Tattoos, not yet everywhere on everyone, nevertheless have reached cultural critical mass. What do they signify?
Yesteryear’s “Mother” in a small heart on a lone bicep now seems quaint, overwhelmed by boisterous “body art.” On a July day in Washington, the art was on bold display. “Sleeve” tattoos stretched from wrists to shoulders and more across the legs of a father, his two preschool sons at his side and enough metal in his ears to open a hardware store. Viselike “bracelets” encircled the biceps of a young policeman and his female partner in line at a fast-food franchise. Behind the officers stood a lanky boy whose tank top revealed a giant squid battling a sailing ship, both riding a wave cresting from elbow to shoulder.
A large, colorful butterfly permanently alighted between the shoulders of a middle-aged woman in a summer dress at Union Station. What looked like a small polar bear, apparently having ingested a smaller penguin, decorated the ankle of a mother with two young daughters at a swimming pool in Northern Virginia.
Scythe-like shapes imitating those of Maori tribesmen, Gothic letters and engraved images — from faces of deceased family members to portraits of Christ — are inked until death’s dissolution on arms, shoulders, necks and breasts of fast-food workers, street vendors, college students, grandparents and entertainers from the singer Pink to former New England Patriots’ receiver and current murder suspect Aaron Hernandez. Whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians — all are so bedecked.
In one sense, this ubiquitous explosion of indelibility suggests tattoos are today’s cigarettes. Two generations ago, smoking could be a sign of sophistication or rebellion. Depending on who was puffing and how — a crisply tailored Cary Grant offering a coolly attractive Eva Marie Saint a light in “North by Northwest” or a leather-jacketed Marlon Brando putting a match to a smoke in “The Wild One” — omnipresent cigarettes signified status and attitude.
One’s preferred brand reinforced the meaning: Marlboro indicated cowboy independence; Lucky Strike, proletarian stolidity; Kent, “with the Micronite filter,” higher aspirations.
Tattoos and their size now do the same. Forty years ago, they were seen mainly on men from the margins — convicts, boxers and sailors. Tattoo parlors were disreputable, out-of-the-way operations. The little banner “Born to raise hell” became a declasse stereotype.
Today, parlor owners belong to local chambers of commerce. Their well-advertised establishments can be found in suburban strip malls. Magazines including Inked and Tattoo Life celebrate tattoo “art and culture” for mass-market “enthusiasts.”
However, tattoos as cigarettes illuminate only part of this ostensibly individualist, essentially conformist phenomenon. A “Speed Bump” cartoon by Dave Coverly pictures a diner, Chinese characters down one arm, with an open fortune cookie. He reads: “It says, ‘Your tattoo does not mean what you think it means.”
Bodily embellishment by South Sea islanders, especially disfigurement like the extensive tattoos — actually body carvings — of the Maori, struck explorers as exquisite and bold. Sailors carried Polynesian tattooing meant to signify social status back to Europe. Today, the Maori cutting practice reportedly enjoys a limited revival in both New Zealand and the Old World.
At the dawn of Western civilization more than 3,000 years ago, the Israelites made male circumcision the only permissible permanent body alteration, meant to manifest a covenantal relationship between man and God. A key part of that covenant was the understanding that the body was a vessel for the God-given soul, a soul that would return to its giver for judgment. Christianity dispensed with circumcision, but not Judaism’s belief in an ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust body as temporary temple of a permanent spirit.
Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates not only to deny Jews their humanity, but also their covenantal observance. Today’s tsunami of tattoos, freely chosen though it is, denies the Judeo-Christian precept that our bodies, temporary carriers of our souls, belong not to us, but to the Creator. We are, in essence, only leasing; the contract forbids permanent redecoration.
Yet an increasingly secularized society insists otherwise. It mistakes radical personal autonomy for the pursuit of happiness, which, according to the Founders, is dependent for its successful exercise on virtues such as self-restraint. In the “body art” of a nation, one reads rejection of the transcendent in favor of adornment of the material.
Eric Rozenman is a news media analyst in Washington.