Don’t mind the body

Apparently one in five British people have tattoos. I’ve started noticing people and their body art more, and am discovering the beauty (and yes, sometimes the horror) that people carry with them and expose of themselves for the world to see. I recently had some work done on my arm as well. This saturation of tattoos in recent years must have had an impact in the way tattoos are perceived in the society.

It took me a year of active thinking and planning before I actually did the deed…after having wanted one for years. Before I had mine done, thoughts about the consequences of having something permanent on your skin did of course cross my mind; some people warned be against the idea, saying that it might affect my employability. However, we have permanent marks of life on our bodies in any case…many of these are not by choice but by something that was inflicted upon us. An injury, illness, tragedy and birthmarks to name a few. But somehow a mark made on your body out of pure choice, while executing your own agency, is something that is still frowned upon.

In the making, right after finishing.

In the making, right after finishing.

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate student in Finland I studied with a girl who had alopecia. This is an autoimmune disorder that makes the person periodically (or permanently) lose all or some of their body hair. In her case, she had lost most of her hair and had she let it grow it would have pretty much grown only in patches. This led her to decide to shave it all off and embrace the nakedness of her skalp. In certain social settings when meeting new people, I was sometimes slyly questioned about her look that was rather unusual (always only when she had left the room). Some of the questions were clearly laden with covert judgement, asking why would she do that? Why would she shave her head as a woman? The message was clear: ‘she does not conform to the general idea of what a woman should look like and I do not understand her choice’. I initially tried to avoid responding to the questions because I did not find it was my place to explain her situation to anyone, but eventually I caved in an said she has a condition that makes her lose her hair. The expressions on peoples’ faces normally changed from judgement to pity, leading on to shame over their own judgements.

People making judgements about my desire for decorating my own body and saying I may not get a job as a result, made me think about the value judgements we place on physical appearance when it is a personal choice, and when it is not. Like the person who initially judged my friend for (supposedly) making a personal choice about her appearance and looking “unnatural” (what to her actually constituted both  beauty and comfort), and then changing their tune after hearing that this was not a whim of free will and eccentricity, but a condition she had no choice over (well, it was partly, she could have opted for a wig like many other people with alopecia to “fit in”).

The same can be applied to body art as well. I recently read an article about an artist in Brazil who provides free tattoos for women who have been victims of domestic violence, and carry the scars of their past on their skin. The act of taking a tattoo is a personal choice for these women (much like my friend’s personal choice of being bald rather than wearing a wig), and as such functions as a form of agency and taking control over the acts that were done upon them, and of which they are already carrying permanent reminders. If a tattoo can help someone gain dignity and help to forget the tragedies they have endured, this can surely only be seen as a positive act. But why should the validity of these choices, covering a scar with a tattoo or not covering your head with a wig, be dependent on tragedy and illness? By doing so are we not running the risk re-victimising the person?

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An example of a piece from “A Pele da Flor” (The Skin of the Flower) project by Flavia Carvalho.

This leads me to question the validity of questioning my choice of having a tattoo in the first place. And by questioning, here I mean the act where there are negative judgements attached to people’s comments. Asking questions out of interest is always ok and even preferred. Would we warn a person with alopecia choosing to not cover their head with a wig or a person covering their scars with a tattoo that this could lead to them losing their jobs…or not getting one? Probably not. More likely they would be celebrated for their bravery. But for outsiders to be able to come to the conclusion of bravery and a positive meaning for someone’s body art or a bare scalp, an interaction related to their bodies is necessary. This can feel invasive…and requires the exposure of past traumas to outsiders despite efforts of trying to forget.

However, a liberal choice a person makes for the reasons that too are personal but contain no tragedy or illness, may in this case be considered less valuable as choices. Perhaps even selfishness? For having a tattoo for no other reason than for aesthetic and symbolic reasons is also empowerment and a way to love yourself and your body a little bit more. Majority of British people don’t regret having a tattoo done (When I asked a friend of mine whether he regretted his two sleeves, he simply stated: “nah, I’ll make a good looking corpse”), so clearly the choices are positive ones and the results are loved.

As I said, getting a tattoo was not a simple decision for me. Nor was it easy or rushed. It took years. And during those years I did many things that made me grow as a human being, I increased my intellect, my knowledge and my skills. And gained experiences that have helped me become a better person. A tattoo branded on my skin does not diminish these accomplishments, so why should this one aspect of myself be a deciding factor in say employment, when it is all the other factors about me that matter in employment.

I recently read an article in the Guardian where the cosmetics company Lush was described as “no appearance policy” company. For me this perfectly sums up the point I am trying to reach (much less eloquently) above. The appearance of a person, whether a birthmark, illness, scars, body type, weight or even a tattoo are representations of who that person is, but not what they can do or are skilled at. As more and more people are being inked every year, the labour market too is naturally getting saturated with people who sport various pieces on their skin. Employers need to change their attitudes toward this art form and the choices that lead people to having tattoos done.

The same logic extends to the reasons why tattoos are viewed negatively by employers according to a study by the British Sociological Association; Tattoos are considered dirty and untidy and project a certain stigmatised image where tattoos are related to “thugs and druggies” and this may affect the way customers view the business. But it is everyone, not ‘that person who would not apply for this job anyway’, but you and me who have tattoos. Apparently 14% of teachers today are inked. Tattoos are a burgeoning activity these days, and the boundaries between who is supposed to and not supposed to have tattoos are distorted. Hence, customers too, like the employers, are being increasingly exposed to visible body art. What was also interesting about the study conducted by the British Sociological Association was a comment according to which some tattoos were viewed more positively than others; for instance, military insignia was seen as a badge of honour. Not to get into a whole other bag of worms about militarism vs. personal experiences of servicemen, but it makes me question whether we really should be honouring a symbol that marks activities riddled with violence and power, over something inoffensive that marks personal choice, freedom and agency?

Another reason I was warned about getting a tattoo was that I’d run into trouble in Japan, where tattoos are considered a taboo. Primarily because of the association with the yakuza. As a pale white girl from northern Europe I found it a little unlikely that because of my tattoo I would be associated with the Japanese mafia; however, I do see the point that the associations spill over to tattoos in general, not just tattoos on members of organised crime groups. And this generalisation may bar me from certain places, such as public bath houses etc. I asked someone else who had spent time in Japan while brandishing some subtle body art whether it had ever become an issue, and while he said mostly not he did insert a few anecdotes of value laden comments that were made about his choices into the mix as well.

During Sanjo Matsuri, by Corpse Reviver (CC), Wikimedia Commons

During Sanja Matsuri, by Jorge (CC), Wikimedia Commons

Japan is an interesting case when it comes to tattooing however, as the country has both a rich tradition of tattooing (Irezumi), and a heavy taboo on tattoos. Irezumi as a distinct style of tattoos originates from the Japanese woodblock prints and it is still not uncommon for people brandishing irezumi to have elaborate tattoos covering large parts of their bodies. The Ainu living in the north of Japan also have their own traditions of social tattooing that have sadly been largely eradicated by the Japanese modernisation and persecution. Tattooing itself was actually trampled by the Japanese idea of modernisation when the practice became to be considered unmodern and dirty and the Meiji government outlawed the activity only lifting the ban after the second world war. Interestingly enough, it appears that the taboo on tattoos was actually state orchestrated and drove tattooing as an underground activity, leading to it’s current association with crime that lives on until today. Experts on the subject probably have more accurate and eloquent analyses to offer I am sure.

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Tattooed man, c. 1875 by Kusakabe Kimbe

Leaving for Japan is just a few weeks away and frankly worries about my tattoo are the last thing on my mind. I can’t really say I even worry about it that much to be honest. Naturally I am in the ‘privileged’ outsider position in Japan and lenience by the locals is normally applied in terms of adjusting to the local norms and customs. Never any harm in trying not to offend anyone, so there is a time and a place for covering my arms, but suppose there is also a call for the society to reflect what really is and isn’t offensive…especially when the source of offense is mere appearance and not the essence of what makes us humans…and humane.

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