Pretty in Ink


“Nothing breaks down social, moral, and legal boundaries faster than bodies that are thought to be misbehaving,” the critic Louise Kransniewicz once observed, and there’s no boundary-basher like a tattoo. But as tattoos creep into the mainstream, peeking out of middle-class shirt-sleeves and gracing (through photographs) the walls of a few intrepid galleries and museums, they carry a secret shame: class anxiety.

In the growing body of tattoo literature, class has been touched on but never fully examined—until now. Margo DeMello’s Bodies of Inscription explains how popular acceptance of tattoo art since the 1980s has come about through a rejection of its traditional, lower-class roots, and how middle-class tattoo enthusiasts legitimize it using the language of the self-help movement.

A tattooed scholar, DeMello wrote Bodies as a doctoral dissertation in 1995 while getting her Ph.D. in anthropology at UC Davis. She’s a hybrid critic, bringing academic rigor (but not academese) to a popular subject, who considers herself an outsider in the newly stratified tattoo community.

DeMello’s outsider status, combined with her training as an anthropologist, gave her just the distance she needed to write an authoritative book that’s not—like so much ink on the subject—a piece of tattoo evangelism. She deftly sketches out American tattoo history, then identifies two key transitions: the influence, starting in the ’60s, of sophisticated Japanese designs on the American aesthetic, which sowed the seeds for the ensuing “renaissance”; and the rise of tattoo conventions and magazines in the ’70s, which established a community and set the stage for artistic competition. Through them, she writes, “middle-class competitiveness and individuality along with an elevated sense of aesthetics have been grafted onto a working-class tradition.”

Now “fit for middle-class consumption,” tattooing has been outfitted with new meanings, imported largely from non-Western cultures and channeled through what DeMello calls “tattoo narratives” that purge the practice of its unsavory sailor/biker associations. Tattoo narratives, DeMello shrewdly observes, “re-create for both the teller and the listener not only the facts of the tattoo but the complex justifications for it. . . . The narratives are dialectical in that they presuppose a questioner or listener who objects to, or at least cannot understand, the tattoo.” They emphasize individualism, spirituality, personal growth, empowerment (for women), and a reclamation of the primitive self. Some even feature “coming out” stories about unveiling a tattoo for family members and friends.

By book’s end, DeMello’s disapproval of the mainstreaming and self-helping of tattoo art becomes palpable. She rejects the notion that only a “fine art, custom tattoo” can have “emotional resonance” and hopes for a future in which “the history and values of traditional North American tattooing are respected.” But Americana is in revival, and even highbrow tattoo magazines like International Tattoo Art consistently run reverent features on old-timers. Modern tattooing may be, as DeMello convincingly argues, “constructed . . . as a response to working-class tattooing,” but that doesn’t make it a wholesale rejection of it. Similarly, just as old-school tattoos need not be denigrated, so fine art designs are not inherently pretentious, as DeMello subtly implies.

Despite this whiff of reverse elitism, Bodies of Inscription is a penetrating and wonderfully original piece of research, interweaving references to Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu (“the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste”) with field work in a well-organized and cleanly written book. It provides a perfect coda to another new volume, Written on the Body, edited by Jane Caplan, which ends where DeMello starts: in the modern era.

Written on the Body corrects the popular myth that European tattooing was imported from 18th-century Polynesia, tracing it instead to the fourth millennium B.C. in Europe and to 2000 B.C. in Egypt. Caplan’s goal is “the scholarly retrieval and evaluation of historical sources,” and—through essays spanning religious, slave, and criminal tattooing from the later Roman Empire on—it succeeds. Alan Govenar’s examination of the evolution of American tattooing from 1846 to 1966 makes a meaty preface to DeMello’s Bodies; Caplan writes intelligently about 19th-century medical and criminological theories about tattooing; and Clare Anderson’s essay on penal tattooing in colonial India (a country with its own precolonial, class-based tattoo tradition) is fascinating. But talk about distancing yourself from the lower classes: This is the best literary example of DeMello’s class complex out there. Almost every contributor is an academic, and the lone modernist stays far from the trenches, relying entirely on secondary (and well-worn) sources.

There’s something off about a book that—well-researched as it is—refuses to engage the folk custodians (mostly tattooists) of a practice whose history has been largely oral. Because of its stubbornly pedagogical approach to this inherently carnal subject, Written on the Body fails to engage sensually; unlike Bodies of Inscription, it never lets you hear the machines or smell the A & D Ointment.

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