This is my very first post and it is going to be a post about tattoos. It seemed only appropriate, as I’ve just been to my very first tattoo convention (which made my parents tremble again with fear of their daughter ruining her body, and the chance of finding a suitable husband as a consequence). Being there, I started thinking: is it really true that tattoos have moved beyond the world of the outcasts and socially deviants? In several recent studies it has been reported that in the USA about 20 % of the population aged 18 to 50 has at least one, and the numbers are growing. From my own experience I can say that a third of the people in my Archaeology Department were wearing tattoos. So, judging by the number of “subjects” and their cultural backgrounds, the answer seems to be yes.
It also became a fashionable topic for academic research, from Sociology of the body to History and Anthropology. One of the latest interesting projects is the University of Dundee‘s enterprise, whose purpose is to build a database of tattooed persons. This could act as an identifying tool in a disaster situation, but could also serve as a foundation for future research on tattoos and personal identity .
Then there are the studies that don’t focus on tattoos as part of a living individual, but as decorated skin, pieces of material culture. Among these, a nice example is the research done at University College London and the Science Museum, on a collection of tattooed skins from the late 19th-early 20th century.
However, is it really enough a growing number of tattoos and rising academic interest to change the status of this body modification process in the European and USA current societies? My hunch would be that the answer is no. What is happening is not that tattoos become an accepted form of body decoration (as it was the case for several historic populations or some living ones), but that the boundaries of social deviance are re-negotiated. In a world of confusion, in which old norms are taken down, the body is seen as one of the last fixed points that belong to us. Therefore, it is the most important vehicle for creating and expressing identity. Even more, it started being understood as a project that can be modified as the owner wants it, and what we witness in the media, in the fashion street blogs, and all around is a world-as-spectacle: “Dress to impress” seems to be the new motto (and this can mean anything, from modifying the weight, plastic surgery, decorating it etc.). Therefore, tattoos haven’t been raised to a whole new level, but the society changed and is now experiencing a generalised “outcast” feeling, trying to find something material to hold onto and say “this is me”. Of course, the individual motivations can be varied and sound extremely far from this, but once you take a step back and look at the big picture, the question remains: Why now? (What has changed so that tattoos became widespread? Is it just time, or are there other similar things happening in the same time?).
So, even though from a different point of view than the one intended, maybe my parents are right to be concerned about finding the suitable husband 🙂