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: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/tag/archaeology-tattoos/