Another Theologian’s Take on Tattoos
Every few months someone sends me an article where a theologian bemoans western culture’s obsession with tattoos. And every few months I intend to write up something about how hilarious, frustrating, or dumb these articles are. My favorites thus far have come from First Things, the journal and online blog that I both love and hate. Their authors, R.R. Reno and Mark Bauerlein, take different paths of their criticism, but both assert there is a philosophical undercurrent that demands interrogation, and what is revealed is the ultimately narcissistic, gnostic, and desacralizing milieus of our current culture.
Reno focuses on the proposed expression of individuality, and how tattoos are like all the other fads (fantasies) our culture has used to express personal particularity. He locates this thirst for expression in the oppressive quotidian aspects of life. From standardized testing to the demonization of fatty food, he believes that young people’s personal lives are “assaulted with exhortations.” And because success and health are prioritized in these assailing ways, the body becomes a way to be liberated.
This liberation works in tandem with a variety of other things our culture is starting to see: people are waiting to have children, we are more globalized, less rooted in local community, and feed our passion desire through our “roles as productive workers and eager consumer.” Tattoos, then, are a fad to attach ourselves to something permanent. Reno seems to insinuate that this search for permanence would be thoroughly unnecessary if our culture latched back onto those more permanent virtues being forgotten: faith, family, and patriotism.
In his article, “A Theory of Tattoos,” Baurerlein discerns a subtext of social recognition. For him, tattoos read as someone boldly saying, “look at me.” The very fact that the eyes are drawn to a tattoo proves just how narcissistic they are, to the point that Baurerlein states that those with tattoos are wounded when their art isn’t recognized. Tattoos live for the acknowledgements of others.
He takes it one step further by stating there is a philosophical rationale as well. Body modification correlates to the assertion that all the ways we define ourselves are merely constructs, and that these constructs are in some way oppressive. The body is thus something to be shaped into our own image. He concludes by saying that the theory of body art “spells a transition from the body as physique to the body as text. You can write yourself upon it…a tattoo isn’t the word made flesh, but the flesh made word.”
Tattoos are certainly in vogue and I suspect that it will eventually pass; moreover, fascination with a particular piece can dissipate. If you looked at my right bicep with its cover-up, you’d see changing a tattoo isn’t as easy as changing other ways of expression—sometimes your worldview shifts enough to where you despise that permanence of the artwork you suffered to receive. It’s hard for me to disagree completely with Reno’s assertion that there is often selfish intent with getting a tattoo. But while tattoos may be a louder form of expression, they do not strike me as any more expressive than clothing, a haircut, a car, or a house. Fashion in all its form is meant to signify something to other people, unless we would prefer a utilitarian approach all of the other ways our bodies are involved in expressing ourselves.
To say a tattoo doesn’t seem any more expressive than other things doesn’t deal with Reno’s biggest claim that tattoos are part of the disintegration of timeless virtues and a sign of giving into cultural desires uncritically. No doubt, the intentions are vast, but can’t tattoos also be used as a commemoration or a sign of commitment, similar to a wedding ring or a clerical collar? Perhaps tattoos can speak to the permanence of our own situatedness, those experiences, creeds, and commitments that define us?
This takes me to Bauerlein’s bold statement that, “a tattoo isn’t the word made flesh, but the flesh made word.” It doesn’t seem that tattoos resist or overturn the affirmation of the goodness of finitude, thereby making the body into a malleable construct whose meaning we create at will; rather, a tattoo could just as easily represent our finite horizon, taking seriously our bodily existence enough to represent them on ourselves. To take our creeds, values, and essential experiences and chisel them into our flesh is to affirm their permanence in constituting our identities, for some of those things, permanent and essential to being. And while tattoos may well represent a thirst for permanence, they can also represent the permanence of those things being forgotten by contemporary culture.
All this is to say that there is no universal theory of tattoos that can deal with the complexity of intent and experience, and any attempt to assert tattoos into a subculture abandoning particular values and beliefs will be met with tattooed folks doing the exact opposite.
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