mutilation and tattoos

Holly Swyers (swyersh@INTERPORT.NET)
Wed, 3 Jul 1996 20:48:31 -0400

Hi all -

Let me begin by seconding John McCreery's commendations of Marie Conrad and
Nedra Sue Davis - and to say (as I've been meaning to) thank you to
Adrienne Dearmas for getting this thread rolling. There are obviously a
lot of unplumbed depths is this topic, and I am a little disturbed that Dr.
Dearmas' experience suggests that the general response of anthropology to
this research has been affected disinterest or worse.

Just a quick question for Nedra Sue Davis: What are the parameters of your
research on tattoos? Are you looking at _anyone_ who might have a tattoo,
or are you limiting your research to particular groups?

The reason I ask is that a large number of the people I know sport tattoos,
and they fit neither Ms. Conrad's implied image of the biker with "Mama" on
his biceps nor the image presented by MAUS in Ms. Davis' example. These
are mostly people of about my age, fairly fresh out of college, struggling
to make "something" of themselves (or at the very least, pay off some debt
and feed themselves). As I kicked around the idea of getting a tattoo, I
asked a lot of my friends about their tattoos (in case you're wondering,
the idea is on hold until I decide (or discover) what kind of symbol will
adequately represent me as a whole person - which holds with the rite of
passage idea on some level). As usual, my observations are largely
anecdotal and are not informed by a structured anthropological inquiry (I
promise that I someday will do real research and have something more
concrete to say than "my friend said.." - really, I will).

Here are some generalizations of the responses my friends gave me:
Most of my friends got tattoos because they had really wanted them for a
long time. They all said the idea had to sit for a long time before they
would act on it. Many of them got tattoos in conjunction with major events
in their lives (e.g. during a semester abroad, upon getting engaged, upon
coming out of the closet). Almost all of them compared tattooing to an
addiction, expressing that once they had one, they wanted more. Every one
of them could point to the part of their tattoos which hurt the most to
have done. Most of them had tattoos that were very closely linked to
_their pasts_ or their perceived sense of self. The tattoo conveyed a
sense of identity, not entirely unlike the sentiment described by MAUS in
Davis' example when talking about the Rune below her navel. A tattoo of a
duck confirmed the outdoorsy nature of a woman now working and living in a
city, but who grew up in the rural Midwest hunting and fishing and farming,
for example. I never really thought about all of this anthropologically
prior to this conversation on the list, but the more I think about it, the
more I think there is really something valuable to study here.

Another interesting observation: Almost every time someone reveals that
he/she got a tattoo which is not immediately visible, someone will ask
"where did you get it?" (meaning where on your body). Almost every time,
in my circles at least, the response is "Dublin" or "Joe's House of
Tattoos" or "over on Clark Street by The Alley" (not said sarcastically,
mind you.) I don't know what it means, but it always entertained me.

Hope you all have a pleasant weekend...


"...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
- William Shakespeare, _Hamlet_ (II, ii, 247-48)