The Philosophy of Tattoos is part of the British Library’s Philosophy Of… series, beautifully bound hardback books, short, pithy, illustrated and thought provoking on subjects like Cheese, Tea, Beards.
This one is calamine-lotion-pink and features a fully tattooed man, emblazoned with real and fantastical creatures. It is really interesting, an erudite, short read – I realise I’ve been observing tattoos out in the wild differently since reading it – which is a point of philosophy, isn’t it, making you think…
John Miller is a Professor of English, specialising in 19th century literature, and under his academic gown he is the proud possessor of a full body-suit tattoo – so he’s got some interesting ideas about tattoos, why people get them, and why we are both fascinated and repelled.
Miller examines the history of tattooing around the world and in various cultures – of particular interest in Aotearoa New Zealand, are Maori traditions and meanings around ta moko (tattoos). In the wider Pacific, the suppression of traditional tattooing was often part of the process of colonisation and Christianisation, and so also a symbol of resistance to those forces.
That idea of resistance and rebellion, of showing how you belong to a particular group with special experiences, of excluding (perhaps shocking) those not a part of the group, is perhaps the reason world-travelling, risk-taking sailors (who also knew a cool thing when they saw it) were one of the first groups in the European world to ink themselves. For a long time the association of tattoos with that unsettled, unsettling world and with the demi-monde of entertainers, chancers, rogues, and urban poor, made them frowned upon by polite society, although there are reports of tattoos hidden by the silks and satins of Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper class raiment, a little (or sometimes full body-suit) risky/risqué secret. I do wish Miller had included a picture of his own full-body tattoo, but perhaps he doesn’t need to display it.
And then they became fashionable… and a little less cool? Miller seems curious and slightly perplexed about what tattoos mean when so many people have one, aside for the meaning (or not – see ‘drunken jape on a beach holiday’) of the act for the individual. The cultural appropriation of images and styles of tattooing from cultures in the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific that have inked themselves for centuries has become another sort of colonisation, with the practice claimed rather than repressed. He is interested in the popular culture around this meaningful personal art/fashionable accessory that’s produced TV shows like Tattoo Fixers and large well-attended tattoo shows – and what it means that with modern laser treatment it is now possible to erase what was permanent.
Click on the title of the book to order a copy…