“So, what’s the story?” she asked me, with a tone between bemusement and condescension. I was floating somewhere off the coast of Dakar when a fellow American in my study abroad program began her questioning. She was, of course, waiting to hear my prepared meaningful justification for the large tattoo on my hip. At the time, I found the interjection to be invasive, and I quipped back, “there isn’t one,” but I was left wondering if I should have a story to tell.
In fact, her question is not uncommon and stems from a deep, historic stigmatization of tattoos and other body modifications. Within the context of Northern America, tattoos entered society as a counterculture means of expression associated primarily with sailors, bikers, and criminals. The content was limited largely to heavy lines, cartoonish color, Americana images, and graphic lettering. While some modern tattoo enthusiasts look back on this style as the quintessence of American tattooing and have a made a point to reproduce it, it was during this era when tattoos were viewed least favorably. Tattooed men and especially women were rejected from middle class, polite society and labeled trashy, criminal, and irresponsible.
Since the 1960s, however, tattooing has undergone an artistic Renaissance. The technology involved has seen significant improvements and the content has expanded to include artistic styles such as watercolor and photorealism that allow for greater variety. Artists moved to the world of tattooing for a chance to create on a human canvas. With this shift came an expansion in clientele as well as the growing necessity to ascribe meaning to tattoos. A well-constructed elevator pitch became the ticket tattoos and tattooed persons needed to penetrate the skeptical middle class.
Social scientists Eric Madfis and Tammi Arford embarked to study the issues involved with embodied symbolic representation. Their work focuses on tattoo regretters and seeks to dissect the origins and implications of these regrets. What became clear through the interview process was that the need to legitimize their choices provided the core issue for the majority of respondents. Madifs and Arford observe that “part of creating an acceptable post-renaissance middle class tattoo narrative is the formulation of a reasonably profound, if not spiritually significant, meaning for one’s tattoo(s).”
This is where problems arise. A tattoo, in its nature, is both extremely personal as well as subject to public consumption. Often one’s personal choices or artistic tastes and interpretations are not publicly displayed or critiqued in the way that tattoos bear scrutiny. Thus a tattooed person or someone planning to get a tattoo must consider both their personal motivations and the potential interpretation of anyone they are likely to meet. These circumstances unfortunately set the stage for a muddled understanding of one’s own motivations and apply a pressure to prove.
Madif and Arford discuss how regret can stem from the inadequacy of a tattoo as a symbol and point to two key origins: a lack of absolute meaning and meaning that is in constant motion. A symbol is defined as a word, phrase, or image having a complex of associated meanings. When an individual is pressured to assign a singular meaning to a symbol, its misinterpretation is frustrating. Respondents commented that sometimes strangers or friends did not ‘get’ their interpretation of the tattoo and therefore imposed their own interpretations in a way that was harmful or discouraging to the respondent. Tattoo-ees want to have control over the symbols on their bodies as well as the meaning prescribed, but as Madif and Arford have exposed, there is no absolute control over the meaning of a symbol as long as others are privy to it. As others misread or misunderstand tattoos individuals feel that their artwork is somehow devalued and therefore regrettable.
Perceived meaning is subject to each individual’s interpretation, but is also subject to the passage of time. When a symbol’s meaning or an individual evolves, the disconnect can cause feelings of regret. Respondents in the study lamented cultural shifts that effectively changed the meanings of different phrases or images. One man with a tattoo of the Boston Tea Party to honor his home town and represent his passion for non-violent protest was discouraged when years later the extreme-right Tea Party began monopolizing this symbol. He felt the change in meaning was out of his control but was imposed on his person in the most literal sense.
Issues of changing meaning can also come from within. Respondents with tattoos that mark a time in their lives that they no longer identify with have trouble justifying the presence of these artifacts of a past version of themselves. For example a middle-aged woman covered up an image of a marijuana leaf she got in her twenties. She explained, “I just didn’t want the symbol there because it’s not really something that’s part of my life anymore…I don’t smoke pot now. It’s not a part of my reality or everyday existence.” The hackneyed harp, “you know that is going to be there for life,” is in fact a legitimate concern.
Madifs and Arford seem to paint a glum picture and we are left to wonder if there is a way to operate in a skeptical society and stay true to ourselves, or if it’s worth it. I argue that there is merit after all. Tattoos offer a form of communication, a way for individuals to share a part of their identity that cannot necessarily be expressed in words. There is an exchange and an intrigue that a tattoo creates that many tattooed persons welcome and find exciting. It is an invitation of friendship or acknowledgement among like-minded individuals that creates community where it would not exist otherwise. It can be a means of remembrance or rebellion that is extremely personal or decidedly public. The issues that Madif and Arford brought to light are troubling, but there are ways to improve the process of exchanging and ascribing meaning.
The final respondents of the study were heavily tattooed individuals. When asked about issues of symbolic representation and misinterpretation their response was that instead their focus was evolution. A young man named Bill explained, “Having so many tattoos, I’ve learned that I evolve constantly, I’m never the same. I don’t feel the same way I did when I had my straight-edge tattoos done. I don’t think that way anymore, you know what I mean. But at the same time I feel like they are what they are. That was a marking of that time period in my life.” It is important when choosing to get a tattoo that one understand the inevitability of one’s own evolution. To be misguided or naive about this fact leads to disappointment or regret later on. Understand that what you care about now can change. Though the symbol will remain, it does not have to become obsolete.
As tattoo observers and admirers, we must respect the individuals that bear these symbols. It is not a lone piece of art; it is attached to someone. It is not anyone’s place to demand a “story” or justification. Showing interest and appreciation goes without saying. But we must distance ourselves from the expectation of a canned, pristine narrative. This stifles and works to homogenize an artform for the sake of policing individual expression.