A couple weeks ago I stumbled across this image of a “Where’s Waldo?” backpiece, and it got me to thinking about body modification, the cyborg body, and postmodern theories of the sign (Baudrillard 1972; Turner 1999) as they relate to contemporary tattooing.

The contemporary tattoooed body, which I often refer to as the cyborg body, is at a crisis. That is, we do not have a uniform means of interpreting and displaying these signs to others. What’s more, the content of tattoos varies significantly, from direct referents and iconography to indirect, playful and self-referent images.

In the (admittedly jargon-rich) words Bryan Turner, contemporary tattoo practice is characterized like this:

“…the postemotional actor is a member of the airport departure lounge, in the sense that she is blase, indifferent to traditional signs of commitment and remote from the conventional signs of caring. Her tattoos are surface indicators of identity and attachment. Furthermore, the modern tattoo is merely a cliche, borrowing from and adapting Polynesian patterns, Japanese motifs and Chinese military emblems. The aesthetic and sexual tattoo of the middle classes is a product of thin/cool relationships of a postmodern culture in which there is an exhaustion of idiom. In such a culture, primitiveness must necessarily be simulated and ironic. It is doubtful that being a serious primitive is possible, because committed primitivism is no longer a feasible option” (2000:49).

Turner uses the “airport departure lounge” as a metaphor for describing the loose membership practices of contemporary identity groups (what some have called “scenes” (Straw 1991), others have called “taste cultures” (Turner 1996), and still others have called “lifestyle tribes” (Maffesoli 1996)). We delineate the bounds of membership to such communities through various forms of cultural capital, including fashion and self-presentation, and through our consumption practices (what Featherstone calls “lifestyle consumption” [1991]).

"Hey man, cool tattoos. But what do they mean?"

Turner characterizes contemporary tattoo communities in the West as “thin/cool” due to their voluntary, ephemeral, and seemingly facile character. He contrasts them to more traditional uses of the tattoo in non-Western cultures, which were based on “thick/warm” loyalties to clan or tribe. In these indigenous cultures, the tattoo served to communicate one’s social relationships with others, in effect, serving a “pro-social” function. That is, tattoos served to bring people together and create group solidarity. But contemporary tattooing is characterized by far too many tribal loyalties. How are we to read them?

I believe we are at a semiotic crisis of representation (Ebert 1986). The tattoo has become polyphonic. Two such interpretations of the contemporary tattoo include what I am calling the “traditionalist” and what I am calling the “narrative” style. The former belongs to the interpretive practices of traditional (largely Americana and Japanese) tattooers; the latter refers to the forms of tattooing contained in spectacular representations of tattooing in the mass media and popular culture (particularly in the tattoo television dramas like LA Ink or NY Ink).

Traditional Sailor Jerry Flash Art

More specifically, I want to problematize the narrative image of tattooing that is presented in popular culture (particularly in the tattoo television dramas like LA Ink or NY Ink). Following arguments made by Lodder (2010), I believe we are now seeing a crisis of representation surrounding the tattoo as commodity-sign.  The mass public, particularly those who engage with the contemporary tattoo community through mass-mediated representations alone (watching LA Ink or NY Ink in isolation, without further contact into the tattoo community), has a widely different interpretive frame than most tattoo artists themselves. Lodder (2011) has taken issue with the narrative style of reality television, which drastically overemphasizing the meaning-making process behind tattoo art.

“It is true that subsections of the tattooed population—gangs, sailors, prisoners—have certainly long made use of tattoos to express specific concepts or to signify group membership, but this has never been true of tattoos in general. Tattooing has forever been decorative as much as it has been simply narrative, with many tattoos lacking a specifically expressive story-telling component to the design. Nevertheless, tattoo TV both depends on and reinforces the preconception that the skin is a screen for its generic formula. For so ingrained is the connection between tattoos and stories that without the traumatic sob-stories of death and loss attached to almost every tattoo, the shows would feature little more than shots of the tattooers high-fiving one another” (2011:5).

Television shows like LA Ink fail to capture the prevailing “art for art’s sake” mentality that permeates traditional tattooing. In short, the habitus of traditional tattoo artists and collectors is seemingly erased in the media images of tattooing, which largely present tattooing through middle-class notions of symbolism and identity-work (Bourdieu 1984). The result is that this deeply-symbolic model of tattoo acquisition becomes further normalized and “tattooed people feel obliged to justify precisely what their tattoo means” (Lodder 2010:5).

Cast of TLC's "LA Ink"

In conclusion, the wide variety of social groups that now get tattooed has made it increasingly difficult to “read” tattoos as stable or direct referents. While traditional tattooers approach their work as art and adopt an “art for art’s sake” mentality that privileges aesthetics over the meaning-making process, the majority of the public, emboldened by spectacular representations of tattooing in popular culture, approach tattoos as highly-narrative symbols. This makes it challenging for individuals to interpret tattoo signs, especially if they are unfamiliar with the particular iconography of the various “scenes” (Straw 1991) or “neo-tribes” (Maffesoli 1996) that employ them.