Tattoos & the Quest for Identity

Why have tattoos become so popular in recent years? To solve this mystery, we must first uncover the psychological appeal of tattoos. A tattoo is a form of self-expression, a way of displaying to the world one’s identity. Clothing is certainly a more common means — similarly on the level of physical appearance — by which people express their identity. It would make sense, then, that tattoos would be popular in prisons, since prisoners must wear uniforms, disallowing clothing as a mode of expression. But if we, who are not incarcerated, are free to express our identity through our clothing why, then, the need to make our very bodies into vehicles for self-expression? Apparently, tattoos promise to accomplish something, psychologically, that clothing cannot. What might it be?

The ease with which we can divest ourselves of our sense of our identity and put on a new identity, through a simple change of clothing, has its appeal. It is the appeal of freedom from the limits of a fixed identity. Of course, who we decide to become is influenced by the vicissitudes of fashion. But the very fluid identity that clothing allows can also seem unreal and empty. Like water, an identity predicated on appearances never becomes anything solid. The contemporary interest in becoming tattooed is indicative of a craving for a permanent and abiding identity.

The present zeitgeist is, indeed, one in which people suffer a lack of identity. Apropos is Natan Sharansky’s new book “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Defending Democracy.” (PublicAffairs, 2008) The book is a defense of national and cultural differences, in the face of globalization, the United Nations, the European Union, and most generally, the rise of internationalism. Previous generations of Americans had a strong identification with being American. Similarly, they identified with the region of the country in which they lived. They identified with their family, with their profession, with their interests, and all else. But ours is an abstract age, in which the very notion of having a strong sense of identity is judged to be naïve. Or else, it is viewed as dangerous, for it is believed that such identifications are divisive and lead to conflicts and to wars. Not everyone has negative feelings about identity. Certainly, those who are politically liberal tend to have much stronger anti-identity proclivities, but the animus against identity has affected our culture at large.

Without a sense of identity, people feel lost, disconnected from life, like Camus’ stranger. It would appear, then, that the present faddish interest in tattoos is indicative of a craving for identity. But, from a psychological perspective, there seems to be something desperate about needing a tattoo to have an identity. Apropos is a famous passage from Leviticus 19:28, which states: “And you must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul, and you must not put tattoo marking upon yourselves. I am Jehovah.” Why the biblical prohibition against tattoos? It is because if one’s identity is to be legitimate, it must come from God. Rather than being on the mere surface, one’s true identity must reach the depths of one’s soul. It is expressed in all that ones does, in one’s entire way of life, from morning till night. An identity bereft of inwardness, i.e., a identity that is merely on the surface i.e., on one skin, is mere idol worship. Hence, the biblical prohibition. Although relatively permanent, it is as superficial as declaring one’s identity by wearing a tee-shirt that has on it the insignia of a company, a clothing designer, a certain city, etc.

Now we come to a related mystery: the present popularity of tattoos among women..

 

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7 People have left comments on this post



» Neophyte said: { Jul 11, 2008 - 07:07:39 }

I found this article fascinating. When a woman has a tattoo it’s often located on the lower back above the ass. As a man it says to me, “I’m wild and I’ll hop into bed easily with anyone, and I have. Men have made their mark on me and I’m branded, so to speak. This tattoo is a sign that points to the area where I want men to focus their attentions.”

Interestingly the woman I’ve known that had a tattoo like this were very loose, uncommittal, and somewhat, if not very, demonic. Some also have had past experiences where they were raped.

» mdillof said: { Jul 11, 2008 - 09:07:24 }

Neo,

Those are very interesting observations. I think that what is significant about those womens’ tattoos is that they are in a place where they can be seen by other people, but not by themselves. Thus, they are making themselves the object for the eyes of another subject. In Sartrean language, they are the in-itself for the man who is a for-itself.

The fact that the tattoo is not simply on any unseen part of the woman’s body — such as on her back or on the back of her neck — but lower down, near her ass, is also significant, as you point out. It does indicate that she is willing to be used. Or, at least it seems that way, for according to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the slave can gain control. That is probably why you perceptively intuit it to be demonic.
— Mark

» seeker said: { Sep 17, 2008 - 10:09:29 }

I am a woman. I recently updated a tatoo I got as a young woman that is on the back of my left shoulder. My original tatoo was blurred and I had it covered with a new one. Both were of a rose growing out of a wound. Both tatoos were done spontaneously and without thought. I don’t know if I was looking for an identity or not. I really just wanted to state something prophetic. Beauty growing out of adversity. I have spent my entire adult life trying to overcome my suffering. Trying to heal from abuse and tradgedy. I am going to be forty next year and I have a little more peace but I still feel like I have a ways to go.

I suppose that most people have no idea what I have survived. Maybe they would treat me differently if they knew. But my tatoo really is hidden from most people. I don’t know Mark, was I trying to identify or prophesy.

» mdillof said: { Sep 17, 2008 - 11:09:42 }

Seeker,

That is a very interesting tattoo, for it expresses not who you are, but who you hope to be. Was it Maslow that said that human are not beings but becomings? I say this because, you state that your sense about the tattoo is that it is prophetic. I.E., it is future tense. Thus it has to do not with the identity that you hope to have, the identity of a healed person.

The image of a rose growing out of a wound is a beautiful and meaningful image. Helen Keller once said something to the effect that the world is full of suffering. But it is also full of the overcoming of suffering.

I shall not pretend to know what you have survived. But, like a traumatized soldier, it might be difficult for you to let go of the past. Sometimes we cling to our suffering, when nothing else appears on the horizon. Then it becomes our identity. Then the person spends the rest of their life as a person in recovery. I am not saying that you are doing this. I am just saying that it is a danger. (Please see my essay on trauma, on my regular website: http://www.deeperquestions.com.

In any case, good luck Seeker, and thank you for your thought-provoking post.

» seeker said: { Sep 18, 2008 - 09:09:02 }

I could not find the essay on trauma. I do not want to cling to my suffering but I have learned I cannot ignore it. I would like to move on from my past. In reading some of your other blogs, I feel a little conformation that maybe I am not doing so bad. I live by reading signs. I look for messages and try to listen. I do hope I am lead out of any stuck places I am in. Anyway, I wanted to read your essay to evaluate myself.

» mdillof said: { Jan 5, 2009 - 02:01:57 }
{ Jul 16, 2012 - 02:07:04 } Quora

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