Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
I am far from being a “tattoo victim”. I just have two little tattoos and I am going cautiously for the third, but that doesn’t hold me from being a great fan of tattoo art. I love tattoos of all styles and shapes, decorative, dramatic, profound, funny, classic, Japanese, mistaken… all of them!
Writing and drawing on our skin has yet become a mainstream practice, especially among young generations. Tattoos are usually known as a form of art, but can also play a role in religious practices and in cultures in general, especially with respect to rites of passage. They have been studied extensively by cultural anthropologists, who often consider tattoos important mediums for the “construction” of Men (and Women). As a matter of fact, it is a position often defended in anthropology that no human being is born a Man, but it is rather through cultural practices that the human being leaves her animal nature behind to become part of the human society.
But why are so many people driven to get their skin inked permanently in the spoiled, globalized and capitalistic societies of nowadays, where everything appears to serve the logic of profit, without any space left for artistic and cultural value? Are we really nothing more than roving zombies, selling the brands we are marked by, just to follow the last trend and buy again what is being sold by the skin of others?
No. At least, I don’t think that self-determination has been entirely replaced by capitalist determination. We still can see the traces of a cultural phenomenon, not based on strictly economic structures.
As some contemporary philosophers have noted, the Cartesian separation of body and mind has never completely abandoned the way westerners conceive of themselves as persons. The body is usually considered a dead vehicle, carrying around our living “thinking substance”. This enables us to think about our bodies as being plastic, modifiable, almost replaceable, like products on the market.
At the same time, I think that having a tattoo could be interpreted in the opposite way, as the attempt to reconnect body to soul. To make concrete something our elusive and forgetful mind could lose track of. To shape our bodies according to our minds, not for mere conformism, but in order to make our bodies look more similar to what is going on in our brains.
One of the dearest friends of mine showed me once the pair of wings she was carrying on her back, those with which her sister is flying up in the sky, now that she has passed away. The cousin of another friend had a black, straight segment tattooed on her forearm, which reminds her of one of the best holidays she has ever had. I have a Greek Ф (phi) on my wrist, which connects me to the realms of philosophy, nature (physis), and friendship (philia), among other things.
Getting oneself tattooed is part of the endeavor of building bridges between the physical and the psychological dimensions of ourselves. We are still trying to “construct ourselves” with tattoos, but not from scratch, nor to get rid of our “animal nature”. We try to resew the mind-body rip our frenetic societies have enlarged. We try to “pull ourselves together”, against the external pressure aimed at tearing us apart to make ourselves more efficient and productive in the marketplace.
Whatever we are, we are also made of our personal histories and stories, and tattoos offer a new possibility for our bodies to tell them. I think no one should worry about getting a tattoo, but rather of doing (or refrain from doing) something which doesn’t belong to one’s true inclinations. Also, not being excessively thoughtful often helps to make the right decision.