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…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Mark S. Milburn as he explores why millennials love tattoos, and how their tattoos serve both as a reflection of their spirituality and of their identity. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
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?”
“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.
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 twenty-seven-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.”
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.
Thus, 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.
And 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.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in February 2016.
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