US history and politics

Social taboo to mobile art form

Written on the Body

Tattoos are a popular subject for art and design students' dissertations and certain students I tutored proudly revealed the latest addition to their bodies. For the younger generation, a token tattoo is a fashion accessory free of the negative connotations of primitivism and criminality that were common attitudes in western society. (There are now magazines and websites devoted to the subject and even Barbie dolls are pierced and tattooed.) Nevertheless, the extent and position of tattooing is still crucial to its social acceptance: none of my students had tattoos that covered their whole face.

To introduce students to the modernist view that "ornament is crime" I asked them to read Adolf Loos's famous 1908 essay on the subject; somewhat surprisingly this work is not mentioned in Written on the Body . Animated discussions then usually followed as to whether or not tattooing was a type of body art worthy of display in art galleries.

A common view of tattoos worn by Europeans is that they were a symptom of the colonial encounter, that is, a response to the discovery of tattooed inhabitants of Polynesia by explorers in the 18th century. The word tattoo certainly derives from that discovery. However, the aim of Written on the Body is to amend this view by demonstrating that tattoos have existed in Europe from the earliest times. It is, therefore, a historical rather than an anthropological or sociological account, a scholarly rather than a glossy picture book.

Fourteen essays by American and British academics cover a range of periods and places: tattoos in Roman times, early modern England, the Renaissance, Victorian Britain, India, Russia and modern America. They reveal the diversity of people who have sported tattoos either willingly or unwillingly: aristocrats, Christians, convicts, deviants, entertainers, lovers, pilgrims, sailors, serfs, soldiers and tribal peoples.

We also learn about the variety of social purposes they have served: commemorative, decorative, erotic, individual and group identification, religious, therapeutic. As various writers point out, our fascination with tattoos and our ambivalent feelings towards them stem from the many ambiguities associated with them. Simultaneously, they conceal and reveal; they both enhance and disfigure the body; they are both familiar and alien; imposed as a form of punishment, the group subjected to them may regard them positively; they are associated with pain and pleasure.

Juliet Fleming's essay on "The Renaissance tattoo" is one of the most illuminating because it discusses both the Renaissance period and the recent '"Tattoo renaissance" (identified by Arnold Rubin). The latter encompasses fine artists who treat tattooing as a creative form rather than as a high-street commercial operation dependent upon reproducing stock images via pattern sheets. Fleming employs the psychoanalytic concept of abjection to explain how unconscious feelings and desires may appear on the surface of the body. She also discusses the paradox that once tattoos are inscribed, they become a kind of mobile private property that cannot be bought and sold.

Susan Benson's essay considers tattooing and piercing in contemporary Euro-America. She claims that in recent decades a change of sensibility has taken place: "The identification with the primitive and exotic" has been "reconfigured as identification with the authentic, the uncommodified,the pure, in opposition to the corruptions of mainstream society." Tattoo artists and their customers have become more sophisticated, and because of postmodernism and globalisation, they incorporate imagery from diverse cultures around the world and invent new designs that enhance the shape of the body rather than randomly overlay it.

Despite its rather grey illustrations, repetitions and comparative neglect of the aesthetic characteristics of tattoos, Written on the Body is an original contribution to the subject. Anyone intrigued by tattoos and their cultural meanings should read it. Appropriately, the book's launch took place in London's Into You Tattoo shop, owned by Alex Binnie, one of the tattoo artists whose work it reproduced.

John A. Walker is emeritus reader in art and design history, Middlesex University.

Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History

Editor - Jane Caplan
ISBN - 1 86189 062 1
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £17.95
Pages - 318

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