January 26, 2011

Under My Skin, Over My Head

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I love my mom, but it’s not written in stone. There would be no reason, in fact, for me to find a stone and carve my sentiments into its coarse surface, since either my mother would lose it or the stresses of time would cause it to crumble into sand. However, there are various reasons to etch that sentiment, or any other, into the sisal of my skin. To tattoo one’s self can be a statement of affiliation, affection or aesthetics, but above all it is an act of personal branding.

It is a fact that humans have an urge to decorate. Cultures that traditionally tattoo weren’t necessarily nomadic but the skin did become a canvas, like a wall or cloth, for decorations that come with you everywhere. The modern nomad can own art in much the same way. Skin is the new blank wall for artists who are choosing tattoo as a medium for their work, such as Amanda Wachob who creates painterly New York School tattoos.

Instead of the traditional tattoo artist as contractor-artisan, now the tattoo artist is sometimes treated as an independent artist entrusted with the client’s skin as canvas. Clients will pick a tattoo artist for his portfolio and give the artist free reign over the design. But this raises the question: is this a sacrifice of one’s own flesh to another or is it an act of total ownership to treat your skin like the walls of your home?

I have recently been engaged in several conversations about the nature of tattooing with friends who are inked or wish to be inked. The issue that always comes up is whether it is more important to inscribe one’s skin with something intellectually meaningful or rather aesthetically beautiful. Of my two best friends, one wants a tattoo in Arabic and the other in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They each feel guilty about inscribing themselves with a language they do not know.

But if you value the words purely for their aesthetic function and they are not being perceived as letters, then they are stripped of any linguistic purpose. Getting a tattoo is about choosing one’s own interpretation of the symbol while filtering out others’ potential interpretations. This can be at once dangerous and comforting.

When the conversation turned to my own favorite tattoos I immediately thought of the women in rural North Africa who have small facial designs in black. They are usually dots and crosses under the eyes and down the center of the face. My friends squealed at the thought of facial tattoos, reflecting the general Western attitude towards tattoo placement. If the marking is not meant to be publicly transgressive then it should be somewhere escapable, somewhere private, allowing the bearer to hide it in almost any situation.

A tattoo can be thought of as a personal branding in the way that companies adopt symbols to brand themselves. But the meaningful, unique nature of a symbol that compels an individual to hide it is exactly what makes it publicly powerful for a company to disseminate.

For example, Paris fashion house Givenchy just released a new company emblem named “the Obsedia.” This icon, which will adorn their handbags, jewelry and garments, could easily be one of those North African tattoos. It looks rather like a hybrid between a Greek cross and the gender symbol for female. Its very simplicity and ambiguity is what makes it so powerful. The company hopes it will become embedded into the flesh of the brand’s edgy-luxury identity.

At the other side of the fashion spectrum lays Ed Hardy, who has moved in a more explicit direction with tattoo inspiration. This brand has turned tattoos into clothing so the customer can associate himself, if only for one night, with a certain Sailor Jerry tough-guy look. But Hardy garments carry the freedom of clothing, the liberty to shed it from the skin and with it whatever identity it conveys. Not so with skin art, the ultimate act of association.

As everyone at Cornell knows, the writing of a college entrance essay is an act of self-branding. So is the creation of a Facebook profile and, of course, so is getting dressed in the morning. With the public exposure of social media, there is no such thing as private branding — if it isn’t online it didn’t happen. The transition to “exposing” forms of social media like Twitter and Facebook is a bit like moving all of our tattoos to our faces. But our tattoos, like corporate symbols, are forced to become tidier and place us in the capitalist flow. Does this make us more free — free to express our selves, to share our opinions with everyone, to connect to a wide network? Or does it make us define ourselves in quite narrow terms?

Zadie Smith discussed social media in a recent New York Review of Books article as a “transcendent experience,” in which we transcend our own bodies, feelings and messy edges. She argues that it doesn’t make us more free but it just makes us more owned. Owned by corporations, by Google, by the public, by advertisers. The ownership of self, soul and skin is at the crux of both tattooing and social media.

Smith cites the Jaron Lanier text You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto saying, “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” She adds, “But to [Mark] Zuckerberg, sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.” This goes back to the question of how a tattoo achieves “meaning” – do you need to have a point to get a tattoo, or is getting a tattoo, with its own connotations of cultural subversion and ascription, the point in itself?

The subsequent question is what will happen as time goes on. As it remains on the skin, a tattoo will change with the body’s changes. Is an old tattoo a reminder of lifelong convictions or is it just a lingering bruise on softened skin? There might not be any difference, but that is a matter of perception. Like any digital media, a tattoo is difficult to erase completely. You can say, “Thank God my LiveJournal page from 1997 doesn’t exist anymore,” but of course it exists if someone is looking. Likewise, tattoo removal is rarely complete. In this instance, the proverb “beauty is only skin deep” misses the point, for branding those mere pores with ink carries richer meanings indeed.

Original Author: Amelia Brown