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WHY ARE WE TATTOOING?

Long associated in the collective imagination with those on the fringe of society, tattoos have recently entered a phase of democratization (or banalization?) since their arrival on the fashion runways : from Chanel’s ephemeral tattoos in passing by Mugler’s muse Rick Genest (tattooed from head to toe) or, to a lesser extent, the top model Freja Beha. The tattoo has slowly but surely installed itself in the visual landscape and attracts an increasing number of enthusiasts, beyond traditional spheres.

But aside from this fashion craze, what is actually hidden behind the current popularity of this thousand-year-old practice? What does the fascination with tattoos tell us about our contemporary society and how does it echo today’s overall mood and context?
 
To shed light on the question, we met 27 year old Anna Mazas, author of the recently published « Life Under my Skin, 40 Portraits of Tattooed People » (see below), which combines an intelligent text and rich images with an accessible premise. In the book’s interviews, she tries to answer the query : why a tattoo ?
 
Taking power over one’s body, a quest for social ties, distinctive signs vs uniformity, indelibility vs the ephemeral… The practice of tattooing says more than it seems and appears at the crossroads of current trends and fundamental reactions. An explanation…

1. Pedro & Thomas Winter © A.Grandveau/MkF éditions 2. Cover of Life Under my skin 3. Jay © T.de Saint-Chamas/MkF éditions
For more informations: www.facebook.com/lifeundermyskin

- In your preface, you evoke the paradoxical character of tattoos which, while touching what is the most intimate for a human being - his body, with its history and personal anguish – is also extremely ostentatious. Between an introspective dialogue and telling one’s story to others, what is at stake in the practice of tattooing ?

What the book shows (I hope !) is that there are as many relationships with tattooing as there are of tattoos, since each person, with his own story, how he relates to his body, his self-image and, of course, his tattoo collection, stands out from others. Even though people may be different, similar viewpoints emerge when they describe the same thing : the moment they are permanently inked with a motif on a chosen part of their body.
 
Tattooed people often use the term « diary » to describe their collection and explain their approach. We associate this term with Lacan’s concept of « extimacy» : a desire to communicate one’s « interior world » and better own one’s intimacy. What is interesting is that the tattooed person never claims his initial ambition nor a vital part of his reasoning to be the exchange provoked when he exposes his tattoo to the « other ». I have the impression it is a way to express and assert one’s identity by showing off the body « for one’s self, not for others ».
 
A tattoo is more than a superficial image inked on the skin, it reveals part of one’s intimacy via the body, his chosen vehicle for a more or less complex motif. Some tattooed people even go so far as to say that « all their tattoos were there before » and the tattooer only « revealed » them. This immediately makes me think of the ad on the web a few months ago for L’Oréal’s Dermablend foundation. In it we see Zombie Boy, a young Canadian man who created a fictitious identity linked to his radical collection of tattoos. They show what his body would be without the « skin » covering it, the tattoos literally bare him completely. His face, for example, is entirely tattooed to show his brain, eye sockets, teeth, jaw, face muscles, etc. At the beginning of the ad, we see his face covered with foundation so he looks like any young man without tattoos. Progressively, his makeup is removed in a fast-action film and he appears at the end entirely bare, in this case entirely tattooed. We sense the intrinsic links in tattooing between the idea of intimacy, exposing the body, telling a story or staging oneself … and then the advertising.
 
Concerning the choice of motif, I think it is always « a story we tell ». In an interview, Filip Leu (a well-known, contemporary tattooer) explains that the motif is an accessory, people get a tattoo primarily because they absolutely want to have one, not a particular motif. So evidently, to get a tattoo of the portrait of one’s mother who died makes a direct reference to a story, a specific pain we seek to dull by getting a permanent « mark ». Generally, we choose a motif we see as essential or personal to give a precise « sense » to our approach (especially since it is definitive !) rather than assuming an impulsive, primary aspect of this desire. This is human nature.

- For some people, tattooing is a sacrilege, for others, it represents an emancipation, a taking control. What does the democratization of this practice say regarding the evolution of our relationship with our body?

Beyond the personal history of each tattoo, the culture in which the subject is inscribed is also a key dimension to consider when we seek to answer the question of its relationship to the body. We note that the history of the tattooed body for Anglo-Saxons developed differently than for us as Latin and Catholic ! I think Protestantism initially had a more liberal vision of the body so it was more open to the concept.
 
Thus, when at the end of the 18th century, James Cook returned from a voyage to the South Seas accompanied by a tattooed Maori chief, he was perceived as a savage, though his body was a treasure map of his origins : tribe, social status, family, history … in sum, his identity. From that time a « tattoo trend » developed in the highest spheres of society : led by royalty and the nobility, this added to the practice’s acceptance.
 
In France and other Latin countries, tattooing was anchored in a different religious sphere where the relationship to the body was more restricted and tattoos were directly perceived as sulfurous, transgressive and blasphemous. In the late 19th century, they were quickly associated with pathological behavior and criminals (ex : the medical writings of Lyon doctor André Lacassagne and his disciples suggested tattooing as a way to count and tag prisoners : prostitutes, crazy people in asylums and other populations judged to be deviant so as to survey and « punish » them). In the collective imagination, tattoos remained in the realm of low life : a sentiment which « tribes » (bikers, punks, etc.) have developed and reinforced.
 
But things have changed, thanks to the circulation of ideas, images and the sacred television which has focused on tattoos over the last ten years, at least in appearance. I think the growing visibility of tattoos on the runway and in sports, music or even reality tattoo shows (LA Ink, Miami Ink, etc…) has allowed tattooing to come out of a shadowy zone where it was demonized by ignorance and fantasies. It has become democratic in the sense that more people get one or two small tattoos like they would buy a fashion garment. Yes, it has become a trend.
 
But if the body is more easily exposed and shown off, with or without tattoos, is it necessarily more liberated ? I sometimes feel the body is perhaps our last area of freedom. We can make a concrete, « marked » influence with it while being bombarded by images, ideals and models that force us to take a stand and pressure us disturbingly. In tattooing, we clearly feel what being « master of something » means : this is perhaps what makes it so special and exhilarating. In a world where everything virtual seems to slip through our fingers, the tattooed body can be our personal temple where we can be the ephemeral God. It lets us better prepare ourselves as a subject, reassure us about our identity and participate in its construction.

- Over-consumation, virtualizaion … The ephemeral and immaterial seem to dominate our everyday lives. Fighting against oblivion, the intangible or versatility, can we envision the practice of tattooing - from meeting the tattooer all the way to the finished product - as a symbolic struggle?

Yes exactly. I see tattooing as taking power over the subject of one’s body and thus one’s life. The permanence of tattoos is an essential dimension for this practice. The « gesture » of the tattoo has a true result, its « mark » lasts our entire life. When I had my first tattoo, I said to myself : this is the first time I can say I made a decision all by myself. I had an exhilarating sense of freedom, before things were « dictated » to me as a child, an adolescent and a young adult.

Also, I see tattooing as serving an essential function : it tends to reintegrate a human link in a society which often seems to lack it : the choice of the tattooer, meeting him, the ensuing dialogue … there is something very craftsmanlike and humane in tattooing. The tattoo machine itself is typical : it has not evolved technically since it was invented in the late 19th century. Also, most tattooers want to be called « tattoo craftsmen », accenting a modest profession which consists of « satisfying the client » by finding the right balance between a person’s ambitions. This « custom made » aspect, trendy today in other areas, is also part of the tremendous pleasure for the enthusiast when he sets out on a tattoo project. In an extreme personalization of his body by a unique definition, he collects custom-made images not found anywhere else « in that state ». This also raises passionate legal questions such as « image rights » or « author’s rights» for reproducing or copying a tattoo.
 
Finally, the experience cannot be more tangible, physical or concrete : ink, sweat, blood, plastic gloves, sometimes tears, odors, contact and, of course, pain. There is something ritual in tattooing (which we can link with tribal and clan practices where tattoos are an identifying « marker »), it is profoundly mysterious and attractive.

- Originally, a tattoo often meant belonging to a group. Does tattooing, as it is practiced today, still play a role in constructing collective identities?

Yes, in certain cases, the tattoo still serves to mark belonging to a group while affirming one’s individuality in the heart of a community. I think, obviously, of the 80’s gang phenomenon and more particulaly, the biker or rock’n’roll culture in the broad sense of the term. Tattooing thus appears like a « coded » wardrobe, a sign of recognition, the tarnished, yet reassuring sentiment that we are of the « same world » and stronger together than alone. Many sub-communities in the rock’n’roll world still use tattoos as a code. Rockabillies cultivate a 50’s nostalgia and love traditional, « Old School » tattoos (typical of the era), their full outfit often includes one or more tattoos of anchors, pin-ups, roses, daggers, etc… For « metalheads», a typical tattoo will have dark, iconographic references linked to the metal culture, cult groups, etc. It’s the same for skinheads with their sub-movements (Trojans, Redskins, etc…), precise codes and symbols that correspond to different ideas that must not be confused !
 
Without speaking directly of a collective identity, Russian prison tattoos are also a language in themselves, with specific significations and rich forms. David Cronenberg used them for inspiration in his film « Eastern Promises ». These tattoos make up a language that let prisoners know exactly who is who and who does what on the fringe of society and institutions. It helps trace a tattooed person’s identity, like deciphering a treasure map, and participates in the formation and sustainability of a parallel community with its codes, laws and language.
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