Over the summer of 2011, several interns at BBH Labs (a marketing research firm in New York) came up with The Social Tattoo Project as a way to direct empathy towards natural disasters and social crises that continue to plague populations around the world. They used Twitter to track “trending topics” and then asked the Twitterverse to vote on which issues they wanted to see memorialized in a tattoo, essentially “crowdsourcing” the content of each piece. Volunteers were then selected to receive these tattoo designs without ever having seen them ahead of time. The final five topics included “a cresting wave for Japan, handcuffed hands for human trafficking, a broken heart for Haiti, a pie chart for poverty and a flower flag for Norway” (Corr 2011). The video above is a short clip highlighting the “broken heart for Haiti” design and the woman who had it tattooed onto her body.

However, this project is not the first of it’s kind. For example, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal took it upon himself (quite literally) to commemorate the deaths of Iraqi’s and American’s since the invasion started in 2003. On March 9th, 2010, he had over 100,000 recorded fatalities of the “War on Terror” tattooed on his back during a live, streaming performance at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts gallery in New York City titled “…And Counting”: 5,000 dots were tattooed in red ink to represent fallen American soldiers and 100,000 dots were tattooed in invisible ink to represent (largely overlooked) fallen Iraqis. His art project was featured on NPR and DemocracyNow, and became the focal point for discussions about the costs of the “War on Terror.”

Wafaa Bilal receives 105,000 dots to commemorate casualties in Iraq

Both are examples of using the body to “memorialize” the deaths of unknown others. And for this reason, I feel, both The Social Tattoo Project and art of Wafaa Bilal demonstrate the watershed change we now see surrounding tattooing and other forms of body modification. As more and more people join the ranks of the tattooed, these “marks of mischief” (Sanders 1988) are losing their potency as sources of “conspicuous outrage” (Bell 1976). Rather the body becomes a vehicle for expressing larger social concerns, as people use their bodies to display their commitments to social justice projects. In short, people treat their bodies as billboards for displaying their larger social justice commitments.

I have written previously about the need to re-frame our assumptions about contemporary tattooing and body art practices. Most notably, I have called for a pro-social conception of contemporary tattooing, a conception of tattooing that sees these indelible inscriptions not as indicators of future deviance or mental pathology (Koch et al 2005), but as marks of heightened sociality, strong ties, and identity work. That is, having a tattoo no longer serves as a “mark of disaffiliation” from others (Sanders 1988). This is because of the increasing ubiquity of tattooing in the United States: its popularity cuts across nearly all class, race, and gender divides (Laumann 2006). Rather than seeing the voluntary marking of the body as an indicator of self-hatred or social maladjustment (E.g.: a way to push people away), tattoos are now increasingly used to display one’s commitment to others; in effect, drawing people together around shared issues, identities, and concerns.

Although one could argue that tattoos have always served this purpose (in that they have always served as signs to others, marks of commitment to various social classes and groups, and as memorial pieces to deceased loved ones), I do believe that we are observing a paradigmatic change regarding the use of the body for self-expression. The youth of today are far more likely to sit for the needle, and many are choosing to ink their bodies with meaningful images that symbolize their concerns for the world around them (Armstrong et al 2002).

However, these trends also raise some very pertinent questions regarding the limitations of such body marks. For example, are social justice tattoos like these simply another form of slacktivism? Or does the indelible marking of the body and the corporeal commitment such acts require create an exception to the rule? For most certainly the pain one endures while getting tattooed comes at a cost to the bearer. That counts for something right? It certainly counts for more than putting on a T-shirt or purchasing a pair of Toms shoes. But does putting an image onto one’s body count as a stand in for more active forms of social justice work, such as volunteering at soup kitchens, plantings trees, or even occupying Wall Street?

The two cases presented above provide great examples of people using tattoos to express “pro-social” ties, however, they also raise questions as to the limitations of such markings. A sign is just a sign, after all, and should not be used as a substitute for direct action. However, “by making empathy permanent” and by drawing attention to pending social crises like the War in Iraq, tattoos such as these reveal how the body is used as a communicative device in the postmodern era.