Tattoos: Public Skin & The Fear of Flesh

If like me, you are a fan of body art and are often distracted by various on-line media sources; you may have noticed the influx of tattoo-related articles in recent weeks. The Guardian in particular has been quite tattoo-laden, and it’s always good to see positive coverage of body art in the mainstream media. However, what isn’t so good is the public comments that these articles undoubtedly always attract.

It still astonishes me just how many people feel the need – time and time again- to put finger to keyboard and enlighten the rest of us with their judgments, opinions and anecdotes about various tattoo-related hilarities: usually involving how dirty tattoos look, how ‘awful’ tattoos look on ageing skin, and one recent comment that told us we certainly wouldn’t want a tattooed surgeon operating on us in our hour of need (?!).

As a tattooed person, these are all things I’ve heard before, and hear/read repeatedly – especially in the comments section of such articles, and as a tattooed person studying tattoos as a PhD subject, I have an added interest in these public reactions.  I began this blog to explore my academic thoughts in a more informal context, the ideas shared here aren’t extensive and may need some work – I may have even changed my mind in a week’s time, who knows?!

I’ve been doing some reading and thinking around the Grotesque, carnivalesque and ‘space’ (of which we fill, not the planet-type space!), and what with these infuriating comments coming thick and fast, it got me thinking….

 When does skin become open to public comment and opinion? When does our or my skin become public skin – something open to opinion and derogatory judgments? Why do people think it’s acceptable to openly talk about how awful they think somebody’s skin is? In any other context, expressing our disgust at somebody’s body/skin/identity would be considered socially unacceptable, so what is it about tattoos that transgress these social boundaries of etiquette and common decency?

 Tattooed people are constantly left in a position where-by we are defending our choices, and ‘proving’ ourselves to be decent human beings. Yes, it’s our choice to become tattooed, and some people – a lot of people- don’t like tattoos, and that’s fine, of course. It is also ok for these people to express their views, obviously.  I’m not saying that it’s not, what I am wondering is why tattoos provoke such a reaction, and why people feel the need to express their dislike, distaste and disgust.

 On my reading around The Grotesque Body, I have been considering how as a society we actually don’t like bodies. We don’t like oozing, fleshy, functioning bodies. We are conditioned into liking ‘perfect’ bodies – the clean, the smooth and the compact. We don’t like talking about the stuff that bodies produce, (we are lead to believe by sanitary product advertisements for example, that menstrual blood is blue for goodness sake). Bodies scare us – hair, blood, guts and goo – YUK.

 I would take a guess at the majority of tattooed people being pretty much OK with the oozing, leaky, imperfect body. We have to be: sitting for hours at a time, bleeding and in some degree of discomfort, the healing and after-care– you get to know your body quite well. We are embodied subjects, at one with our bodies. And it’s my suggestion, possibly even hypothesis (for fear of sounding like an ACTUAL SCIENTIST) that this is what some (not all) non-tattooed people fear. I will point our here, that I know many non-tattooed people who are completely ‘at-one’ with their bodies, and they don’t judge tattooed people. Tattooed bodies (heavily tattooed bodies specifically) represent positive excess, and we as a society are not meant to engage with any kind of excess.

A tattooed body is a strong, powerful body – it says, “fuck you, I’m not adhering to your social norms and mainstream ideals of what it is to be beautiful”…. And some people don’t like being addressed like that: being stared back at by the bodies they were staring at in the first place.

 Tattooed bodies are a new kind of beautiful, a new aesthetic – a scary prospect perhaps. Tattooed bodies are not docile bodies, and that, to some people is just not acceptable.

If you would like to read about the grotesque, carnivalesque and some other stuff, you may like to read these if you haven’t already:

 

The Female Grotesque by Mary Russo

Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin

Extreme Beauty by J Swearingen and J Cutting-Gray

Space, Time and Perversion by Elizabeth Grosz

In the Flesh by Victoria Pitts

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Women Artists Making Their Mark

 

Always happy to see some positive coverage of tattoos in the mainstream media, imagine my delight when I saw this blog post on the Guardian site, about women tattoo artists:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/fashion-blog/2012/oct/05/female-tattoo-artists-make-their-mark?commentpage=7#start-of-comments
I have used the term ‘women artists’ and not ‘female artists’ because any use of the word ‘female’ in relation to any discussion surrounding the human race and not the animal kingdom makes me cringe.

My first observation was that the blog appeared in the ‘fashion blog’ section, which made me think why not the society section, or art, or culture? I’m not sure if the placement of the blog depends upon the person who writes the post, or who makes the decision – the author or the editor. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting point that the placement happened to be in ‘fashion’. I think, especially as the post is about ARTISTS, I would have preferred it to be placed within the art section, or culture at least.

The sub-heading states that the increase in women artists is “changing the business” but doesn’t really go on to explain why or how within the post. I mean, I would like to know – how exactly are women changing the business? Yes there is a noticeable increase in women artists – and this is indeed, brilliant of course. But, how is this changing the tattoo business?

The article also asks why women artists are so popular. Why wouldn’t they be? This is a valid question, I suppose – the women mentioned in the article are well known within the industry and are the ‘hot names’ at the moment, which is why they have waiting lists years long, but this happens to male artists too. It does pose the question, do people go out to find a woman artist specifically? Or when looking for a tattoo artist, does one look at the art work first, and gender second? Would you choose a woman artist over a man *just* because you want a woman artist?

Do women really make ‘different’ art to men? Is there a feminine aesthetic? Surely we are past the idea that men create ‘masculine’ art and women create ‘feminine’ art….. aren’t we?

One statement in the blog post really caught my attention: “with 20 million of the 62.6 million of us in the UK inking our bodies, the aesthetic of beauty is shifting”. CUE MY PhD! I love the idea of a shifting beauty aesthetic, and the fact that tattoos are a part of this. This, has it happens, is a major focus within my PhD.
So although I began by saying I was pleased when I saw this article, I seemed to have moaned about it a little, and questioned it somewhat, and perhaps I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. But questioning, and critiquing is a good thing, surely.

And, the post does point out that the tattoo industry is a “hugely progressive industry in terms of gender equality”.

Hoorah!