Tattoos and the Construction of ‘the Body’

by jdavidcharles

St. Michael is pretty pissedOver at Long Awaited: Simple Thoughts in a Complicated World (authored by James, a college friend of mine), he wrote a post about tattoos, specifically from an evangelical Christian perspective. Admittedly, the post is in response to Earthen Vessels, a book I have not read. That being said, I am familiar with the so-called “debate” about tattooing within the fundamentalist Christian world and the stigma it carries. What bothers me about the “debate” is how misguided the questioning is—I don’t think we should be asking “are tattoos okay” but rather, at the risk of being cheeky, “how are we already tattooing others?”

It seems to me that there are plenty of ways in which we tattoo, engrave, mar, alter, and conform our bodies. Aside from obvious things like tattoos and piercings, there are other forms like hair and nail fashion, dentistry, any sort of cosmetic or surgical alteration, circumcision, etc. What “the body” looks like changes drastically from culture to culture–a contemporary, Californian white male body bears its culture in countless ways, in juxtaposition to say an 18th century Japanese female body (or an 8th century BC Jewish male body). Not only are the peripheral images different (clothing, piercings) but the body itself is sculpted differently. Our bodies bear our culture. They are engraved by it. They are always already “tattooed” in countless ways, often unbeknownst to us.

That being said, I think tattoos simultaneously question the unsaid nature of the way our bodies bear our culture while also embracing it. I suppose I can imagine a way in which this is bad, but I really have to do a fair amount of imagining. It would be like imagining any socio-aesthetic changing of the body was “wrong”–haircuts, getting teeth straightened, shaving, etc. The way in which I see harm entering this system is the injunctions by a society to a certain group of people to conform their bodies–whether this takes the form of policing haircuts, women’s bodies (highly controlling forms of modesty/virginity), binding, shaving, or dress codes.

Tattoos and piercings can be a very visceral way of taking this sort of control out of the hands of others and into one’s own hands. Or it can be “mere” aesthetic–like teeth straightening (only less painful…). Regardless, I agree with James’ sentiment to make things aware to oneself and not to do things out of mere societal compulsion. I just think people are way more aware of getting a tattoo and what it means then what getting a filling means, what wearing a bra means, what shaving means, or even what circumcision means. And, for me, how we control or conform bodies (sometimes against the person’s will) needs to be asked before we can talk about tattoos.