Thinking on inking

An intellectual tries — and fails — to find deep philosophical justifications for the modern wave of tattooing

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In the early 1960s, on Sundays at Speakers’ Corner, there was a man who would take off his shirt and reveal that every inch of his torso was covered in tattoos. He said not a word but had a knowing smile or smirk upon his face; the assembled audience laughed at what it thought was his foolishness and degradation. 

Now, in the early 2020s, a university lecturer, who tells us that every inch of his body is tattooed, has had a book published by no less than the British Library, trying to explain the philosophically profound meaning of the recent epidemic of tattooing in the West. No doubt he considers this evidence of progress and enlightenment.

The author, an intellectual, tries to find deep philosophical justifications for the modern wave of tattooing, which is like trying to find great poetry in Hallmark cards. Of course, he has good personal reasons for his efforts: for if he were one day to come to the conclusion that his tattoos had not been such a good idea after all, it would be rather too late.

The Philosophy of Tattoos by John Miller (British Library Press, £10)

The author, who treats tattooing as a kind of unbroken historical continuum, does not emphasise just how rapid has been the rise of the fashion for tattoos. The percentage of tattooed adults would have been very small 30 years ago, but now approaches a third. The leftist French newspaper, Libération, reported that the number of professional tattooists in France had risen from 400 to 4,000 in a matter of a decade. They wanted now to be officially recognised as a profession, like accountants or notaries. It is now customary when writing of tattoos to call them body art, though a much better term would be body kitsch.

The author goes some way to recognition of the essential contradiction of the modern vogue for tattoos. On the one hand tattoos still retain some association with the rebellious, the marginal and the antinomian; on the other, they have become so commonplace that they can no longer be considered unconventional, but another manifestation of herd-like behaviour.

Tattoos have become so commonplace that they can no longer be considered unconventional

Individuation through tattooing is a rather sad phenomenon. Of course, people have always used clothes, hairstyles, ornaments and so forth, to make themselves different: Edith Sitwell, for example, didn’t get to look as she did through a fit of absence of mind. But clothes and ornaments can be discarded and hair can grow, or be cut. The outrageous, once they feel more sure of themselves as individuals, can rejoin the rest of the human race if they so wish. Those who disfigure themselves permanently, however, are stuck with their choices, which is why they must continue to whistle in the philosophical wind.

The book is mercifully short, more essay than treatise, and includes a brisk history and ethnography of tattooing. When it comes to anything philosophical, Mr Miller’s writing combines the qualities of cliché and incomprehensibility: “History demands that we give credence to the magical properties of tattooing even if (or perhaps especially because) they seem anathema to our predominantly secular worldviews. I should confess at this point that I wouldn’t count myself an active believer in tattooing magic …”

Giving credence to what we don’t believe: on reflection, not a bad summary of much of modern intellectual life.

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