Curry, D. (1993) 'Decorating the Body Politic', in New Formations, vol 19: 69 - 82.

The skin is the interface between the public and the private. It is both 'me and at the same time a surface on to which I can... project that which is much more deeply me' (69). Decoration includes the use of cosmetics, fashion and tattooing, and the  'same basic motivation' lies behind all three. Decoration both beautifies and communicates: it is 'about class, income, education, status and power' (69).

There has been a substantial increase in the use of both tattooing and piercing. The quality has improved, and techniques and designs have been incorporated from other cultures. Women have become particularly interested. Piercing extends to more than just the ears, but men became interested in ear-piercing first. Genital piercing is also common. Is there a connection between fashion and sado-masochism?

Tattoos are mostly permanent. There is a long history of attempts to ban or regulate them, including techniques to make them fade. Some tattooists refuse to do a tattoo that will be seen in public. There is a tension between desire for and the permanence of a modification, rather as in a marriage. Commitment is involved, to a group, subculture, selves and bodies. For example, seamen used to get tattooed to show their membership of the profession, and as a result tattooing took on the same ambivalent status as a sailor does, including the notion that the sailor is a free spirit. This is probably why tattooing was adopted by bikers and skins. Association with these groups is probably responsible for early use of tattooing as a stigma; it is easy to see the tattoo can then become a mark of separation into a subculture. There is also an indication that being tattooed gives confidence in oneself as an adult [for adolescents?].

Piercing is semi-permanent, and thus does not carry the same meanings as being tattooed. It has an uncertain history. It was associated with marginal people like travellers or seamen, and was often associated with secrecy, as in genital piercing. Ear-piercing was rationalised as a more acceptable form, although it is important to remember that ears have long been an erogenous zone, so that ear-piercing itself is still an avowal of sexuality. This probably accounts for the increased male interest in wearing earrings. Body-piercing is now much more popular. It is possible that gay people began spreading the practice, to simply look good, to reclaim their bodies, and in the interests of sexual exploration.

It is possible that both tattooing and piercing indicate a desire to make links with earlier forms of social life, a new primitivism. They are associated with other practices of body manipulation as well, such as fasting. They can indicate a perversity, a drive to individuality, and offer a resolution of the tensions between individuality and belonging. They express a stance which deliberately opposes mainstream values  [still?]. Some people who indulge in the practices are obsessed, but most of them make a deliberate choice. There is some association with sado-masochism, although this is not universal.

The practices can be seen as an expression of  'anti-fashion', since they display little variation  [in design?] over time. Those wishing to adopt them for fashionable reasons tend to use temporary stick-on versions. They may express a conservative option for membership and permanence. However, the increase in their use may indicate an increased social discontent and disaffection. It is possible that tattooing or piercing can be seen as a political act, a sign of dissent .

The practices may indicate an increasing eroticisation of daily life. They do involve increased attention paid to one's own body or to a part of it, and are very tactile. They are associated with erogenous zones, and do increase sensitivity, including the stimulus of sight. The practices can also be seen as an increased interest in self care and grooming.

back to key concepts