bodily adornment/tattoos/piercing

josephine ryan (jryan@COMPUTEK.NET)
Wed, 3 Jul 1996 18:34:43 -0500

About two years ago I brought a guest speaker to an intro class at SMU to
discuss tattooing and piercing. He was the proprietor of one of Dallas'
better known tattoo parlors. I think he was also applying to graduate
schools in anthropology. He gave a very worthwhile presentation on the
history of tattooing in the U.S. and answered many questions from the
students, who were wide awake for this one. Although I was hesitant to ask
him show us anything, both he and a companion he had brought along
voluntarily disrobed to the waist, revealing full-body tattooing in various
stages of completion. They also displayed numerous piercings. No one clear
explanation emerged as to why they had committed their time and flesh to the
needle. . . the body as an art form, the desire for self-expression, victory
over pain, a sense of accomplishment, and identity issues were among the
things I remember them bringing up in the Q & A session. His ad in the
Dallas paper showed a male chest with a pierced nipple; the text read
something like "Well, you said you didn't want me to pierce my ears."

What amazed me, however, was how several of the students then began to
display their own tattoos and piercings, which had been hidden under
designer jeans and khakis! Most were small, discrete and well executed.
Within weeks of this incident my youngest brother who was a student at
another school in the ROTC program had Airborne wings tattooed just above
the ankle. Since then I have learned that several women in my neighborhood
in their 30's and beyond either have gotten tattoos and/or piercings or are
planning to do so. I don't know if this anecdotal information adds anything
to the theoretical discussion, but at a minimum I would say that tattooing
and piercing are not limited to rebellious teenagers, at least not here in
Dallas. In my limited experience, many of those who dabble in it don't see
it imbued with much meaning beyond making a fashion statement, and hence it
has no more symbolic significance than any other trip to the mall for fake
nails, pierced ears, etc. It seems likely to me that various segments of the
population will have their own bundles of rationale and significance of
greater or lesser intensity attached to the practice, so we should not
generalize too much about it. Joci Caldwell Ryan.