E.M. Dadlez, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma whose work explores the intersection of aesthetics, ethics and epistemology, has presented at the annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress every year since the conference’s inception in 2008. At this year’s RoME, which ended last night, Professor Dadlez gave a talk called “Ink, Ethics and Expression: Philosophical Questions about Tattoos”. Her talk was part of a larger piece on the philosophy of tattoos that is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of Philosophy Compass, and What’s Wrong? is grateful to Wiley Publishers for their permission to post a shorter version of that piece here. The text that follows is under copyright with Wiley, and What’s Wrong? plans to add more reports from RoME over the next few weeks. (image: Nordic Wolf)
INK, ETHICS AND EXPRESSION
I was first tempted to think philosophically about tattoos at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, in a parking lot after dinner, where a Kantian informed me that he believed tattoos were probably immoral. “Why?” I asked, gazing at the tattooed owl on my calf appraisingly. This was a guy who also liked Babylon 5. Surely our fringe aesthetic sensibilities couldn’t be that distinct. But, in fact, they could. I was using my body as a means to an owl-depiction-exhibiting end, in violation of the categorical imperative. The Kantian eventually allowed that it was probably only tattooed language – words and phrases – that was really wrong (probably on the ground that language was less likely to count as purely decorative). Hopping on one foot, I yanked down my sock to expose ‘Athena’ rendered in Greek lettering and winding around my ankle. Although he did not say so, I believe the Kantian washed his hands of me at this stage. Most of the philosophical questions I’d posed to myself about tattoos hitherto were the kinds of questions an aesthetician might ask about when and whether tattoos could count as art, about their aesthetic value and expressiveness. But, evidently, there are also ethical questions that can be raised about tattoos, just as we can raise questions about their meaning and ontological significance. It is to these latter questions that this paper will be devoted.
This essay offers a partial overview, not of the philosophical literature on tattoos, since it is scarce, but of the reasons why tattoos are philosophically interesting. Little philosophical work has been done on tattoos beyond a Wiley-Blackwell collection bearing the subtitle “I Ink, therefore I Am,” (Arp 2012) on which this paper will rely, and with which it will take occasional issue. In the circumstances, it seems expedient to acknowledge the dearth of philosophical work outright and to rectify the deficiency by proposing the most promising candidates for investigation. Considered here will be a partial survey of potential areas of philosophical interest with respect to tattoos, fortified by a little historical context (Gilbert, Caplan, Mifflin, DeMello). Claims about the ethical significance of tattoos and about the significance of tattoos for self-expression and as expressions of identity will be canvassed, as will questions about what they express or signify, how they might do so, and whose expression we might take it to be. (Questions about the art-status of tattoos will be reserved for a second paper.)
To clarify at the outset, let us consider definitions. Jane Caplan offers a straightforward account of what tattooing is:
Tattooing is the puncturing of the skin and the insertion of an indelible pigment into the dermis to a depth of between 0.25 and 0.5 cm, by means of a needle or other sharp instrument. The pigment is inserted either by dipping the instrument into it beforehand, or by rubbing it into the punctures.… This basic technique is found throughout the world, with local variations; modern innovations include more stable pigments, a greater variety of colors, and electrical tattooing machines (Caplan 255).
Tattoos have been with us since 3200 BCE. The mummy of the so-called iceman (Otzi) offers the earliest example of tattoos, although it is unclear whether these were intended to be decorative or medicinal, since almost every one of over fifty tattoos was reportedly located over a degenerated joint or at what some speculate are acupressure points. Tattooing is and has been observable across an enormous variety of cultures and societies in all parts of the world. Indeed, most of the available literature that isn’t simply focused on design concentrates on practices within specific cultural communities (Te Awekotuku, Deter-Wolf, Bendaas, Hunter, Holt). It is difficult to find any general or comprehensive histories, most likely for several reasons. For one thing, tattoos can be intended to serve a number of purposes other than that of decoration. Tattoos can represent or signify a rite of passage, group membership, political affiliation, or outsider status. They can be used as forms of identification, as in the case of the infamous concentration camp tattoos. They can involve the reinscription of the former as a testament to the past, as when the children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims obtain tattoos of the number inflicted on their forebear (Rudoren 2012). Tattoos can have a memorial function, including portraits of deceased relatives or the dates of their demise. They can be tests of endurance, marks of ownership, brands of criminality, or badges of adulthood. They can be cosmetic, permanently affixing eyeliner or lipstick or, more importantly, regularizing someone’s appearance after surgery, as when nipple tattoos are done on mastectomy patients (Kiernan 2014). Since the application of tattoos hurts, completed tattoos can serve as a testament of one’s endurance. The larger and more elaborate the tattoo, the greater and more impressive the fortitude of its possessor. The experience of obtaining the tattoo can in itself, for this and other reasons, be regarded as cathartic or transformative, an issue which will be addressed in future sections. Tattoos, as indicated earlier, can be considered forms of medical treatment. They can constitute a form of punishment (in the same way that the carving of a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead was a punitive measure in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds). Tattoos can commemorate events or particular stages in one’s development. Stephen Davies’ extensive and ongoing research on the many functions of adornment offers a plethora of examples of the latter, as when tattoos are used to signal reproductive or marital status, or to commemorate having killed an enemy. They can be regarded as badges of honor or marks of shame. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, since a given tattoo could readily be held to serve several of the aforementioned functions simultaneously. For this reason, giving a general account of the function of tattoos is a difficult, if not impossible, task.
SECTION 1: THE ETHICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF TATTOOS
As Simon Woods points out in “Writing on the Body: The Modern Morality of the Tattoo,” there is a splendid nineteenth and twentieth century Western tradition of associating tattoos with criminality and moral depravity (Woods). Jane Caplan maintains that the tattoo “has occupied an uneasy and ambiguous status” in the West, “within a dominant culture in which body-marking was usually treated as punitive and stigmatic rather than honorable or decorative. Partly for this reason, there is a deficit of knowledge on the subject, compared with the societies where its status has been more secure or its aesthetics more complex, notably Polynesia and Japan” (Caplan xi). Indeed, tattoos are prohibited outright in the Bible (Leviticus 19:28). The arguments concerning this suggest that the proscription was motivated in the way a lot of other prohibitions in Leviticus were motivated: to reinforce distinctions between the Israelites and surrounding groups. Nevertheless, a cultural stigma can attach to tattoos, and such a stigma has emerged in a number of periods for a number of different reasons. But what kinds of explicitly philosophical questions can be raised about tattoos? Could any of the pejorative ethical assumptions just canvassed, for instance, have a philosophical basis?
Some ethical questions raised about tattoos can equally well be raised about plastic surgery or piercings or personal adornment or, sometimes, the selection of a T-shirt bearing an inflammatory motto. That is, tattoos may directly or figuratively express sentiments or views that are controversial enough to meet with moral disapproval. Alternatively, tattoos may be seen as a form of self-mutilation and thought harmful or self-destructive on that account. The two problems are quite distinct.
The first case is relatively straightforward, in the sense that the ethical question is often a question of the tattoo’s representational content. Some tattoos are intended to shock or dismay – to reinforce one’s outlier status or signal a failure of respectability. These raise questions about alienation and intentional offense in the same way that other extreme bodily modifications do: sharpening all of one’s teeth to points, say, or forking one’s tongue. Other tattoos gesture toward morally troubling affiliations. A swastika tattoo pretty clearly expresses a problematic political or moral stance, despite some probably ill-advised attempts to reclaim the symbol by tattoo aficionados (Zucker 2014). Any moral opprobrium would attach almost as readily to a similar bumper sticker or T-shirt design, so nothing particularly interesting is gained by considering this aspect of tattoos, unless the element of permanence is brought to the fore. A tattoo does signify a greater commitment to the morally dubious stance it is thought to represent and so might be assessed as more transgressive. Further, the tattoo could have a morally problematic meaning independent of the intentions of its possessor or its creator. As Charles Taliaferro and Mark Odden indicate in their discussion of tattoos and cultural meaning, “tattoos have a cultural dimension that is not necessarily subject to private interpretation. Though the cultural sea may ebb and flow, cultural norms can control how society collectively interprets common imagery. The image may be permanent, but, contrastingly, the meaning or interpretation of the image is fluid” (Taliaferro 8). The swastika tattoo may have been intended to depict an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of prosperity such as can still be seen upon the coinage of the period, but its meaning in the present world will carry with it the freight of Nazi atrocities, whatever the interpretation of its possessor or intention of the artist. To have a tattoo that bears some particular inescapable cultural meaning is seemingly to endorse it, something that can invite pressing moral questions about the moral stance and attitudes of its possessor.
The second prospect for the ethical assessment of tattoos is more philosophically engaging, since a classic Kantian argument becomes relevant. An individual who permits her physical self to be used as a means to an end is probably the most obvious kind of example to which a discussion of the means/ends formulation of the categorical imperative can lend itself in this context. Allowing one’s skin to be used as a canvas is a fairly standard application. Janet Uleman points out that the demands of the formulation “seem open to arbitrary and idiosyncratic interpretation: some see tattoos and scarification as self-abuse, others as ennobling adornment” (Uleman 132). It might also make a difference to some (though probably not all) Kantians whose vision or message was being expressed, or how much the human canvas contributed artistically and conceptually to the design that did the expressing. That is, there might be a difference between allowing oneself to be conscripted to the service of another person’s artistic impulse and participating in the expression of one’s own. If we allow our bodies to become mere vehicles for the expression of another’s vision or insight, it might then be held that we allow ourselves to be used as a means to another’s end. If the insight or expression conveyed by the tattoo is our own rather than someone else’s, the case seems more hopeful. The question of authorship warrants a lot of further discussion, but this could provide a loophole even for those Kantians who see tattoos as problematic in just the way described.
To diverge into Kantian aesthetic questions for a moment, Tom Leddy also points out that Kant speaks directly (albeit unenthusiastically) of tattoos in the Critique of Judgment, when considering adherent and free beauties: “This is the section in which Kant commends flowers, birds, crustaceans, designs à la grecque, wallpaper, and music-not-set-to-words as free beauties. He then refers to the beauties of human beings, horses, and buildings as presupposing a concept of perfection and hence as merely adherent or dependent” (Leddy 1). In the relevant passage, Maori tattoos are criticized apparently on account of their combining free with adherent beauty: “A figure could be embellished with all sorts of curlicues and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattoos, if only it were not the figure of a human being.” (Kant 77). The human figure is described as the ideal of beauty in section 17, and it might be assumed that embellishment of whatever kind would interfere with this perfection. So Kant appears to believe that the human figure cannot be aesthetically enhanced by the addition of ‘curlicues and light lines’ in the way a work of architecture could in fact be aesthetically improved by comparable additions. In fact, there is some possibility that embellishment could the thought to pervert or undermine the human form or its natural effects on individuals apprehending it. However, as Leddy aptly indicates, Kant’s discussion of ornamentation in section 14 of the third Critique complicates matters. It at least suggests that a case might be made for the contribution of tattoos to human beauty by means of their form, since tattoos appear to fulfill formal criteria for the beautiful.
SECTION 2: TATTOOS AND SELF-EXPRESSION
A few gestures have been made in the direction of the tattoo as a component of, investment in, or expression of individual identity. Kyle Fruh and Emily Thomas, for instance, see the mere acquisition of tattoos by people who wish to individuate themselves from others as evidence that “people are clearly associating their bodies with their personal identity,” in support of somatic accounts of personal identity, although they concede that “many people acquire tattoos as a way of sublimating their individuality, to further integrate their identity into a bounded social group” (Fruh 88). The former seems to hold true principally in the trivial sense that any attempt to manipulate one’s appearance either in order to stand out or in order to express affiliation is thought to be (loosely) associated with one’s identity. There is certainly a sense, although I am not sure it is a philosophical sense, in which purposely altering one’s appearance, especially counter to prevailing norms, might sometimes be thought to make one look “more oneself,” in that the external façade will be made more closely to approximate the internal, possibly transgressive, reality. I am inclined to believe my husband looks more himself with long hair, for instance, but I have a longstanding aesthetic weakness for men with long hair, so my opinion on this matter probably shouldn’t be trusted in the first place. More importantly, there can be many reasons for altering one’s appearance (making oneself employable, making oneself more attractive, concealing one’s identity after a spur-of-the-moment recreational massacre that has led to a manhunt), and self-revelation or self-expression is only one among them.
But this may be ungenerous. After all, one’s body is (usually) permanently changed when one gets a tattoo, and is moreover altered by means of a painful process the obscure origins of which can be found in ancient puberty rituals and rites of passage. There is blood and metamorphosis and the transcendence of pain. Isn’t the self, then, likewise transformed in being so inscribed? If such a claim is about psychology, then we can’t deny that some experiences are personally transformative, but nothing makes tattoos unique in this respect. If the point is simply about bodily identity, it would apply equally well to a broken nose or plastic surgery – to any long term physical change or modification. And that is fair enough, since there is a literal and probably permanent transformation, but nothing philosophically intriguing about tattoos in particular seems to emerge from it. The relative permanence of physical augmentations, especially those that are voluntarily undergone, raises some interesting questions, but only questions that are applicable to a very wide range of cases.
It is certainly worth considering that that the experience of obtaining a tattoo can be an intense and aesthetic one. In the words of Richard Shusterman, there can be “a beautiful experience of one’s body from within,” such as “the endorphin-enhanced glow of high-level cardiovascular functioning” (Shusterman 1999, p. 299). Sherri Irvin has offered what turns out to be a splendid analog for our purposes in her discussion of the relationship between negative experiences and aesthetic satisfaction. It is possible, she indicates, to shift the valence of experiences regarded typically as being pleasant or unpleasant: “a shift from negative to positive…can occur when I know a pain to be an indicator of something positive, like increasing muscle flexibility; the association of the pain with the positive benefit is such that, over time, the very quale I regarded as unpleasant comes to be welcomed as pleasurable for its own sake (not just for the instrumental reasons that set the evaluative shift in motion)” (Irvin 2008, p. 32). This insight certainly reflects the experiences of many with respect to receiving tattoos. What begins as a purely instrumental reason for valuing a painful experience on account of the desirable result gradually becomes (in some cases, though I am sorry to say never in my own) an adrenalin-charged ritual that is valued for its own sake. People getting tattoos talk about being “in the zone,” a place in which the pain itself somehow becomes a sensory experience of the process of transformation rather than something which it is necessary to undergo in order to acquire a transformed surface.
Add to this that such experiences result in (usually) permanent bodily transfigurations. As Rachel Falkenstern points out, “we have limited control over how our bodies change….and a tattoo is not an accident or natural mark on one’s body but a result of a choice made at a certain point in time” (Falkenstern 2012, p. 100). It is not only the culmination of what may be for some an intense and significant experience, but it involves collaboration on several levels: bodily collaboration in the sense that one’s skin is a medium for the work and conceptual collaboration insofar as one collaborates in the selection or invention of the design. For Falkenstern, “Tattoos are not only the result of a freely chosen act but also a reminder of it, and, as such, can have as much effect on the bearer as anything else in his or her environment in creating the self – a reciprocal process that lasts as long as we do and one that, in a sense, is who we are” (Falkenstern 2012, p. 103). This seems to capture something important, although the kind of identity referred to would involve any radical bodily augmentation. Still, Falkenstern’s insight here dovetails perfectly with that of Ira Newman. With the exception of radical surgery or fitness training or accidents, Newman points out, one is pretty well stuck with the configurations one has been given: “from this perspective, the tattooed work can be looked at as the ultimate defiance of our biological determinism, and a clear expression of our ultimate freedom” (Newman 2015). So there is an identity-relevant investment involved in such cases, though the investment is not unique to tattoos.
If, on the other hand, the point is about the expression of identity or individuality, that of course suggests that the physical self or its augmentation is a vehicle for the expression of some other thing, and cannot itself constitute the whole of an individual’s identity. Here again I am dubious about any full throttle claim that tattoos are usually an expression of identity in any significant sense. Such a claim presupposes a level of self-awareness and a facility for conveying such awareness via the selection or composition of visual images that it is unlikely many have attained. Granted, a lot of tattoos are intended to commemorate relationships or achievements or experiences of their possessor. They are sometimes even intended to commemorate simply the singular moment at which they’ve been obtained – that particular stage of development or moment of drunken enthusiasm. In this sense, they may contribute to a personal narrative, Fruh and Thomas suggest, and thereby to a so-called narrative identity comprised in part of representations of that which has been experienced. I do not disagree with the claim that tattoos can contribute to narratives of this kind, but it should be kept in mind that many tattoos do nothing of the sort. Frequently, for instance, tattoos are aspirational – they will feature depictions symbolizing what one would like to be or become, not what one is. These are revelatory in many ways, but they obviously will not reveal or record what has already transpired or already exists. And I cannot help but suspect that very often no expression of something as ambitious as identity is at work in any serious or meaningful way. Selecting the image of a dragon from a book of drawings and having it tattooed around one’s calf might, in a pinch, be thought express certain preferences or tastes or D&D-related proclivities. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a dragon achieves similar though more transitory ends with less investment overall. But neither expresses an individual’s identity in a way that could be considered significant. More sophisticated tattoos fall a prey to similar difficulties. Consider, for instance, one of those fantastic three-dimensional tattoos in which the skin is parted to reveal gears and pistons, expressing (at least at a very rudimentary level) the idea that the body is a machine. Naturally, there’s a sense in which the recipient of the tattoo intends to convey this, but so might the wearer of a T-shirt with a similar graphic. Using the work of third parties to convey an interesting idea is not yet an expression of identity, and seems a second-hand expression at best, since it is the artist’s work that acts as the vehicle and not one’s own.
This isn’t intended to dismiss out of hand the possibility of a tattoo’s being expressive in some deep way. If the tattoo were an authentic work of art, this might lend credence to the claim that it is the expression of something as complex and difficult to pin down as identity or individuality. Whatever a work of art might be held to express, so might a tattoo. Derek Matravers points out that classic expression theories such as Tolstoy’s or Sircello’s maintain that the artist expresses a given mental state (an emotion or attitude or, as per Croce, an intuition) by means of some property with which she has imbued the work. Alternatively, one might claim that “expressive qualities are logically independent of acts of expression” (Matravers 356) and thereby promote an analysis of expressiveness in terms of recognizable expressive qualities independent of their creator. But then, if we consider the classic expression theory, the bearer of the tattoo is usually not the artist. It would be the artist’s attitudes and mental states that the tattoo expressed, since it is the artist who does the expressing rather than the canvas, although I concede that there is another sense in which the work itself might be thought to express or signify independent of the artist. Of course, the person being tattooed could have her own drawing converted to a stencil transfer that the maker to the tattoo more or less traced out (I have done this myself), but such cases are unusual and the tattoo artist is still responsible for the execution — the application of color, variations in line quality and so on. And given that such proceedings are the exception rather than the rule, it is fair to ask of those who insist that tattoos often express something, just whose expression that will turn out to be. The prospects for regarding the tattoo as an expression of the individuality or identity of its possessor are not as defensible as they may first have seemed. On the other hand, it seems uncontroversial to maintain that tattoos can be expressive in the way pictures are typically thought expressive, and that they can often be forms of self-expression in the sense that they are deliberated over and chosen and so convey (perhaps among other things) something about the possessor’s valuing and predilections.
One point should be re-emphasized, however. For all the earlier talk about choice, we should leave open the possibility that a tattoo could well express something that was not in fact a feeling or idea of the individual who had it done (and might even be something of which he or she was entirely unaware), despite that person’s complicity in its being expressed. Neither complicity nor somatic investment are sufficient for authorship. Indeed, depending on the kind of expression under consideration, it may well be that a tattoo could express something independent of the artist’s intentions as well. So while it is evident that some tattoos can aspire to art status and can be expressive in significant and sometimes unique ways, there is no necessary factor making tattoos an expression of someone’s identity, even loosely construed. In other words, it may be that the possessor of a tattoo can never entirely harness it, or conscript it to her own ends, especially if the tattoo is art. It may sometimes be the case that we who have tattoos never fully suborn them to our own purpose, even though our skin is the medium by means of which they express whatever it is they do. So it is possible that the disapproving Kantian considered earlier might on occasion be correct, and that the tattoo recipient can sometimes be a means to an expressive end that is not her own. Then again, for those of us who are both consequentialists and aestheticians, serving the ends of art need not seem problematic.
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 Many thanks to A.W. Eaton for her help and insight.
 https://www.pinterest.com/Crystal143175/in-loving-memory-tattoos/ (Accessed 5/15).
 Thanks to Heidi Silcox for pushing me to stress this.
 Thanks to my colleague Sarah Woolwine for pressing me to explore this point, and thanks to Rachel Falkenstern for encouraging me to think more fully about it.
 See, for instance, http://www.pinterest.com/explore/gear-tattoo/ or http://www.kooltattoos.com/2990/bio-mechanical-tattoo-ideas-meaning/ both accessed on 25 June 2014.