February 22, 2009
‘Why, what were you thinking?’ was all I could think. When, several weeks ago two of my students were comparing there recently inked tattoos. This was not a matter of hypocrisy, as I too have several tattoos, but an honest inquiry about the specific tattoos each had received. Again, I was in not surprised that a student might have a tattoo – as I have mentioned several weeks ago, in my school alone, in the short time I have taught there, I know of two students who have graduated from school and gone on to careers as tattooist – rather, I wanted to know, and was compelled to ask: “Why would you have your name tattooed across your back?”
My students are, for the most part, the children of farmers and middle class commuters. They are not, in others words, your stereotypical urban youth who are ‘seeking to look like Kanya West or Lebron James:’ they are middle-America, whether they like it or not. The fact that such students are motivated to get such tattoos is, admittedly, the consequence of numerous developments: social acceptance, family dynamics, economic position, morality etc. But, in the end, it is difficult not to see the tattoo, or at least this type of tattoo, as a connection between otherwise exclusive worlds. And, if one is willing to admit to such a connection, than one is also prompted to ask ‘why, what value does this act have, not for some youths, but, potentially, for all youths?’
Increasingly, it seems, students are receiving tattoos as markers of identification. Which, as professor Ellis notes in her book, has been the traditional function of the tattoo. Though, what is interesting about the tattoo as a modern medium is not that is signifies the individual as the member of a community – either as a positive or negative identification – rather, it permits the individual the opportunity to say, without saying anything, ‘I am.’ The individual is provided the opportunity to understand themselves, not necessarily as an individual member of a community, but as an individual: they are granted agency.
For many teenagers, the tattoo, no matter how insipid it may seem to adults, is a marker of identification for teenagers: they are permitted to say ‘I am this.’ Though, again, the need of such a declaration seems superfluous, the better question may be, what has brought the individual to such a point? I do not wish to dwell on the necessity of the tattoo has posited by Lacan – not yet – but as it is articulated by Flannery O’Connor.
In, “Parker’s Back,” O’Connor presents Parker as a transient individual in perpetual search of satisfaction. Parker floats from job to job, woman to woman, and promises ‘never to get himself tied up.” (p. 426) Over the course of his life Parker floated from place to place, both at home and, through the Navy, abroad, with no particular purpose. He had no particular attachment to anyone tattoo, they, like much of his life, were “haphazard:” “ everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos…he did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful.” (p. 428)
“Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off.” (p. 428) He was insatiable: always in search, always hungry. He lacked all ability to internalize his motivations and found himself lost in a world of immediacy: “Long views depressed Parker. You look out into space like that and you begin to feel as if someone were after you, the Navy or the Government or religion.” (p. 430) Parker was, as Dante may have understood him as one, ‘without hope, [who must] lives on in desire’.
When Parker is eventually motivated to have his back tattooed with ‘G-d,’ he chooses a face that aroused intense anxiety in him: “his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.” (p. 436) He found what might be described, as a design that projected an undeniable sense of the ‘Other,’ as described by Lacan. A design that, to Parker, would permit a connection between he and his wife – that would permit the two of them to share a common understanding of the world, or at least one another. Unfortunately for Parker, Sarah Ruth found herself easily and fully able to reject his tattoo and all that it may or may not have signified to/ for him.
Today’s students, seemingly, like Parker, are all slogging through the world without any discernable purpose or place: they are lost in their own desires. Ironically, perhaps, the emerging trend of teenage tattoos has less to do with an addiction to desire than a sincere search for identity. A search that, even if ended arbitrarily or easily (with nothing more than their name), provides the student with a first proclamation of identity, a first step into the world so to speak. This is a matter of orientation, or place, from which the student is able to begin to construct a coherent worldview and from which they can begin to convey their self to others. This trend, if conceived of in this manner, than is more emblematic of a larger social inability to constructively assimilate the youth as individuals, than an inherent deficiency of the youth.