Sunday, October 17, 2010

Inked in NYC

Walking through the streets of NYC, I’m distracted by a sea of colors. The multitude of skin colors blanketed with the hues of the rainbow. It isn’t hard to notice the vast number of tattooed bodies in New York. I’ve made it a hobby, something to keep me busy on a seemingly never-ending commute, to keep a running tally of the ridiculous, funny, confusing and heartfelt tattoos I see everyday. The skinny jean clad twenty-something I watch exiting the ferry inked with a candy corn on one elbow, and a pretzel on the other. The retired firefighter bearing the artistically rendered words “Never Forget” on his forearm. The 17-year-old kid with a delicate Virgin Mary forever depicted on his bulging bicep.

From the day these nameless few were inked to the day their hearts cease to beat, their body art will be the most enduring physical evidence of their individuality. In a place so crammed with people, I began to consider how inscribing the body functions to appropriate an identity for the individual New Yorker. And conversely, how initiation into “the world of the tattooed” provides a community and sense of belonging in a place that is so crowded, yet isolating for many.

Ostensibly, getting inked is viewed as a sign of a person differentiating his/herself from a cultural body. In this physical process of differentiation however, one also strengthens the bonds of community. Margo DeMello in Bodies of Inscription suggests that as an effect of the image being rendered, the tattoo opens the door for discourse. Subsequently, as the tattoo becomes a talking point in conversation, it is provided a narrative with a social and emotional context (12). These narratives further link to a larger community, as individuals share their experiences of physical pain and a common understanding of what it means to be inked.

Part of my inspiration for writing this piece came from speaking to my friends and family about their own tattoos. More often than not, I found that their tattoos commemorated a person, place, or feeling. Granted there are number of reasons why individuals decide to permanently mark their bodies, but I kept returning to this notion of remembering a particular past. My uncle, a retired FDNY firefighter (featured in the above photo), didn’t have a single tattoo until 9 nine years ago. Now, post 9/11, he is covered in tattoos commemorating New York City and his fallen friends. I couldn’t help but see the irony in my uncle altering his identity by physically shedding his old skin for a psychedelic armor. Perhaps that’s why people get tattoos in New York, to thicken their skins against the harsh elements of the city. I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand peoples’ motivations for inscribing certain images of their bodies. I do think it’s possible however to observe how a place, which can so easily alter our emotions and intellect, can also motivate a metamorphosis of our physical self.

DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription
Sanders, Clinton. Customizing the Body

Funny link:


Katie M. Caljean said...

Transitioning from a stage of “not tattooed” to “tattooed” marks a shift in identity and entrance into a much larger community, but which community exactly? Are group boundaries limited to content choice or artwork created by a particular tattoo artist? Tattoos initiate individuals into, as Benedict Anderson would phrase, an “imagined community,” a community that exists beyond the physical limitations of the built environment. This type of community is different from a group of people bound by geographic proximity. An imagined community is not based on daily face-to-face interactions between members, but rather community members share a mental conception of their relationship. This bond is strengthened when individuals are able to empathize or sympathize with others when shared emotions are depicted (as suggested, the events of 9/11). It is also important to consider that the impetus for marking your body with (dare I say) signs is greater than the individual. As Charles Peirce would argue, signs drawn from the external world are what inspire the marks depicted on the body. These marks have meaning, as they are generally responses to (or interpretants of) objects, events, feelings, memories, or the physical environment.

Jenna said...

I like the interaction between Katie and Andrea's text as they come at private versus public spaces inhabited by body modification. Certainly body modification invites participation in conversations, "narratives with social and emotional text.". I have often wondered about the relationship between clearly visible tattoos and privacy as it it relates to control over a body. I would like to add to motivating factors the construction of bodily spaces external to and in opposition to imagined communities. "Imagined Communities" and constructed barriers of "thickened" skin.

KMKearney said...

I believe what Katie is talking about, and subsequently Cheyenne in her original post, is the emphasis on the formation of a community beyond physical settings. Anderson's concept "imagined communities" is the focus of his book, by the same name, which proposes that a nation is a community socially constructed. In other words, it is imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group and furthermore, it differs from an actual community, like Katie said, because it is not based on everyday face-to-face interaction. Thus, their body art, and moreover, what it symbolizes, bonds these individual people together, despite other differences. To further build on Katie and Cheyenne's point, they become part of a whole, as Anderson puts it, a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." Therefore, it is understandable why people choose to get a tattoo in response to an event, such as 9/11, because you are no longer experiencing the event as an individual, but as part of a group.

Shane said...

One particular line that really stood out to me, especially after reading Gosden and Howes, was early on in this post, "their body art will be the most enduring physical evidence of their individuality". I feel that it is a great example of the importance we place in the visual aspects of our society. To many tattoos are seen as a great way of expressing what makes them unique, yet even beyond tattoos the other more common ways in which we try to distinguish ourselves are also visual, such as the way we dress. It does not occur to many of us (here in the U.S.) to try and differentiate ourselves through the other senses. Sure we may use a certain soap, perfume, or cologne to smell a certain way, or try not to be too loud in certain contexts, but these are not ways in which we try to make ourselves unique. It would be interesting to imagine our society being different in this way and think of what it would be like if we used the other senses to express our individuality.

Gigs and Digs said...

I came across this article and thought it might interest you. Late 18th ce tattooing by European sailors: Cummings, William (2003) 'Orientalism's Corporeal Dimension,' Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4:2.