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Poetics and Aesthetics of Violence in Tattoos

Tattoos are part of the new trend among people to use their bodies to express beauty, belonging, religion, nationalities -- but they also to express violence.

Heidi Ann Garcia

Issue #62, December 2002

Tattoos have been in existence for over twelve millennia. People of all cultures have worn them for diverse reasons, the most important being their role in ritual and tradition. Tattoos may be symbols that represent the particular skills of the wearer, or may signify membership in a clan or society. In Greece, they were used for communication among spies; in western Asia tattooing was used to show social status. In the West, tattoos were banned and disdained until the late 1960s when social attitudes toward tattoos changed.

Today, tattoos are part of the new trend among people to use their bodies to express beauty, belonging, religion, nationalities, and many other things, but also to express violence. In the process of having a tattoo embedded in the skin the person submits his/her body to violence through pain in order to have it marked with a symbol or message. I believe that violence through pain can be understood in two ways: first is the violence inflicted upon the body and second, the violent reaction it creates in the viewer who does not share that kind of aesthetic. When a person submits the body to the tattooing process, it damages the skin's basic structure, its integrity, even though it does not cause any serious health issues unless there are other symptoms such as a person being diabetic. On the other hand, the onlooker who does not agree with this kind of expression of art cannot understand why people expose themselves to the "torture" of tattooing and their reaction is usually one of violent rejection to the process. After talking to young, middle-aged and various senior citizens, the reaction was the same: violent rejection and revulsion to the pain they imagined the tattooed person went through. The violent reaction is stronger because of the thought of the pain more than the violent message tattoos might convey.

For gangs, tattoos mean something else. Gang members call the process "branding". They use their bodies as texts in which they "write" a message of belonging to a particular group or person, but also to provoke fear among the viewers. The message of fear is projected not only by gang members but also by many other people, and it is more and more a fashionable trend nowadays. These symbols express a way of life and death that is part of gang communities. For gangs, graffiti, specific hand movements, and tattoos are part of their language of violence.

Gang members may use tattoos to project fear, but among many other people tattoos are a fashion trend. Connie Corona, for example, does creative tattoos in Glendale, Arizona. She offered interesting ideas about her understanding of the relationship between violence, gangs, and tattoos.

Connie: "To each his own"

BS: For Connie the relationship between tattoos and violence is limited to a few very specific types: the prisoners, the gang members and the pain itself.

Connie: Prisoners tattoo a spider on their elbows to convey a message of confinement. Prison tattoos, however, eventually emerge to create an aura of toughness outside prison walls into a prejudiced society.

On the other hand, gangs use their tattoos to express belonging and pride. Gang women use gang tattoos as a property patch. Because gang tattoos express the belonging to a particular space and organization, people caught wearing their tattoos have them cut off by gang members. Other than that, the "pain aspect" is the violence through pain people look for when they want a tattoo.

A lot of guys, and even women, that come here to get tattoos come for the pleasure that pain gives them. They do it to get a release; instead of drugs or alcohol, they will get a tattoo for this release. This release is needed when the client has a problem and the need to release the anguish, or the rage, or any other strong emotion through pain, and because this is not an excruciating pain, people may become addicted. This release creates a natural high that is very addictive.

BS: Is there a relationship between tattoos and fear?

Voyeurism Picture!Connie: Yes, and a lot of people do it purposely just to create fear. This is very common in young kids that are not necessarily part of gangs or any violent group, but who are picked on in high school or are not part of the in group. A lot of small kids, especially white kids, will get huge tattoos in order to project toughness — to be cool — to create fear. Even girls do it. As soon as they turn 18, they will get huge tattoos of evil looking animals, fairies and skulls because they think they will look tough and cool. An 18 year old girl that gets a common tattoo for her age would be considered inferior by another girl that got a tough, mean looking tattoo being both the same thing because it is the same pain, the same process.

BS: Do you think this need to project toughness, to create fear in the viewer is growing?

Connie:It is growing worse, but not with tattoos, with body modifications.

In Tabu Tattoo, French tattoo artists Ana and Lucas Zpira were interviewed regarding this new trend. The Zpiras state that "art is no longer art. It is a consistently metamorphosing form, relentlessly pursuing freedom from every pair of hands that clasp it." It is about making the whole body a canvas. They cut, pierce, implant, scar and tattoo themselves, not only for personal bodily adornment, but to create public performance as well. This is the extreme that goes beyond savage tattoos.

BS: Why do you think people do these things?

Connie:To each his own.

Many of Connie's clients are from Sun City, Arizona, a community for people 55 years and older. They have old tattoos like butterflies and roses, but know they want them redone with tribal, monster and demonic-looking tattoos.

BS: Why do you think older people are changing their tattoos?

"Because now it is accepted. Demons and monsters have been around forever, but now they are more accepted than in the past. The fear of the demonic tattoos is that the people that are wearing them may take it to another level of violence and try to embody evilness as projected by the image of the demon: to kill and do harm."

Robert's New Aesthetic

Entering Robert and Connie's house is an experience of itself. They have created a space where they express a very different concept of beauty and harmony. For them, skulls, gargoyles, devils, and gothic knickknacks are part of the decoration. Only the kitchen is decorated with bright colors and normal kitchenware, but it still has a huge gargoyle on top of the refrigerator. They are honest, hard-working citizens who have a different concept of beauty.

BS: Do you think there is a relationship between tattoos and violence?

Robert: Yes and no. Because people like me may like devils but I do not go around killing people as a devil. I like devils and its image decorates my house and my body, but I do not try to impersonate the devil and kill people. That is sick. Only sick people do that.

People can be affected by tattoos in a negative way just because of ignorance. When people do not know what motivates having a tattoo done or the artwork it represents, they interpret what they see in many ways that shows how ignorant they are.

Tattoos are cool because parents do not like it. Maybe years from now, if tattoos are generally accepted, the cool thing to do may be jumping out of cars while they are running. It is just a trend, the excitement, adventure that parents do not like. The more they rush to be different, the more they are the same.

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Voyeurism Picture!Both interviews end in a discussion of body modification. According to Connie and Robert, branding is a more extreme form of marking one's territory than tattoos. According to Robert branding is when "they peel two layers of skin off with a scalpel and scar you. The piercing, the putting of spikes under the skin, the horns in the scalp that may be screwed and unscrewed -- all these body mutilations are very dangerous." Body modification frequently pursues a shock or fear effect like cutting the tongue like a lizard and setting horns in one's scalp. Such modifications demonstrate an acceptance of high levels of pain. One of the subliminal messages projected becomes "If I can endure the pain, can you?"

It all returns to a concept of knowledge. People will interpret signs according to what they know about these signs. We fear what we do not understand. Knowledge is the only defense against fear. Ignorance creates prejudice; prejudice creates oppression that is the ultimate act of violence. It is important to understand this kind of language as not only aesthetically different and disquieting, but as one that re-interprets the reality of social violence.

To define the ideal of beauty in tattoos diminishes the message that a tattoo tries to project and may jeopardize 'the whole enterprise of rigorous poetics' by doing so. For some people, tattoos are beautiful works of art; for others, aberrations on the body. Viewers judge tattoo aesthetics; no one else is.

I cannot change who I am. I cannot have a tattoo done just to experience what I have been seeing and hearing and reading this past week. But when I was browsing around booths at the local Tattoo Jamboree I couldn't help buying myself a piece of tattoo art that may represent my new taste in beauty.

Heidi Ann Garcìa is a PhD candidate in Arizona State University. She studies the cultural production of Caribbeans in the United States.

Copyright © 2003 by Heidi Ann Garcia. All rights reserved.