Why Tattoos?

A quick disclaimer for family who are reading this: I haven’t gone out and gotten a tattoo — yet. But I have been giving tattoos a lot of thought recently, mulling over their appeal, and why the designs that appeal to me do so.

A quick warning for anyone considering getting a tattoo: remember that they’re permanent. If you’re tempted to get one, understand why, understand what the design you choose means (both to you and the world at large). Think about the potential social and vocational impact getting your tattoo will have (placement has a lot to do with this as well as design). Think about the design you want to get: is it a passing fancy, or is it something that you are really still going to value in 30 years? Even if the meaning behind it will be something you will value then, will the design you choose to represent that meaning still have the same relevance in 30 years time? Cultural references of the moment will not weather well. Is the design artistically well done, and is the artist that you want to apply the design competent, experienced, and professional? This is going to be with you a long time, it is worth spending the money to ensure that the artistry of the design and the application is top rate.

Now, all that aside…

Tattoos have held a fascination for me for well over a decade. However, I don’t have any because I never could fulfill my own criteria in my warning above. I never have been able to fully explain — even to myself — why the designs that appealed to me did so. Nor have any of the designs that appealed to me been stable; they’ve shifted subtly over time.

Still, there have been commonalities in the designs I have been drawn to: They are all writing, with no images; none of them are in English, but are in some foreign writing system or other (from Kanji to Hieroglyphics); they are all representations of philosophical maxims or religious concepts.

I believe that I finally understand why tattooing has appealed to me in this particular way, although to explain it, I have to invoke the stories of Franz Kafka.

In Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony” (wikipedia, online e-text), Kafka writes (in part) about a particularly visceral form of corporal punishment, in a very surrealistic justice system. Under this system, the condemned were neither informed as to the charges against them, nor their sentence. Instead, prisoners were executed by being imprisoned within a device, which was given a “script”, which was the calligraphic rendering of a moral imperative related to the offense they were supposed to have committed: A murderer might be given the script “Thou shalt not kill”, a practitioner of hate crimes might be given the text “Love thy neighbor” etc. No attempt was made to reach the prisoner’s reason, to try and correct their thinking, to reach their better natures, or to rehabilitate them. No education, or lecture, nor any mentally perceivable message was imparted to the prisoner. Instead the script of their sentence was slowly and carefully engraved into the very flesh of the prisoner, by needles, as the means of execution. Not only was this supposed “poetic justice”, but according to one of the story’s characters (the Officer):

The most stupid of them begin to understand. It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds.

What cannot be taught by mind and morals, is inscribed inescapably and indelibly into the very flesh of the condemned, and therein do they inescapably learn the lesson they need to.

Now this may all seem extremely macabre to you; it seems so to me — nor is this any more than a facet of the background for the story, it has a much more complex meaning. However this aspect of “In the Penal Colony” might not be all that different than the reasons that the types of tattoo designs that appeal to me, do so. Remember that the designs that appeal to me are almost always philosophical maxims or religious concepts: moral imperatives of a type. What draws me are the lessons, the concepts, that I feel I dare not forget or lose site of – and how can one do so when they are indelibly made part of one’s physical being? Every mirror, every comment and every question about them becomes a moral reminder and a moral teacher.

It also explains why the designs that have appealed to me have changed over the years, and why they have remained relatively stable (subtle aesthetic changes only) for the past several years. In the process of “growing up”, that which I needed reminding of most has altered. Only once I finally have a (relatively consistent) grasp on “who I am”, what my values are, and what my strengths and weaknesses are (both in abilities and in “character“) has what I believe I need reminding of most likewise become stable. I guess that means that the relative stability of the designs I find appealing is a good thing.

Not that I’m planning on rushing out and getting “inked” later today, but it is interesting to finally realize what the appeal tattooing has had for me means, and now that I examine the designs that appeal to me most a little closer, more than a little revealing.

Links and Further Reading

The Eri Takase suite of websites
Eri Takase is an award winning Japanese Calligrapher, who has branched out into several graphic arts fields, including the design of custom Kanji based tattoo designs. She has several websites devoted to sub-genres of her work, including Takase.com (her original website), Shodokai.com (her current website), and StockKanji.com (a website devoted to pre-existing work that doesn’t need her customized attention).
Urban Primitive
The tattoo studio of Daemon Rowanchilde, arguably Southern Ontario’s best, and certainly most famous tattoo artist. Daemon’s work has is multi-award winning, and has an international following, with several celebrity clients such as Billy Bob Thornton (wikipedia, Internet Movie Database, and home site). Even if you are not a fan of Tattoos, Daemon’s designs are well worth looking at simply as pieces of art, completely apart from their nature as body art. (I also wouldn’t take Billy Bob Thornton’s non-Daemon Rowanchilde tattoo as examples of good tattoo work, in my opinion)

4 Responses to Why Tattoos?

  1. Ggurl says:

    Please don’t overthink this and make it some kind aged tradition that makes sense. The real point is, as I sit here watching March Madness (Louisville), so many very handsome young men have butchered their appearance with shoulder to elbow, etc. crap that just looks hideous…and will only look more so as they age. Imagine being a 50 year old dad–who never made it to the NBA, so celebrity won’t explain it away–just a regular old man with f-d up arms with meaningless messages that no one else gives a rat’s ass about, and you look just down right stupid, as well as ugly. What the hell goes through anyone’s mind (white or black) when you tattoo your entire arm…or neck…or back….or behind?? UGH! Absolutely a total turnoff, male or female, once you are about 25. Think before you tat!

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  4. Mr Springer says:

    I’m talking from personal, currect experience. Take my views as loaded with emotion and still quite raw.

    I have a beautiful wife. We’ve been together for 22 years and have 3 lovely children, all of whom are terrific kids. In recent years, my wife has been talking about getting a tattoo: each time, I’ve expressed a personal view that Tattoos represent marginalisation, acts of rebellion (against what depends on the person). In short, of a desire to be non-conventional or unique. I deplore them.

    Last week however, she declared that she’d booked a session to get the tattoo done. In a fit of anger I said that “if you do, then don’t bother coming home”. I of course did not mean that literally: it was a statement of strong objection to the idea. My view is that if a permenant, irreversable decision is being made, in a marriage, there needs to be mutual agreement – even if the decision is that one party does not like it, but can live with it…

    Needless to say, whilst I was abroad travelling, when talking to my children on Skype, my eldest told me that my wife had had the tattoo done. I was livid. I was angry (still am). I was full of rage in a way I’ve not experienced ever before. I felt betrayed, dismissed and as though two fingers had been stuck up at me.

    I had no part in deciding what, where, when or how the tattoo was going to be done. Now it’s there, it represents an indellible symbol of defiance. I’m left with two choices: deal with it or divorce.

    You my think that that is an extreme view: be midful of the two important things here: I personally have an aversion to tattoos and I have as a core part of my personality, a need for mutual respect and understanding in a relationship. Being left with no choice is humiliating and profundly insulting.

    After the event when I expressed how her acting in this way made me feel, wife has become contrite and admits that she got locked onto the idea of wanting a tattoo and did not hear my objection. She genuinely thought that I’d dislike the idea but get over it. She wishes it had never been done. As do I.

    I’m really not sure if this act of betrayal of trust can be overcome. We may well separate as a result of her acting in such a selfish, willful way over something that is irreversible. I won;t extertain ideas of removal because that no longer the point: it’s the process of deciding to get it done despits as not having discussed it properly as a couple that is now the root problem for me.

    I’d advise ANYONE thinking of getting a tattoo to think about it long and hard. Then thing again. Unless you are 100% certain that you and your partner are absolutey in agreement over getting the tattoo, then defer the decision.

    There’s a bit of advice I was given years ago & largely live to it (naturally it cannot apply to EVERY sitution): never make a decision that closes off options, or is irreversible.



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