Sweetman, P. (1999) 'Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity', in Body and Society, Vol 5 (2 - 3): 51 - 76.
Both tattooing and body-piercing have become far more popular in the West, with 'an increasingly heterogeneous range of enthusiasts' (51), and especially since the 1980s. One current consists of 'neo-tribal styles and techniques based more or less directly on the indigenous traditions of Polynesia and elsewhere' (51).
Popularity with celebrities has led to suggestions that this maybe simply another fashion, especially a postmodern variant featuring 'an eclectic free- for- all, a "carnival of signs"' (52 says, quoting Tseëlon). However, these modifications are also permanent, and thus do not feature that perpetual change which may be a key feature of fashion.
A number of participants are interviewed in order to debate this issue. One suggestion is that getting tattooed or pierced could be a reaction to the superficiality of fashion, a demonstration of pain and commitment which is anti-fashion. Further, tattooing and piercing could be seen as an example of a 'body project', where participants attempt to anchor their identities and develop 'a coherent personal narrative' (53).
Tattooing and piercing have become stylish and possibly less permanent than they once were. They are no longer associated with minorities, and do indicate some aspects of postmodern fashion, as above -- further, 'Post modern fashion no longer refers to anything but itself, and this lack of external referentiality means that everything is up for grabs: we can all wear what we want' (53). However, this may only be a final stage, and current fashion might still allude to some external realities. However, the notion of clothing as resistance, as in CCCS work, must now be doubted -- although again some people may still be involved in 'a last ditch attempt to retain a sense of subcultural style' (55).
Some of the people interviewed did seem to talk about tattoos and piercings as fashion accessories, especially if they were only lightly modified [examples of such views appear on pages 56 - 7]. However, it is common to see modification as also 'different', a sign of individuality, of difference from friends. Some respondents seemed aware that this difference is increasingly eroded by the popularity of the practice.
Respondents also reported taking the decision to be modified extremely seriously, spending time deciding what to have done and doing it 'a considerable amount of research before going ahead' (59), especially for customised work [quite unlike Curry's respondents then?]. Caution seems to have been to result of worries about permanence or pain. These factors lend support to the view of body modification as 'a form of "anti-fashion"' (58). [More quotes and examples follow]. Apparently, techniques of removal were not considered. The permanence of the modification seems central. Designing the tattoo and recovering from injuries also seem important, and can lead to 'a considerable sense of achievement' (60). The pain involved makes body modification different from simply buying fashionable clothes -- although piercing tended to be seen as less permanent and painful than tattooing. However, some respondents excepted '"extreme" or "hardcore"' forms, which included genital piercing and 'various forms of "stretch" piercing' (60). Piercing can also seem more invasive and frequently seems to lead to complications such as bleeding and delayed healing.
Thus body modification can appear as a commitment to 'anti-fashion', which includes refusing to dress fashionably and has been seen as 'a deliberate attempt "to symbolically defy... change" (Polhemus and Proctor, 1978: 22)' (62). Thus body modification may be best understood as offering a symbolic kind of social and cultural stability. Tattoos that originate in pre-modern societies or that indicate sub cultural allegiances may have this function. However, 'anti-fashions of various sorts are regularly co-opted by the fashion industry' (63). Also, it would be a mistake to confuse the permanence of the actual mark 'with the notion of a permanent signified... its external referents can and do change' (63). Thus body modification can be used as anti-fashion, but this does not exhaust its meaning.
Nevertheless, body modification involves commitment, planning, pain and after-care, which helps to 'escape the flow of commodification' (64, quoting Blanchard). The modified person must participate 'as producer, consumer and living frame' (64). Tattoos and piercing can therefore never been mere signs or empty signifiers. The practice also involves technology which helps' retain a particular denotative impact whatever ...[the]... wider significance' (65) [which means, possibly, that a tattoo remains a body modification at heart, whatever the design may subsequently signify?]. Indeed, for some traditional societies, the tattoo stored for the process that had been undergone rather than a decorative result: tattoos in the West may be 'relatively free-floating' [only relatively] by contrast. They still 'retain an echo of the pain involved in their acquisition' (65). This is acknowledged in the most frequently asked question about the practices 'Does [or Did] it hurt?' (66).
There may be a similarity with classic subcultures after all in the wish to symbolise stability [Willis argued that the devotion to the British bike symbolised a resistance to the invasion of Japanese technology among bikers]. However, body modification is much more individualist and non-conformist, even to groups of fellow modifiers. They seem to appear as 'an extremely varied crowd, apparently united only by a shared interest in... modificatory practices' (67) [based on his attendance at a 'Tattoo Expo and Bodyshow' (67)]. If there are affinities, they may express the looseness of 'neo-tribalism', not a sub culture. After all, many designs are customised, and some piercing is clearly '"very personal"' (67). Body modification may be best understood as 'a form of "expressive individualism" (Muggleton, 1997: 11)' (67), as in the notion of a body project. [They may even offer a rejection of conventional gendering of bodies, Sweetman suggests in a note on 73].
For some, self confidence seems to increase, for example, or a sense of self creation and self-identity. Tattooing in particular seems to support 'a coherent and consistent self narrative' (69), with tattoos marking particular life events or representing memories, of youthful freedom, for example. One respondent 'described his own tattoos as a permanent "diary" that "no one can take off you"' (69). Tattoos contain information that can be read as a story.
In conclusion, the practice of actually being tattooed must be more than a commitment of fashion, or 'a tattoo-transfer, or clip-on piercing, would be as meaningful... as the real thing' (70). It is not so much the permanence of the modification as such as the importance of how they were produced -- it is this that must separate body modification from the 'carnival of signs 'of mere fashion. It is unlikely that they are merely playful and ironic as Turner seems to think. However, body modification is 'a similar, but more diffuse, response to a set of crisis and insecurities' than was subcultural style. The practices are best understood as body projects, but the possibilities for revision are highly limited: this may indicate 'a rejection of the ideology of social mobility which practices such as "keep-fit" vigorously pursue' (71). Tattoos continue 'to signify at the denotative level' (72), unlike other elements of fashion.
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