home). It is now possible to find tattoo studios that resemble fashionable beauty parlours with highly skilled staff who have undergone extensive apprenticeships. Quality is a matter of expectation and tattooists have to compete for customers in the same way that any other service does.


Schouten (1991) in his study of cosmetic surgery describes it as ‘irreversible, expensive, painful, potentially dangerous, and, nevertheless, increasingly popular..’ (p412). Words that could equally apply to the acquisition of a tattoo. Therefore having made a decision to go through with the tattoo, the next vital factor is that of reassurance that the individual has made the right choice with regard o the tattooist and the parlour. The client needs to be supplied with information that will dispel any doubts that may be lingering as indicated by Rob: Rob aged 30: “As far as the choices I made that evening I think that the place I went to was the most important. All the guys in the shop were more than helpful, answering any questions I had, joking around with me, and all in all making me feel real confident about choosing to go to Lucky 7. After finishing, all the guys that were in the shop came over to look at my back. I felt so proud when I heard how impressed they all were with the results. I mean these guys do tattoos for a living so the simple fact that they can still see a tattoo that impresses them meant a lot. Then Bob took me over to the other side of the room and took a couple of pictures of it to display in the shop”

Tattoos are individual, they are a supreme mode of self expression. However, they are also judged and interpreted by others both inside and outside the atttoo community. By the aficionados they will be decosnstructed and read for symbols which are linked to individual and collective identity and may result in acceptance or rejection by a subcultural group. Maffesoli (1996) talks about the rise in what he terms ‘neo-tribes’ or the transitory group which is neither fixed or permanent, but involves a constant back and forth movement between tribe and the masses. These neo-tribes may be “effervescent, aesthetic, oriented toward the past or future; they have as their common characteristic on the one hand, a breaking with the commonly held wisdom and, on the other, an enhancing of the organic aspect of the social aggregation” (p96). Moreover, solidarity is expressed through lifestyles that favour appearance and form. According to Sanders (1988), fellow tattooees commonly recognise and acknowledge their shared experience, decorative tastes and relationship to conventional society. Tattooing has an affiliative impact in that it is routinely employed to demonstrate ones indelible connection to primary associates or groups whose members share special interests and activities (Sanders, 1988).

“Becoming tattooed is a highly social act. The decision to acquire a tattoo (and the image that is chosen), like most major consumer products is motivated by how the recipient defines him or herself. The tattoo becomes an item in the tattooee’s personal ‘identity kit’, and in turn is used by those with whom the individual interacts to place him or her into a particular interactions-shaping social category”
Sanders, 1988, p405)

However, unlike the temporary neo-tribe discussed by Maffesoli, the wearing of a tattoo is not temporary, but permanent. It denotes a strong commitment to a particular group or lifestyle, and the larger or more prominent the tattoo, the greater the commitment. Interpersonal skills, trust building and mutual involvement Consequently, a least to begin with acquiring a tattoo is not a decision that is taken lightly and relies heavily on reassurance. The degree of reassurance rests largely on the extent of interpersonal skills displayed by the tattooist. Qualities such as honesty, previous experience and humour make the individual feel relaxed, important and create good customer relations. In effect the relationship is not unlike that of doctor/patient. The customer is literally putting his/her skin in their hands to be marked for posterity. As a result a strong sense of confidence needs to be built and expertise in terms of artwork, range (for example skills in ‘nu skool’, ‘old skool’ ‘’tribal’ decorations) and symbolic meaning demonstrated. For example: Peter, aged 21: “Let me tell you that if you find a good tattoo artist with a sense of humour you are set. My nervousness melted away. Jeff was great. I just sat back and talked with him while he waited for his friends to bring dinner, I came a little early. He was one of the funniest guys I’d met. Right then I was comfortable. I looked through some flashes and photos of his work I was impressed by this. I looked around the room and saw all kinds of various awards and certifications. I knew this was a good one.”

Tattoos are more than mere objects of consumption. They are extreme statements which are highly symbolic and riddled with meaning. Mcabbe (1997) discusses the symbolism inherent in tattoos and the current process of commodification and popularisation of body adornment. Accordingly, classic images such as the eagle, the snake, the anchor or the heart are deceptive in their directness and simplicity. Hidden behind these designs are years of technical and artistic experimentation that combine to make an art form. Indeed tattooing has always been closely related to the variety of the culture that surrounds it. However, the current explosion of interest in tattooing has pressed the art-form into a transitional period which challenges many time-tested values of the tattoo community. There is a process of gentrification occurring as new people from different walks of life become involved. Along with this, the aura of store bought has ‘muscled’ its way into what was once a personal hand made approach (Mcabbe, 1997). However, the personal approach remains a paramount part of the experience.

Linked closely to interpersonal skills is the issue of mutual involvement in the process. The extent to which the artist becomes involved gives the individual confidence in his/her abilities. It also demonstrates commitment on the part of the tattooist, which further helps to alleviate anxieties and allows for a more enjoyable experience. Jenny aged 20: “I am overjoyed at my new ink, and cannot recommend Mike or Atomic Tattoo more highly. He is a phenomenal artist, who lends a huge amount of artistic consideration to his work. He’s also very nice, funny, and not intimidating in the least. I felt that this tattoo was very much a collaboration between Mike and myself, rather than just a business transaction. He put a lot of himself into this tattoo, and I really appreciate that.” Jane aged 22: “The first time I realized that I was getting an awesome tattoo was when Bob (the artist) spent like half an hour just mentally planning out how he was going to do it. I was a little nervous when he said “I’m not going to lie to you, this is going to be a motherf….r” but like I said I had confidence in his abilities.”

The tattooist needs to wholeheartedly demonstrate a high degree of self investment in the act, virtually to the same degree as the recipient. Their role goes beyond that of an artist, often, over time developing into educator, advisor and guru. Indeed some of the sample reported feelings akin to falling in love with their tattooist, so intimate is the relationship, whilst others felt the need to gain permission from their tattooist before they would speak to us. This of course brings into question the nature of the experience itself.

Becoming a collector

The act of getting tattooed is highly ritualistic (Irwin, 2001; Vale and Juno, 1989; Klesse, 1999). It involves planning, preparation, sometimes role transitions and a reconceptualisation of identity (Schrouten, 1991). Vail (1999) discusses the process of becoming a collector; a transformation which is physical, due to the alteration of the skin, psychological and sub-cultural. It also alters how the individual perceives his or her skin, and in turn how that skin is perceived by others. Being heavily tattooed still stands outside of conventional norms, and becoming a collector requires devotion to a lifestyle that might be considered marginal. “In short one must want to become a collector”. Becoming a collector, or someone who is ‘tattooed’ as opposed to having a tattoo, is also an educational process, through which the individual learns about the appropriate designs, their meanings and their aesthetics on the individual’s canvas.

Angie: “ I have been into tattooing for as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in art, my background is in jewellery manufacture, I have always been arty and to me it was just another form of artwork. I had my first tattoo when I was twenty five, it was a tiny spiral, I have always been into spirals and Celtic artwork, I had always wanted one, I didn’t want it normal, I wanted it more cartoon like, more free form. I got it when my boy friend at the time went to get one (a tattoo), and the tattooist had some spirals in his flash, but they were too perfect, too regular. I told him to **** it but I’ve never been too happy with it as it is too regular. At this point in time I have five tattoos in all, the spiral on my ankle, stars and flames on my abdomen, hot rod flames on my wrist, stars behind my ear, and the white tattoo on my back. I have lots of different stories that I tell people, some times if they are annoying me, I tell them it was done with needles dipped in bleach. Everything I have I have drawn myself, I like some tribal stuff but not the spikey stuff. I sketch what I want every time, I know what I want and I know what I like. But with the white one I really wanted that one to look like a Scarification, you know the whiteness of a scar, it was a bit of an experiment. I first got it done by the person I used to work for, he used to say that you couldn’t do just white tattoos and when I saw a photo in a magazine I showed him and said to him I told you so! So I got him to do it, Winston has just gone over it again.…..: I have recently got into traditional body decoration, like the stars behind my ear and flames up my left arm, I wouldn’t want pictures, traditional designs seem to flow with the body. The same with old skool designs, my views on them have developed over the last few years, I didn’t use to see the appreciation in traditional tattoos before, but all of them are personal.”

Joanne: “I was 17 when I got my first tattoo done it was not very good and it was done as part of a thing where every one in the crowd got one. Unfortunately I chose through price instead of quality, it was a small supposed Celtic design on my left arm. As you can imagine it is now covered up with a better design. This sort of put me off getting anything else till I was 25, this was a good thing because it allowed my taste to develop. Otherwise I would have got just the usual sort of crap that everyone gets instead of something that means something special to me and no-one else. I decided to go get another tattoo as I said when I was 25, I was working down south at the time and two of my male work colleagues had absolutely beautiful designs, the work was so intricate it was unbelievable. I asked were they got it done and they told me. This tattooist was literally world class, he had at least 20 years experience, this was all evident when I went to his shop for the first time. I chose a design paid my money and then had to wait six weeks, this was how good he is there was and still is a four to six week waiting list to get a tattoo from him. I mean he isn’t your usual ‘mom and dad’ or little itty bitty rose tattooist. After I got my first big one, on my right shoulder, I thought well I can take the pain, what about another, this was due to the fact that I came out of the tattooist with a huge grin on my face, but at the same time I wanted more, not just due to the fact that I actually enjoyed the tattoo (apart from the pain) but I felt that a large tattoo on one arm and a small one on the other would not balance out right. This way of thinking has continued to the present day where I am just going to get my lower left arm finished sometime in the near future, I have already planned how to finish the corresponding part of my right arm so that they are not lopsided. I have heard other people that are heavily tattooed feel an itch on an area that makes them feel where they need to get another tattoo. I have never felt like that but I do feel I know where the next one is going to be placed……perhaps it is subconscious?”

This process of collecting and becoming a collector may be considered a form of what Van Gennep (1960) describes as a contagious rite of passage. This is based on the belief that natural or acquired characteristics are material and transmittable. Within the sub-culture, tattoos mark the individual as a member, and the more extreme, symbolic or complicated the tattoo, the higher the position in the hierarchy. However, there is one aspect closely related to the tattoo ritual or rite of passage, and that is the actual experience of being tattooed which involves physical pain and reportedly, pleasure.

Joanne: “When I am getting a tattoo done it is a very strange experience as to begin with you have pain, this pain diminishes as the tattooing continues. Not just of that tattoo you are getting done but as you get tattooed more you get used to the experience and it hurts less…the pain diminishes as the tattooing progresses. As I said, for me personally it gets to about a third of the way through and I start to actually enjoy the process and by two thirds of the way through I’m usually high as a kite. I think this is partially to do with the excitement of getting tattooed; you are actually getting something that you really want that really means something to you as an individual, and can show off later; it is also partially to do with the amount of endorphins that are pumping round my body. I said that it gets less painful, well this also depends on where you get the tattoo done, some places are more painful than others; for example the tattoos on my shoulder blades were really sore. This is due I think to the differences in skin thickness. The body is very strange, when I got the inside of my left arm done I was getting tattooed about 3-4 inches away from my armpit yet it felt that I was actually getting tattooed there. It felt that real I had to have a look to see what the hell the tattooist was doing; the body does some strange things to you when you get tattooed.”

Developing a sense of loyalty

Whilst there is an intensely physical side to the experience which some report as ‘addictive’ commitment to a particular tattooist rests largely on a number of personal skills and the ability to make the experience enjoyable. These social skills, high information, commitment and involvement, and the quality of the work combine to create loyal customers who tend to remain loyal over a period of time. However, possibly more important, they are ‘walking’ advertisements for the tattooist. Simon aged 18 “Gash is the most experienced tattoo artist in the area. He has several competitors in our city…..and ironically they are all on the same street, isn’t that funny, but, Gash is the most talented out of all the artists, so I highly recommend him…….Gash is the only person I trust to do my tattoo’s. So far he has done 11 of my 12 tattoos, and he has even sparked my interest in doing tattoos myself. It is hard to find such a talented artist in these times…but they are out there, you just have to look.”

Tattooists rarely resort to traditional means of advertising and communication. Their clients do it for them to a large extent. Prospective tattoo collectors talk to experienced tattooees and word of mouth is by far the most potent weapon with regard to recommendations. James aged 30: “After being tattooed at Heads, I now realise how clean and good the last place I went was. I don’t plan on ever going to Heads again and told Ian not to get his done there. Why would anyone recommend somewhere that isn’t even that great? Clearly they didn’t research the studios to find the best one. So here’s my advice to anyone thinking about getting a tattoo, visit shops and look at work the tattooist has already done, and make sure the place is clean and professional.”

Claire aged 26: “I got my first tattoo 3 years ago at the same studio, he is a great artist known both for his work and personality. I would definitely recommend him to anyone. More seriously though, I trusted Shane’s judgement as an artist.” Reliability is also central to the relationship and becomes even more important if the tattoo is to be completed over a period of time. Failure to meet expectations can result in negative associations and condemnations, as the following illustrates. Martin aged 33:“Almost a year had past since I first started my devil girl and the convention where I had got it started was soon to be upon us again. I still wanted E to finish what he started so I rang his shop to confirm an appointment for the Sunday of the convention. Their receptionist told me that he was only doing “first come first serve” and to get hold of him when he gets there. And that’s what I did. I confirmed, what I hoped was to be, the appointment to finish my arm…..Sitting in the lobby before the convention I see E strolling in with bag in tow, I approached him, asking if we would be able to finally finish my arm. He gives me a yes and we set up our appointment for Sunday. So there I am, actually sitting in the chair, early Sunday morning, ready to get this tattoo finished, unbelievable, huh? . As you might assume, we were not as chatty as in the first sitting. I just sat there, waiting for the finished piece of art. But then the unexpected, he has to STOP. He has an important appointment to show up to and we’ll have to finish another time. I thought you have to be kidding. A huge upper arm piece, lined shaded, and coloured everywhere but the head, the wings, and the shoes. I was steaming and had to leave the convention for fear of my sometimes short fused temper taking over.

A few months down the road I had my artist Vinz finish what E had started. Doing a better job might I add. A few months after that I heard from people who asked E about my arm and why he acted like he did. The explanation he gave was that I called and made appointments at his shop a couple of times and then No-showed. It’s sad that he can’t even tell the truth, I’d really like to know. Actually, the really sad truth is I now sit here with a beautiful tattoo, a top notch piece of art. And all I can think about when I look at it now is should I get it lasered to lighten it up first before I get it covered up. I love the look of great work, I can’t wait to have much, much more, but, in the end, what is great work if it’s an asshole who put it on you.

This experience has not deterred me from seeking other talented artists. It has opened my eye’s though. Get to know your tattoo artist, it may take a while, but you’ll thank yourself for it. Reliability and customer interactions are vitally important as they emphasises the personal relationships that are created and then reinforced by the actual act of tattooing. In this case the association with the tattoo and the artist is so strong that the client felt compelled to have it removed, despite the fact that he considered it a ‘beautiful tattoo’ and a ‘top notch piece of art’. This highlights the importance of customer interactions which are often valued over and above the actual art work that is being performed. This relationship is built heavily on trust, and once formed tends to be of an enduring nature resulting in recommendations and repeat visits as the canvas is developed and worked upon.


The rapid growth since the 1990s of tattoo culture which has brought a once perceived deviant activity into the mainstream, breaking down class, age and gender boundaries, raises some interesting questions for consumer researchers. To begin with, tattooing can now legitimately be classified as a service industry with clients and providers. However, the nature of this service is fairly unique due to the permanency of the act and the intimacy of the relationships involved. This relationship may also be of a long term and enduring nature and is dependent upon trust, confidence, liking, the ability to deliver an enjoyable experience and reliability.

It is also closely linked to issues of identity, symbolic representation, and in some cases group membership. This paper has provided some exploratory factors which are largely mutually dependent, but would also benefit from a greater in-depth analysis in their own right. For example, the nature of exclusion and exclusion would make an interesting study and is open to a number of theoretical interrogations, as is the role of ritual in the process, particularly with regard to the changing nature of the contemporary ‘consumer tribe’.


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Proof Of Beauty

a scientific introduction to the golden ration and mathematics of beauty

The Mathematics Of Beauty

In all art and design we often recant the timeless adage – ‘When it comes to matters of opinion debate is futile. There is no accounting for taste’. Yet we can also objectively say that there are bad tattoos and bad drawings. If take away the personal preference of art and design and simply concentrate on the composition or foundation of a piece – can there be common denominators? An objective tool for the measurement of success or failure in art?

These more generalized philosophical questions will be explored in later sections. Here we briefly look into the more classical mathematical measurements of beauty:

The Traditional Measurements

A growing body of scientific studies based on an ancient mathematical ratio suggests that physical attractiveness could be real and quantifiable rather than purely subjective. Greek and Egyptian mathematicians believed in a theory of beauty and maths. They believed that a common element existed in all things humans found attractive.

This element, known as the ‘golden ratio’ or ‘divine proportion’ is a mathematical ratio of 1:1618 – with the number 1.618 being known as ‘phi’. The golden ratio is based on the Fibonacci sequence, in which the first two numbers are 1 and each subsequent number equal to the sum of the previous two numbers. This sequence goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. The average ratio of each consecutive pair of numbers (1/1, 2/1, etc.) becomes closer and closer to 1:1.618

This ratio recurs frequently in nature. It can be observed in the spiral of a seashell or in the distribution of petals on a sunflower. The ratio of the lengths of the thorax and abdomen in most bees is close to the golden ratio and is occurs in sever man-made creations considered particularly beautiful – from Mozart’s music to buildings such as the Parthenon.

As early as the 15’th century the Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti believed that beauty was matter of proportion and that if a body was divided into 600 parts, beauty would be a “harmony of all the parts, in whatsoever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for worse”. The proportion which he believed would secure a harmony of all the parts was phi.

The Italian Renaissance polymath Lenoardo Da Vinci was also fascinated by this relationship. One of his most famous works, the drawing of the Vitruvian Man, showed how the human body conforms to the golden ratio. If you mesaure from the soles of your feet to your navel and from the soles of your feet to your head, in most people the longer the distance is 1.618 times the shorter one. The same relationship occurs if you measure from your fingertips to your elbow and from your fingertips to your shoulder. The face of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is also structured around this ratio.

It was only in the 20th century, with the advent of cosmetic surgery, that man was able to capitalize on this knowledge and use it to help improve our looks. It is now thought that this ratio could hold the key to the modern ideal of the ‘perfect’ face and body.

Stephen Marquardt, a retired Californian plastic surgeon who also researches attractiveness, has designed a mask using phi. This mask applies the golden ratio to the human face. For example, the ideal ratio between the width of the nose and the width of the mouth is 1:1.618 – so the closer a face fits the mask, he finds, the more attractive the face is perceived to be. To prove his case he applied the proportions of the mask to the faces of actors and timeless beauties such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Cruise and Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The mask was a perfect fit on all but Tom Cruise.

Questions Behind The Art Of Tattooing

a collection of papers exploring various aspects behind tattooing

Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture

Literature on American tattooing appears in varied forms, from the scholarly journals of anthropology, history and sociology to newspaper stand magazines that can be construed as ‘soft’ pornography. What this spectrum of literary forms has in common is a relative marginalization in which American tattooing is perceived as part of a deviant subculture and not a topic of serious intellectual interest. Academics involved in this research have referred to colleagues’ attitudes about research on tattooing as a deviant interest in deviance. In addition, many academics have an agenda of legitimating the practice of tattooing by explicating its social and cultural patterns.

Although much of this work is important scholarly investigation, I have found that many authors romanticize the practice of tattooing in ways that often do not correspond with their analyses. This article will, in part, respond to the tensions between analyzing and romanticizing tattooing as cultural practice(s). The purpose of this article is to explore the complex relationship between power and the physical and social practices of tattooing in the late capitalist state.

Beginning with the history of tattooing as a cultural practice – from ancient Greece through the colonial period to contemporary USA – I will highlight the temporal and geographical changes in the practices and perceptions of tattooing. My hope is that its history in Western civilization will offer insights into the ways in which tattooing is practiced in the late 20th-century USA. In addition to creating a historical narrative, I will also situate the sociocultural practice of tattooing the body for the tattooist and the ‘tattooee’. This investigation into body inscription will serve as a means to elucidate the contemporary practice of tattooing as one that is simultaneously physical and social, with multiple levels of constructed meaning. And finally, I will explore the ways in which tattooing acts as a cultural signifier in the late 20th-century USA. I will attempt to show how tattooing as a form of body modification can be analyzed as a form of resistance to or a symptom of a culture that has commodified the body.

From Stigma to Tatau to Late Capitalism

The history of tattooing is somewhat difficult to trace. Although the word ‘tattoo’ did not emerge until James Cook’s voyage to Polynesia in the 18th century, the practice of indelibly inking the body has a much longer history. Jones (2000) posits that the Greek word stigma(ta)1 actually indicated tattooing and that evidence suggests that this word was then transmitted to the Romans.2 Of course, this linking of tattooing and stigma has contemporary value when considering the current meaning of ‘stigma’ in English. It marries the process or mark of tattooing with its interpretation, indicating that the meaning of stigma today may come from the ancient practice of tattooing.

In spite of the uncertainty surrounding names associated with the practice of tattooing, Jones suggests that the Greeks were not the first to tattoo. He writes: Cultures which were familiar to the ancient Greeks practised what we would call tattooing. . . . Tattooing in its social aspect, whether as a mark of high status or as pure decoration, the Greeks associated with ‘barbarians’ of the uncivilized kind, and never adopted it. (2000: 15)

The way in which tattooing was adopted by the Greeks was as a punitive or proprietary action. In other words because the Greeks associated stigmata with their rival neighbors, its social importance was degraded and, subsequently, stigmata were used for marking ‘Others’ within Greek culture, such as criminals and slaves. This association between social others and tattooing was then transmitted from Greece to the Romans. Gustafson (2000) interprets the use of tattooing by the Romans as a state control mechanism. Using a Foucauldian framework to think through social control, he quotes from Discipline and Punish, ‘But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs’ (Gustafson, 2000: 24).

By indelibly marking the unconsenting bodies of criminals and slaves, the Roman state could more easily control their movements by means of the external mark upon these individuals. Their bodies would act as agents of the state emitting a visible sign of their social role. Both Jones (2000) and Gustafson (2000) are interested in the visibility and messages of these tattoos. Jones has posited that the act of tattooing the foreheads of slaves and criminals must have been common up until the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine explicitly forbade inscribing the face with tattoos. Constantine suggested that the hands or calves should be tattooed instead. His reasoning, as Jones interprets the texts, is that ‘the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, will be defiled as little as possible’ (Jones, 2000:13).

Gustafson (2000) has identified three types of penal tattoos. The most common inscribed the name of the crime on the criminals’ bodies. The other two were inscriptions of the name of the emperor under whom the crime was committed and the name of the punishment that the criminals were given.

Established as a punitive or proprietary symbol in Greece, tattooing continued through the Middle Ages in Europe as a means to mark the bodies of criminals, and thus tattooing as a social practice in Western civilization became intertwined with criminality and deviance.4 Introduced as a practice of the enemy in ancient Greece, tattooing’s reintroduction into European culture was through similar circumstances during the 18th century. The colonialist projects in Africa, Asia and the ‘New World’ (re)presented tattooing as a practice of the primitives who would become the colonized (i.e. Africa and Asia) or the enemies of colonization (i.e. Native North and South Americans). How did this re-emergence of tattooing influence the social and cultural patterns of tattooing in Europe and what would become the USA?

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages, including French and Spanish. It is very unclear in the literature if penal tattooing practices were still occurring at the time the word was introduced into the language. There is evidence, however, that prisoners were ‘tattooed’ at the end of the 18th and in the early 19th century.

After tracing the evolution of the word tatau into European languages and documenting the early anthropological work on body modification in the colonies, there is little scholarly work in history or other disciplines examining tattooing practices in Europe or the USA from 1770 to 1860 (Bradley, 2000; Caplan, 2000a). It is probable that during this period sailors were returning to their homelands with tattoos that they had received on their voyages. There is also some indication that tattooists were practicing in Europe and the USA, but who they were and what their tattooing methods were remain unclear. One of the first explicit references to tattooing that offers insight into 18thcentury practice was during the American Civil War. Alan Govenar (2000) has found evidence that tattooing was an acceptable practice for soldiers, especially tattoos that were overtly political and were symbols of allegiance to their ‘side’ in the war. In his article, Govenar suggests that the American Civil War was the first instance in which soldiers were systematically tattooed with symbols of the military or their cause.5 One way in which to interpret this mass tattooing practice is that the Civil War was an event in which people were struggling with their positions in a politically confusing time. Other than the color associated with the military uniforms, what were the differences between Confederate and Union men who were caught in the war? Perhaps through creating specific war images, and inscribing them on the bodies of soldiers, the opposing armies could create difference between otherwise very similar men. Changes in the social practices of tattooing were also significant for prisoners. During the 1880s, criminologists in France and Italy became interested in a cryptography of tattoos. They believed that tattoos were bodily inscriptions of the crimes and offenses of criminals and deviants, and consequently, they set out to decipher the meaning of the imagery (Caplan, 2000a). Thus tattoos were seen as physical indicators of criminality. By the late 19th century, in France and Italy, tattooing as a social practice had changed only a little from 2000 years before. The most important change had been from non-consensual tattooing of prisoners to mark their bodies with their crimes, to voluntary tattooing which was perceived by the state as evidence of their crimes.

Ironically, during this same period, England and the USA were experiencing a tattoo ‘craze’ in ‘fashionable society’ in spite of the long-standing association of tattoos with criminality (Bradley, 2000). Until the 1880s, criminals, sailors and the working class were the major groups that were tattooed. Suddenly, toward the end of the 1880s, tattoos became fashionable and spread through the upper classes of England and the United States. Tattoos remained fashionable for the next decade or two. In spite of more socioeconomic groups seeking tattoos during this time, there was no sense of class unification through tattooing. Those in the lower classes receiving tattoos were still interpreted by the tattooed wealthy as deviant. In part, this attitude was based on tattoo imagery and designs, which changed quickly during this period. Bradley clarifies this point: On the most basic level, tattoos acted as a badge of social and cultural differentiation that separated the tattooed from the non-tattooed. On a deeper level, however, social and cultural homogeneity did not unite the tattooed, for the subject matter and aesthetic style of the tattoos created a fault-line that divided the classes. (Bradley, 2000: 148)

One of the characteristics of the new design was the addition of the ‘ethnic’ tattoo. This generally meant designs that were influenced by Japanese tattoos. Coming to symbolize for the wealthy a (usually false) message of worldliness, these tattoos indicated that its bearer had traveled and consumed other cultures. This physical appropriation of another culture was seen as a class commodity in which one’s social standing could be based on the consumption of other cultures, a form of what I call cultural cannibalism. Thus, the design of the tattoo was crucial for sending specific class messages for the wealthy, while tattoo designs were generally chosen based on personal experiences or characteristics among the working class. One way of (over)simplifying this class difference can be summed up as follows: in the wealthy class, the purpose of tattoos was to impress, and in the working class, tattoos were to express.

One of the questions that is worth exploring about the upper-class interest in tattooing is why tattooing become fashionable at this precise historic moment in these locations. One of the most interesting events that parallels the tattooing trend is the development of the electric tattoo machine. With dates of this technology’s emergence varying from as early as the 1870s to the 1890s to its US patent in 1901, most authors cannot agree when the electric tattoo machine actually came into use in the USA (Blanchard, 1994; Bradley 2000; Govenar 2000; Sanders, 1989). One of the reasons that the date is so uncertain is that it came into use quietly. Designed and used privately for years before being patented, the electric tattoo machine was the tool of one individual before it was diffused into the tattooing trade. Although the date is uncertain, there is consensus as to the inventor: New York City tattooist Sam O’Reilly. Building his design from Edison’s 1876 electric stencil pen, O’Reilly called his device the ‘tattaugraph’ (Sanders, 1989).

This device was seen as an important improvement for tattooing because: The electric tattoo machine (patterned after the rotary mechanism of a sewing machine) not only quickened the process and decreased the pain involved, but facilitated greater detail and subtlety in coloration and shading. With the increased technical proficiency in tattooing itself, the quality of the drawings and paintings on which they were based also improved. (Govenar, 2000: 215)

Although the machine had the potential for creating better-quality drawings, it was seen as a means of deskilling the tattooist because it was ‘easier’ to inscribe the designs well. In addition to inventing the first tattoo machine,9 O’Reilly and his partner Lew Alberts designed and sold tattoo designs and stencils through mail order. This was also interpreted as deskilling the tattooist and as standardizing tattoos. O’Reilly is also credited with bringing Japanese designs to the United States. Sanders (1989) reports this event in the following terms:

For a brief time in the 1890s the Japanese master Hori Chyo was enticed by a $12,000 a year offer from a New York millionaire to practice in America and two other Japanese tattoo artists were brought to New York under the sponsorship of Samuel O’Reilly. (Sanders, 1989: 16) O’Reilly learned the Japanese designs and had high sales volumes of his sheets of Japanese tattoo designs (Blanchard, 1994).

The upper class had their phase of fashionable tattooing at the end of the 19th century, which corresponded temporally to these three advances in tattooing associated with O’Reilly: the electric tattoo machine, availability of design sheets and stencils, and access to Japanese designs and styles in tattooing. These three elements provided a less painful tattoo with more designs from which to choose, with more detail in the image than previously achieved. Situated by these changes in the tattooing process, the upper class craze of the late 19th century can be understood within its historic context. The brevity of the wealthy’s fascination with tattoos may be due to two factors: a simultaneous increase in the number of social ‘deviants’ getting tattoos during this same time period and an increased visibility of ‘vulgar’ tattooed bodies.

Although the middle class did not have a similar involvement in tattooing at the end of the 19th century as did the wealthy, there was a concurrent movement among the working class and among entertainers. A growing interest in the circus spectacle or ‘freak show’ added to the upsurge in tattooists’ business. As more and more men and women covered their bodies in indelible images, tattooing became more and more associated with vulgarity and deviance. Furthermore, as more individuals decided to tattoo themselves to earn money from public spectacle, these performers were forced to increase the number and diversify the design of their tattoos. Tattooed women in the circus found themselves wearing more revealing costumes in order to show how much of their bodies were actually tattooed, leading some critics to describe this as a ‘peepshow within a freak show’ (Mifflin, 1997).

As the 20th century progressed, these performers complained that their bodies were becoming less profitable. By the 1940s, the tattooed ‘freak’ was no longer able to draw a crowd. The tattoos were still perceived as vulgar by the general population, but the novelty of seeing someone’s body covered with tattoos had worn off (Govenar, 2000). The military also became publicly opposed to tattoos, due in part to the erotic images soldiers chose as tattoos, but also due to fears that tattooing was a public health hazard. Few cases of communicable diseases were documented as transmitted through tattooing, but even today, tattooing has an aura of risk about it. Although military officials tried to warn soldiers about the danger of being contaminated by tattoo needles, it seems that the numbers of military men being tattooed did not decline. While serving an important role in soldier bonding or group identification perhaps, the tattoo was not publicly accepted and had ‘negative social value’ when soldiers returned to civilian life (Govenar, 2000).

Govenar (2000) associates this rejection of the military man’s tattoo as part of the American Return to Normalcy movement of the 1950s in which conformity and rejection of the war played a large part. The tattoo was a symbol of the breach that the Second World War had caused in society. During these years after the war, tattooing was primarily associated with the working class, gangs and drunks. At the same time, however, tattooing became one of the most common forms of teenage rebellion,12 and tattoos were widely depicted in film and advertisement with nationally recognized figures like Popeye and the Marlboro man having tattoos.

Tattooing as a fashion or as a craze re-emerged during the late 1960s and 1970s with the hippie and rock star subcultures. This trend has had its peaks and lulls during the past 35 years, but it has sustained itself as a movement. Cutting across diverse social and class groups, there are more people today who get tattoos, and yet there is still a relative marginalization of the practice within the larger culture. It is perceived as a social marking that, if not inscribed on the bodies of deviants, then constitutes a deviant practice on the bodies of individuals. Before turning to an analysis of the practice of tattooing as a symptom of late capitalism, I will first situate the individual who becomes a tattooist and the individual who gets tattooed in a sociological framework.

Tattooing and the Profession of Modifying Bodies

This article has concentrated solely on the social and cultural perception of tattoos as they exist on the body. This second section of the article will explore the profession of tattooist. I will outline the trade, discuss the ethical decisions in tattooing, and raise the issue of tattooist as artist or service provider. With men making up about 85 percent of tattooists, tattooing is predominantly a male occupation in the USA. Although women tattooists generally make the same salary as men tattooists, and have the same degree of professional security, the occupation is very difficult for women to enter. Learning the trade is based almost solely on an apprenticeship model, in which trade secrets are passed from the tattooist to the novice by working closely together. Tattooing equipment is easy to acquire (with sufficient funds, around $500–1000), but the techniques are not so obvious. Finding a tattooist who is willing to teach and work with an apprentice can be crucial to establishing oneself in the trade, and women are often discouraged from serving an apprenticeship.

Trade secrecy in tattooing is due in part to the lack of vertical mobility of the profession. Tattooists’ aspirations tend to fall into one (or both) of two categories: owner of a profitable shop and recognition as an artist. Because tattooists can only expect horizontal mobility (i.e. changing from one shop to another or changing cities), the tattooists, after establishing themselves, have little opportunity to increase their status or their income (Sanders, 1989). Thus, training too many novices in the trade can negatively impact the tattooist because this could lead to decreased profits from sharing the client base. The skill of the tattooist, however, is not confined to his/her ability with the tattooing needles. Often these people need to have an acute business interest due to much economic uncertainty. Business is sporadic, depending on time of the day, day of the week, and season of the year. In order to maintain their shops, tattooists have to plan for this uncertainty and develop ways in which to compensate for their time waiting for clients in the shop. For example, many tattooists require a deposit when clients come in to make an appointment. This helps guarantee that the client will come back, come at the designated time and day, and if he/she does not show up, the tattooist is still compensated for the time spent waiting. Another important aspect of tattooing which is harder to learn is the tattooist’s interpersonal skills. Many clients are frightened when they come for tattoos, and the tattooist must repeatedly answer the same questions: Will it hurt? What does it feel like? How much does it cost?

In addition, many clients have very specific ideas about the image that they will have tattooed, and the tattooist will have to negotiate these desires with the cost, feasibility, and the long-term psychological and social welfare of the client. In his book, Sanders (1989) quotes at length from an interview with a tattooist regarding this last point. The tattooist relates the case as follows:

The girl came in and she said she wanted – a really stupid name – ‘Larry Joe Vitelli’ tattooed
around her nipple on her breast. This girl was extremely fragile. I sensed that immediately. She
was not, in the American sense of the word, a beautiful girl. . . . She wanted this ‘Larry Joe
Vitelli’ tattooed on her nipple. So I spent about 20 minutes trying to talk her out of getting this
guy’s name tattooed on her because I just don’t think it is a good idea . . . although I will do
vow tattooing because I think it is a valid tattoo image. I do my best not to do it, first. Then I
realize that it is futile to try to talk them out of it – love has its way of blinding the logical person.
So I didn’t want to do this tattoo and [the artist/proprietor] comes out because this girl is
protesting because she wants this tattoo. He says, ‘You’re going to do this tattoo because that
is what I hired you to do and that is what she wants. So you do it.’ Ok. So I thought, ‘Here I
am in a moral dilemma. I don’t want to do this tattoo because I know that this girl has problems
emotionally and I’m forced into it or I’m going to blow my position here.’ So I decided I’ll do
the tattoo. So I start to do the tattoo and I’m half way through it – I got ‘Larry Joe’ on there –
and she starts making passes at me . . . sexual sort of come on things. Here I am writing ‘Larry
Joe Vitelli’ on her and she wants to get sexually involved with me. So I said to her, ‘Well, you
and Larry must have quite a relationship to do something like this. I mean, this is a really
intimate kind of thing – having your breast tattooed with this guy’s name. You’ll never be able
to jump in bed with anyone else without them seeing “Larry Joe Vitelli” written there.’ I said,
‘You must have quite a relationship: you must really care about each other.’ She goes, ‘Yeah, I
really love him but I have no idea how he feels about me.’ I’m in the middle of tattooing this
on her. I didn’t trust my own intuitions. I didn’t follow my own standards. I compromised . . .
I felt sick, nauseous . . . I’ll never do anything like that again! That was a real lesson for me.
(Sanders, 1989: 79–80)

These types of moral choices in which the tattooist has to decide whether to do the tattoo or risk having the client go elsewhere are not only relevant to this sort of psychological case. Whether or not to inscribe individual names on the bodies of clients is often placing the tattooist in the position of a therapist, but there are other ethical choices the tattooist must make regarding tattoo design. Clients might request tattoos of swastikas or overt racist or anti-social phrases, and the tattooist must learn to negotiate with these clients or refuse to do the tattoo. Most of the time, tattooists are unwilling to do tattoos that they are morally opposed to because they are fearful of getting a reputation for this type of tattoo, having to do more of them, increasing their own occupational stigma, and perhaps losing other business as a result.

As stated above, tattooists have little opportunity for vertical mobility, and so many individual tattooists aspire to receive recognition as artists. This is one of the most severe tensions for many tattooists. Can their craft be considered art when it is based on a skilled service and profit-driven? Many people, especially those in the art world, argue that it is not an art. How can tattooing be art when most of the work done is based on standardized designs that the clients choose from the wall of the tattoo shop? Many tattooists themselves do not argue with this.

Some tattooists have a concept of mutual artistry for which they often strive (Sanders, 1989). This can best be characterized as a process in which the tattooist and client design a tattoo based on the individual personality of the client and based on the client’s body, using the natural contours of the body to make a more beautiful tattoo. This process is often restricted by the client’s cost considerations and his/her desire to know exactly how the finished product will look in the end. Are these clients seeking art? How do they choose not only a tattoo, but also a tattooist? What are the ways in which they envision the ink on their body? The next section will examine the ‘tattooee’ and their role in the social and cultural patterns of tattooing in the USA.

Inscribing the Body: A Demographic of Tattoos

Historically, men have been much more likely to get tattoos than have women, especially men who are members of particular groups, such as the military or motorcycle gangs. Recently, however, this trend has reversed, with about 60 percent of tattoo clientele being women (Mifflin, 1997). This particular change is difficult to explain, and it seems that it may not be so much that women are reversing the stereotype, but rather that tattooing is equalizing between the sexes. One of the enduring sex differences in tattooing is the location of the tattoo. Most women choose a location on their bodies for the tattoo that they will be able to conceal relatively easily, whereas men often choose a location they will be able to reveal relatively easily. The torso, especially the hips, buttocks, or breasts, is the most common location for women, while men usually place their first tattoos on their arms.

Tattooing is generally a peer activity with about 64 percent of tattooees coming to the shop with friends or family…. Several authors compare the decision to be tattooed with impulse shopping. Groups of friends are together, someone suggests getting tattoos, and they go to the nearest tattoo shop or one that someone may have heard of before. The vast majority of clients never research the process of tattooing nor the reputation or skill of the tattooist. Linking impulsiveness with tattooing creates a fascinating tension. By definition, tattoos are permanent. The choice of tattooist and design, therefore, should be a process rather than a capricious act. This impulsiveness can mean that the individual does not receive a well-designed tattoo, but in spite of the spontaneity of the act, the tattoo generally conveys multiple meanings for its bearer.

Both Blanchard (1994) and Sanders (1989) identify four primary overlapping functions of the tattoo. First, the tattoo functions as ritual. In a culture in which there are few rituals or rites of passage outside religion, the tattoo can serve (as it did for indigenous people who practiced tattooing) as a physical mark of a life event. These life events are interpreted as significant by the bearer, if not by society, and can vary from the winning of a sporting event or competition to the completion of a divorce to the remission of cancer (becoming a ‘cancer survivor’). The tattoo also functions as identification. By inscribing established symbols on the body, the tattooee is identifying him/herself as part of a given group. Groups can be as broad as ‘American’ to the very specific, such as a family or partner’s name.

A third function of tattooing is protective. The tattoo can be a symbol or talisman to protect its bearer from general or specific harm. Sanders (1989) relates an interview with a man who had a tattoo of a fierce and angry bee inscribed on his arm. The man told Sanders that he was allergic to bees and had been stung so much that his physician feared the next sting might prove fatal. Having decided he needed protection against bees, the man decided to get a bee tattoo/talisman to frighten the bees from stinging him again. Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body.

Having this decorative function, tattoos are often associated with exhibitionism. Although there is indeed an element of desire to reveal tattoos, there is often an equally profound desire to conceal tattoos. Revealing the tattoo has several functions, including showing the individual’s stylishness, identifying a group to which they belong, and demonstrating their rebelliousness. The desire to conceal can stem from the deeply personal meaning of the tattoo for the individual or from the deeply embedded social stigma. While the tattooed person enjoys the positive attention from his/her peers generated by the tattoo, most of these same people feel embarrassed about the negative reactions they get from others, especially when this reaction is coming from friends and family. People with tattoos try to avoid and resent questions such as ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ or ‘Do you know what kind of people get tattoos?’

Even as tattooing becomes more prevalent in the USA, there is still a persistent taboo on tattoos. People with tattoos often feel that they should cover their body markings in public or risk social rejection. Tattooing remains a marginalized occupation, in spite of its record for professionalism and safety. Why is it that the tattoo can be so enshrouded by a myth of deviance, and elicit such disgust? What are the meanings that American culture has constructed for the social practice of tattooing? And how does this practice negotiate the social and cultural space in the USA to build personal meaning for the individual marked by tattooing?

Dermagraphics: The Tattoo as Cultural Signifier

The previous sections of this article have traced the history of tattooing in Western civilization, with a particular focus on the USA, and analyzed the characteristics of the tattooing profession in addition to examining individuals who acquire tattoos. Although this is a productive way of understanding the social role of the tattoo on a micro-level, the above work does not interpret the tattoo as a cultural phenomenon.

The remaining section of this article will position work from a semiotic model using tattooing as the signifier, the concept of body modification as the signified, and a socially ‘dis-eased’ body as the sign. By comparing tattooing with other forms of body modification, particularly socially sanctioned forms, I will interrogate the social and political construction of tattooing as a symbol embedded with cultural meaning.

American culture is replete with manifest contradictions about the body. The late capitalist economy has created a structure in which our lives and bodies have been violently commodified. The notion of flexibility has translated into bodies as a demand to reshape the identity through capitalism. Bombarding society with messages about the body has resulted in a cultural obsession or fixation with the body. Through advertising and other forms of popular culture, Americans accept the requisite need to commit themselves to ‘body-work’ or suffer social stigmatism and rejection.

While demographically America is becoming overweight, the ideal body is exerting more demands and more restrictions – thinner, more muscular, healthier – on the individual. And there are a million products marketed to help Americans reach this goal. Why is it that a culture that abhors permanent body modification, such as tattooing, infibulation and cicatrization, can simultaneously encourage incremental, semi-permanent and often expensive body modifications, such as clothing, make-up, hair trends, dieting and muscularity?

Fashion, by definition, has a fear of commitment. Consequently, the permanence of tattoos is terrifying. Permanence is a ‘bad word’ within late capitalist economies, which are dependent on and nurture change. Often in the form of (or rhetoric of) technological improvements, ‘change’ is commodified and packaged as another product that is more fashionable, that is more advanced, that will help Americans ‘reinvent’ themselves. Semi-permanent body modifications are ideal in a capitalist structure because there is always already space for the next body modification. Hair grows, bodies expand, clothes fade. Resistance is everything because there are always new (pre-packaged) battles to wage.

As fashion, tattoos have taken hold of the American imaginary and transformed tattooing culture. Mark Taylor (1997) writes about the tattoo as being the symbol of the ‘postmodern primitive’. He discusses it as a cultural abandonment of the centuries of resistance to ‘primitive desires’ and ‘savage impulses’. He highlights the use of tattoos as fashion to play at being pre-fashion and tribal (group identity). What Taylor does not discuss is the prevalence of the ‘temporary tattoo’ (all the faddish advantages of the tattoo without any of the permanence) and the transformation of the tattooist to laserist (one-stop shopping of tattooing the skin and of removing them with new laser technologies).

The postmodern primitive can play at permanence when it is fashionable without any danger of commitment. In this culture of body fixation, boundaries are drawn of inclusion and exclusion based on the body. Americans form communities and friendships around athletics, gym membership, weight loss and behavioral support groups (quit smoking, drinking, disordered eating, etc.). Reinscribing boundaries, tattoos are marks of inclusion in different groups – fashionable, conforming, deviant. And as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body.

Before continuing this contemporary analysis of tattooing, it is essential to ask how this placement of the tattoo as a signifier of a socially dis-eased body operates within the historical perspective provided above. I think that this analysis can hold up, especially when contrasting voluntary tattooing, a comparatively recent phenomenon, with the centuries of involuntarily inscribing bodies. Susan Benson’s work (2000) on tattooing emphasizes that, historically, groups whose bodies are regulated by the nation-state have been the most likely to have tattoos. She describes the recent predilection of prisoners, the military and the working class to tattoo their bodies. This tendency can be described as a reclaiming or reappropriation of the body.

That is, in conditions of general repression and strict control of the body, these groups need to re-exert ownership of their own bodies. Accepting tattooing as a symptom in this context, it follows that the socially dis-eased body is suffering from a loss of agency due to the complex power of the state over the functioning of the body. Or in other words, the body has been infected by the state. Expanding this model of state control over the body, why has tattooing become so common in the middle and upper classes? If tattooing remains a cultural reappropriation of the body, from whom or what are Americans reclaiming their bodies? The body is becoming commodified to such an extent that legal, ethical, political and social questions have arisen about the body as property. If the American body is a commodity, tattooing and other forms of permanent body modification can be construed as a way in which the individual reclaims some power over his/her own body.

Benson writes on this point:
What is distinctive in contemporary tattoo practices is the linking of such assertions of permanence to ideas of the body as property and possession – ‘a statement of ownership over the flesh’, as one individual put it – indeed as the only possession of the self in a world characterized by accelerating commodification and unpredictability, ‘the one thing you get in a culture where you are what you do’. (Benson, 2000: 251).

Not only a culture of ‘you are what you do’ but also a culture of ‘you are how you look’. If involuntary tattoos were a form of control over the body by the state from ancient Greece to Nazi Germany, voluntary tattoos may be viewed as a cultural appropriation and reinterpretation of a historically regulating technology in order for the individual to re-establish control over their body. Or, in Foucauldian terms, the classical model placed identity or selfhood internal to the body, while the state remained external. In this condition, the state needed to mark the body to control it. In the modern model the state has displaced selfhood by taking the former position of identity and is internalized (docile body) while the self has become external. In this modern condition, identity or selfhood imposes external inscription (i.e. tattoos) to tame the unruly body-state.

Historically, multiple meanings have been embedded within the practice of tattooing in the West. As tattooing has changed in form and function from the neighboring tribes’ influence on ancient Greek tattooing, to contemporary American practices of body modification, tattooing has remained both a fascinating and repelling practice. Tracing the history of tattooing in Western civilization, I have attempted to illustrate the patterns of interaction between tattooing practices and social and cultural perceptions of tattooing. By examining changes in both practice and perception, most notably changes in technology or cultural patterns, the struggle between the physical and social body can be analyzed in terms of the individual in opposition to the state or culture. Tattooing appears then as a means to reappropriate the physical body from the socially dis-eased body, as a means to resist the cultural forces that have commodified the body, and continue to do so. And yet it cannot be seen as a ‘cure’ and, therefore, must not be romanticized because it is still operating within the ‘infecting’ cultural patterns, within the American state and capitalism. As a service, tattooing has its parallels with more acceptable types of body modification, such as hairdressing and other aesthetic forms, and so must be understood within its tense complexity.

As a continued social practice, tattooing has and will persist as a symptom of the complex relationship between the physical and social body.


1. The root ‘stig-’ means ‘to prick’.

2. Jones (2000) makes clear that stigma(ta) is commonly read as the equivalent of ‘brand’ especially in Christian literatures. He argues that the practice of branding humans was almost unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Furthermore, he insists, ‘Animal-branding was universal, and is virtually never designated by the word stigma but by a word denoting a burn or a stamp’ (Jones, 2000: 2). For the purposes of this article, I will accept Jones’s argument that the stigma in Ancient Greece and Rome was indeed denoting today’s concept of tattooing.

3. As well as penal tattoos and slave tattoos signifying ownership, Jones also indicates that early Christians would tattoo emblems of Christ on their bodies as proof of their religious devotion.

4. Some scholars (Caplan, 2000a; Fleming, 2000; MacQuarrie, 2000) have examined the use and social role of tattoos in Celtic traditions. There are some scholars who argue that it was not done at all, others who argue that tattooing was a decorative practice in traditional Celtic culture until the spread of Christianity, and still others who argue that it was introduced as penal inscription from contact with the Romans (after the introduction of Christianity). There is consensus among most scholars, however, that tattooing practices had virtually disappeared in the British Isles until the voyages of discovery and colonization.

5. Govenar (2000) continues his analysis to show how soldiers’ tattoos quickly moved away from motifs of battle and nationalism and toward erotic designs. He demonstrates that by the First World War, the military authorities were discouraging tattooing because of this change in imagery. He writes, ‘For example, women in tattoos were nude and posed in a sexually suggestive manner, while in the nineteenth century women in tattoos were usually clothed . . .’ (2000: 214).

6. Of course the ironic thing about tattooing as fashion (which I will discuss further below) is that fashion is by definition dynamic and often quickly changing, while tattoos are indelible, permanent. We will also see the increased interest in developing tattoo removal technologies as the fashionableness of tattoos for the wealthy began to decline in the early part of the 20th century.

7. My intention in answering this question is not to invoke a causative model, but to show simultaneous historic events that might have influenced an upper-class interest in tattooing that did not exist prior to the late 1890s.

8. Unfortunately, the tattooing techniques that were used prior to the spread of the electric device are not described in any of the sources I have read. In part, this may be due to a lack of standardization in tattooing techniques. What we can surmise from descriptions of how the machine improved tattooing is that it was a previously painful process and there was less control over fine details of the image.

9. Charlie Wagner, another New York City tattooist, built a better design of the electric tattoo machine which was patented in 1904. Contemporary tattoo equipment has changed very little since Wagner’s design (Sanders, 1989).

10. Although the Nazis’ use of tattooing of prisoners in the concentration camps is currently one of the most visible historic uses of tattooing. I was not able to find a link to American perceptions of tattooing in the literature. It may have added to the general public distaste for tattooing during the 1950s, but I do not have any evidence that this was the case.

11. While the medical establishment was quite adamant about the dangers of tattooing during the mid-1930s through the 1960s, doctors were eager to learn ways in which tattooing could be used in medicine. Plastic surgery adopted tattooing techniques to achieve pigment coloration for patients who had skin grafts or transplants. Also, after the Second World War, some physicians lobbied for tattooing Americans’ blood types and allergies on their bodies, so that in the case of nuclear war, physicians would be able to provide better care for their patients. Even today, groups of physicians are interested in tattooing problem patients, such as individuals who have Munchausen syndrome, so as to provide universal identification of these individuals.

12. Govenar documents some of the changes of tattooing as a social practice in respect to teenagers. He wrote:

From the few references in the New York Times in the 1930s, it is clear tattooing was also becoming popular among teenagers, a fact which angered middle-class parents and prompted

the New York Assembly to pass a law in 1933 making it a misdemeanor to tattoo a ‘child’ under the age of sixteen. (Govenar, 2000: 221)

13. Sanders (1989) reports that summers are the busiest season, while demand is quite low in the winter.

14. Price and pain are largely dependent on the location of the body in which the tattoo will be placed, as well as on the difficulty or complexity of the design.

15. In addition, according to some tattooists, people seeking tattoos often do so in the hope that the tattoo will somehow transform their lives.

16. I was not able to find comparable data about the rates of tattooing by racial group or by class. There are many articles discussing how skin color can limit the types (i.e. colors) of tattoos the individual can request. There was also a mention that there was only one woman who was African American tattooing in the United States during the 1970s (Mifflin, 1997).

17. I will ignore the tattoo removal techniques for the moment.

18. There do seem to be major class differences in reactions to tattoos. Although people may be surprised to learn that their doctor or lawyer (male or female) has tattoos, they are generally more accepting (or at least less derisive) of the tattoos (Mifflin, 1997).

19. I have introduced this semiotic framework as a heuristic to think through the role of symbols in

our interpretations of material reality. What I try to show here is that the practice of tattooing transcends

the bounds of the material body in its symbolic role in society.

20. This stigmatism and rejection take both externalized and internalized forms in their impact on the individual.


Benson, S. (2000) ‘Inscriptions of the Self: Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing in Contemporary

Euro-America’, in J. Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Blanchard, M. (1994) ‘Post-Bourgeois Tattoo: Reflections on Skin Writing in Late Capitalist Societies’, in L. Taylor (ed.) Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R., 1990–1994. New York: Routledge.

Bradley, J. (2000) ‘Body Commodification? Class and Tattoos in Victorian Britain’, in J. Caplan (ed.)

Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Caplan, J. (2000a) ‘ “National Tattooing”: Traditions of Tattooing in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in J. Caplan (ed.)Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Caplan, J. (ed.) (2000b) Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fisher, J.A. (2002) Sociopathologizing Patients: The Social Construction of Munchausen Syndrome. Troy, NY: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Fleming, J. (2000) ‘The Renaissance Tattoo’, in J. Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Govenar, A. (2000) ‘The Changing Image of Tattooing in American Culture, 1846–1966’, in J. Caplan

(ed.)Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gustafson, M. (2000) ‘The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond’, in J. Caplan (ed.)Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jones, C.P. (2000) ‘Stigma and Tattoo’, in J. Caplan (ed.)Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacQuarrie, C.W. (2000) ‘Insular Celtic Tattooing: History, Myth, and Metaphor’, in J. Caplan (ed.)

Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mifflin, M. (1997) Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. New York: Juno Books.

Sanders, C.R. (1989) Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Taylor, M.C. (1997) Hiding. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Jill A. Fisher is a doctoral student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Her work focuses primarily on the body in medicine through projects on stem cell research, Munchausen syndrome and medical experimentation on humans.

Essence, Identity, Signature: Tattoos and Cultural Property

Social Semiotics, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000

This paper examines a range of problems centring on the theorization of cultural identity and cultural property by reference to debates about the appropriation of the Maori tattoo, or ta moko, and the authenticity of contemporary Maori tattooing practices. Through a consideration of the relationship between cultural identity and tattooing, and the question of whether tattooing is an effect of a specific identity or constitutive of that identity, it addresses the paradox inherent in attempts to protect indigenous, cultural and artefacts from (mis)appropriation: that is, that to re-articulate such non-Western cultural phenomena in terms amenable to their repositioning as property is precisely to render them meaningless or useless, in terms of their contextually specific uses and significance. Against the background of these issues, the use of ta moko as a form of signature or authorizing mark of identification is taken to highlight issues concerning the complex relationship between the attribution of certain cultural practices, characteristics or properties, to a certain group, and the notions of authorship and authority that underwrite such designations

In a general discussion about tattooing and social reproduction, Alfred Gell suggests that:

As a technical means of modifying the body, tattooing made possible the realization of a particular type of `subjection’ which, in turn, allowed for the elaboration and perpetuation of social and political relationships of certain distinct kinds Tattooing (and conversely non-tattooing where tattooing is expected and normal) is a very specific and recognizable way of modifying the body, and, via the body, reconstructing personhood according to the requirements of the social milieu (1993: 3).

Gell describes the way the tattoo marks both the division and the link between the body and culture. Read as either a sign of affiliation within a social order, or pathologized as an `infantile’ , `self-destructive ’ or `oppositional’ manifestation of the interface between the individual and society, the tattoo is often taken as a key to insights into identification and socialization. It marks the body; it inscribes, constructs, and invests it within a variety of psychical, cultural and political fields. It may well be, however, that to read the tattoo simply as a metaphor for the inscription of culture or society on the body, as an assignment, impression or shaping of external social and cultural contexts on individuals, is to obscure the complexity of the line the tattoo marks.

Taking Gell’ s concern with social and cultural reproduction as a starting point, one might argue that the tattoo reveals something about a site of production, not merely a process whereby individuals are `individuated’ or subjects `subjected’ , but simultaneously the constitution of the subject in terms of culture, and of culture in terms of the subject, since the line the tattoo traces between the two is neither completely one nor the other. Insofar as it marks a distinction or point within a system of relations, the tattoo traces a precarious line between bodies, `the corporeal’ or `the material’ , and systems of meaning, the understanding bodies or `the incorporeal’ ; not merely a line or inscription that ties together and individuates subject and culture, but rather a marking or inscription that precedes and exceeds the individual act, event, `thing’ or idiom, insofar as it is meaningful, while not being reducible to a generalizable system of relations or terms, insofar as it is a specific mark that is irreducibly singular.

To this extent, and with reference to representations of non-Western tattooing in a variety of institutional and academic discourses, I will argue for the `in-betweenness’ of tattoos; for the fact that they are neither fully inside nor outside the body, neither purely one’ s own nor another’ s, but rather a kind of split between the individual and the general, the empirical and the structural. Through a consideration of the way these issues and questions play into a specific cultural/ political field, that of the relation between Maori and non-Maori `tattooing’ , in the context of debates concerning authenticity, authority and the protection of cultural and intellectual property, I will argue that rather than undermining notions of identity and `property’ , this `in-between-ness ’ sustains their possibility.

The inverted commas that frame the word `tattooing’ here indicate this difficult but, perhaps, necessary dependence upon a general term, which emerges the moment we bring together a variety of different practices under the one heading `tattoo’ . This difficulty is itself aligned with and related to our earlier concerns about the relationship between the singular, specific and particular, and a range of concepts or notions concerning a system or `grammar’ that necessarily transcend any particularities. The assumption of a particular `marking’ under some less specific genera thus raises significant questions about the grounds of identification.

The point of this line of questioning is to illustrate the way debates, which have often been presented as matters of truth or knowledge, fail to consider how such terms give identity; it asks what opening or origin makes this type of truth possible. Rather than dissociate the singular attribution from the essential generality of `the name’ , the very idea seems to suggest an aporia between a particular `thing’ , where the term `thing’ already betrays the singularity of that which it names, and the `sense’ it is given through its expression, explication or denotation. Thus, the problem, as I have outlined it, concerns the structure of the `mark’ : the relationship between the essential abstraction of every common noun or name and the particular or individual `thing’ named; and the attribution of a `property’ , both in the sense of ownership and an attribute or quality, and authority with respect to such `property’. The introduction of the term `property’ may seem problematic, insofar as it imposes a particular concept or category upon something not `properly’ understood in this manner. However, thinking the conceptualization of `markings’ in terms of the`properness’ of property can be useful insofar as it in¯ effects our discussion with a broad range of indigenous concerns, which establish a relationship between the dispossession, displacement and destruction of indigenous peoples and their cultures, and the representations which provided the justificatory foundation for such acts; in short, the violent reduction and translation of indigenous beliefs and interests into European derived categories or concepts. Moreover, the etymological and conceptual connection between questions concerning the possession or owning of property, property as quality, nature or disposition and the notion of `properness’, describes how the way in which the determination of a thing, such as a tattoo, identity or culture, might be understood in the context of discussions about identity and cultural politics, especially in the shadow of debates about essentialism.

`Given’`properties’ , on the one hand, presuppose, as a condition of its possibility, a system of recognition or attribution, while on the other, they are something essential, in-itself or originary. Regardless of whether the answer is essentialist or anti-essentialist, the question concerns the way a certain cluster of attributes is given as belonging together. How is it that someone or something can `belong’ to a culture? Putting aside, for the moment, the issue of how the definition of culture and identity become the chief stakes in this question, one cannot and should not assume that what counts as belonging in one culture corresponds to belonging in another. The question of who a `tattoo’ belongs to, or of the `proper’ place of a particular `marking’ , is thus in no way a straightforward matter. Here, the alternative runs between the view that the `tattoo’ is the expression of a particular position, a distinctiveness that belongs to a particular person or persons, and that it necessarily exceeds a particular instance, belonging equally, in a sense, to determinations beyond a single site. The opposition foregrounds a problematic relation between a specific form of marking, ta moko, and what appears to be its general conditions of possibility, the possibility of its legitimate use and the possibility of its misuse or appropriation.

As I have shown, where tattoos have marked out cultural boundaries, as they do with distinctions between the Western and the non-Western practices or `objects’ , it is relatively easy to see how these concerns feed into debates about essentialist and anti-essentialist conceptualizations of identity. The mark here, the tattoo, stands for a sort of difference that can either be thought of in relation to another, as that which is constituted through language, community, society or culture, or as that which is different in itself, as a distinctive and essential mark.

Familiarity with these debates gives good reason for caution, since the positions designated `essentialist ’ and `anti-essentialist ’ are often cast so as to correspond to alleged differences between `Western’ and `non-Western’ interests and beliefs. And yet, there is good reason to suspect that things are far more complicated and complex than this reading suggests. While the corrective is in many ways necessary and important, the problem need not present itself as a choice between essentialism or antiessentialism, or `the West’ and `the-non-West’ .

Consider, for example, two concerns related to indigenous cultural practices. On the one hand, against the strict and limiting confines imposed upon the category `indigenous’ by `preservationists ’ , `traditionalists ’ and conservative scholars of anthropology and history, some assert the need to recognize the legitimacy and creativity of indigenous expressions, practices and beliefs, as re- positioned, re-articulated or re-formulated within `the contemporary’ .

For example, Bill McKay suggests that, in the case of questions about the identity of Maori art, the association of `Maori-ness’ with the past, with that which is to be distinguished and defined against all things non-Maori, fails to reflect Maori beliefs or interests: Pakeha [European/New Zealander derived] definitions polarised debate, trapping Maori into western constructs involving notions of authenticity such as the absence of change in `traditional’ cultures [this framework has] allowed no place for risk and response to changing circumstances (McKay 1996: 24).

Proponents of this position tend to argue for a conception of culture that is permeable, transformative, dynamic and creative. Indeed, such a conception of culture seems essential if it is to be relevant and meaningful within the current context. Moreover, as Peter Shand has noted, notions of Maori art based upon normative definitions of the `traditional’ or the `authentic’ run the `risk of introducing a prescriptive element into Maori art’ (1998: 38). This observation has led to considerable criticism of legal and legislative approaches to indigenous property. Cecilia O’Brien, for example, has cautioned that `[o]ne must be certain that heritage legislation does not exclude ª the use by indigenous people of items which in their view are part of their lifeº .’ (1997: 71).

On the other hand, there is a need to protect indigenous cultural and intellectual property from improper use and appropriation. This would require a notion of culture as definable, manageable and policeable. The problem is that the legal and legislative mechanisms in place for the protection of indigenous property generally require and assume a fixed, already given and accepted notion of what is or has been, thus privileging the past over `the contemporary’ , or `the modern’ , and placing authority with institutional bodies that are not indigenous or even under the direction of indigenous people, concepts or beliefs. Here, the central concern for either position relates to the identification of what is indigenous, but one argues for the necessity of transgression, growth and incorporation, while the other seeks to prohibit and protect against the `traffic’ between cultures. Thus, while these concerns are undoubtedly related, with respect to their concern about indigenous empowerment and self-determination, they appear to move in opposite directions with respect to the way culture or identity is defined in a variety of contexts.

This opposition not only parallels the more theoretical opposition already outlined between essentialism and anti-essentialism; insofar as in one instance, culture seems to be defined as autonomous and self-defining, in the other, as structured within a system of relations; it also reveals what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called `the unavoidable usefulness of something that is very dangerous’ (1994: 156).

To be more specific, on the one hand, we have a position that seems to allow for the possibility of dynamic change and growth, and yet is able, at least formally, to distinguish between indigenous and non-indigenous in `border-line cases’ , between Europeanized-indigenous objects and indigenized-European objects. On the other, we have a position that provides the basis for clear definition of what is or is not `indigenous’ , but in doing so severely restricts and limits the scope and territory of indigeneity, and disadvantages indigenous peoples within `non-traditional’ contexts, in the present. This paper takes the consideration of some of these concerns, in reference to a variety of debates relating to representation of `the Maori tattoo’ and the definition of `Maori-ness’ within legal and anthropological discourses, as a way into a broader debate about the theorization of identity and cultural boundaries. Despite the attempts of anthropological and historical studies to delimit and define the object or practice of `Maori tattooing’ or ta moko, the practices themselves often seem to defy clear and unproblematic categorization and classification.

In many cases, boundaries were constructed according to preconceived notions of `Maori-ness’ or `primitiveness ’ , with little if any attention to the complexity of the practices themselves. As Rangihiroa Panoho argues: `[t]here is a whole underexposed history of innovative and aggressive Maori adoptions of Pakeha forms, design, technology and materials, particularly from the nineteenth century’ (1992: 124). Some explanation for this tendency may be found in the fact that, since cultural identities are defined in terms of their differences, `the traditional’ tended to be defined as that which appeared unmarked by European influence and contact.

And yet, because definitions are cast in these terms, `traditional’ practices are always already marked by their opposites, or by the system in which they are `positioned’ . This is, of course, not an argument against the primacy of `the indigenous’ within such a determination, and in no way disputes their legitimacy or connection to practices and beliefs existing prior to or independently of European contact or in¯ uences. My concern here is not to reveal the `true’ nature of such beliefs or practices, with the articulation and circulation of the `authentic’ or `the Maori’ `within the true’ , as Foucault might say, in contexts that are not entirely Maori, never purely a matter of `internal relations’ and not only indigenous, but rather a matter between what is and what is not a definition that, by necessity, involves another (see Durie 1998). As for cultural boundaries, it is particularly interesting to note how ta moko was identified as `Maori’ within colonial representations, a term that functioned as both a name and an adjective: at times it denoted and marked out a distinctive racial or cultural category or group of people, while at others it named a particular mode or style, a way of living or behaving, within a particular context. It may be because of this double-sense of the term `Maori’ , along with the conceptualization of `Maori’ in terms of an evolutionary continuum, that it became possible for practices such as ta moko to performatively articulate identity rather than merely express or re¯ ect it. Thus, whileMaori `became’ increasingly `Europeanized’ , wearing European clothes, using European tools, implements and weapons, and adopting European laws and beliefs, there was, to a certain extent, a `Maorization’ of things European. This was not restricted to the re-territorialization of objects: so-called moko found its way onto the bodies of those once deemed `European’ , runaway sailors, beachcombers, traders and adventurers, who `became’ native. Despite the tendencies of early scholars to emphasize the distinctiveness of Maori culture and, more particularly, moko, the line that divided `the European’ from `the Maori’ could be crossed in both directions.

Consider, for example, the cases of Barnet Burns and Fredric Manning. Burns, a `once English’ trader, was captured by a group of Maori and tattooed because they believed that such a marking would create an unbreakable, sacred link between himself and the tribe: `it was to make sure I stop along with them, bring them trade, fight for them, and in every way make myself their friend’ (1844: 9). As a result of this `initiation’ , his appearance and the manner in which he had lived for the remainder of his time in New Zealand, his narrative is told, not from the position of a once captive Englishman, but from that of `a New Zealand Chief’ . Similarly, Fredric Manning, an early European settler who had `taken’ to the Maori way of life, published his account of early New Zealand society and settlement in Old New Zealand anonymously as `by a Pakeha Maori’ (1964).

While these claims cannot be taken as unproblematic insofar as they reflect European notions about the nature of culture and identification, they tie together the notion of transgression and cultural appropriation in a manner that makes it difficult to calculate loss or gain in any clear or simple way. Considering the case of such tattooed `Europeans’ , Nicholas Thomas observes: tattooing transposed to a white man’ s face became diagnostic of the condition of the so-called Pakeha Maori, or white Maori, the resident castaway or indigenised settler, who personified the ¯ otsam and jetsam of the colonial Pacific.

These are awkward terms for an awkward condition, a condition understood by various obscure nineteenth-century beachcombers, and most recently by the character Baines in the film The Piano, as marked by both cultural loss and gain. Or, if cultural markings aren’ t quite or aren’ t just a set of owned and disowned things, perhaps they present neither gain nor loss. (1995: 93).

Here, then, between the rhetoric of loss and gain, we find the difficulty of understanding the dynamics of identification, appropriation and dispossession throughout colonization and settlement. If one accepts that European contact significantly changed the meanings of things `Maori’ , how is it possible to define moko as something identifiably Maori, as property able to be protected, without defining it a way that articulates `Maori-ness’ against `European-ness’ and, as a result, significantly reduces and closes off possible identifications and articulations of `Maori-ness’ , in a manner relevant to contemporary Maori, some of whom know little about `pre-contact’ culture? Phrased in another way, how might one simultaneously acknowledge the destruction and loss caused by colonization, affirm a relation with the past, with tradition, but also affirm creative, legitimate gains within the present when the `authentic’ and `legitimate’ is so often firmly positioned as `past’ , a `before’ to much of what defines the terms of both `today’ and the future?

Consider, for example, Simon During’ s description of `contact’ : Postcolonial identity politics tends towards paradox and irresolution because, with the coming of Europeans, the narratives, signifiers and practices available to articulate the needs and wants of the colonised are at once inscribed within Eurocentric modernity. Thus, the moment of arrival opens out in a scene of forgetting and misrecognition. Crucial signifiers of precolonial Maori language soon began to lose their meaning, because they depended for their sense upon practices that were disrupted by European settlement. There is now no consensus as to what certain words `mean’ (1989: 764).

The significance of the distinction between the pre-colonial and the colonial is in some respects obviously justified here; there can be no denying that contact would have changed things considerably or that colonialism was very destructive in many respects. And yet, one must question the way During’ s description characterizes contact so overwhelmingly in terms of Maori loss and European gain. It may be true that European contact significantly altered the meaning of all things Maori, as the shift in the meaning of the word `Maori’ itself demonstrates: meaning `normal’ before contact, from the time Europeans arrived, it began to function as a term for the indigenous population or tangata whenua as distinct from others (see Durie 1998).

However, there seems good reason to doubt both the instantaneous-ness of any change in meaning, and the relation of loss and gain During (1989) implies, as if `signifiers’ began to `lose their meaning’ before a blow was struck, before negotiation or communication, before property was taken, before any physical or material imposition, as if the mere appearance of the Europeans was sufficient to bring about the beginning of the end, as if European modernity unfolded like a homogenizing blanket that smothered and radically reconfigured the axes of identification and meaning. The effect of construing the relation between European and Maori thus is to subsume all Maori actions and beliefs after contact within the tide of Europeanization, as if there could be no identity, no agency, from then on which was not already Europeanized.

As Thomas has noted, this tendency to view colonization as a one-way process, with Europeans as the active agents who bring the indigenous, the passive victims, into modernity, marginalizes those who: Must negotiate identities in urban contexts, with non-traditional social relations, institutions, jobs and ¼ is [therefore] inappropriate in so far as it is strongly associated with the past, rather than the contemporary circumstances within which they, like everyone else, have to operate. (1994: 196). Such a view seems to place far too great an emphasis on a division derived from `contact’ , between the (pure) precolonial and the (impure) colonial and, as Thomas notes, while the idea that identities are articulated relationally `must be true as a universal proposition’ : It is evidently not true that indigenous peoples, or any others, need constantly to express their identities in relation to colonizers rather than each other, or in relation to other indigenous peoples or non-indigenous peoples other than the colonizers. (1997: 13).

In a sense, During’ s position favours a `Rousseauean’ nostalgia, a mournful preoccupation with loss over an affirmative assertion of life, incorporation and growth; a preference for a determination of identity that is never locatable and always deferred, rather than a positivity that finds its difference, initially, at least in-itself. As Panoho has argued in the context of debates about change in indigenous art: `Te ao Maori; the Maori world has always been in a state of flux; the boundaries between Maori and Pakeha art and culture have always been transmutable’ (1992: 124).

With reference to Gisbourne chief Raharuhi Rukupo’ s innovative style and use of steel chisels, in the carving of the meeting house Te Hau ki Tauranga in 1842, and the appropriation of Catholic symbols within meeting houses under the supervision and in¯ uence of Te Kooti in the 1870s and 1880s, Panaho goes on to note that: Te Kooti’ s late nineteenth-century meeting houses, like Rukupo’ s, reflect a strong sense of Maori identity and reveal an openness to aspects of Western culture which helped make sense of a changing world. These houses were built in a time when the Pakeha believed the Maori to be a dying race. But in contrast to this pessimism, Rongopai (Waituhi, 1887) and Tokanganui o Noho (Te Kuiti, 1873) meeting houses abound with innovative appropriations and present a Maori culture alive and bubbling with creative energy (1992: 125).

It is useful here to reconsider the prevalence of the sort of incommensurable opposition between the `primitive’ or `the native’ and `the modern’ or `the civilized’ , implied by During, in terms of the way `the authentic’ functions. While it may be granted that the pre-modern and the modern are often taken as mutually constitutive, and thus ultimately problematic, rather than `given’ , nevertheless, one must wonder about the implications of this distinction insofar as it often translates into a distinction or opposition between the indigenous and the non-indigenous, marking a kind of incongruity between performances of indigeneity and the contemporary, and therefore placing severe limitations on the possibilities of expression, performance or the re-positioning of the indigenous in the contemporary context. Even an approach that would treat Maori culture as a construction articulated against European culture would perhaps fail to recognize the structures of authority which would validate its own `take’ on the truth of culture and the metaphysical presumptions this entails.

The denial of difference is no less metaphysical than its uncritical acceptance, and locating the source of the determination of culture or identity within the realm of `the cultural’ or `the social’ seems as problematic as biological or racial theories. In 1989, Alan Hanson, an American anthropologist, proposed that `[t]he invention of Maori culture has been going on for more than a century, taking at least two distinct forms in that time’ (1989: 890). Hanson’ s point is that `traditional culture’ is an invention constructed for contemporary purposes `which proposes a stable heritage handed on from the past’ (890).

The point is not the simple recognition of the fact that traditions, like all cultural forms, must re-articulate and re-contextualize themselves, but that `the Maori tradition that Maoritanga invents is one that contrasts with Pakeha culture, and particularly with those elements of Pakeha culture that are least attractive’ (1989: 894). In the context of cultural politics in Aotearoa, New Zealand, this thesis was translated into the charge that Maori culture was inauthentic and Maori claims often fabricated to suit their own needs. While pointing out the obvious, in terms of the fact that culture is invented, Hanson thus grossly over-emphasizes the freedom of such invention, articulating his argument in a manner insensitive to current debates, which reduces Maori culture to an oppositional articulation to the Pakeha. The privileging of that which is articulated through such a relation is itself highlighted by the curious manner in which he frames his debate historically. If all culture is invention, one might ask: why does he limit the date of invention to the last 100 years? Assuming he would not accept the notion of pre-contact authenticity, the only answer would seem to be that Maori `came into being’ with European contact and settlement. While this may be true as a general proposition, since Maori-ness as it as know today only became possible once settlers created the conditions of pan-tribal identification, to assume that the entire content of such identification is a mirror image of European society and culture ultimately places the determination of Maori identity with European contact, settlement and colonization.

This notion of Maori culture as reactive conflates external and internal relations of identity, difference-to-another and difference-in-itself, and, in doing so, reduces all cultural difference to a `plane of similarity’ or an already assumed ground of identity. There is no simple or safe approach here. The affirmation of identity and culture as positive, as self-defining or self-differentiating, risks uncritically accepting the terms in which identity or culture are given through a con¯ ation of re-presentation and representation, while the characterization of colonization in terms of a kind of trafficking or exchange between cultures means that matters of ownership, authenticity and authority become difficult to determine.

For, while hybridization may seem to open up and undermine particular identities, as it reveals their `purity’ to be fictional, as Enersto Laclau observes, `if the particularity asserts itself as mere particularity, in a purely differential relation with other particularities, it is sanctioning the status quo in the relation of power between the groups’ (1996: 27). In the context of copyright or cultural and intellectual property law, both positions seem problematic, although for obviously different reasons. The notion of a shared, entangled trajectory of culture makes it virtually impossible to establish ownership, let alone protect property, while the notion of culture as clearly definable and policeable seems biased toward `accepted’ definitions and categories, `what has been’ rather than `what is’ or `what could be’ .

Moreover, as many have noted, legal definitions tend to characterize `property’ in a manner that failed to recognize Maori beliefs, practices and concerns, especially so far as cultural property is concerned. Here, we find again what might be called a politics of translation, within the context of law, a matter of the problematic relationship between an apparently indigenous `object’ and its translation into European-derived legal terms. As Shand has pointed out: `the acts and common law reflect the normative positions of Euro-centric intellectual property law, which is to say they are focused on individual rights and interests’ (1998: 17).

The demise of traditional tattooing practices by Maori in the middle of the nineteenth century occurs simultaneously with its `revival’ among Europeans. Taken initially as a marking that defined cultural boundaries, the tattoo was `taken first, literally on the bodies and body parts of natives, and then, later, transposed on the bodies of Europeans themselves. In the first instance, the tattoo was received as an item of curiosity and anthropological interest; in the second, as a marking of opposition to `civilized’ modernity.

This suggests, initially at least, two sets of connections: one between the opposition to tattooing by Europeans and its later appropriation; and; on the other hand; between all that Europeans had invested in the tattoo as a sign, and its later value and potency as a sign of Maori revival and sovereignty. Here, two observations can be made. The recent revival of `primitive’ tattooing in North America, Europe and elsewhere demonstrates how the tattoo continues to be `taken’ as a sign or expression of primitivism par excellence. The term given to this, `modern primitives’ , reveals the way in which the assumed division between `the modern’ and the `primitive’ forms the primary axis of identification.

As Peter Lentini points out: the term modern primitives refers to individual s who, in the midst of rapid
industrial and technological change and the insecurities of modernity (such as unemployment, spatial dislocation, urbanisation and its subsequent alienation), challenge western philosophy’ s notions of faith in scientific, rational and profit-driven progress (1998: 18).

Thus, if European modernity is positioned as `good’ , then manifestations of its opposite `primitivism ’ are taken as `bad’ . If European modernity is taken to be `bad’ , then its opposite is taken to be `good’ . The key point here is that the tattoo, or more precisely certain `forms’ of tattoo, are appropriated and reduced to an assumed relation to `the West’ . In this way, the tattoo gains its power as a sign of opposition to Eurocentricism and modernity through its initial signification as that which opposed `European Civilization’ . Indeed, this reveals some of the complexity of distinguishing between early and later `uses’ of moko, insofar as contemporary moko seems very much inflected by this sense of its oppositional power. In this sense, the capacity of moko to stand as an assertion of Maori sovereignty and authority seems to be a form or mark of identification that is, to use a Derridean phrase, already `counter-signed’ by `European modernity’ .

The scene of exchange, of the transference of the tattoo and the alteration of the meaning it implies, of its translation, re-definition or re-positioning within another context, in terms of another law and different configurations of power, describes how interpretation, knowledge, use and appropriation are here intertwined. Thinking of the different and yet interrelated economies of meaning and value, how could one doubt that the appropriation of moko is itself premised upon the failure and/or impossibility of reading it in its specificity, as attached to a part of a particular body?

Despite the distinctiveness of moko or the recognition that its marks were taken to be irreducibly singular by Maori, is it not the abstraction of the moko as mere design or marking, as tattoo-in-general, the mark of `the primitive’ or `Maori-ness’ , that enables its removal from specific bodies, just as the aestheticization of moko provided the grounds for its contemplation as something apart from the body, in disregard of the bond that tied together body and marking as signature and signatory? Kant took this approach, holding that the appreciation of the true and free beauty of such `designs’ was only possible once distanced from its context, relieved of the burden of `means’ and taken as an end in itself. As he observes: `[a] figure might be beautiful with all the ¯ ourishes and light but regular lines, as is done by the New Zealanders with their tattooing, were we dealing with anything but the figure of the human being’ (Kant 1911: 73).

Indeed, such abstraction, re-contextualization or appropriation occurred on a remarkable scale. While anthropologists like Buckland and Tregear described moko as `ornamentation’ , `personaladornment’ (Buckland 1887: 319) or a debased form of graphics (Tregear 1890), the extensive and wide circulation of images of moko brought with it a broad range of appropriations. As Thomas notes in reference to appropriation of kowhaiwhai and koru `patterns’ from an engraving Maori man with moko, `the head of a New Zealander’ by Sydney Parkinson: `[t]he involuted ª spiralsº and ª scroll[s]º figure in the engraving which is probably the single most extensively reproduced image from the entire visual archive of eighteenth-century exploration’ (Thomas 1995: 93).

These appropriations are based on the denial or effacement of difference along with the corresponding assumption of some universal ground of contemplation, meaning and abstraction. It would seem that copyright, intellectual and cultural property law is also blind to such differences: just as the appropriation fails to consider the authority invested in the binding of moko to body, so too does current law recognize the object or practice only insofar as it is recognized by the law, in terms of its universal principles and, further, refuses to acknowledge the authority that would prohibit appropriation or misuse in Maori terms. We need to stress the relationship between the imposition of European beliefs about Maori and the question of authority that the imposition conceals. Thinking about the meaning or place of moko or Maori tattoo, one might ask how it is possible for a `tattoo’ to stand for someone or something without being separable from them. Does the functioning of moko as signature not suggest that the motif is necessarily separable from the individual or collective to the extent that it can stand in their absence?

For, if abstraction here enables appropriation, it also seems to enable signification generally. Indeed, one might argue that the possibility of recognition, communication and signification seems tied to the possibility, indeed, necessity, of forgery, appropriation and mis-recognition. In more precise terms, this problem ties together the question of what can be `Maori’ and what it can `represent’ or `re-present’ . Representations determine both what can count as an instance of that which is re-presented and consolidate relations of power and authority by assuming the position of representor through such an act. In the context of Aotearoa, New Zealand, for example, it might be useful to think of the re-articulation, development or in¯ uence of Maori culture in a variety of non-traditional places, contexts, or media, and the questions that might always be asked: whether this thing, act or person is actually `Maori’ and whether they are truly representative of Maori. One might think, also, of the signatures of Maori on deeds and treaties such as Te tiriti o Waitangi or the Treaty of Waitangi, and the variety of things these signatures are taken to mean or authorize. Indeed, the analogy made between moko and signature has some historical basis, as Michael King observes: Many nineteenth-century chiefs chose to sign documents such as land deeds and the Treaty of Waitangi with their moko in preference to a signature so as to increase the tapu of the document. (1978: 14).

The signature is also a useful metaphor for the further consideration of the relationship between the possibility of protection, delimitation, development and circulation with respect to cultural boundaries, identities and property. One should note that the term signature can mean either a mark or sign that stands for something or someone in their absence and, as in science and forensics, a distinctive identifying marking or characteristic. In the first sense, then, it can be something which derives from some structure or system and is non-essential, while in the second, it is `the essential’ aspect of identity. These two meanings offer paths into either side of the essentialism/anti-essentialism debate.

When one sees tattoos or moko in a context that is not `traditional’ , for example, the answer to the question `whose signature is this?’ could refer either to contextual, social or cultural determinants, or to `proper’ and stable `essences’ : blood, race, ethnicity, etc. Is it not the case that such tattoos, as they appear today, tend to be most prominent at the borders of culture, as a kind of marking or articulation ultimately shaped and motivated by inter-cultural politics? Might not this sort of `in-betweenness’ also be symptomatic of a type of splitting and intertwining of the Maori/ non-Maori divide? Might we not say that either side of such oppositions constitute themselves in relation to the other, such that the tattooed line, as the limit, is ultimately undone; an incision `in-between’ through which the other and the self bleed together? Perhaps the answer is, as Lacan observes, that, apart from its apparent erotic function, `[t]he tattoo ¼ has the function of being for the Other, of situating the subject in it, marking his [sic] place in the field of the group’ s relations,between each individual and all the others’ (1979: 206).

As Grosz has noted: paradoxically, the signature is the possibility of the infinite repetition of what is unique and irreplaceable. `The drama that activates and constructs every signature is this insistent, unwearying, potentially infinitive repetition of something that remains, everytime, irreplaceable.’ The signature is not self-contained and given, cannot be a presence-to-itself, for it always requires a counter-signature, a reception, an other to sign for it. (1995: 13 – 14).

Once one considers both the possibility and impossibility of reversing the relationship between representation and reality, both the creative potential in representation, the way in which it performatively brings into being that which it represents, and its dependence upon some recognition, some system or code by which it can be recognized as that which must already be, then one begins to see how representation both opens possibilities and closes them down, how it secures and destabilizes authority. In this context, we must ask what it is that authorizes such a signing. Here, we strike a paradox: representation may be constitutive, in the sense that it can performatively constitute that which it re-presents and, in so doing, effectively determine the range of possible identifications. And yet, such representation of a particular identity, object or practice must always be recognized as that identity, object or practice, must be recognized as a re-presentation, thus implying something always-already before, something that is repeated and repeatable. One would not want to assume that the structure of the signature and the manner in which it is recognized, legitimated or authorized is the same within Maori and non-Maori contexts. But again, perhaps the way this admission sits uneasily with my general thesis concerning the notion of a Maori or non-Maori context offers some further possibilities, such as the articulation of Maori law, of mana (authority, power or prestige), tapu (the holy, sacred or prohibited), tikanga (procedure, custom or method), as law. For, it is surely the opposite, European law articulated as universal law, which has justified and maintained the dispossession and displacement of Maori authority in Aotearoa.

Perhaps the most pervasive model through which the development and relationship of Western and non-Western tattooing is conceptualized, is that of economy and exchange. Here, particular signs, like tattoos, circulate within a particular system, signifying certain social and cultural relations, beliefs and interests. The meaning of such a sign, as `marking-in-general’ , would be determined by establishing its function or value within a given system, while its operation within a cross-cultural or inter-cultural situation would be understood in terms of the ways such signs are re-signified. In other words, we would come to understand a particular `sign’ in terms of its use within a system, structure or economy. Against the exchangist model, Deleuze and Guattari offer a reading of society and bodily inscription in terms of the `primitive socius’: We see no reason ¼ for accepting the postulate that underlies exchangist notions of society; society is not first of all a milieu for exchange where the essential would be to circulate or to cause to circulate, but rather a socius of inscription where the essential thing is to mark or be marked. There is circulation only if inscription requires or permits it. (1983: 1430).

The significance of this point for my discussion of moko is two-fold. First, rather than assume that such markings are readily translatable or subsumable within some larger category like `tattoo’ , `graphics’ or `writing’ , that they are separable from the bodies on which they are inscribed, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that such inscriptions mark an attachment to the earth and to others, not in terms of exchange, but as an assemblage or coupling. `Primitive’ signs would thus be `embedded’ in situations, not fully separable from bodies, specific planes, rituals, gestures and beliefs, yet not entirely fixed in their relationship to one another. The inscription, then, encodes and marks the individual within a system and in doing so determines the terms of economy. Simple appropriation, therefore, would take the thing the mark only in terms of its denotational value, while failing to observe its multiple connotations and efficacious power, its embeddedness.

Second, and in a related way, the translation of such marking into the more general terms of signification would be, in a sense, a violent reduction or imposition that assumes such terms at the expense of the singularity of the mark. The point might be, then, that any assumed ground which would make moko translatable and transferable would represent difference at its own expense. To recognize it is to re-cognize it as that which it is not, to take it and re-territorialize it in a manner which necessarily effaces specific relations that gave it meaning or `belonging’ within indigenous culture. To see moko in terms of the exchangist model of loss and gain might already, therefore, assume a type of general inscription of value or meaningÐ to take the marking as something that falls under a genera that unites Western and non-Western graphics. The problem, therefore, is that the assumption of some ground of exchange, translation or circulation involves a violent reduction or effacement of the singularity of a particular idiom, marking or act. However, such reduction, such separation and abstraction of the mark from the context in which it is `embedded’ , seems to be what makes the mark able to be recognizable as a mark of `such and such’ , and thus function as a signifier. In other words, the general terms of economy and exchange that reduce difference to difference within the system of economy make `meaning’ possible.

As Derrida has argued with the case of `writing’: The possibility of repeating and thus of identifying the marks is implicit in every code, making it into a network [une grille] that is communicable, transmittable, decipherable, iterable for a third [not just for sender and receiver], and hence for every possible user in general. To be what it is, all writing must, therefore, be capable of functioning in the radical absence of every empirically determined receiver in general the possibility of the `death’ of the receiver inscribed in the structure of the mark. (1988: 8.)

And yet, it is the trace of this irreducible singularity, the mark of the excluded difference, that opens the structure of exchange, signification and meaning to the line of ethical and political questioning I am interested in here. The assumed generality, that founds the possibility of exchange and circulation, masks and effaces the specific historical and empirical conditions under which a particular event or mark is given within the terms of the system. For example, formally or structurally, there may be no way to differentiate between different manifestations of `Maoriness’ within the contemporary context. An important point here is that the ambiguous category of the `newly traditional’ can be used to describe a whole range of objects and identities, from the Europeanization of things Maori to the `Maori-ization’ of things European. As During notes: Here what is `new’ in the `newly traditional’ is a struggle against injustice and loss that continue into the postcultural era where inequities in employment, health and education continue to be linked to racial difference (1989: 769).

By situating the notion of authenticity within the socio-historical context of colonialism, During provides us with some way of differentiating between European appropriations of `the Maori’ and Maori appropriations of `the European’ , and for arguing that the relationship between Maori to Pakeha and Pakeha to Maori need not be taken to be mutually translatable, symmetrical or reciprocal. He continues: `to place them together under terms like the ª newly traditionalº is to pass over what distinguishes them’ (1989: 770). And yet, such difference could only ever be expressed in terms that exceed the specific instances concerned; it would always be a difference in relation to another. This impossibility of representing the difference that counts marks the possibility of ethics or justice; the recognition that representation is always inadequate to this task makes possible a relation to another person, group, language or system of law which is ethical.

This finds an interesting parallel in recent thought in the field of cultural and intellectual property rights, where Maori claims are typically expressed in terms of European-derived concepts. The challenge in such thinking arises not from an attempt to find provision within the existing structures and concepts of law for indigenous rights, but from an exposition of the law’ s narrow Eurocentric base. A central point here is that the translation of Maori concepts and beliefs into European categories and terms of law is inseparable from the establishment and consolidation of colonial hegemony. Arguing against conventional conceptualizations of property, which emphasize individual ownership and alienability, Shand insists that: For Maori [the] embracing sense of culture is guided by the concepts of mauri [life force] and wairoa [spirit] which together inform all meaningful forms or human occupation-art and design included. The result of this is that, in the wider world view, no individual can lay claim to specific things which are more properly `owned’ , which is to say held in trust for future generations, by the iwi [tribe], hapu [subtribe] or whanau [extended family]. (1998: 12).

The translation of the relationship of things Maori into Eurocentric notions of property thus becomes `part and parcel’ of the denigration and destruction of Maori cultural practices. Indeed, Shand goes on to argue that `a loss of cultural sovereignty, whether through an inability to practice, the in flux of imitations or through the adoption of formal modes of expression by outsiders, is akin to an act of epistemic violence’ (1998: 42). The point of this observation is to underline the possibility that the relations Maori have to cultural practices, objects and systems of belief may not be characterizable in the terms available to European-derived law.

And yet, representation, as `impossible’ as it is, requires some form of translation if inter-cultural law is to be possible. This question of the possibility of this impossibility hinges on the `between-ness’ of the tattoo. Revealing and outlining boundaries as it crosses and transgresses, the tattoo might be considered radically `before’, in the sense Derrida (1991) gives to the term `before’ in `before the law’ as `prior to’ as well as `in front of’ a past and future beyond any present, a marking out that makes possible any relation or ground of `between’ or `inter’ . In this manner, the (im)possibility of this translation across or between cultures would not only make culture representable or any form of inter-cultural relation, but the possibility of any just relation might also turn out to depend on the repeatability of such a `marking’.

Monash University
This essay has greatly benefited from the generous comments and helpful criticisms offered by Andrew Milner, Claire Colebrook, Amy Thompson and the anonymous reader for Social Semiotics.


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A Life Told in Ink: Tattoo Narratives and the Problem of the Self in Late Modern Society

Atte Oksanen and Jussi Turtiainen
University of Tampere, Finland

The phenomenon of tattooing became part of mainstream culture in the 1990s. The article analyses portraits that were published in Tattoo magazine, where the meanings of tattoos varied from self-adornment to a narrative structuring of life history and identity protection. Particular focus is put on how tattoos are used to plot life stories. The tattooed body represents a map that enables narration. Dramatic life changes are embodied in tattoos that help subjects to ease their problems. However, since problems are engraved into skin and flesh they are visible and also seen by other people. Subjectivities become visible. The analysis given in the article offers a view upon a paradox of subjectivity in late modern society. The human body is, at the same time, both a subject actively seeking meaning and a mere object to be judged. He gets tattooed all the time, he says, averaging a couple–three sittings a week: ‘It’s personal gratification. I love the art. I’m able to change my body the way I want to see it.’

In the Peter Greenaway film The Pillow Book (1997), calligraphy on skin becomes a means to write life. The main character Nagiko has men practising calligraphy on her skin, while she herself practises her fetish on paper and on other people’s skin. Through this procedure they become a book of their own. Like the calligraphy as portrayed in The Pillow Book, tattooing puts a mark on the lives of late modern subjects. More than ever, the body has become an object which is shaped by gym practice and
plastic surgery, and which is embellished with body piercings and tattoos. The tattooed, or modified body, thus always exists on a shifting boundary between subject and object. Just like Nagiko in Greenaway’s film; the body is constructing a personal history of experiences on the one hand, while on the other hand it is as an object that is subject to the gaze of others. Only the desire and the demand to shape the body are present in both levels.
The history of tattoos as consumer products for the middle classes is quite recent, it emerged no longer than a few decades ago (DeMello, 2000; Sweetman, 1999a). Before the cultural movement from the 1960s onwards that has been termed ‘Tattoo Renaissance’ (Rubin, 1988; Sanders, 1989) tattoos had a long and conflict-ridden history. In the western world, tattoos have marked the bodies of slaves, criminals, prostitutes, deserters, primitive tribes and later deviant sub-cultures (Caplan, 2000; Castellani, 1995; Marenko, 2002; Le Breton, 2002). In public discussions, the ambiguity evoked by tattoos is easily channelled into a medicalizing moral panic about the health risks connected to tattoos and piercing (Pitts, 1999; Fisher, 2002).

The sociology of the body has recently started to approach tattooing as a form of self-expression and body politics, hence opening the way to a positive diagnosis of tattooing (Fisher, 2002; Le Breton, 2002; Pitts, 1998; 1999; Sweetman, 1999a; 1999b). The article analyses the autobiographical aspect of tattooing mentioned, for example, by Paul Sweetman (1999a). The key concept used in this article is tattoo narrative, which refers to the way that tattooed subjects plot their life through their tattoos. Tattoos function as points of reference or maps that enable life stories to be told. It is shown here that tattoos are used by subjects in order to control their lives when faced with the chaos of late modern society. A tattoo engraved into the skin represents a link to personal life history, as well as an opportunity for subjective security. We shall argue that subjectivity is increasingly tangible and visual in late modern societies. The body enters the core of the social sphere as a surface for displaying subjectivity, but it also involves subjects having to negotiate between different symbolic orders (see Irwin, 2001; 2003).

Subjects have to face the conflict that although they can modify and (re)write their bodies they cannot control the meanings that other people give to their tattoos. Therefore the visualized body is in itself a battleground of contradictory meanings. In the following, we shall first present our research material and further develop the concept of tattoo narrative, after which we shall provide a detailed account of how visual tattooed bodies are used by subjects to narrate their lives.


Tattoo magazine claims to be the world’s best-selling publication on tattoos. Our analysis focuses on the portraits published in Tattoo magazine, which are to be found under a section named ‘Features’. These portraits are approximately three pages long, containing both text and photographs. The data comprises 34 issues (137–38, 140–62, 164–72) from the years 2001, 2002 and 2003. These issues contain altogether 280 portraits (848 pages). Additionally, we have utilized as background material two issues from both 1993 (44, 52) and 1999 (117, 120), which consist of 40 portraits (106 pages). The portraits are written by three men: Frank Booth, H.T. Booth and Paul Garson.

Tattoo magazine is highly visual. Each cover consists of a young woman pictured in the tradition of soft porn revealing tattooed skin. In the portraits, both women and men exhibit their tattooed bodies filled with images of animals, saints, devils, dragons and tribal designs that evoke the primitive. The imagery of popular culture from film stars to pin-up girls, vampires, comic-book characters and Star Wars motifs represents another important influence. Portraits constantly play with the stripping of the subjects who sometimes cover up their tattoos in everyday life: ‘My tattoos are like a hidden identity of mine because, unfortunately, my job in and of itself and my employer frown upon tattoos in open view of the public’, says Brian Doebler (Tattoo, 2003/162: 61). Peter Brooks (1993) states that unveiling is a central feature of narratives. An old scar enables the recognition of Odysseus when he comes back to Ithaca. It is a body that reveals the identity of Odysseus to the others. In the same way, visual stripping in Tattoo magazine is revealing. However, the trick with tattoo narratives in Tattoo magazine is that thoughts are stripped as well as clothing. For example, Tsae Lee Dow refers to her tattoos as footnotes of herself and as a personal history in her skin. She has a tree tattooed in the back of her neck in memory of her brother who at of age of four accidently hung himself from a tree. ‘I was the only one there … and I was only three, but I still remember it’ (Tattoo, 2002/159: 29–30). Becoming tattooed can be seen as a form of a permanent diary that no one can take away (Sweetman, 1999a).

Tattoo narratives involve subjects narrating with their body and of their body. In other words, there are stories on the body and the body in the story (Brooks, 1993). Of course not all the subjects reveal their life as far as Tsae Lee does. Ted Mitchell (Tattoo, 2002/160: 61) describes his attitude: ‘The meanings overall are very personal, and I don’t tell anyone what that is.’ This statement refers also to the general problem of our data.

Portraits are modified through interaction between journalists and tattooed subjects and certainly not all the participants were willing to reveal their lives within the pages of a popular magazine. Many of the portraits describe more artistic matters and things related to the tattoo community. It is worth noting also that it seems to be that not all the tattoos are taken as representations of serious personal issues. Some of them have been taken just for fun – but not all of them.

It all began in kindergarten, believe it or not. My father had some motorcycle friends and I remember images with traditional wings and eagles. But I was twenty-six before I was finally able to get my first. (Debbie Byrne, Tattoo 2001/138: 60) Although some people say that they are tattooing themselves for purely aesthetic reason, tattoos appear to situate life in most of the tattoo narratives. The prior stages of life are expressed through images inscribed on the skin. Tattoo narratives frequently begin in childhood with memories and dreams, which are strongly associated with tattoos: ‘Since he was a kid Scott Buffington has experienced visions. More specifically, ink dreams’ (Tattoo, 2003/167: 59). Mark Epstein explains his relation to the tattoos as follows: ‘I knew that I was going to be a tattooed person very early on. In Seattle, I was surrounded by friends with tattoos, so I was in the environment as well. Most importantly, my body didn’t feel right without ink’ (Tattoo, 2002/150: 37). On occasions, the tattoo narratives almost gain a semi-religious tone, as the fuzzy tattoo- related memories of childhood are linked to ‘one of those primal urges’ (Tattoo, 2001/137: 29) or ‘previous life leaking ink through to the next’ (Tattoo, 2002/156: 67).

As shown by Brooks (1984), narration involves plotting that covers both story elements and their ordering. ‘I try to just put a lot of thought into my tattoos and relate them to what I’m doing and to things in my life’ (Kevin Williams, Tattoo, 2001/141: 29). In tattoo narratives, individual tattoos are plotted into a life story. It is important to underline that in tattoo narratives, life gains a new coherence through the modified and tattooed body. Experiences and life events are seen in the skin, but also tattooed pictures also seem to tell the stories of their carriers. Their relationship between tattoos and subject is dialogical. Therefore we shall throughout this article, refer to bodies as experiencing, living bodies, which means seeking bodies as analysed, for example, by Merleau-Ponty (1945) in his phenomenological study on the body. When writing about plots, Brooks (1984) refers to their spatial dimensions. The term plot can also mean a small piece of ground for example. Tattoos resemble these kinds of ‘plots’ also in terms of delineative charts; they are delineated and spatialized engravings on the body. The tattooed body can be seen as a map that helps subjects to narrate their lives. Tsae Lee Dow describes the importance of placement of her tree tattoo: ‘It was always in my face and in my head,’ she explains, ‘So by putting it on the back of my neck, I put it behind me’ (Tattoo, 2002/159: 30). Tsae Lee Dow’s description shows why the tattooed body should be seen as three dimensional and not only as a text or as a collage of two dimensional pictures.

A tree in the back of her neck is something physically present and at the same time surpassed. Hence, tattoo narratives involve multidimensionality: they bridge space, time, memory and affects together.


In tattoo narratives, the acquiring of the first tattoo is a significant turning point that appears as a part of the process of becoming independent. Tattoos work as personal rites of passage from childhood to adulthood (Le Breton, 2002). ‘The image symbolized an overall progression of overcoming my childhood, growing up and becoming independent,’ Rick Sprague describes the phoenix in his chest (Tattoo, 2003/166: 138). Old tattoos are usually later despised. Josh Brunner who got his first tattoo at the age 14 describes it as ‘absolutely horrible’ (Tattoo, 2003/170: 33) and Chris Hartgraves who got his own at the age of 15 uses almost the same words: ‘It was a horrible tattoo, the worst!’ (Tattoo, 2003/161: 29). Every drop of Melissa Christensen’s ink is saturated with meaning on a very personal level. For her, it’s always been that way, from the very first, small piece she received in her boyfriend’s bedroom at the tender age of 14. ‘He had a homemade tattoo gun,’ she explains. (Tattoo, 2001/141: 9) Particularly with women, the experience of getting the first tattoo is associated with losing of virginity. Later, the initial marking on the skin has either been removed or is left in tact ‘as a quirky signifier of the state of mind of an 18-year-old woman hot to get her first tattoo’ (Tattoo, 2001/140: 11). The tattoos taken in one’s teens or early teens are described as tentative first steps preceding the better-thought-out and more refined attitude to the tattooed body in maturity.

When I turned eighteen, I wanted to get my first one, but knew that I wanted to think long and hard about what I wanted, because it was only going to be on my body for the rest of my life. So it took me six years before I finally went for it. (Arlene Acosta, Tattoo, 2001/140: 75) Some younger tatooees, who are already heavily tattooed, hide their tattoos from their parents. The journalists of Tattoo often play around with the idea that young tattooees who cannot expose themselves to their parents exhibit their tattoos to them. ‘So, as I said before, should you find yourself reading this article and you’re anywhere near the Belgian town of Brugge, please, for Joeri’s sake, make sure his dad doesn’t get to see these pages’ (Tattoo, 2003/170: 10). In later age, parents seem to be replaced by bosses or conventional circles of the job that often force people to cover up their tattoos (see also Irwin, 2003: 37).

My tattoos pose no problem at work, and at school, it’s divided between people who are frightened by them, and those who want to get to know me because of them. Now, on the other hand, my father still offers to pay to have all my tattoos lasered off. (Shannon Utz, Tattoo, 2001/144: 30) Despite the commodification and commercialization of tattoos, the stigma character of tattoos plays a relevant role in tattoo narratives. Women in particular describe the reactions generated by their environment in the following terms: ‘My mom just wants me to keep the ink off my arms until I become a lawyer’ (Tracy Dailey, Tattoo, 2002/156: 59). As observed by Katherine Irwin (2001), subjects are forced to use legitimation techniques to maximize the benefits of the phenomenon and to minimize the negative meanings associated with tattoos. Though tattoos are currently ‘in’, they still retain an element for the middle-class flirtation with forbidden fruit. Susan A. Phillips (2001) argues that social class defines how tattoos are perceived. While middle-class tattooing seems to be a partly safe way of expressing the self, a lower-class status can change how other people read the signs of the body; the self-expressive status of tattooing as art can turn out to be the mark of criminality. The risk to be misinterpreted is at least virtual for the middle-class subjects (Irwin, 2003).

On the one hand, it can perhaps be even an enjoyable form of voluntary and rather harmless risk taking. On the other, it can turn out to be repressing for the self which might end in having to cover up the body. At least in some respects a business man who is wearing his ‘full body suit’ under his suit resembles a prisoner who tries to tattoo himself in secrecy. The regularly repeated slogan about the ‘world of ink’ in the portraits serves to construct a sense of community that seems to be a narrative solution for the problem of deviancy. Although tattoos problematize some social relationships they enable others. ‘I’ve been lucky. Good choices. Good people. I really did grow up in a world of ink’ (Miss Dee Dassen, Tattoo, 2002/154: 86). Tattoo magazine frequently cites stories of couples having found themselves through tattooing. Family bounds are also strengthened through ink. ‘All of my brothers, my dad … everyone born into the McKay clan … has that tattoo’ (David Mckay, Tattoo, 2002/157: 90). In late modern society, ink may occasionally obtain the function of blood: ‘You could say they are indeed a family linked by ink’ (Tattoo, 2002/154: 58). Tattooing provides a feeling of belonging and of retaining some connection to others (Le Breton, 2002). The imaginary interface joining the individual to the community is inscribed directly into the person’s skin.

‘A world of ink’ seems to refer generally the problem of modern subjects. Our life spaces are increasingly ‘lifted out’ as Scott Lash (2002: 21) points out, like McDonald’s restaurants, the Internet, theme parks and airports. Richard Sennett (1994: 349) states that an airport waiting lounge is an architectural emblem of our age. According to Bryan S. Turner (1999), airport departure lounges capture the temporary and fleeting nature of modern social relationships, and also uncertainties of modern life, its ennui, anxiety and fragility. Subjects wait in boredom but on the other hand flights run risks to be delayed or cancelled. The pointless leisure and alienation of airports seem to be captured also in tattoo narratives. Subjects are at risk of being exposed, yet happy that they have taken their risks. Body marking is the uniting factor of a social world. In a sense the technological age seems to call for a new kind of primitivism – when life is too distancing, the skin and flesh start to speak.


Visual and aesthetic issues play a crucial role in tattoo narratives that stand sometimes very near to the values and standards of the Western culture of consumption. The portraits frequently highlight youth, sexuality, individuality and handsome white bodies. Tattoos function as foreplay. When it comes to women, images situated on the hip, the lower back, or the upper chest frame areas generally considered erogenous. As far as men are concerned, the tattoos adorn biceps and shoulders, traditionally seen as phallic symbols. Afirst glance reveals that everything on Gina’s body is not only in its proper place, but pleasantly arranged to boot. Upon second glance, the viewer notices that the owner of this corporeal abode takes considerable pride in decorating the exterior of her temple. (Tattoo, 2001/137: 29) The portraits indicate a powerful connection between tattoos and sexual fantasies. In the case of Gina Allman, the writer H.T. Booth invites the reader to look at Gina’s body. The aim is to uncover the body, turning the portrait into something near to a striptease. Gina’s knowledge of shiatsu philosophy is mentioned in the text with reference to her appearance. The inner conflict of the article thus is that despite the comparisons drawn to shiatsu philosophy, it still represents Gina herself as a temple looked at from the outside. The point of view is crystallized at the end of the article: ‘Gina Allman’s body is indeed a marvellously constructed temple and a highly effective advertisement for her chosen vocation’ (Tattoo, 2001/137: 30). The magazine repeatedly associates the pleasure derived from tattoos with the gaze directed to the body.

In a consumer culture, gaining control of one’s life starts to rely on embodiment of the visual (Featherstone, 1991). Subjectivity is much more prone to the gaze of the other, as in the case of Gina Allman, the construction of an own meaningful life is downplayed to the outward appearance. The magazine chooses to celebrate appearance and splendour, while subjects attempt to find sense and meaning in their tattoos. For example, H.T. Booth cuts short Arlene Acosta’s discussion on the process of planning her tattoos: ‘That’s nice, Arlene, but let’s get back to your strengths. You know, nakedness and sexuality. Could you elaborate a little more?’ (Tattoo, 2001/140: 75). This seems to capture the basic problem of tattooed subjects who are at the same time both subject and object – the one seeing and to be seen (see also Marenko, 2002).

Subjectivity becomes visualized as if there would not be a single action without an outer gaze to the body. In this sense the body as temple is not portrayed as if it would house a subject, but rather as a commercial tourist trap. Women’s tattoos are often viewed in Tattoo magazine within the register of beauty and sensitivity. Tattoos make them sexy. This seems to convey one important factor of the body in consumer culture: the body is seen as a collection of separate parts that are desired and constantly enhanced (Grogan, 1999; Stratton, 1996). Tattoo narratives manifest the sexual desirability of tattoos. According to Marc Blanchard (1994), tattoos are fetishes, since a picture inscribed into the skin is more desirable and more alive than the body itself.
After Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion show in Paris in 1993, the world of fashion announced that piercings and tattoos had become even more important than clothing (Hewitt, 1997: 93). One might even claim that tattoos are at a certain extent taking over the position of generating fetishes traditionally held by clothing. ‘Tattoo is about revealing, being revealed and gazing upon the revealing,’ Marc Blanchard states (1994: 295). Sometimes a single tattoo can be seen as almost living a life of its own. When Paul Garson asks his interviewee, Scott Risley, why he does not frame the original model for his tattoo and hang it on his wall, Risley replied: ‘Why? I’ve got it on my back.’ Garson concludes by saying: ‘He’s right, and that’s better than any static wall display, his version is literally living and breathing’ (Tattoo, 2001/144: 68).

The most important thing about my work is that it’s all original art, completely original. … I look at myself as a canvas on which I am letting artists express their talent on my body. I give them full creative freedom so that they can enjoy it to the max and put their heart into it. (Erin Holly, Tattoo, 2003/169: 66) Tattoo magazine frequently describes the body as a canvas on which artists paint their work. ‘At 6’2” and 289 lbs., 26-year old presents quite an expansive canvas for his number one artist’ (Tattoo, 2001/141: 55). This is one solution to the problem of positioning the subject as a mere visual target. Christopher Lasch (1979) points out that in a world of self-expression, life itself is becoming a work of art. This kind of aestheticization of subjectivity enables the subject to engage in narcissistic mirroring where he or she is looked upon by others: I’ll show my tattoos to anybody, or my piercings. I have no shame when it comes to them. I love them all, and they all mean something to me. It’s just like any other masterpiece. I’m just the lucky one that gets to wear it for the rest of my life. (Cyndi Zonneveld, Tattoo, 2001/146: 87) In fact, the portraits often communicate unabashed exhibitionistic pleasure derived from ‘tattoo posing’. Subjectivity is constructed only upon the appearances of the body. ‘My tattoos don’t necessarily have deep meanings, sometimes I just go for what I feel is really beautiful’ (Tanja Nixx, Tattoo, 2001/137: 73). David Le Breton (2002) suggests that, for women, the function of tattoos is sometimes purely decorative, and that there is a tendency to refer to tattoos as modern-day jewellery. Sweetman (1999a) notes that it is usually lightly tattooed subjects who are willing to see their bodily marks in decorative terms. In the tattoo narratives of men there is clearly a defined understanding of the division between ‘girlie stuff’ and manly tattoos. Men distance themselves from the association of feminine beauty and self-adornment, although they still view their tattoos as art. The majority of men tend to choose tattoos displaying a truly male iconography: symbols of power, sexist imagery and characters from popular culture. Macho-masculine tattoos are characterized by the aesthetics of violence, in which the enforcement of action, strength and heterosexuality plays a major part. Superheroes, different variations of the devil and biomechanical monsters belong to the mainstream of men’s tattoos. The gaze on the male body does not seem to make it passive. Their tattooed bodies are associated with street-credible masculinity.

Although the magazine makes women the objects of the masculine gaze, it also opens up a possible challenge to the rigid boundaries of the feminine body. In the portraits, tattoos become a part of a streetcredible appearance and way of life. ‘I can express myself in a feminine way and still have the edginess’ (Shannon Utz, Tattoo, 2001/144: 30).

According to Irwin (2001: 55), tattoos offer women a means to display hardness and strength. ‘It all started with rock ‘n’ roll … I sort of turned myself into the bad girl … but in a good way. I thrive on the male energy, which I try to turn into feminine sexuality.’Toughness is needed, since a woman wearing large tattoos violates more western beauty ideals than a man. I never dress girly. I never use make-up. I don’t ride my bike like a girl. But I do have a girly tattoo. (Kelli Davis, Tattoo, 2001/142: 57) Despite the fetishist and commercial character of tattoos, tattoo narratives show that tattoos can be used in terms of feminine identity politics in the same way as high heels and corsets in the gothic style (see also Stratton, 1996; Wilkins, 2004). However, the increasing visualization places the subject under constant negotiation. If subjectivity is built on visual appearance, it is constantly subject to the gaze and criticism of others, and there is a risk that the subject is forced into stereotypical positions. In a thoroughly commercial world, even ideas that are presented as one’s own are shared.

Ramona Nations talks about the impulse that led her to inscribe her whole body with fruits: ‘I wanted something different, and just then the Fruit of the Loom commercials were coming out on TV, and I just thought that was catchy’ (Tattoo, 2003/165: 37). Tattooed subjects are like travellers in the airport waiting lounge, gazing at commercial advertisements, looking at the bodies of other people and eventually being gazed at themselves. However, as Victoria Pitts (2003) notes, late modern bodies should not be taken as ontologically free to play the cultural play and narrate about themselves. The fundamental paradox of tattoos remains that what is defined as personal is, in reality, shared (Le Breton, 2002). The crucial question is to what extent subjects are able to create their own meanings and situate their personal feelings and experiences. As shown by Sweetman (1999a), tattooing should not be approached in an exclusively commercial fashion. Viewing one’s body as art is used to refer to its lasting nature – no matter how consuming current culture is.


Many tattoo narratives view tattoos in the light of dramatic life experiences. Significant memories, radical life changes, losing loved ones and looking for a new direction in life are all manifested through the marking of the body. ‘When I got that piece, it was a critical point in my life, where I was in college trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing with myself’ (Tattoo, 2001/140: 11). The connection between tattoos and life stages is emphasized by showing how the tattooing process can lead to significant changes in understanding and experiencing the self (Sweetman, 1999b). Life is constantly discussed in relation to tattoos that serve as memory maps and tool kits helping subjects to structure their experiences. In a metaphorical sense the body is like an instrument that life is playing. When it goes out of tune, it has to be tuned ‘up’ (i.e., modified) again.
I always think that a tattoo also connotes something like a period in one’s life … When I had good times, the tattoo would turn out colourful, and in bad times they were black-and-grey. (Ralf Reich, Tattoo, 2002/154: 11) Images, colours and symbols reflect transitions and provide the structure for life history. They function as reminders for their bearers’ history and they serve as lived memories remaining on the surface of the body. Some of the stories are coloured by self-hatred directed to prior life stages. The 28-year old Chad Rice decided to have a phoenix etched on his right shoulder, ‘when I quit drugs and started to do things my own way about five years ago’ (Tattoo, 2001/140: 11). The symbolism is conscious: the bird phoenix serves as a cathartic sacrifice purifying its carrier of earlier life stages and becomes the manifestation of a new beginning. Dan Massey describes battling dragons on his right shoulder that he took on as a result of his divorce: I got into a whole bunch of trouble etc., etc., and the image represents my attitude at the time, me being the one kicking the other dragon’s ass. Then I met my wife, Melanie, with whom I’ve been seven years now. After I met her I added the swords that represent me slaying the dragons and my internal dragons as well since she helped me calm down a lot. (Tattoo, 2003/171: 59) Tattoo narratives are characteristically personal and confessional. Sari Näre (1999) uses the concept ‘intimization of the public’ to refer to a process where the intimate personal aspects of life, such as sex and emotions, are becoming part of mainstream publicity. The tattooed body, too, represents the intimization of the public, since it renders subjectivity as visual and public. Although the meaning associated with tattoos may vary according to the onlooker, the portraits of Tattoo magazine present the relationship between the tattoos and the subject as iconic: ‘To look at Shannon is to look at an open book’ (Tattoo, 2001/140: 29). Committed to a narcotic/alcohol-free lifestyle, Jeremiah Hanzey has the words ‘Drug Free’ inscribed on his abdomen (Tattoo, 2001/144: 9). The 23-year old Mark Postema’s chest displays a cross as a sign of his religious conviction (Tattoo, 2001/148: 87). Kevin Williams, a vegetarian, has opted for an artichoke on his leg (Tattoo, 2001/141: 29). Carlos Sanchez, Jr states that he wears a collage of his Mexican heritage (Tattoo, 2002/155: 57).

However, the visualized subjectivity is not necessarily determined by the signs on the body, for tattoos can gain new meanings with altering life phases. According to Vilma Hänninen (2000), narratives have a tendency to form a dialogical relationship between personal life experiences and narration. Analogically, tattoos are reinterpreted in relation to new life experiences. Marenko (2002) points out that the narrative feature of tattoos should not be reduced to the symbolic level alone, for the tattooed body is more adaptive than static by nature. In other words, although the picture on the skin has a relative permanence, the affects connected to it change with the flow of life. Although permanence is commonly seen as perhaps the most central feature of tattooing, the portraits clearly state that individual tattoos are not necessarily permanent: ‘[The tattoo on] the belly is the only thing that’s gonna stay there, and everything else is getting totally reworked’ (Jason Roderick, Tattoo, 2002/154: 35). Like the sense of community created by tattoos, the permanence of tattoos is thus a shifting notion.

Old tattoos have either been covered by new ones or removed by laser. Paul Garson’s concluding remark on his interviewee, Wes Grissom, having covered his ex-girlfriend’s name with a new picture motif, carries a deeper meaning: ‘Sometimes girls come and go, but ink is forever, right?’ (Tattoo, 2002/156: 86). Since life is constantly changing, the tattooed body cannot be static. Only the will to engrave the skin seems to remain, or ‘get tattoos ‘til I die’, as Michael Shook puts it (Tattoo, 2002/150: 68). Tattoo narratives represent the acquisition of new tattoos as a cathartic process. Pitts (1998), who has studied people with scarification, talks of tattoos as a liminal space between the old and the new. In the tattooing rituals analysed by Pitts, a new, strong identity is claimed to replace the former weak one. I’d like to get part of my female anatomy tattooed on the appropriate place on my stomach. … I had my right ovaries removed a couple of years ago, so this would be a way of getting them back. (Shannon Lamm, Tattoo, 2001/140: 30) The ritual character of tattooing can be seen to involve a power that serves to unify and restore the body. In the case of Shannon Lamm, a defective body is symbolically restored by marking the skin. In this way, the body is tuned up closer to the ideal self with the aim of regaining the harmony lost. According to Pitts (1998), one of the functions of tattooing is the symbolical reclaiming of the body. In Pitts’s study, women who had acquired tattoos and piercings described how their tattoos provided a means to reclaim their own bodies (see also Benson, 2000; Fisher, 2002; Irwin, 2001).
The tattoo narratives can be viewed as a reflective body project (see Shilling, 1993; Sweetman, 1999a). The body is constantly worked and reworked and it is tuned up in relation to life itself. When there are dramatic changes in life, there are new tattoos on the body. The metaphor of tuning ‘up’ does not only refer to music and establishing harmony between the body and the various life stages. Since the body is a product of life, goal rationality becomes another important aspect in addition to the more affective and intimate sides. Therefore body tuning refers to the maximization of the visual capacity and appearance of the body. The body is like a machine that is constantly improved and adjusted (Featherstone, 1991). The body is the product of careful planning and perfected craft, which is measured in the portraits, for instance, by stating the exact number of hours spent on the pieces. Besides aesthetic gains, the pleasure associated with tattoos also springs from the sense of control achieved by body modification.


Tattooing is a lot about helping people, the changes that the person will go through after they’ve have been heavily tattooed. The transformation of ink often restores their confidence that they may have lost along the way. (Ted Mitchell, Tattoo, 2002/160: 63) In addition to serving the purpose of exhibiting and tuning up the body, tattoos also have protective functions for the subjects. Some describe how tattoos protect the body by forming magical armour on the surface of the skin: ‘We’re working on some wasps for my waist line, because I’m allergic to them. They’ll be a sort of protective symbol’ (Kevin Williams, Tattoo, 2001/141: 31). According to Le Breton (2002), the potential of tattoos is directed towards the future. A mark tattooed on skin serves as talisman or shield that enables the subject to look ahead in life. At the time [of the first tattoo] I moved to a job that was overwhelming. I couldn’t go back to my old job because it was eliminated. … I was off for four or five months, and during that time I developed a really bad depression. Tattooing helped me get through that difficult period. You could say it was an alternative to doing something stupid. It took my mind off what I was going through. (Ken Nantais, Tattoo, 2001/138: 56) The story of Ken Nantais elucidates the protective nature of tattoos. The body becomes a reliable anchor for subjectivity. The subject avoids plunging into distress by tattooing himself. As the social world disperses, the tattooed and pierced body is created as a controllable miniature world. Subjective experiences are made controllable through the act of attaching them to the surface of the skin (Le Breton, 2002). In his analyses, Le Breton (2002; 2003) emphasizes the sense of control derived from tattooing, body piercing and cutting. The subject may experience the feeling of living and being in control of life through the skin. It is important to remember, however, that the protection offered by tattoos does not necessarily refer to control, but to peace of mind and release from selfcontrol.

Janet Kearns, for instance, speaks about the dragon images covering her wrists: ‘While it’s difficult to tell that story, I’m also very proud of those tattoos. Also, during the time they kept me from thinking of re-cutting [my wrists]’ (Tattoo, 2003/167: 86). Tattoos as shields of subjectivity function in the context of war and peace: ‘On my left arm I have the sign for protection, home and faith, with hope, survival, and endurance runes on my right arm’ (David McKay, Tattoo, 2002/157: 89). Tattoos can serve as fortifications and armour used in the battle for subjectivity. For instance, the violent tattoo images of some men can be interpreted as symbolic warfare for the purpose of appropriating masculinity.

According to Calvin Thomas (1996), masculinity is defined by the struggle against the threat of feminization and the fear of weakness and disempowerment. Constructing a street-credible look through tattoos can be interpreted as masculine armouring (see Theweleit, 2000). For example, Eric Baer, who works in the security business, has acquired a large Superman tattoo on his back (Tattoo, 2002/154: 89–90).
For the second context of subjectivity protection we will use the metaphor of peace. In contrast to the above-described state of war, this implies a pursuit of a homely state of security and peace of mind, as in the story of Janet Kearns. In the portraits of Tattoo magazine, this form of protection is dominant. Tattoos are associated with the ideas of familiarity, intimacy and home. For Paul Giconi, who has numerous tattoos inspired by the comic book characters Calvin and Hobbes, the skin-inscribed adventures of the comic book heroes do not imply simply a keen interest in the art of comics, but are associated first and foremost with the experiences that he and his loved ones have gone through. The images on the skin remind their bearer of the durability of human relationships as well as the hardships encountered in life. The comic book stories inscribed on the skin serve as a script for a future that appears uncertain (Tattoo, 2002/157: 33). Some time ago, it came to me that what I enjoy the most about tattoos is the permanence of them. I’ve lost both parents, people who were close to me, and I realized that things that I hold important in life are sometimes fleeting, but my tattoos are permanent. … It’s something that can’t be taken away. (Hank Maffetone, Tattoo, 2001/140: 72) The portrait of Hank Maffetone, a clown tattoo enthusiast, stresses the unpredictability and uncontrollability of life. Against this backdrop, his tattoos are construed as permanent objects. For Jessica Perozzi who has a Catholic family background, a tattoo of the Virgin Mary represents something that will last for all time (Tattoo, 2001/141: 33). A similar notion of permanence is central in memorial tattoos, where dead family members are marked in the person’s skin through names, facial portraits, or symbols representing them. The 35-year-old Alexia Phillips has devoted an entire arm to symbols representing family members: ‘My left arm is my “tribute arm’’ ’, she says (Tattoo, 2001/141: 60). The tribute arm displays the name of her daughter and a nurse figure representing her grandmother. The meaning of memorial tattoos is to create a firmer link to loved ones than is possible through immaterial mental images. Memory is anchored to tangible pictures.
My daughter, my mother, and myself went to visit my mother’s grave. We were walking toward the grave, and I said, ‘Hey, Dad, I don’t want you to be offended by this, but I did something, a memory piece for Mom.’ … When I took off my shirt, my daughter started weeping immediately. I waited for my dad’s reaction. I was expecting him to punch me in the face and storm off, but he reached out and touched it. Then he said, ‘This artist really captured your mother.’ (Daniel Bueller, Tattoo, 2002/152: 30) Daniel Bueller has a tattoo portrait of his dead mother as a saint with a sword on his back. Images of saints stand, according to a psychoanalytical interpretation by Marja Tuominen, for the longing for the ideal object. The visual presence of the caring, emphatic and all-sacrificing mother’s function is to bring back the good object, but at the same time it also opens up a possibility to let go (Tuominen, 2001). In the narrative of Bueller, the oedipal drama between son, father and dead mother is solved by the admiration of the tattoo. ‘It was a special day for both of us’ (Daniel Bueller, Tattoo, 2002/152: 30). The tattoo joins the family together so that they are able to both grieve and glorify the lost mother.


Elaine Scarry (1985) discusses physical pain as a state that lacks an object in the external world. There are no words that could express it. Grief that is not processed functions in the same way. It stays silent. Socio-cultural changes have an impact on our capacity to cope with pain. According to Richard Sennett (1994), contemporary society has through its structuring of time and space alone aimed to diminish feelings of pain and disturbance, at the same time also decreasing our opportunities to feel.
Scott Lash (2002) argues that among other factors, the technologization of life functions to create chaotic presence, where the subjects may find it difficult to grasp reality. They do not have time or space for critical distance. According to Lash (2002), the times of the narrative are clearly over. In the context of this reading, it is significant that tattooed subjects portrayed in Tattoo magazine are able to discuss even highly dramatic events in their lives. Their stories are not characterized by chaos; the pain does not rub out the narrative (see Frank, 1995). Tattoos seem to situate pain in a way that enables the person to discuss distressing experiences (see Alford, 1997). ‘I just remember the pain. They say you don’t remember the pain, but I found a couple spots on my back that had especially good memories,’ as one man describes his experience of getting a tattoo (Paul Merrick, Tattoo 2001/143: 68).
Just as there is pain in childbirth, a pain that bonds the mother to her child, there’s a similar thing going on in tattooing, the pain, the bonding of ink and imagery with your skin, a very personal thing that I call my own. (Anna Pasternak, Tattoo, 2002/160: 71) The process of tattooing is described as a powerful and purifying experience. ‘For me, getting tattooed is definitely a form of acupuncture. It’s very relaxing and vents all the pent up frustrations and aggressions. It’s very therapeutic’ (Erin Holly, Tattoo, 2003/169: 65). Dave Reynolds refers to pain therapy when talking of the process of tattooing (Tattoo, 2003/170: 168) and Sarah Weyant states: ‘Tattoos are a great source of strength for me and have enhanced me. I think they’re very therapeutic and good for your soul’ (Tattoo, 2003/161: 58). There seems to be an almost intimate connection between physical pain caused by the tattooing process as Anna Pasternak notes. Ink makes bonding possible. Marenko (2002) makes the Nietzschean point that physical pain signifies self-expression and a transition beyond fixed identity. According to Kim Hewitt (1997), physical pain may have pacifying and harmonizing functions. Even forms of self-mutilation can be seen as a means of regaining force over one’s own body and letting out feelings that one was not allowed to feel (Favazza, 1996; McLane, 1996). Tattoo narratives, too, are affected by the notion of ‘good pain’. Pain is a positive affect, as it guides a person out of chaos and towards security and a grasp of life. In this sense tattoo narratives are often plotted as quest narratives where to narrator changes character through suffering (Frank, 1995). Tattooing serves for subjects as a path to find a voice of their own.

Susan Benson (2000) observes that tattoo narratives do not constitute parades of postmodern flexible and amoeba-like personalities, instead, they appear to address issues such as the uncertainty of the future, the blurring of boundaries, and the fear of fragmentation of subjectivity. Benson goes on to state that tattoos do not communicate, but they declare what is permanent in the flesh. In the portraits of Tattoo magazine, this aspect is visible in their iconic character in relation to life itself. Yet, unlike Benson’s claims, tattoos also open up an opportunity for communication. The subject tells his or her life story in relation to them, situates pain and charts life experiences. The tattoo narratives are construed as powerful existential experiences, where life events are integrated into a narrative form via the body.


Tattoos are one example of the vast field of body modification that spreads out around us, incorporating phenomena as varied as body building, eating disorders, plastic surgery, piercings, implants, self-mutilation and amputations. According to Pasi Falk (1995), the spread of body modification does not mean that the notion of the natural and unmarked body would be disappearing in the West. In fact, it may even be enforced. The consequence of this is a constant negotiation as to which phenomena of body modification are socially acceptable and which are not. Tattoos form a part of this moral battleground of defining what we should and should not do with our bodies. Sheila Jeffreys (2000) argues that self-mutilation, piercings and tattoos are the outcomes of subordinate positions in society and experiences of exploitation. Jeffreys perceives body modification in a pathological light, comprising first and foremost a manifestation of a subordinate position and acknowledges no possibilities for emancipation. In contrast to this view, the portraits of Tattoo magazine highlight agency and bodily autonomy in the plotted form that they take.

Tattoos articulate as memory maps written in flesh that enable life stories to be told. Tattoo narratives reinforce the sense of self-control that does not turn out to be too restrictive. Rather tattoo narratives are plotted as quests in order to find balance with the self. Tattoos function as shields for subjectivity when everything else seems uncertain. With the help of tattoos subjects help themselves to confront the unpredictability of the future. In this sense, body modification fights against chaos. Hewitt (1997: 94) makes the apt observation that self-mutilation, eating disorders and tattoos are not the worst thing that could happen: ‘A stigmatized, emaciated, abraded, or tattooed identity is better than a fragmented ego, and perhaps more attractive than other alternatives our society offers.’ The spread of the practices of body modification should be observed primarily in relation to society and the limitations imposed on the lives of the individuals instead of perceiving it as part of individualistic psychopathology. As the portraits of Tattoo magazine show, the societal landscape is becoming increasingly corporeal. The body serves as a mediator between the subject and the social world. As noted by Bryan S. Turner (1996), we live in a somatic society where social and personal problems are increasingly expressed through the conduit of the human body. Tattoos are not used to cover up identity, but it is rather the subjects who use their bodies to declare who they are although their ways to express themselves would be in the core of commercial society. The body is modified and tuned in relation to life so that it is always both something permanent and something to be transformed. In late modern society, which gives rise to impulses that are causing unstableness and insecureness, marking the body brings comfort. The conflict between the individual and the social is engraved into the skin.


We would like to thank Stephanie Märthesheimer for insightful comments that improved this article when it comes to both form and content. As well, we would like to thank Sari Näre, Ilkka Levä and the referees of this article for the critical comments they made.

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JUSSI TURTIAINEN, M. Soc. Sc. is a researcher in the Department of Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Tampere, Finland. His research interests include embodiment, body modification, physical culture and sociology/social psychology of health and illness. Jussi is currently writing a dissertation on fitness culture in the triad of body, nation and gender.

ATTE OKSANEN, Lic. Soc. Sc., MA is a researcher in the Department of Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Tampere, Finland. He has studied bodily experiences of artists and masculinity in various contexts including art, literature and popular culture. Atte has also written about welfare of children in Nordic countries. He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on identity crisis and wound subjectives in control societies.