Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Problem with Tattoos

I’ve never had a tattoo and am not thinking about changing that, although I jokingly threaten my wife that I’ll get one, and she very cleverly says, “I don’t care.” But I’ve noticed that tattoo parlors are now all over the place. The artists in them are no longer bushy-bearded, pony-tailed men with hemp-stained teeth, former hippies angry at the world. They’re now surface dwellers, some even graduates of fine arts schools, now jobless and in need of rent money, and have found a prissy vocation in dying human flesh.

There’s a problem in all of this. Tattoos are everywhere. Take, for example, the gym that I go to for a “work out,” where I lift bar bells grandmothers would laugh at. The overwhelming majority of patrons there have tattoos: forearms, upper-arms, calves, chests, necks, fingers, and ankles. Some extol Satan, mother, the names of love interests, Harleys, crucifixes, weapons, dragons, fire, spiders, abstractions, hell, flowers, Jesus, the Marines, the spirit, God, stars, angels, snakes, and superheroes, to name a few.

In this tattoo glut there’s a general loss of meaning. When I was growing up, tattoos used to mean something: some kind of countercultural expression, a protest against the yoke of certain mores and expectations, an all-purpose middle-finger at authority. I’m not saying I agree with their former message, but still, a message was there. No pun intended, but today’s tattoo phenomenon is representative of a broad and expanding problem that is best described as a dedication to surface, to integument. These walking tattoo canvases are not even pretending anymore. They have an unabashed sense of purposelessness in marring their skins. It’s not even fake remonstration, a love with the appearance of off-road thinking. No. None of that.

It is, I’m afraid, the end of the world. Ok, how about . . . what Frank Thomas and Matt Weiland include in their little noticed volume: Commodify Your Dissent, a collection of essays from various authors that mourn the loss of true dissent and countercultural spark. What caused the loss? Is it a victory of the scourge of the ordinary and complacent, the glacial momentum of conformity? No! Get this: it is a commercialization of all things countercultural. Yes, the corporate world has discovered the perfect assassin of alternative thought: make money out of it by supply-sided economics, inspiring kids by the throngs to flock to the fringe, thus eliminating the meaning of fringe and emasculating its long and unofficial historical role of keeping people true.

Here’s what my tattoo will read: “Down with Down!” I know, you don’t care either.


Blogger M. Landers said...

In talking to people, you may find that many tattoos mean something very personal to the person who bears them -- often even the most seemingly superficial ones. Not rebellion anymore, but rememberance: of people loved and lost, times held dear, accomplishments, and hurdles overcome. While I may or may not agree with the marks people choose to put on their bodies, and while many of them are indeed "fad-ish," it would be erroneous to say that modern tattoos are necessarily purposeless.

~M (daughter of a man who for some reason got a 70s stylized parrot emblazened on his leg when he was young, which just may mar my point a bit)

5/24/2006 6:58 PM  
Anonymous from clay said...

What you say is true re: the personal aspect, but still the point I raise is about the general loss of the meaning of off-roading thinking and the signs of this loss in pop, high, or fringe culture--all of which is increasingly commercialized. BTW: it could be that a parrot tattoo meant something in the 70's.

5/24/2006 10:50 PM  
Blogger Julaybib said...

I agree that the countercultural has been subsumed by consumerism. But then there is the counterculture that is anti-consumerist - cultural jamming:



5/30/2006 11:05 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

I'll buy some popcorn and watch and see what happens with that movement. It's not clear what the ideal or social impetus is behind it. Don't mean to be pessy, but sounds postmodern to me, like my punctuation. Unless you can explain the movement and, along the way, tell me what that logo means, which looks interesting.

5/31/2006 5:28 PM  

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