The philosophy of tattoos

Tattoos have moved beyond being adorned only by convicts and sailors
Tattoos have moved beyond being adorned only by convicts and sailors
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Is it a pretty picture? A memorial for a person or event? A statement of criminal intent? A place to list your lovers? Maybe it’s camouflage for a scar? Are they beautiful or shaming? Are they really addictive?

Once upon the 20th century, tattoos were mainly seen on sailors and prisoners, but a 2006 poll found that 40 per cent of Americans between 26 and 40 were tattooed. That, writes Rocky Rakovic, means “there are more people with tattoos than there are blondes in the United States”.

Editor Robert Arp writes: “Everyone who has (or keeps) a tattoo probably thinks of the tattoo as a constant visual reminder of who they are and/or what they have experienced, whether the experience is a positive or negative one.”

Like any collection – and like tattoos themselves – this book is a mixed bag. To my mind, some of the best stuff comes at the beginning, in essays on the history of skin art, which dates to the Bronze age, and possibly longer ago than that. In many cultures tattoos were part of the rites of attaining manhood, though in ancient Egypt, it was predominantly a female practice. Tattoos may have been employed as talismans, protecting their bearers from harm. Mummies have been discovered bearing symbols of the god Bes, who protected women during pregnancy and birth.

The point, say authors Charles Taliaferro and Mark Odden, is that “tattoos have a cultural dimension that is not necessarily subject to private interpretation. . . . The image may be permanent, but, contrastingly, the meaning or interpretation of the image is fluid.”

Lovers of literature may enjoy Something Terribly Flawed: Philosophy and The Illustrated Man, an examination of Ray Bradbury’s short story, in relation to the inker’s art that references Foucault, among others.

I was also intrigued by the ideas set out in My Tattoo May Be Permanent, But My Memory of it Isn’t, by Clancy Smith. In it, he writes about a friend who got a tattoo while in the army, in order to have a place to “put” his experiences, good and bad. Years later, it functioned more as a symbol of his accomplishments. “How he finds himself interpreting the tattoo, at a given moment, speaks more of that given moment than it does about the events of the past,” concludes Smith.

Like an intricate tattoo, this anthology bears revisiting, with the certain knowledge that you’ll take away something different from every encounter.

I Ink, Therefore I am is published by Wiley-Blackwell, £19.99 paperback