(Peter Northcott, March 26, 2012)
A recent, and much responded to, posting on the KCRT Facebook page requested suggestions for a new tattoo the poster was contemplating. She wondered what kind of image would best suit her rational, free-thinking, atheistic identity. No yin and yang nor cross nor crescent for her. No Virgin of Guadalupe or horned Mephistopheles would hitch a lifelong ride on her body. Rather, she mused about the iconography of a Celtic tree of life or a Dawkinsian “A” and whether or not these images would suffice.
Hmmm – I thought to myself. What is it with tattoos anyway? Born just after the 2nd. World War and sandwiched between the old-fashioned, often patriotic tattoos of our fathers and the contemporary, expressionistic tattoos of our sons and daughters, and like many in my particular sub-culture, I am devoid of any permanently inked dermal decoration and likely to stay that way.
Are tattoos, as one respondent observed, a graphic illustration of basically irrational thinking? Or, as others suggested, are they meaningful – worthy manifestations of our human intelligence and identity? Some may suggest other lines of enquiry.
Are they cool or kitsch? Are they sexy or not? Are they revealing or concealing? Are they shocking or boring? Are they fun or sad? Are they genuine tribal signals or phony symbols of insecure identity? Are they revolutionary or conformist? Are they for the elite or the exploited. Are they unique or stereotyped? These are all good questions. More to the point, are they worth writing a blog article about?
Not surprisingly, religion offers little guidance when it comes to tattoos. Some faiths strictly forbid the practice; others condone and even encourage it. What we do know is that tattoos have been around for a long time. Ötzi, the ice-man of the Alps was tattooed and he died over 5,000 years ago. But just because tattoos have a long history doesn’t automatically justify their use and continuing existence as rational or desirable. After all, circumcision, foot-binding, skull flattening, scarification, branding, piercing, neck stretching, blood-letting, castration and other kinds of body modification and mutilation also go way back. Some of these practices, performed on children, too young or powerless to give their consent, are, as a result, very difficult to defend as reasonable behaviour. The same kind of opprobrium extends to historical instances of forcible tattoos being applied to slaves, prisoners and concentration camp inmates. Notwithstanding the duress involved, our condemnation is also reasonably based on the permanently harmful or potentially harmful effects of the practices. If tattoos were intrinsically benign or of a temporary nature, there would be no concern about them. However, there are well known health risks associated with tattoos and there are also less well known concerns about toxic communications between people over the visual impacts of misunderstood tattoos.
When an adult human freely chooses to have permanently inscribed images or symbols tattooed into his or her skin it does raise questions. “What the hell was she thinking?” being one of them. The mental image of a sixty-year old with an ever expanding love butterfly on her lower back is only equalled by that of her male counterpart sporting sagging lightning bolts on his calves. “What the hell was HE thinking?”
Recent surveys have shown that about a third of Canadians aged between 18 and 30 have tattoos on their bodies and the trend is increasing. Like it or not, tattoos are now mainstream. But that doesn’t make them rational. I am convinced that rationality is secondary to much older behavioural imperatives when it comes to tattoos and the images and symbols which comprise them. Like many other human activities – cigarette smoking, fashion, popular music, social networking, speeding, slang, Stanley Cup rioting, where reason is not the primary driving force, tattoos are here to stay . . . for now at least. So, if I were the tattooing kind, I’d suspend any worry about rationality and my suggestion to the original poster would be . . . a heart.
After all, love is all that really matters.