Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

November 30, 2013

On the [post-] modern euro-american tattoo fetish: Thou shalt not steal thy Neighbour's cultures, by Andrew Taylor, Nov. 30, 2013

After talking to the youth of our house about tattooing in the post-modern West this morning, I felt I ought to write down my reflections on the Western scarification(1)/ tattooing practises ...because something here seems crooked, perverse.

I think this modern Western art is, in part, a cultural reversion to pre-rational chthonic consciousmess. In analytical psychology, the term chthonic is used to describe the spirit of nature within the psyche; the unconscious earthly impulses of the Self, in analytic terminology Jung's anima and animus.

In Man and His Symbols Carl G. Jung explains:

"Envy, lust, sensuality, deceit, and all known vices are the negative, 'dark' aspect of the unconscious, which can manifest itself in two ways. In the positive sense, it appears as a 'spirit of nature', creatively animating Man, things, and the world. It is the 'chthonic spirit' that has been mentioned so often in this chapter. In the negative sense, the unconscious (that same spirit) manifests itself as a spirit of evil, as a drive to destroy."

In addition to the rejection of rationalized modernity, I think this phenomena is an inauthentic theft of Native and Animist traditional religions. As if colonialist Europe and America's material theft of Africa, Asia and the First Nations of the Americas was being re-enacted by an imperialist symbolic theft, an ersatz fetish . And so our children, the heirs of economic recession, a profound generational despair and a radical moral relativism have been led to a new zone of expropriation imprinting in their flesh Native American animal familiar spirits, Thai or Taoist or Chinese calligraphic Tattoos, and new tattoos reflecting the syncretism of Euro-American capitalist pop culture. But the new art-form contains its own secret: the narcissistic character of ostentatious display, a despairing quest for an identity through picking out signifiers from the smorgasbord of pop culture and other people's sacred communal rites.

But to the the Maori of New Zealand, to the warriors of the ancient Picts, for the Berbers of Tamazgha, the tattoo the tattoo was/is a sacramental~ an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace or protection. The drawing inscribed on flesh is to protect and guide within a specific spiritual and religious system. 

Another aspect to consider here is Prison tattooing: present-day US and Russian prisoners convey gang membership, code, or hidden meanings of origin or criminal deeds in their tatoos. This is a declaration within a distinct community of outlaw status, of difference, but prison tattoos also are sometimes 'borrowed' in the current pop culture. It should be noted that tatooing in prisons is illegal in the USA, the world's leading incarceration nation. Ironically, these signs too are chosen and bought in the tattoo market in complete legality.

When western tattooing fashion first became popular people in Europe and the Americas in the late 1980s most people seemed to want their tattoos to mean something or commemorate something, but aesthetic appeal is now clearly primary, extravagance and sensuality is central to the new Euro-American fetish of tattoos . Why does this appropriation of animism evoke in my mind an uneasy apprehension of the last days of the Weimar Republic just before another stolen ancient symbol became the fascist power's focal point of a mass-mesmerism ?


Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet. 


(1) scarification, the scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent modification of the body.

(2) For an extended analysis see the excellent articles: (1)    Skin on the Internet: Tattooing, consumption and the Body Modification Ezine, by Erin Stark 2006 , and  Atte Oksanen and Jussi Turtiainen's  ‘A Life told in ink’: Tattoo narratives and the problem of the self in late modern society.

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