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Here’s something a sixty-three year old man thinks about.

Once, girls in their summer dresses filled the sidewalks each June. Their bare arms and shoulders would flash out of halter straps and their legs would strut past hems set well above the knees. Just to look at those girls—the bright, cotton colors of their dresses, and the sweet bareness of their limbs—made you think of ice cream.

Nowadays, young women fill the bars and the microbreweries, the bookstores and the record shops with their limbs snared in a jungle of ink. Over their young arms and backs and bosoms tattoos propagate until a girl looks like a rare species of life aquatic, her flesh populated by things fished up in a net.

I do not like it. Is it just because I am old?


At Picasso’s Cafe, Ashley makes my iced coffee and talks to me between drips. I have asked her to tell me about the face of the wolf and the face of the doe on her right upper arm. They form a totem. Both beasts are drawn in a tight, geometric pattern of lines that makes them each look abstract and electrified.

“I had to watch her die.” She is a little timid as she describes the event commemorated on her arm. She said, “I was doe hunting alone, and I shot and just wounded. It was terrible.”

“Isn’t it illegal if you don’t find her?”

doe“Actually, it’s not. But I always hunt with a purpose. I looked for a half-hour when I heard a thrashing, and there she was. I went over, and she was bleeding, and at the last second she looked up at me. Right in my eyes. It was the most accepting look; she looked up with total acceptance and love in the situation. I’ll never get that look out of my mind.” She pauses, to put vanilla in someone’s coffee. I notice that the doe on her bicep wears a little lotus crown as if she is a bit of a princess. I asked, “How did you kill her?”

“I slit her throat.” Ashley pauses and says, “I could see it in her eyes that she was accepting death. People are so afraid of death but animals accept it.”


The conventionally-educated will try to domesticate the skin art of the young by comparing it to moments in the history of painting. Large sleeve tattoos suggest a bestiary lurking in the wearer’s blood. Their frisky animality and stark, sanguine colors suggest the “Les Fauves” movement that transformed painting during the 1920s.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

However, the more tattoos you engage, or rather, the more tattoos that engage you in the bars and the juice stands, the more one grasps that tattoo art is not like wearing a painting: It’s like being a painting. Oscar Wilde provided a manifesto for the tattooed physique when he said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Wilde’s famous aphorism was complemented by another. He said, “The well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.” Any observer of the young and tattooed will notice the weedy disorganization of the symbols on their skins. They are mismatched agglomerations of images which make—at least in the mind of the tattooed—a complicated, yet fierce statement of identity. A cartoon character will lurk near a Celtic rune; a rock lyric will vie for space with a religious icon.

Nonetheless, although tattooing may express a Wilde-like worship of flamboyant contradiction, for the most part, skin art functions as a manifesto of dogmatic identity. Tattoo art is never ironic or subtle. Tattoos are didactic. Moreover, besides lacking nuance, skin art fails to be art by failing to craft something that endures through time. Ink with the flesh fades. It cannot be art. The wearers of blanching, full-limb tattoos end up, after a few years, looking like depraved lilies.

Therefore, perhaps extreme tattooing is really not visual art, but rather body poetry: the Word become flesh. Perhaps to the young wearer, the tattoo is really his soul blushing in florid colors, a self-cinema where the flickering image keeps moving away, and towards him in the same manner that the living Word is both near and far, inside the self and beyond the distant stars.


The 27-year-old barmaid is tall and thin, and her shoulders seem to move to a strain of music only she hears. With every bit of fussing at the cash register, or each pour of drinks, she gestures a little with her shoulders in a manner so slight that she seems to be testing where the atmosphere has openings she may glide through. Maybe it is because she scents hope and danger all around her that she also wears a tiny nose-ring.

A line in Hebrew on her shoulder translates “Never be ordinary.” Her best girlfriend is Jewish and had the same line tattooed on her back. On her finger is a small crescent moon, which along with a small cross on another finger represents her “religious interest in general.” Eliza also wears a tea saucer-sized tattoo of a wolf on her thigh, which she calls “her spirit animal.” She wears it to remind herself to “be as a wolf does, be quiet and stealthy and strong.”


Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back” a poor white handyman tries to please his puritanical wife by sporting a back-sized tattoo of Jesus. She beats his back with a broom for committing the sin of idolatry and blasphemy. She doesn’t notice that, in fact, she is the blasphemer who has failed to realize that her husband is a hierophany, a shining image of the mystery of God in the flesh: the Eucharist.

Similarly, in “Mon Legionnaire” a song written by Raymond Asso and most famously sung by Edith Piaf, we hear of a French Foreign Legionnaire whose body was “full of tattoos / That I never understood / On his neck he wore ‘Not seen, not taken’ / On his heart ‘no one’ / On his right arm one word: “reason.” She croons, “and the lust for his skin eats me up.”

In the tattooed legionnaire who is the object of the singer’s desire, there is a kind of sexualized neo-platonic theology. He is the unspeakable “Form of the Good” projecting ideal forms upon his skin. In her desire, the singer finds him mysterious as a rock painting. He communicates by mute tattoos. Just as in “Parker’s Back” what is attractive about the tattooed is his remoteness. The legionnaire’s tattoos—like the Christ figure on Parker’s back forces a discussion of the body as sacrament, sign, and mystery.

Thus we must consider whether, to the young, their tattoo art is best understood as an unconscious expression of the Christian idea of God as both embodied and remote, intimate and touchable, yet undecipherable: as close as an armpit scent and as remote as the stars. The tattooed person—both in “Parker’s Back” and “Mon Legionnaire”—by his eclectic collection of symbols, departs into a monastic self, unreachable by ordinary intercourse. And, yet he stands right in front of you taking your order at the diner.

It is as if our tattooed millennials are trying to make themselves sacred creatures fallen to earth: beings who wear the secrets of the universe—known to the few—on their thighs, on their arms. They are gnostics trapped in narcissism.


summer dressesThus, I hate it. What happened to the girls in their summer dresses: all those clean-limbed girls who used to sail like regattas down city streets each June?

The Catholic Oscar Wilde seemed to grasp the disturbing charm of tattoos when he declared, “Those who see any difference between the soul and the body have neither.” Whether as maimed art or cryptic religion the impulse to tattoo seems to come from our sense of the identity and difference of our minds and bodies. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas pointed to the paradox of the unity and disunity of the mind and body when he wrote, “Do we not affirm ourselves in the unique warmth of our bodies long before any blossoming of the Self that claims to be separate from the body?… In a dangerous sport or risky exercise… all dualism between the self and the body must disappear.” Thus, the mystery of the tattooed body lies in this: It is an attempt to resolve the awful paradox of personhood: being both soul and body.

And yet, herein our problems become severe. Emmanuel Levinas wrote on the subject of the dangers of situating truth in the body in a 1934 essay entitled “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism.” It is from that essay that the quotation above is taken.


Levinas prefaces his prophetic essay by saying that the blood-soaked barbarism of National Socialism “stems from the essential possibility of elemental evil into which we can be led by a logic against which western philosophy has not insured itself.” He goes on to situate that logic—the logic of Nazism—in an attempt to bury the idealism shared by Judaism and Christianity in a degraded idealism of the body, or biology. Levinas tells us that Judaism discovered a freedom from history which Christianity furthered, and subsequent western philosophy maintained. However, “the Philosophy of Hitlerism” buries this philosophical tradition in a smarmy cult of the body which makes the biological much “more than an object of spiritual life. It becomes its heart.” The philosophy of Hitlerism encourages us to attend to the “mysterious urgings of the blood, the appeals of heredity and the past,” until finally, the self is seen as “constituted by these elements.” He tells us that the hidden logic of Nazism results in a society that loses “living contact with its true ideal of freedom and accepts degenerate forms of the ideal.”

Are the tattoos that grace—like so many exotic birds—the shoulders and arms of the new girls (and boys) of summer examples of some “degenerate form of the ideal?”

With Levinas, we must ask whether contemporary tattooing is a cultural movement which attempts to anesthetize the struggle of spirit and flesh by blending them together and erasing that “duality of a free spirit that struggles against the body to which it is chained.” Is extreme tattooing a youth fad of pretty chains?

Our answer can be found in Levinas’ account of freedom’s discovery in the Old Testament where man discovers “a supernatural possibility to… regain the nudity he had during the first day of creation.” Levinas goes on to tell us that the “equal dignity of each and every soul… is due to the power given to the soul to free itself from what has been, from everything that linked it to something or engaged it with something so it can regain its first virginity.”  True freedom lies in the soul’s nudity and first virginity which comes from its distinction from the flesh. Freedom lies in our will to free ourselves from our private history which tattoos seek to incarnate, or rather incarcerate, in the flesh.


Tattooed-ArmsAnd so we now know why the look of a young girl colorfully embossed with tattoos makes old men feel older; and the look of a young woman, limbs all unlimbered and new makes old men feel young. It’s the look of natality and freedom.

Truly, the new boys and girls of summer wearing animal totems on their arms and runes on their shoulders are not the brown shirts of the SA. But we are forced to face that we live in the same spiritual world Emmanuel Levinas explored in 1934. That world remains the world of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the religions of Abraham—which find tattoos morally dubious, or evil. Now we know why.

The redeemed soul’s nakedness in God’s creation, and the body’s nakedness as the image of the soul, are ideals upon which civilization as we have known it depends. Is it any wonder so much western art and sculpture has been devoted to the unblemished nude?

And so, it is for this reason that we must worry over the young, who fill the hookah bars, and microbreweries, the vintage clothing stores and the boulevards wearing tattoos—too, too many tattoos.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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65 replies to this post
  1. The thing is, we’ve all seen the tattoos of men in their 70s and 80s: just a blue-black blur on their skin, barely decipherable…

    • Seems to me that with all the problems we have in the church today that we could better flex our literary muscle evaluating how to fix the problems of hypocrisy, false teaching, and the effects of extreme church overhead rather than constantly trying to cast a unsavory light on yet another generation that the old folks don’t understand. Maybe we could break that cycle and get back to the matter at hand. Spreading the gospel.

  2. I look upon tattoos differently. To me they are a person’s inner self worn outwardly. Why? Because life for them is essentially meaningless. So they wear their “inner meaning” outwardly. The inner, spiritual substance has been lost. Western civilization is gasping for air, flailing and trying to remain afloat.
    This, in brief, is the present situation in w civilization. W Civilization can’t thrive unless people risk all for God. It needs a new Augustine or Aquinas–which role Voegelin felt as well.

  3. It seems The Imaginative Conservative has established a ‘Gnostic Studies” branch. Well done, and I look forward to more penetrating analysis here. Somewhere EV is smiling.

  4. Dear Len, I very much agree that the extremely-inked are trying to have a spiritual life and somehow cannot find it in a way that feels satisfying and substantial. Therefore, they hope to emblazon values on their skins hoping to give the objects of their spiritual longings a permanence. There are a lot of things I left unsaid. Thanks for the comment. Mark Milburn

    • Good comment, Mark. The loss of permanence is the result of the rejection of transcendence or The Trançendent One.

    • Dear Mark,
      This is precisely why I obtained multiple tattoos as a young woman who had lost her faith and delved into the narcissistic world of hedonism and gnosticism (and, really, all forms of paganism, Eastern and Western). Your description is spot-on and touches me deeply to the core. After 20 years of “seeking” and now in my 40’s, I have found the Truth of Christ and returned to His Church. In the frequent times of deep regret for the existence of my many markings, I attempt to find a silver lining. I remind myself of those who are young now, lost as I was for so many years, and how, God-willing, my many pagan tattoos might “prove” to them that, truly, I understand what they are going through. I try to think of myself as “proof” that Truth can prevail, can be found, even after the most terrible of Falls. Sincerely, (Prodigal Daughter) Kim

  5. Dear bobcheeks,

    Thanks for referencing Voegelin. I’d like to read more. It was his little book on Gnosticism (not the greater volumes) that got me started on this. I must say I also treasure Hans Jonas’ The Gnostics.

    If I had more time I’d like to talk about the doctrinal comparison between the extreme ink movement and the Gnostics. As you can tell my main basis of comparison is the symbolic and religious eclecticism of both movements. My other basis is the idea that the soul is low and material, something that could be the canvass or clay of art. Finally, I think the extreme inkers see themselves as extemely special possessors of secret knowledge which upon examination is usually very banal renderings of pop psychology.

    Thanks for reading my essay.

    Mark Milburn

  6. Mark, great essay, you should follow up on your theme because it represents an interesting example of gnostic deformation in contemporary times. I should think Cicero might have added ‘inkings’ to his list of man’s misbehavior during the Roman era.

    There’s also the nature of ‘world-immanent’ salvation that might provide fodder for your inquiries.


  7. Dear Mark, thank you for your kind comment. My view doesn’t, and wasn’t meant to, counter your thoughtful essay, which I liked. But I encounter so many young students who clearly are lost and hungry–and tatooed galore–that I had to mention it for the sake of completeness. Salve et Vale, magister.

  8. Jane Wyant,

    Thanks for catching my obscure use of “natality.” My bad! The term is being used in the sense it has in Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition” where natality or untouched, unadulterated, newborn-Ness is the ultimate source of political freedom. Every life comes into this world free of history and as such represents the raw human potential for good, and as such birth represents a refutation of deterministic models of politics.

    An earlier draft of this essay had a section on Arendt which I removed. I forgot to do something with that term which is a little vague to say the least.

    Thanks for the comment.


  9. He’s using “natality” creatively to refer to birth/youth (natal). I remember some story by John Updike where he says, “Two of the sweetest scoops of vanilla I’ve ever seen” or something like that. I halfway between but leaning to toward dislike of tattoos and in principle if anyone asks I would say I don’t like them. But I kind of understand where they’re coming from. I really think it’s a kind of deliberately inflicted self-harm, probably in the same basic category as when girls cut themselves.

  10. Finally, I think the extreme inkers see themselves as extremely special possessors of secret knowledge which upon examination is usually very banal renderings of pop psychology.

    Yes, indeed.

    You didn’t mention the addictive aspect of getting tattooed. As soon as (in the kind of circles extreme inkers are in) they get one tattoo, they are obsessing about getting another one…the bigger the better in some cases. I find it horrible, too. A distantly related niece proudly showed off her “latest” on Facebook…a giant tree of life on her back. I could cry seeing it. My 18yo wanted to get tattooed. I begged her to hold off until she gets married next fall…hoping that she’ll see sanity by then. Of course her fiance is thinking to tattoo, too.

    I really enjoyed your article. Thank you for writing it.

  11. Self mutilation or self harm in the form of Tattoos comes from self rejection or self hatred. I think the Gnostic element is a facet, but it is more basic than that. This can be traced to the Sin of Pride or Vanity. I am worse than anyone else, and only I really know why. The Daughters of Pride, Vanity and Lust are all factors contributing to this state of mind.

    This is why it is more prevelant into society today and in younger generations. The above capital sins and their effects, their daughters, are everywhere. Look at Moralia in Job for the Daughters of the Capital Sins. Pope Gregory the Great. The secular mind comes from The Daughters of Lust. Just look at the Daughters. That is the key.

    • Dear Aga,

      I agree that the deadly sins of Pride and Lust are much of what explains the tattoo craze. In fact they may be the much more basic source of the trend.

      Thanks for your analysis. In some respects it’s more probing than mine.

      Mark Milburn

  12. Grotesque, uncivilized, disease-welcoming, sad, vulgar, unthinking, and, in a few years, The Crone with the Draggin’ Tattoo. Her own children will be so embarrassed.

    Wear a funny hat, dye your hair, fool about with body paint – they will, like adolescence, go away. Self-disfigurement, however, is for life.

    • Wearing a funny hat or dying your hair would be to follow the first part of Wilde’s prescription to either wear a work of art or be a work of art. Somehow, the ink-enthusiasts want something deeper.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Mark S. Milburn

  13. I have nothing to add but the observation that in a society where nothing seems to be permanent, it may not be surprising that some people seek out permanence of a visible, albeit vapid, sort. It may end in a sort of neo-Gnosticism, but I suspect the hunger for permanence is the beginning.

    Families are not permanent, marriages are not permanent. People switch jobs, careers, schools, religions, “genders”, homes, and affiliations at a fast rate. “He was my brother, for six months.” “That was my wife, for two years.” “I was an IBM employee, for 18 months.” “I lived in Memphis for two years.” “I went to the Methodist church for one summer.” “But this tattoo, it is FOREVER.”

    • Dear Jacob,

      Pursuing your lead I guess if a search for permanence is the origin of the craze then we might say with Wilde, “Everyone should either wear a (religion, home, wife, job etc.) or be a (religion, home, wife, job etc.)”

      It does seem that extreme inkers are wearing do-it-yourself religion on their skin. To follow your point, it’s interesting that among the women you often find a tattoo portrait of a deceased Mom.

      Death is impermanence too. Thanks for the read and the comment.

      Mark S. Milburn

  14. Dear Aga,

    I agree that the deadly sins of Pride and Lust are much of what explains the tattoo craze. In fact they may be the much more basic source of the trend.

    Thanks for your analysis. In some respects it’s more probing than mine.

    Mark Milburn

  15. Reading this story and the comments gives me a headache, however, I am usually pleasantly shocked when I see a young lady with bare limbs and no tattoos. As a confessing Christian, I take seriously the admonition in the Old Testament of the Bible that the Hebrew people were not to tattoo their skin. I think it’s easy to interpret that the Hebrews were God’s chosen people and that God made humans without tattoos. Also, tattoos were probably done by the pagans living around the Hebrews, and God was never one for allowing them to mingle with the pagans, or act like them, or identify with them. It’s a metaphor that applies to His People today, and that would be easily demonstrated if you were to go directly from church function to a prison yard. Tattoos are still identified with certain groups of people. I don’t judge them, but I’m not getting any tattoos. My fantasy is to get up the courage to say to a tattooed person, “Whoa, it looks like you went to sleep on a park bench and some gang banger covered you with graffiti.” I probably won’t though.

  16. An aspect that you don’t explore here (and I think it’s incredibly revealing) is the connection between tattooing and body piercing (both called “body art”) and how they are often spoken of as a form of masochism, almost a ritualized, socially-acceptable kind of cutting.
    I think many people seek tattoos, not to glorify their body, but because they have deep, sometimes masochistic, ambivalence about their body.

    • Michael,

      Hostility towards the body is a defining trait of Gnosticism. If you can connect the obvious body hatred of piercing to the body painting of extreme tattooing then you have made my case that the whole movement is Gnostic.

      Thank You,


  17. The tattoo craze may just end when they realize it’s hard to be “Unique” when there are 20 million other tattoed idiots who look just aa stupid as you do. Not to mention age. Is there anything more ridiculous looking than an old hippie or an aging punk rocker?

  18. They can’t see age or the future. To them, the present is all there is. The epitome of pride is that all there is is me and it is only now.
    FOR that reason, the argument that the Natality of an unblemished canvas of skin means nothing to them because they have no past or future. They only remember what they make permanent.

    God is the permanent that they have not found.

    • Dear Patty,

      I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps the desire for permanence makes the tattoo seem like a cure for the anxiety of not having confidence, that is to say faith in the future.

      Mark Milburn

  19. IV A line in Hebrew on her shoulder translates “Never be ordinary.” Google Translate translates from English to Hebrew for “Never be ordinary” to “לעולם להיות רגיל”. From Hebrew to English for “לעולם להיות רגיל” to ” Never be normal “.

    • Jorge,

      What an interesting exercise. Kids are getting lots of text on their skin written in languages the do not understand. Often the language is Chinese.

      Thanks for the read. I suspect “normal” might be the better translation.

      Mark Milburn

  20. Getting tattoos doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate your body or that you are engaging in self harm. Nor is necessarily drive by lust or pride. There are lots of people that only get one tattoo and stop after that one tattoo. All of the associations that you make about people that get tattoos are your preconceived notions about people that get tattoos. People from all walks of life get tattoos for various reason and unless you know those reason you can’t say with any certainty that lust and pride were the motivation.

    • Dear Dan,

      I don’t deny that there are folks who get a tattoo, or two simply because they think the art is pretty.

      Remember, what I’m discussing is not the U.S. Marine with the “Semper Fi” earth and anchor on his bicep. Nor am I discussing the gal with a flower on her shoulder. My topic is the youth craze of sleeve tattooing where whole limbs and torsos are made into murals.

      Let me just say this. To fill an entire arm or leg with varying images, at the vary least presumes a certain philosophical stance with regards to the body and the soul. It’s from that premise that I construct my argument.

      I’ll admit that I’m operating from certain prejudices. However, my point is to ask whether my gut reactions don’t have philosophical foundation

      There are no doubt other ways of approaching this cultural phenomenon. George Steiner in a work called “In Bluebeard’s Castle” suggests that the young are developing a new visual literacy to replace the canons of traditional western culture. I did not touch on this but that would be another avenue of approach.

      Thanks for the read and thanks fro your comment.

      Mark S. Milburn

  21. What an eloquently written piece. But Flannery O said lots of things and one was that sometimes there is no real deep reason a killer wears a certain colored hat but merely that he wears a hat. (AGMIHTF). But, I get what you are saying and especially like the way you said it.

  22. “Here’s something a sixty-three year old man thinks about.”

    When I read that line and the immediate following line I thought of Shaw’s The Girls in their Summer Dresses and how they too are like tattoos…bet you did too.

    • Sheila,

      Thanks for the read and the comment. Glad you like O’Connor and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

      Also, thanks hugely for picking up on the fact that the essay begins with a nod to Irwin Shaw. I had no hope that anyone would have caught that because I’m so old and I wonder if anyone reads him anymore.

      My idea was that the bit of bare skin that goes with a Summer dress relates to Levinas’ idea of biblical freedom and the body being God’s creation not ours. But you have a really interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of the opposition and contrast between the bright plumage of the dress and the glare of the tattoo. I wish I’d said that or meant that. But when you think about it they are complementary ideas because a woman is free to change her apparel. Not so free to change a tattoo.


      Mark Milburn

      • Thanks, Mark Milburn for taking the time to respond to my post. Your line about “…a woman is free to change her apparel. Not so free to change a tattoo.” also struck me as so true. I wonder what it means that so many women (and men) get tattooed when they are drunk?

        I think an awfully lot of really good and great writing goes un-read these days!

  23. When I first read Parker’s Back, I could not understand how Parker could think it would please his wife to sport a graven image, particularly one of Jesus. The tattoo, or the fact that Parker chose to festoon his body w/ tattoos, is not the issue. Rather, it is Parker the inattentive husband, indulging himself and just expecting his wife to swoon over it.
    Similarly, it is not that people who choose to express their individuality with a nod to a remnant from slavery and totemic culture (at the very least illustrating a concession of personal sovereignty) are inherently flawed. We are all inherently flawed. The apparent cultural decline that has brought about an influx of human murals is manifest all over the place, particularly in our popular culture, and in the ever expanding role of pop culture as a significant influence.

  24. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on this cultural phenomenon. Among the many facets you note, I’m particularly drawn to the longing for permenance and the ways tattoos can enshrine memories. One friend (who is a devoted follower of Jesus) has two tatoos: one received after her father’s death and the other after a still-birth. They are very symbolic, operating like personal ebenezers to remind her of God’s faithfulness during heartbreaking times. What are your thoughts on this kind of memorialized use of tatoos?

    Thank you again for this essay.



    • Dear Nate,

      That’s a really good question. I don’t really criticize men and women who use tattoos to remind themselves of a particularly difficult experience. Nor do I place in the scope of my meditation soldiers who wear a tattoo of the Army or the Marines.

      I get it that suffering endured by trust in God might lead to a tattoo. I have no problem with that.
      On that note, it strikes me as interesting that Holocaust survivors often do nothing to remove their number; although, before writing on this observation I would have to do a lot of serious research and reflection.

      But to answer your question, I guess you’ve forced me to to put it down to the number of tattoos someone wears.

      What I am getting at is the probability that something of a religious nature (probably destructive) is going on when folks start to wear not one or two, but rather five, six, or ten tattoos, or choose to wear single works of ink art that cover whole limbs.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Mark S. Milburn

  25. Mark,

    I appreciate your reply and your humility in seeking to clearly deliniate what may or may not be objectionable. I think you are tracking a potentially destructive spiritual drive in your observations about the number, congestion, and meanings of the ink these days. Charles Taylor’s concept of “mutual display” as a path for generating imminent meaning in a society that is embued with exclusive humanism may be helpful as well. Thanks for engaging this topic well and I hope to read more of your essay.



  26. I do not like tattoos either. However this wonderful piece makes me want to re-read “Parker’s Back,” one of the great short stories. I can understand wanting a tattoo as an icon of your identity (I can see a small crucifix on the shoulder for me, though I won’t) but what’s really not comprehensible are these tattoos that run the entire limb and torso, an undecipherable flow of ink. What’s with that? And then those that tattoo their face – that’s scary.

  27. Dear Manny,

    Thanks for the read and thanks for your comment.

    The full arm tattoo is often called a “sleeve” or “half-sleeve.”

    The face tattoo seems like a real commitment to remaining an outlier all your life. Unless you belong to a island tribe that does this for religious reasons, or to establish social rank, or to fulfill some other profound ethnological need which only an anthropologist would grasp, then I can only understand the face tattoo as self destruction.

    Thanks again,

    Mark Milburn

  28. I grew up as a Conservative Christian and had very strong views about tattoos and what’s acceptable and what is not. However, as I grew older, I examined my reasons and found them lacking. Old tattoos don’t look as good as new tattoos because old skin doesn’t look as good as new skin. Because of a skin condition, I never got to wear those summer dresses you mentioned, which probably saved me from your sixty year old male gaze.

    Millennials are getting tattoos because they honestly don’t care what you think. They were told that if they lived a certain way they could reach certain goals. And in their adulthood have only found all of those promises to be lies, and all of their work to be for naught. So if they’re doomed to be a barista until the day they die, they might as well get that tattoo that keeps them connected to the little meaning and fulfilment they have in their lives.

    And if it keeps you from staring at us, while we’re serving your coffee, all the better.

    • Dear Rae,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I more or less agree with your analysis. I think that a lot of youth tattooing has to do with wanting to construct a private world of meaning in defiance of a world, whose offer of meaning, by means of traditional routes, has proven barren or demeaning. We buried someone yesterday and I spoke with a young woman who showed me her recent ink which was about the loss of her brother and her loyalty to her struggling family.

      A lot of tattooing has to do with wanting to be “connected to the little meaning and fulfillment they have in their lives.” Wherever one can find meaning there he or she will scratch something on a stone or tree or canvas. However, the choice of marking one’s own body is a less than public, and very, very private choice.

      My thought is that localizing your expression of meaning to your body, might, just might come from a kind of despair about one’s relationship with the larger world and universe. I don’t say this is true in every case. I only suggest this is true of some.

      Now, as for my “gaze” I think the text supports that the seeing was not staring in any lewd manner, as you suggest. In any case it seems odd to suggest it wrong to look and wonder at young men and women in tattoos when tattoos are obviously intended to draw attention.

      The opening paragraph and the continuing image of “Girls in Their Summer Dresses” is an allusion to a very famous short story by Irwin Shaw entitled “Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

      Of course, you might have to be as old as sixty to remember who was Irwin Shaw.

      Best Wishes,

      Mark Milburn

  29. Hello there,

    First credit where credit is due, this was beautifully written.

    Second, as a young woman I did not want the attention from men I got for my unmarked skin in a summer dress. We can see your looks and some people go further than just looking and are lewd as you expressed you are not. For me this kind of sexualisation by men started at 11 years old. We wear summer dresses to keep cool not to make older men feel young.

    I am now 36 and in the last few years I have accomplished my goal of getting some tattoos and piercings. I didn’t do it younger as I needed to establish myself as educated and accomplished before I felt I could take risks. I have many talents but I’d be a terrible barista or waitress.

    I have them because for *ME* I find them attractive and people are free to of course find them unattractive. They mark important times in my past, songs I love, quotes to remember and aspects of myself I need to remain aware of. I have one primarily because the artist is amazing and it is a piece of art in itself. I intend to get more but they will all be coverable or subtle as I don’t want to lock myself in a position where people with anti-tattoo attitudes can deny me opportunities in life because of their prejudices.

    Reading anti-tattoo comments worse than what I’ve read here, where people insinuate that tattooed women are promiscuous, mentally ill and basically worthless, make me want to be the illustrated woman to keep such horrid people away from me at all costs. Our skin is our skin, it is beautiful to us and often to younger men or women we might seek to be with romantically and we do not care what older or more conservative people care about how it affects our attractiveness. It’s an aesthetic choice and it’s one in my case I took much thought over before committing to.

    Kind Regards,


  30. Dear Jess,

    Thanks for reading my article and for your compliment regarding the manner in which it was written.

    Most of the men and women I interviewed feel as you do about their tattoos. Each feels that a tattoo expresses something personal and reflects deeply some facet of his or her inner life.

    One of my reservations about having a lot of tattoos is that by bringing one’s inner, or spiritual life to the surface of the skin, we offer prematurely to others something that should only be granted in the context of a longer, and more gradual relationship.

    In addition, I worry that the revelation of one’s inner person on the skin is inevitably static, whereas the soul is dynamic and changing.

    However, I do agree that tattooed bodies do provoke a kind of fascination about the person who wears them and to this extent they may introduce a later connection of souls.


    Mark S. Milburn

  31. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your reply 🙂

    As a almost middle aged person I do also share your concern about very young people who are marking their whole bodies in extreme ways. Just for the simple fact that a LOT of changes happen especially during that first 10 to 15 years of adulthood. That and your naive belief the world ‘should’ accept you just as you are is shattered pretty quickly when you start your career. You have no way of really understanding that at 18 years old.

    I guess there have been a lot of sociological changes in the last few generations that have made these changes you discussed happen. Personally I kind of fall between Gen X and Gen Y/Millennial, my partner is firmly in the Millennial camp as he is 5 years younger than me and the world he came of age in was even a little different to the one I did, those 5 years even make a considerable difference. He never DIDN’T have a PC in his home and he was one of the first people in his area to have the internet when he was about 8 years old. He is actually a lot more conservative than me but does have a few tattoo ideas.

    For one thing there are lots more people around than there were when you were young and maybe we feel we have to do things on the surface level to communicate to others who we are at a glance because there are just so many people competing for personal connections and we want to make that personal connection as fast as possible. My tattoos mark me as not just a modified person but a particular type of modified person. My most notable tattoo was very expensive which communicates to other tattooed people that I’m not about trying to be tough but instead investing in high quality art. My piercing jewelry is also mostly very high end and that communicates something to people who can recognise that.

    I think also that because we have become such a technologically advanced society many people have joined what is known as the modern primitive movement to feel more “grounded” as humans. What that means basically is that we embrace the primitive urge to mark ourselves as members of tribes. A lot of older people will say to someone who is stretching their earlobes for instance they are trying to be like modern Africans who continue this tradition but our European ancestors, the Egyptians, historical people on the Indian subcontinent and modern people in Asia continue to do this also. It’s actually something that has been very widely practiced in human society and has a meaning.

    Maybe it’s a difference between yours and my generations that we yearn for more intimacy as the world has deprived us of it by forcing us to make ourselves stand out and compete more we have missed out on the connectedness more conservative generations had? I wasn’t there so I can only hypothesise about what your experience was growing up.

    Some younger people are starting to swing back to reject labels and being able to be put in a box so to speak. My partner is more in that ‘anti label’ camp and I see more and more younger people joining that bandwagon. Human society is always swinging back and forth isn’t it. This is why I love Sociology so much.

    Kind Regards,


  32. Wasn’t it the French theologian philosopher Rene Girard who described humans as being ‘mimetic’, or copycats to you and me. So one fool gets a tattoo and the rest soon follow. Graven images abound. And the new sexual egalitarianism means the girls must follow the boys. Muscle-building is another popular craze for some women. The perfect six-pack. In age of voluntary self-sterilization also known as contraception, this masculinization of women was inevitable. The plot thickens with gender-fluidity, non-binaryism and heaven knows what else is waiting in the wings. This kind of body adornment is little more than empty-headed narcissism, sentimental gush, kitsch individualism.

  33. How on earth could one make love to the “illustrated” girl in the first pic? It would be like climbing into bed with Queequeg!

  34. I really enjoyed this, but I wonder why you focus only on young women with tattoos? Perhaps for literary reasons? I ask because I would like to share this, but I can already anticipate charges of sexism (I’m in academia).

  35. Agree with the conclusion of this article. One correction I feel the need to make. The word made flesh could be a tattoo. The Word made flesh is Jesus.

  36. Dear Mr. Milburn,

    I agree with the general thrust of your argument re gnostic motivations to tattoo oneself, but the only deficiency I see is that it makes no attempt to square with the following:


    1. The tradition amongst the Copts to tattoo crosses onto their wrists to identify themselves as Christian contra the Muslim invaders (this also served the purpose of discouraging the rape and sexual slavery of their women, because the tattooed women were then considered ‘unclean’.).

    This practice continues to this day.

    2. The Eastern Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooing for similar purposes contra the Ottoman marauders:

    This tradition is mostly lost at this point.

    3. The chastisement of the Pictish peoples for their pagan and superstitious use of tattooing, but the admission of spiritual reward for tattooing done for the sake of God by the papal legate to Pope Hadrian in 786 AD:

    “For God made man fair in beauty and outward appearance, but the pagans by devilish prompting have superimposed most hideous cicatrices, as Prudentius says, ‘He coloured the innocent earth with dirty spots.’ For he clearly does injury to the Lord who defiles and disfigures his creature. Certainly, if anyone were to undergo this injury of staining for the sake of God, he would receive great reward for it. But if anyone does it from the superstitions of the pagans, it will not contribute to his salvation any more than does circumcision of the body to the Jews without belief of heart.”


    One the whole, the first two can be seen to be allowances based upon the principle of double effect: it is better to be tattooed than to be sold into sexual slavery, or to be forced to apostatize if one is a young child. But the third seems to be an admission that those that obtain tattoos for the love or glory of God ‘would receive great reward’ for them.

    But even then, I can think of many better uses of one’s money than a tattoo, even a tattoo obtained for the love or glory of God. One must also carefully consider what sort of broader cultural choice one is making in deciding to obtain a tattoo (which your article addresses).

  37. So many thoughtful and insightful comments! Alas, I fear that we may project meaning where in actuality, none is present. Once upon a time there WAS an American underground and counterculture full of mythic potency, and yes tattoos were a part of it. The internet (and attachment parenting) has changed all that, everything is now seen by all in the light of day, and these kids were taught by there parents that they are “special”. Alternatives (to the mainstream lifestyle these kids are resisting) are immediately co-opted by a dominator who knows it must keep its enemies close. At the touch of a button, the moment they are borne, alternative impulses are co-opted. The impulse to be authentic and original will exist as long as there is air to breath, unfortunately, these kids are doing only what they are capable of being programmed to do in this technologically dominated age. They are blindly following charectures of each other as there desperate quest to be special slams them up against the wall of species extinction.

  38. Mark, Thank you so much for your beautiful perspective on this. I am a millennial girl and have been struggling with this for a long time. I have a few inconspicuous ones but it wasn’t until my last that it sent me into a full blown identity crisis. I think there is so much pressure nowadays to ‘be someone’ and to ‘claim an identity’ that we’ve lost touch with our roots (you). I remember sitting at a coffee shop window peering out at a tattoo parlor across the street before I got my last one. I sat there beating myself up. “I just need to do this” “I’m constantly living in fear” “no one is going to take me seriously unless I just do this” I lost something that day. I trampled over a part of me that was already complete. I felt like I crushed something incredibly feminine inside of myself and to this day it’s something I will never forget.

    Blessings to you ✨

  39. Wow, what an amazing enlightening collection of views as inflections to this common phenomenon. I have a friend who has been a tattoo artist for nearly a decade and the only thing I’ve observed of the tattoo crazed and their is their credance that because they have scribbled all over themselves they are in this fraternity of “cool”. They look at people who don’t clutter their skin with inane picture and blurbs as idiots and devalue their opinions. I’ve personally expirienced that many times talking to people in that parlor. Your writing shed along of light on the matter to me and upon reading the opinion you were presenting I was recognizing them left and right. I’m not an inteletual just an average working class guy but I assure you in comparison to the millennials and future carnival workers who frequent then the tattoo parlors I’m Elon Musk, you give them to mic introspective credit trust me thier is not much thought behind them as they dap to their trap music and then panhandle or strip on websites because they rarely have interest in attaining or holding jobs.

  40. Because they crave a uniqueness and character they simply do not have. The problem isn’t narcissism, but despair and a fake reality created to avoid it, one that says that if they just mark up their bodies enough they won’t be ordinary and thus worthless.

    Their sin isn’t so much a blasphemous gnosticism as a much more ordinary covetousness to an elite status they can never truly attain and that their society values nothing short of. We live in a society that no longer believes in the “salt of the Earth”, preferring to see the common riff raff as the lardish filth of the street, excess population to be culled but we can’t quite bring ourselves to do the dirty deed and finish their wretched existence once and for all. These millennials, products of that society, who remember nothing before it, want to be unique, they want to be special, they want to be the thing that society values, but as individuals, nothing about the tattooed person really is and they don’t see any real way they can be. Thus they play these stupid games to avoid an inevitable and horrible conclusion: that they’re another piece of lardish filth waiting for the great butcher’s knife that we all sense is coming.

    Behind all of this is not so much some Gnostic sacred mystery, real or imagined, as the denial of the sacred: a fundamental rejection of man being made in the image of God. The truth is that it’s very difficult to get even young Christians today to believe that central theme of Genesis.

  41. I am a young woman with a body covered in tattoos. Every single one of them is sacred is religious. My body is my temple. My religious tattoos are the stained glass. I believe that rather that forming such bold opinions on why young people do things, would it not make more sense to just ask them? Tattooing is an arduous and long process that is generally not undertaken without good reason. And I think this article greatly fails to account for all the religious tattoo traditions that exist in the world, from Polynesians and pacific islanders, to Africans, Asians and Europeans, there are multiple traditions of religious tattooing.

  42. The other day one person told me, the rather cliche i a must say, reason for getting a tatoo “because this way i can express myself”… no my darling, the guy or girl that tatooed you EXPRESSED him or herself… on your skin, not you.

    if the message is the one thing that is important, then it doesnt matter if its inked in your skin or in a piece of paper.

    stop desecrating your body and search for your identity within you.

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