Fisher, J (2002) 'Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture', in Body and Society, Vol 8 (4):91-107.
It is necessary to analyse the practice of tattooing without 'romanticising' it. Tattooing is both physical and social and has multiple meanings.
There is a long history of tattooing [summarised 92 - 97]. The Greeks might have begun it as a form of stigmata (there are suggestive linguistic roots), used to indicate 'others' including criminals and slaves. The Romans used it as a form of social control, marking slaves and criminals, and this practice was continued in medieval Europe. Tattoos were also associated with primitive persons who were to become colonised, and Cook brought back the Polynesian word 'tatau' and introduced it into European languages. Combatants in the American Civil War may have used it to identify with their particular side. Voluntary tattooing may have become popular among prisoners in nineteenth-century Europe. Tattooing was still seen as lower class.
Japanese tattoos entered European culture as a sign of having traveled, and were taken up by the wealthy and the fashionable, especially towards the end of the 19th century. These tattoos became a way of impressing others rather than expressing lower class values (95). The practice became unfashionable again given the prevalence of '"vulgar" tattooed bodies' (96).
The electric tattoo machine was invented in the 1870s and produced changes in the practice -- tattooing became less painful, tattoos more detailed, and tattooing less skilled, especially with the invention of standardized tattoo designs and stencils. Tattooing became part of circus and freak shows, especially as tattooed women had to display more of their bodies -- this lasted until the 1940s. Modern concerns about risk and health led to official discouragement in the military, and tattooing lost popularity among civilians as the military did in the USA of the 1950s. However, at the same time, 'tattooing became one of the most common forms of teenage rebellion' (97). The practice was further popularised by hippies and rock stars.
The profession of tattooist has also changed. It remains organised as a craft, with apprentices and small businesses. Women tend to be excluded, and competition managed by regulation of entry. Skills required include good business sense, such as requiring a deposit; calming the fears of clients; and having to make decisions about whether to agree to controversial tattoos (example page 98). Some try to make a claim to being artists by offering personalised designs.
Men were traditionally more likely to be tattooed than women, until recently -- now, 'about 60 per cent of tattoo clientele' are women (100). This may indicate a move towards equality of sexes. Women tend to choose a location that can be easily concealed, unlike men. 'Tattooing is generally a peer activity with about 64 per cent of tattooees coming to the shop with friends or family' (100). Contrary to popular stereotype, drunks are turned away. Getting tattooed is akin to an impulse buy, with little prior research.
Tattoos have multiple meanings: (a) as a ritual or rite of passage, marking a significant life event; (b) as an act of identification with various groups or individuals; (c) as a magic protection or symbol; (d) as decoration. The tattooed seem to want to both reveal and conceal tattoos, and get varying amounts of admiration and embarrassment.
There are cultural dimensions as well as individual ones, and tattooing can be seen as a sign of 'a socially "dis-eased" body' (102). American culture offers contradictory reactions to bodies. On the one hand, the ideal body has become commodified, and techniques of body modification are now common. Fashionable change and semi-permanence are ideal for such commodification. Yet tattoos have also become important culturally, despite taboo and permanence. Perhaps this is a postmodern playing with primitiveness, especially since permanence is no longer required, and thus neither is commitment (both with temporary tattoos and laser treatment to remove tattoos) (102). Tattoos are ambiguous enough to indicate membership of different groups -- 'fashionable, conforming, deviant' (103). They may offer some kind of fixed identity to compensate for the increasingly changing commodified body.
The Foucaldian analysis of compulsory tattooing as a sign of dominance over the body can now be seen as inverted -- people reclaiming or re-appropriating the body, as an assertion of agency, as a denial of the notion of the body as property, as a commodity.
Overall, 'tattooing has remained both a fascinating and repelling practice' (104). It marks a stage in the 'struggle between the physical and social body... the individual in opposition to the state or culture' (104). Of course it can never be a proper 'cure' for commodification, any more than other forms of body modification. But it does show the complexity of modern conceptions of the body. [Wot?No ethnography?]
back to key concepts