The tattooed body.
A tattoo can be defined as a permanent mark on the skin obtained by the insertion of a pigment of different colors with the help of a pointy instrument (today, an electric tattoo machine). Together with other body modification practices, like branding (1), scarification (2) or piercing (3), to name but a few, the practice of tattooing has been a research subject for anthropology from the very dawns of this academic discipline. The fact that these bodily practices were encountered in many non-western societies, led to a description of them as "primitive", a description still encountered in some studies. Although tattooing has become an increasing popular practice in many Western countries, a certain marginalization of it from society writ large still persists and this is also visible in many academic studies that link tattooing to deviance or individual psychopathology. A tattoo continues to be regarded as a mark of Otherness, even though it is not a remote, "primitive" Other, but one that is among us yet still considered marginal in some way.
Drawing on different perspectives of what can be called an anthropology of the body the present study aims at revealing the way in which the tattooed body is a lived and narrative body. This subfield of anthropology regards the body as a cultural construct, and not as a biological entity: the body image that each person forms depends on the social, cultural, relational and personal context. Moreover, the body becomes an identity resource, being a subject of both knowledge and one's own will. The meaning of the tattooed body is always discursively constructed and reconstructed in different contexts, depending on the persons that demand the linguistic construction of such a meaning. The mixing of different discourses is reflected also in the designs and styles of tattoos (heterogeneous cultural elements are visible in the practice of tattooing). A constant feature in the stories that people tell is that in some way or another, a tattoo is regarded as an expression of identity.
Because the aim of this study was to reveal the narrative aspects of the tattooed body, the main research method used was that of the interview. A series of 10 semi-structured interviews were conducted with 5 female and 5 male respondents, with an age between 20 and 27, all residing in Cluj-Napoca at the time of the study. All the respondents were either employed or were attending university. One of them was a tattoo artist working at his own home. The interviews lasted between 20 minutes and 2 hours and 30 minutes, were tape recorded, transcribed and then analyzed. (4)
The body project: a theoretical overview
Over the last three decades an increase in the academic interest towards the body and all that concerns can be noticed. A series of factors that determined a positioning of the body as a subject worthy of academic inquiry can be identified. A first factor is the series of economic changes, most importantly the shift towards a post-industrial economy with an increase of leisure possibilities and of the importance of consumption together with a series of analysis of consumer culture which take an interest in the body as commodity and as cultural capital. Another factor is the emergence of second wave feminism that questions the sex/gender distinction as a reiteration of the nature/culture, body/mind dichotomies, and also questions the notion of the body as a biological entity, showing how the equating of women with corporeality has aided in their subjection. Along with this second wave feminism, a series of other liberation movements (the civil rights movement, the gay liberation movement, and the movement for the rights of disabled persons) question the ways that the body has been used in the subjection and discrimination of certain social groups. A third important factor is the analysis of the changes in the modes of governmentality, a central notion being that of Michel Foucault's "docile body". The body is viewed as an object of control taking into account both the micro-politics of body regulations and the macro-politics of population control. Another factor is the demographic revolution and the graying of the western population in the context of many technological developments, especially bio-medical ones that determine a series of insecurities regarding what the realities of the body are. And a last important factor is the repositioning of corporeality and subjectivity as important resources in different academic disciplines. The acknowledgement of the location of the embodied point of view can be regarded as an important step in this direction. (5)
All these factors determined a questioning of the body as a given, biological entity, and a problematisation of the body in connection with a series of different subjects like: identity, gender, race, class, sexuality, normativity, social (dis)order, bio-medical and scientific knowledge, ethics etc. (6) As Elisabeth Grosz puts it: "There are only concrete bodies, bodies in the plural, bodies with a specific sex and color." (7) The body is no longer viewed as a natural fact, existing outside and prior to culture, but as a cultural entity, not as a stable object, but as a constant flux. The body is no longer regarded as a reality that only biology and the natural sciences can uncover, but it becomes a problem, it has a history.
Much analysis starts exactly from considering the way the concept of the body was developed in western thought. Cartesian dualism is regarded as a turning point in the western conception of the body as a natural entity. The Cartesian body/mind dualism assumes a distinction between body and mind that, according to David le Breton, leads to a separation on three levels that determines the modern western notion of the body:
"a separation between self and others (an individualist social structure), between subject and the universe (the raw maters that compose the body have no correspondence elsewhere), between subject and self (to have a body, more than to be a body)." (8)
As a consequence of these separations the skin gains its liminal character, a space where the individual becomes separated from others and from the universe. The skin becomes the body's boundary. The body/mind dualism renders the body a natural entity. Over this framework there is a superposition of a mechanicist model of knowledge in which nature, thus including the body, is considered as working according to a mathematical model that can be known by the mind whose prime attribute is reason. (9) The body becomes subordinate to the mind. Moreover, as a natural object, it must be known and controlled. What emerges out of this dualism is a representation of the body as natural and as opposed to everything that belongs to the mind and to culture. Thus, in western thought the body is opposite to the self and more than this it is also inferior to the self/mind/soul. The body/mind dualism implies a hierarchical relationship, in which the body is the negative term and is equated with everything deemed negative: irrationality, emotion, lust, error and ultimately death, and the mind is the positive term, equated with everything positive: reason, control, knowledge and ultimately the possibility of transcendence. Although the imaginary form of the body has varied in the course of history, what remains constant is: "the construction of body as something apart from the true self (whether conceived as soul, mind, spirit, will, creativity, freedom) and as undermining the best efforts of that self." (10)
This body/mind dualism has been identified by a series of studies as a possible basis on which other dualisms are built and where one term is equated with the body and its negative meaning, and the other is equated with the mind and its positive meaning. For example Susan Bordo highlights the way in which women are equated to the body and men are equated to the mind and thus if:
"the body is the negative term, and if woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be: distraction from knowledge, seduction away from God, capitulation to sexual desire, violence or aggression, failure of will, even death." (11)
The body/mind dualism becomes essential in representing gender. But not only gender is at stake. Another representation that rests on this Cartesian dualism is that of the "savage body" (12). The non-European Other is viewed mostly in terms of his corporeality. The first anthropological studies that concerned the body were in fact preoccupied with the body of the Other. This Other, the "primitive" of early anthropology is defined by nakedness, scarification, tattoo, dance, eroticism, thus as body and not as mind (13). Even race and class relations are constructed by way of the body/mind dualism. The Other, whether it be a racial, a gendered, a classed Other, is defined by his corporeality: he is more embodied. The generic body, which is the white, male, heterosexual, middle/upper class body, is not problematised.
There are many studies that take the body as a subject of inquiry and start with a critique of the Cartesian body/mind dualism, as a first step towards recognizing the body as a cultural and historical construct and towards the surpassing of the notion of a biological, fixed body that is outside culture and history. A consequence of this is a multiplication of bodies: there is no Body, only bodies located in a specific cultural context, with a specific history. This multiplication of bodies has led to many different approaches that concern the body and corporeality and as a result of this, as Bryan Turner all too well points out: "The body is at once the most solid, the most elusive, illusory, concrete, metaphorical, ever present and ever distant thing -- a site, an instrument, an environment, a singularity and a multiplicity." (14)
The theoretical approaches of the body can be roughly divided in three categories, depending on the level of analysis: a phenomenological approach concerned with the lived body of the individual, a symbolic or structuralist approach concerned with the social and symbolic meanings of the body and the way the body can be considered a "natural symbol" (15), and a post-structuralist approach concerned with issues of power, control and the discursive (in a foucauldian sense) construction of the body. (16) Thomas Csordas argues that there should be a move away from the body as an object of analysis towards "embodiment as the existential ground of culture and self." (17) He suggests that being-one's-body is an existential starting point for both self and culture. He regards the body not as a passive object inscribed by culture and power, but as an active source of culture and self. (18)
If the body is to be regarded not as a natural entity but as a cultural one, then the skin (boundary and a factor of individuation) can be regarded as "the most accessible and immediate textual surface of the organism" (19). As a textual surface, the skin is already inscribed and placed in different systems of meaning: man/woman, black/white, not tattooed/tattooed. At the border between self and society, the skin always signifies, it is always "ready to be read", a reading that is made possible at the crossroads of different discourses that produce an "intelligible skin" (20). At the same time the skin reflects the "dynamic relationship between inside and outside, self and society, between personal identity projects and marketplace cultures" (21). In this context the tattoo can be regarded as a "second skin" (22), one that is different from all the other textualities of the body, because it is the result of an act of will. But even if it is a willful inscription, it's meaning precedes the act of tattooing: in western societies, either as stigma -- a mark of the underclass, or as tatau -- an exotic practice, the tattooed body is defined by an absence, by the failure to signify a not-tattooed body. But a volitional marking of the skin can also signify resistance:
"To understand a body is to organize it. To organize a body is to exert a power through it, enclosing it in limited meaning. [...] A tattooed body resists organization by presenting another layer which must be organized, the signification of which is volitional but neither clear nor stable." (23)
Taking as a starting point this volitional character of tattooing, many approaches to this body practice use Chris Shilling's concept of "body project" (24). The body project assumes a body that is in a process of constant becoming, this kind of projects being part of the symbolic construction of the self and of social identity. Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young propose a similar notion, that of "flesh journey":
"the process of intentionally reconstructing the corporeal in order to symbolically represent and physically chronicle changes in one's identity, relationships, thoughts, or emotions over time." (25)
The notion of body project or flesh journey entails a willful subordination of the body to the mind. As David le Breton points out: "the body is no longer destiny to abandon to, but an object to mould according to one's own will" (26). We are still within dualist logic, but the body is viewed more or less as a resource, as an object worthy of investment, and the tattoo is regarded as an auto-bio-graphical resource for personal identity. (27)
The body project does not concern only such practices as tattooing or piercing, but also other practices like dieting and physical exercising, or even the daily practices of putting on makeup or combing one's hair. All of these have in common what Nick Crossley terms reflexivity. Going beyond a dualist framework that opposes the body and the self, Crossley offers an exploration of reflexive body techniques that he attributes to our social informed capacity to turn on ourselves and objectify ourselves. (28) This possibility springs from our capacity to view ourselves from the Other's perspective. But according to Mike Featherstone, body modification practices can be separated from other reflexive body techniques in that many accounts about body modification have in common a feeling of taking control over one's body, of a gesture made against the natural body and the tyranny of the habitus. (29) On the other hand, according to Michael Atkinson:
"we are, in a sense, a culture of body modificationists, with our hunger for altering the corporeal only frustrated by the limits imposed by imagination, financial resources, products at our disposal and scientific-medical technologies". (30)
Thus, even though body modification may seem as a gesture against the habitus, it is in fact a manifestation of the embodiment of a habitus of body modification. This is Michael Atkinson's argument regarding the analysis of tattooing as a "civilization process" (31).
A series of analysis stress the relation between tattooing and fashion (32). As a mark of individual identity, the tattoo can be regarded as a self-referential "floating signifier", like the elements of postmodern fashion, of what Boudrillard terms "the carnival of signs". But there are two elements that position the tattoo as an element of anti-fashion: its permanent character and the pain involved in the process of tattooing. More than this, to the extent that it is defined as a body project, the tattoo "through the modification of the body's surface, helps to construct a viable sense of self-identity" (33), making possible an anchoring of the self in this "carnival of signs".
A considerable amount of studies focus on tattooing as a social phenomenon, highlighting the way the community (34) helps define the meaning of this practice, and focusing on certain groups or subcultures and the way tattooing is used as a mark of identity amongst its members. For example different subcultures, like neo-primitives (35) or straightedge (36) have been taken as a focal point of inquiry. In this context an important aspect is the marking through the tattoo of the belonging to the group and of the differentiation from non-members. Most often, tattooing in this context is viewed as a means of resistance. Another specific context for the analysis of the practice of tattooing is that of the prison (37), and of the way tattooing helps construct the convict body.
Running through all these approaches is the notion of the tattoo as narrative. The tattooed body tells a story of the self, and of the relation between self and society. As body project, or as flesh journey, the tattoo helps to create "a viable sense of self-identity, [...] a coherent and consistent self-narrative" (38). The tattooed body is a narrative body that has a double dimension: a visual narrative of the tattoo as image, and a narrative that consists of the stories that people tell about their tattoos in different contexts. These stories serve as an explanatory index that locates the tattooed body in the framework of the personal experience of the tattooed person. Whenever we look at a tattoo we are aware of the fact that it is not simply an image, and that a person is always "wearing it" in a permanent fashion.
Narrative constructions and reconstructions of the tattooed body
In the analysis of the tattooed body as a narrative body this paper focuses on three main issues: how the process of tattooing as a body experience is accounted for, how the tattooed skin is read by others and how the meanings of the tattoo are discursively constructed.
Considering the first issue, the starting point is the question of pain. This is because, as Drew Leder notices, pain has a specific role in making the "absent body" present:
"insofar as the body tends to disappear when functioning unproblematically, it often seizes our attention most strongly at times of dysfunction; we then experience the body as the very absence of a desired or ordinary state, and as a force that stands opposed to the self". (39)
The pain that accompanies the process of tattooing is perceived exactly in these terms of transforming the "absent body" into presence. In pain, the body summons us to focus on it. Thus the act of tattooing, because of the pain involved, makes us focus on the body and determines us to perceive tattooing as a bodily experience. Tattooing can be regarded as one of those moments of tension that makes us aware of our embodiment (40). But what is characteristic of this pain, is that the persons that undergo this experience do it on purpose.
Pain is thus an element that can be found in the narratives of all the interviewed persons. Moreover a tattoo evokes pain, and this is most obvious in the moment the tattooed persons are asked "Did/Does it hurt?" A common element in these tattoo narratives is that the pain is described as "bearable". It is taken into consideration before getting the tattoo and can affect the actual decision of getting tattooed, but once the experience has passed, the pain is not regarded as something traumatic, hence the willingness to undergo the process again. Most of the time pain is not viewed as a major drawback to the process of getting tattooed. This is visible in the way pain is afterwards accounted for as "not such a big deal".
A series of other aspects make tattooing a bodily experience: the caring for and healing of the tattoo, and a certain medicalization of the practice reflected in the compulsive character of sterilization and in the possibility of spreading disease during the process, a possibility that leads to a medical control of the practice. The aspect of sterility is not granted a special consideration by some, while for others it is an important factor in the process of getting tattooed. But most of all, the tattoo artist is the one who is preoccupied with this aspect. On the part of the person getting tattooed there is always some sort of trust that the tattoo artist knows what he's doing. A source of this trust resides in the way that the tattoo artist is chosen most of the time on the basis of friend's recomandations. Another source can be the medicalization of the practice, the tattoo artist being regarded as a depository of knowledge concerning the tattoo process as a whole, including the advices given for a proper healing of a tattoo. The healing is considered important because infections must be avoided, it is afterwards a "wounded aria" (Marius, 24), and because the tattoo must "come out well", the process is not considered over until the healing is done (41). Considering all of this, I would argue that besides the other elements that Paul Sweetman posits as framing the tattoo as anti-fashion rather than fashion (42), this factor of caring-healing makes the acquisition of a tattoo more problematic than the acquisition of a simple fashion object.
Besides these two elements, that of pain and that of healing, there are other elements of the tattoo process that the informants account for: the decision to get a tattoo, the choosing of the design/image/text to be tattooed, the choosing of the body part to be tattooed on and the choosing of the tattoo artist. The "body project" starts by a decision to get tattooed, but all the elements influence each other. The decision to get tattooed is accounted for as either the result of a long process of reasoning, either as an impulsive one, a series of factors being named as influencing the decision: from media factors, to a friend's body project, to past experiences of adorning the body with "stickers". But no matter how the decision is made, there is a perception of the intensity of the moment of getting tattooed that turns it into a reference point in the life history of the individual. As for choosing the design/image/text to be tattooed, the most important element is its meaning, whether it is purely aesthetic or has some sentimental or other value. But even when the meaning is not purely aesthetic, the aesthetic aspect is never ignored, as Clinton Sanders notices: "no matter what the associational or self-definitional meaning of the chosen tattoo, the recipient commonly is aware of the decorative/aesthetic function of the design" (43).
Another thing worth noted is that in most of the narratives, the act of getting tattooed and the choosing of the tattoo is accounted for as an act of will over the body. This comes as a confirmation of David le Breton's observation that "the body is no longer destiny to abandon to, but an object to mould according to one's own will" (44). A rather different account comes from an informant who argues that:
"Yea, well you have to rediscover what you actually wanted to say when you got your tattoo, because you chose it with your whole body, not just with your intelligence" (Marius, 24).
In this account at least, the body is not viewed as a passive object, but as Thomas Csordas says the body is an active agent (45).
Choosing the design is sometimes made so as to fit the body. Some other elements are taken into account: the size of the tattoo, the possibility of hiding it, but also other meanings attributed to a certain body part, like in this account: "Also, well, not here, but on the other side, the neck aria, there is a chakra, and there is the energy that reflects through this thing" (Andra, 20). The body part to be tattooed is also negotiated with family or the tattoo artist himself. Thus, in the different choices made until actually getting tattooed, the body emerges as a complex space of multiple negotiations whose result is the outlining of a visible expression of the self to be inscribed on the skin. The actual inscription almost always implies another person: the tattoo artist. In many cases the tattoo artist was chosen based on friend's recommendations. This comes to give credit to Michael Atkinson's observation that:
"body projects are fundamentally acts of human interchange; others may be involved directly by providing a body-modification service, and people often participate in body-modification projects collectively". (46)
Once the experience of getting tattooed has passed, as the tattooed person gets used with its marked skin, the body becomes once more invisible, it immerses in the silent absence of daily life. The tattooed person is not always aware of his/her tattoo, it becomes a part of the body, and is regarded a natural component of the body: it becomes "a part of you" being compared to birth marks or freckles. The moments when one re-acknowledges that one has a tattoo are when one is dealing with others, "from the encounter with the discourse of other subjects - both tattooed and non-tattooed. Thus being a tattooed subject is intensified based on the forces and affects of other bodies." (47) Also, a re-acknowledgement of the fact of being tattooed happens when one is confronted with one's own body image - like seeing oneself in the mirror. Accepting the tattoo as part of the body also means accepting it's evolution along with that of the body. But most of the time, the informants take into account the possibility of getting it done all over again if it deteriorates. Thus, although considered part of the body, the tattoo is not left at the will of the body, and the possibility of its degradation is taken into account as a problem that will have to be solved.
If we ask how is the body written and narrated in tattooing, then we must keep in mind that the skin emerges as a surface on the border between self and others. Thus "the skin opens our body to other bodies" (48). This opening is first of all, one towards the other's sight. According to David le Breton, sight is the most privileged sense of modernity, especially in an urban setting (49). Because it is a visible marking of the skin, the tattoo is mainly exposed to sight. Displaying entails sight's power of objectification that rests on its reliance on distance and separation. Thus, displaying implies a condition of being reduced to an "object of sight" (50).
The refusal to display the tattooed skin can be regarded as the refusal of being reduced to a visual object. This hiding is not viewed as being necessary all the time, but only is particular contexts. Nevertheless the possibility of hiding the tattoo is almost always taken into account before the decision to get tattooed. Some body parts that are considered as more difficult to hide are for example excluded from the start from the possibility of tattooing. In all the narratives there is this acknowledgement of the fact that in some circumstances you may not want to "draw attention" through your tattoos. This can be regarded as an acknowledgement of the fact that the tattooed body can be viewed as a failure to signify a non-tattooed body (51), and others may sanction this failure. To avoid this, the tattooed persons hide their tattoos in different social contexts.
One of these contexts concerns the parents. From the narratives of the informants ensues that a negative reaction is expected in case the tattoo is discovered by the parents. But in most cases when the tattoo was eventually exposed, an initial negative reaction faded in time. In other social contexts, the reaction to one's body project was not described as extremely negative. Siblings and friends usually have a positive reaction, perusing their own tattoo body projects. Nevertheless, some of the informants said that they don't like to show their tattoos all the time, especially in more public contexts.
I also encountered during the interviews some accounts of explicit negative reactions. For example, there was the case of a male respondent who was denied access to a particular workplace because he had a tattoo. Another account was about what was regarded as a stereotypical labeling of tattooed persons as "Satanist or junkie". Despite some negative reactions such as these, society's attitude towards tattooed persons is regarded as being more "chilled", as stereotypes regarding tattoos begin to fade and make way for an acceptance of tattooing as a "normal" means of self-expression. As Michael Atkinson explains:
"Exposure, therefore, to growing numbers of individuals bringing varied understandings of the body to our cultural landscape creates a figurational condition in which new ways of viewing the body are internalized as normative (or at least tolerable) along successive generations". (52)
Thus, a practice that was once regarded as "deviant" is slowly internalized as normative in what becomes a habitus of body modification, as there are more and more persons that get tattooed and as the social groups whose members get tattooed are more and more diverse.
To have a tattoo does not mean just to pass through the process of having ink inserted into the skin, but to have a tattoo means "to wear it". "To wear a tattoo" means to wear it in front of others, to expose it, or, as we have seen to refuse such an exposure, but more than this, "to wear a tattoo" means to give it a meaning. The tattooed body gains its meanings at the crossroads of different discourses: medical, esthetical, art etc, and this mixture of references can be found in the narratives of persons trying to account for, and give a meaning to their own body, and thus to themselves. However, the most difficult question that a person having a tattoo has to answer is exactly the question regarding the meaning: "Why did you get tattooed?/What does it mean to you?". These questions are somehow regarded as a compulsion to reduce the meaning of the tattoo to what can be expressed in language. As McCormak notices:
"If we ask the bearer (including ourselves) to articulate a tattoo's meaning we risk involuting the occupation so that even if (and it's a big if) the body expresses its own meaning, the body is forced to express itself within the dominant system's mode of intelligibility, given by whoever asks the question." (53)
To give, or ask for a meaning of the tattooed body, is to exert power over that body, to organize the textual surface created by the tattoo. Keeping in mind this aspect, it can be said that the questions asked by an anthropologist are questions aimed at organizing the tattooed body that must be made intelligible for the purpose of research. This can be regarded as a textual exposure, but as one that is discursively framed as much as possible by the tattooed person himself.
A first element of the narrative construction of a tattoo's meaning that I will analyze is that of permanence. A tattoo is not permanent in an unequivocal way: there is always the possibility of having it removed or modified, "covered up". For example, one of the respondents viewed her tattoo as a "continuing project", ready for further modifications, and not as a definitive thing. But in most accounts the permanent character of the tattoo is assumed, and the possibility of regret is excluded, even if there is the case of negative reactions from others.
Regarding the relation between the meaning of the tattoo and its permanent character, there are two different perspectives in the accounts of the informants: one according to which the meaning is what matters most in a tattoo, only something that has a deeper meaning for the individual can remain unchanged in time and can legitimate a certain body project. From this perspective, the aesthetic value is just something adjacent to the tattoo, and it is not something that can legitimate a permanent body modification. The tattoo, a mark on the body, is viewed as something that signifies a deeper aspect of one's identity. On the other hand, there are those for whom it seems hard to find something other than the aesthetic value that is going to last in time. Thus, even for the tattooed person, despite the tattoo's permanence, its meaning is not fixed (54). Even if the tattoo is considered a permanent marking of the skin, its references can, and often do change. Furthermore, there is no single reading of the tattoo. Everyone wears what they want, and the importance and meaning of the tattoo is given by the wearer. This makes an approach that rests on the concept of a tattoo community quite problematic, because not all tattoo body projects are regarded as good by all the persons who have a tattoo. One's tattoo can have a meaning, whatever that meaning may be, but another's tattoo can be regarded as silly or even stupid.
Even if for some persons the "story" of the tattoo, its meaning is very important, there are many contexts in which the meaning is considered as the least important thing, having a tendency to disappear altogether. Considering the way tattoos are displayed in tattoo magazines, or on websites, it can be noticed that the tattooed person tends to disappear, what is left is only a piece of tattooed skin, a simple design. In such a context, the tattoo becomes self-referential. Its only value being an aesthetic value, the tattoo becomes an accessory, and as a practice of body modification it is regarded as not that different from cosmetics or plastic surgery. As a matter of fact, tattooing is regarded as beautification under the constant pressure of society to do something with the body, to make it more physically attractive (55). And this beautification can be in some instances a reaffirmation of gender beauty codes.
In the search for a meaning of the practice of tattooing there is also a crossing with the discourse about art. An informant, who was also a tattoo artist, spoke of tattooing in terms of art. One argument for considering tattooing a form of art was that its technique "offered the possibility of art" (Marius, 24). But a problem that emerges when considering the tattoo as a form of art is that of equating human skin with a canvas. Is this possible? Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey argue that to limit the skin to the writing, to the ink used, or to the design tattooed is impossible because skin counts as matter (56). There is always a person wearing a tattoo.
This mixing of discourses when it comes to making sense of the tattooed body comes to certify that "there is escalating disbelief in dominant cultural meta-narratives that establish universal guidelines for understanding the nature of the bodies (e.g., religious, moral, medical-scientific)" (57). A further argument in this direction is the reference to alternative models of understanding the body (such as yoga or acupuncture) that can be found in the narratives of the informants.
This mixing of discursive references is also encountered when it comes to the designs and styles of tattoos. Thus, diverse cultural elements are present in the practice of tattooing, and these elements are accounted for in different ways: either as a result of an actual encounter with another culture or just as an appreciation of the aesthetic appearance, thus cultural elements circulate as "floating signifiers".
As a practice of body modification, tattooing can be compared with other practices such as piercing, scarification or branding. But in the narratives of the informants these practices are regarded as very different from tattooing. Piercings are regarded by the majority of the informants as more of an adornment than tattoos, and not capable of having a deeper meaning. As for scarification or branding, these are regarded as more extreme mostly because of the techniques of their acquirement, some of the informants even regarding them as pathological forms of body modification. From this comparison with other practices, an image of tattooing emerges as a somewhat normalized practice that does not involve any major health or social risks.
It can be argued that in western contemporary society there is no unitary representation of the body. This fact was argued for both in the first, theoretical part of this paper, and in the case study of narratives of tattooed persons. The process of getting tattooed is a bodily experience and there are many factors that make it as such: from the pain involved in the actual insertion of ink with a tattoo machine to the very fact that the tattooed person in an embodied being amongst other embodied beings. In the narratives of the informants, the body is regarded as an identity resource, a thing to mould according to one's own will. This new "textual surface" inscribed on the skin is organized and made intelligible by others who view the skin but also by the person who wears the tattoo. The meanings of a tattoo are always constructed and re-constructed depending on different contexts and on the person who asks for such a meaning. A particular characteristic of a tattoo is that, because it is a visual mark on the skin, it can also speak for itself. But the tattooed person always has a story to tell. This story of the tattoo is constructed at the crossroads of different discourses, which make it a hybrid between cosmetics and art, fashion and anti-fashion, but, in one way or another it is always an expression of the self. A tattoo is a visual mark of identity on the body that is displayed to be read by others, but this exposure can also be denied by the wearer of the tattoo. The mixing of discourses that can be observed in the reading of tattoos confirms David le Breton's observation that:
"The modern body is a melting pot of surrealist collage. Every actor winds up the representation of his own individual, autonomous body, even if for this he searches in the scent of time, in the lay science of mass-media, or in the serendipity of personal readings or encounters." (58)
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6. Bordo, Susan (1993), Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, Berkeley: University of California Press.
7. Colopelnic, Nicoleta; Teampau, Petruta (2010), "Piele tatuata, piele narata" in Grunberg, Laura (coord.), Introducere in sociologia corpului. Teme, perspective si experiente intrupate, Iasi: Polirom.
8. Connor, Steven (2004), The Book of Skin, New York: Cornell University Press.
9. Crossley, Nick (2005), "Mapping Reflexive Body Techniques: On Body Modification and Maintenance", in Body & Society, Vol. 11(1), 1-35.
10. Csordas, Thomas J. (1994), "Introduction: the body as representation and being-in-the-world" in Csordas, Thomas J. (ed.), Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
11. DeMello, Margo (1993), "The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners", in Anthropology Today, Vol. 9, No. 6, 10-13.
12. DeMello, Margo (2000), Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
13. Douglas, Mary (2004), Natural Symbols, London, New York: Routledge.
14. Featherstone, Mike (1999), "Body Modification: An Introduction", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 1-13.
15. Ferreira, Vitor Sergio (2009), "Youth scenes, body marks and bio sociabilities" in Youth, Vol. 17(3), pp. 285-306.
16. Fisher, Jill A. (2002), "Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture", in Body & Society, Vol. 8(4), 91-107.
17. Fraser, Mariam; Greco, Monica (eds.) (2008), The Body: A Reader, London, New York: Routledge.
18. Grosz, Elizabeth (1999), "Psychoanalysis and the Body" in Price, Janet; Shildrick, Margrit (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge.
19. Klesse, Christian (1999), "'Modern Primitivism': Non-Mainstream Body Modification and Racialized Representation", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 15-38.
20. Le Breton, David (2002), Antropologia corpului si modernitatea, Timisoara: Amarcond.
21. Leder, Drew (1990), The Absent Body, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
22. Lock, Margaret M.; Scheper-Huges, Nancy (1987), "The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology", in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, 6-41.
23. MacCormack, Patricia (2006), "The Great Ephemeral Tattooed Skin", in Body & Society, Vol. 12(2), 57-82.
24. Patterson, Maurice; Jonathan Schroeder (2010), "Borderlines: Skin, tattoos and consumer culture theory", in Marketing Theory, Vol. 10(3), pp. 253-267.
25. Price, Janet; Shildrick, Margrit (eds.) (1999), Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge
26. Salut, Nicole (1994), "Introduction. The Human Mirror", in Sault, Nicole (ed.), Many Mirrors: Body Image and Social Relations, New Brunswik, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
27. Sanders, Clinton (1989), Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
28. Shilling, Chris (1993), The Body and Social Theory, London: Sage Publications.
29. Sweetman, Paul (1999), "Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 51-76.
30. Turner, Bryan (1996), The Body and Society : Explorations in Social Theory, London: Sage Publications.
Nicoleta Colopelnic *
* Nicoleta Colopelnic is a PhD student in Philology at the Faculty of European Studies, "Babes-Bolyai" University, Cluj-Napoca. Contact: email@example.com
(1) Branding is a form of body modification that consists in creating a design or pattern on the skin with the use of a heated object.
(2) Scarification is a form of body modification that consists in creating scar patterns on the skin with the help of a sharp object. Unlike a tattoo, the pattern thus obtained is not pigmented and is prominent.
(3) Piercing is a form of body modification that consist in decorating the body with jewels that pierce the skin.
(4) A more detailed ethnographic account of this research can be found in Nicoleta Colopelnic, Petruta Teampau, "Piele tatuata, piele narata", in Laura Grunberg (coord.), Introducere in sociologia corpului. Teme, perspective si experiente intrupate, Iasi: Polirom, 2010.
(5) For a more detailed analysis of the factors that helped position the body as an important subject of inquiry, see: Chris Shilling, The Body and Social Theory, London: Sage Publications, 1993, Bryan Turner, The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory, London: Sage Publications, 1996, and Thomas J. Csordas. "Introduction: the body as representation and being-in-the-world" in Thomas J. Csordas (ed.), Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
(6) For a more detailed list of subjects see for example Mariam Fraser, Monica Greco (eds.), The Body: A Reader, London, New York: Routledge, 2008, and Janet Price, Margrit Shildrick (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge, 1999.
(7) Elizabeth Grosz, "Psychoanalysis and the Body", in Janet Price, Margrit Shildrick (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 270.
(8) David Le Breton, Antropologia corpului si modernitatea, Timisoara: Amarcond, 2002, p. 6 (trans. au.).
(9) see David le Breton, op. cit.
(10) Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 5.
(12) see Nicole Salut, "Introduction. The Human Mirror", in Nicole Salut (ed.), Many Mirrors: Body Image and Social Relations, New Brunswik, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994, pp. 4-5.
(13) Ibidem, p. 4.
(14) Bryan Turner, op. cit., p. 43.
(15) The most relevant example is Mary Douglas's analysis of the two bodies (the individual and the social body), and the way that the body is a natural symbol for any bounded system; see Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols, London, New York: Routledge, 2004.
(16) This model of a three levels approach on the body was adapted after Margareth Lock's and Nancy-Scheper Huges's model, see Margaret M. Lock, Nancy Scheper-Huges, "The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology", in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987, pp. 6-41.
(17) Thomas J. Csordas, op. cit., p. 6.
(19) Patricia MacCormack, "The Great Ephemeral Tattooed Skin", in Body & Society, Vol. 12(2), 2006, p. 63.
(20) Sara Ahmed, Jackie Stacey, Thinking Through the Skin, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 1-2.
(21) Maurice Patterson, Jonathan Schroeder, "Borderlines: Skin, tattoos and consumer culture theory", in Marketing Theory, Vol. 10(3), 2010, p. 254.
(22) Steven Connor, The Book of Skin, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 65.
(23) Patricia McCormak, op. cit., p. 64.
(24) see Chris Shilling, op. cit.
(25) Michael Atkinson, Kevin Young, "Flesh Journeys: Neo Primitives and the Contemporary Rediscovery of Radical Body Modification", in Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, No. 22, 2001, p. 118.
(26) David le Breton, op. cit., p. 154 (trans. au.).
(27) see Vitor Sergio Ferreira, "Youth scenes, body marks and bio-sociabilities" in Youth, Vol. 17(3), 2009, pp. 285-306.
(28) Nick Crossley, "Mapping Reflexive Body Techniques: On Body Modification and Maintenance", in Body & Society, Vol. 11(1), 2005, p. 117.
(29) Mike Featherstone, "Body Modification: An Introduction", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 1999, p. 2.
(30) Michael Atkinson, Tattooed: The Socieogenesis of a Body Art, Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2003, p. 3.
(31) see Michael Atkinson, op. cit.
(32) see Paul Sweetman, "Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 1999, pp. 51-76, and Jill A. Fisher, "Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture", in Body & Society, Vol. 8(4), 2002, pp. 91-107.
(33) Paul Sweetman, op. cit., p. 68.
(34) see Michael Atkinson, "The Civilizing of Resistance: Straightedge Tattooing", in Deviant Behavior: an Interdisciplinary Journal, No. 24, 2003, pp. 197-220, Margo DeMello, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, and Clinton Sanders, Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
(35) see Michael Atkinson, Kevin Young, op. cit., and Christian Klesse, "'Modern Primitivism': Non-Mainstream Body Modification and Racialized Representation", in Body & Society, Vol. 5(2-3), 1999, pp. 15-38.
(36) see Michael Atkinson, "The Civilizing of Resistance: Straightedge Tattooing", pp. 197-220.
(37) see Margo DeMello, "The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners", in Anthropology Today, Vol. 9, No. 6, 1993, pp. 10-13.
(38) Paul Sweetman, op. cit., pp. 67-68.
(39) Drew Leder, The Absent Body, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 4.
(40) David le Breton, op. cit., p. 92.
(41) This healing process is accompanied by an itching sensation that the informants describe as something you have to put up with if you want the tattoo to turn out well.
(42) see supra, and Paul Sweetman, op. cit.
(43) Clinton Sanders, op. cit., p. 48.
(44) David le Breton, op. cit., p. 154 (trans. au.).
(45) Thomas J. Csordas, op. cit., p. 4.
(46) Michael Atkinson, Tattooed: The Socieogenesis of a Body Art, p. 27.
(47) Patricia MacCormack, op. cit., p. 74.
(48) Sara Ahmed, Jackie Stacey, op. cit., p. 5.
(49) David le Breton, op. cit., pp. 99-100.
(50) Steven Connor, op. cit., p. 68.
(51) Patricia MacCormack, op. cit., p. 60.
(52) Michael Atkinson, Tattooed: The Socieogenesis of a Body Art, p. 147.
(53) Patricia McCormak, op. cit., p. 72.
(54) Paul Sweentman, op. cit., p. 63.
(55) see Michael Atkinson, "Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-control", in The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, No. 41 (2), 2004, p. 133.
(56) see Sara Ahmed, Jackie Stacey, op. cit., p. 15.
(57) Michael Atkinson, Tattooed: The Socieogenesis of a Body Art, pp. 11-12.
(58) David le Breton, op. cit., p. 13 (trans. au.).
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