Do you really own your tattoos?

The Ethics of Ink

Tom Littrell
Apr 20, 2017 · 8 min read

Tattoos and other such body alterations have been stigmatised for years as highly controversial transformative practice. The art of tattooing is most often regarded as the permanent inking of the flesh, though permanency of certain styles can vary. Religious cultures which see the body as a sacred vessel look upon body art with contempt,¹ while liberal subcultures laud it.² What, then, is the professional outlook of tattooed persons? Since images injected into the flesh are fused with one’s body, they become part of their host’s narrative and, as such, must not be met with discrimination just as with the individual. Host semanticity is the term I will use to indicate the ethical imperative for owners of body art to imbue meaning into said art rather than allowing this responsibility to fall upon viewers-turned-judges. Human narratives are to be perceived by their viewers in some sense, however, it is necessary to consider what belongs to whom and why you are you rather than your neighbour.

Is an apple without its core an apple? How much can be stripped away from an entity before it is no longer regarded as such? These questions concern the philosophical quandary of dualism³ which states that for any particular domain there exists two core principles, e.g., the mind and the body. Should these distinct principles be altered yet still coexist, the entity remains whole and practically original. An apple with a bite removed is still an apple. A human with a limb removed or memory diminished with age is still who they were prior to alteration. Principle changes, however, are not always subtractive. Sociologists Halfmann and Young describe the grotesque as a threat to order, a distortion of the human figure, and a challenge to conventional boundaries.⁴ This broad description encourages the possibility of additive alterations in addition to subtractive alterations of form and being — tattoos a primary example. As parts of a whole, the mind can wilfully transform the body so long as it has the agency to do so. Ethically, what one does unto themselves is simply a form of expression and developing character. Tattoos are not only a matter of mind and body duality, however — they are also privy to the complications of the public and private realms.

Professor Susie Linfield argues that,

“Our unfiltered gaze […] will reveal things about us that may not be good, and that our pesky, potentially uncontrollable emotions will burst out of the armor of ideology [constructed] around us.”⁵

Linfield is concerned with the impact of photographs on the postmodern mind. I see the unfiltered gaze as an allegory for those who stare upon inked flesh with fascination. Tattoos are corporeal art — not art of the body but for the body. And though most tattoos are hidden from view,⁶ many face the scrutiny of the public through both latent media coverage and live passersby. It is peculiar that a centuries-old traditional practice is looked upon with awe and contention to this day; but perhaps the awe is derived from curiosity of image choice rather than the altered state of one’s flesh alone. Just as certain photographs are comical and others serious, e.g., an online meme versus the body of a refugee, tattoos can too carry a sense of emotional responsibility. Does this notion render some body images publicly inappropriate and others suitable for a professional environment? Who is to judge? Host semanticity suggests that judgement relies on the bearer.

Two identical tattoos could carry two entirely separate meanings for different hosts. Visual culture scholars Sturken and Cartwright state that,

“The meanings of each image are multiple; they are created each time it is viewed.”⁷

While this may be the case for photographical images, tattooed images fall under a different standard because they are art which is indefinitely carried by she who has commissioned it (though interestingly not by the artist in most cases). By this logic, tattoo meanings are not multiple but singular and governed principally by art philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of hermeneutical aesthetics, i.e., the dialogical and emotional reception of artistic works.⁸ Such aesthetics allow categorically unsophisticated ink to meddle on the same plane as work with assumed unambiguity. This is why a clover on one’s behind may, in reality, have had as much forethought as a symbolic dedication to one’s late mother on the forearm; however, we surmise that the memorial tattoo carries more meaning due to the immediate emotional connotations of the viewer. Assumptions are quite often misconstrued. What is the story behind that cheeky clover? The only proper person to answer would be its owner as it at one time became part of their narrative.

Construction of the personal narrative occurs from one’s very first breath until their last. Each word spoken, step taken, ear turned, and scar embedded contributes to that life story — tattoos no exception. What blurs the line in terms of societal acceptance is choice. Scars are sporadic and unwanted whereas body art is thought out, ordered, and constructed on a particular timeline. The professional realm, aware of the purposeful nature of the art, sees it as not as an extension of one’s body shielded from prejudice but as part of one’s resume to be scrutinised. This is highly ethically problematic. A tattoo is as inconsequential to workplace productivity as hair colour. Despite banal comedic efforts to portray blond haired people as underperforming or unintelligent, no research exists to prove this (Shocking, right?). Same applies to tattooed skin — the inked skin salesman is at no inherent disadvantage to the bare fleshed desk clerk. It is instead normative social values which have categorised the inked skin salesman as a deviant and someone perhaps untrustworthy, risky, or regressive. A similar cultural norm is found in the art of piercing. Women with pierced ears are the mainstream whereas men with ear piercings or any gender with piercings in non-aural locations are considered deviants. Again, jewellery embedded in the skin is practically no different from jewellery which dangles arounds limbs or off of clothing — it is nonetheless scrutinised by society for reasons founded in sexism and having old religious ties to modesty. To understand this controversiality and apply findings to presentational ethics, the origins of body alteration must not be overlooked.

For thousands of years, tattoos have been etched into human skin as a lasting representation of status, achievement, superstition, decoration, punishment, and commitment. Interestingly enough, excavated female mummies with evidence of tattoos who were initially thought to have been concubines were later discovered through funerary inscriptions to have been of high priestly status.⁹ Modern, primarily Western cultures are not so inclined to denote ink as such. In the Bible, Leviticus 19:28 states,

“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”¹⁰

As with any religious verse, this line can be interpreted in innumerable different ways. It seems the literal interpretation has taken over, defining the zeitgeist of the 20th century even while slightly dwindling into the 21st. In any ethical argument, context is key. The divinely forbidden act of mark-printing mentioned is preceded by the act of flesh-cutting on behalf of the dead. If such acts are condemned based off of supposed pagan or idolatrous dedication, aesthetic corporeal art is then off the hook. If this evidence is lacking, what of tattooed images of the holy cross? Surely conforming religious symbolism is an exception if so many Christians worship statues of Jesus Christ and accoutre themselves with cross-shaped metal jewellery.

Religion captures but one essence of corporeal art. Just as there is a mind-body duality, so too exists an epistemological bind between religion and philosophy. Belief is dictated by philosophical thought. An excellent lens through which to examine this duality is that of phenomenology; specifically that of somaesthetics.¹¹ Somaesthetics, a narrowed and relatively new field of study, is the synapse connecting what we perceive as our body and what our body is as perceived by others. To see one’s body as one’s own is to have agency over the adaptation of that meaty vessel. When a tattoo is engrained in the flesh, it is done so with purpose — however purposeless some tattoos may seem. Aesthetics scholar Max Ryynänen sees body art as a political instrument.¹² To see it as such is to give it purpose by way of simply being as with any countercultural practice. The issue with this matter of corporeal politics is the same across any sort of issue where bodies are being regulated. With abortion, religious values shadow the agency of individuals who wish to make their own decisions regarding their bodies (This reference should serve solely as an example of corporeal politics so as not to veer into another dimension). With tattoos, images which resonate with some in different ways than others are judged for their very presence or presumed meaning. Ethically, they must instead be welcomed as narrative and treated as a point of entry into respectful dialogue.

Permanence is provocative. Death is both imminent and permanent and so we venerate all aspects of death. Death is simultaneously tabooed, feared, consumed scrupulously, and commercialised; it is an end and a beginning. The tattoo, if viewed as death of bare flesh and birth of a most personal artwork, takes on a similar power. However intricate, simple, mysterious, modest, or preposterous a tattoo is, its imagery has the capacity to evoke an entire spectrum of emotion. Sturken and Cartwright argue that photographs can offer only one sliver of contextual truth.⁷ To understand one’s emotional response to a tattoo, then, one must pay complete respect to host semanticity and the image owner’s right to contextualise within their human narrative. At times or with certain individuals, this may mean the reception of no explanation whatsoever and that is a perfectly fair response. No individual has any obligation to explain the additive or subtractive qualities of their dualistic mind and body so long as they choose. Will the choice to divulge or withhold explanation hinder certain professional opportunities? As discriminatory and unethical as it seems, this may very well be true. The good news is that body art is dialogical — through tattoos one can literally wear their heart on their sleeve. In practice, respecting personal narrative rather than giving into initial emotional response is imperative. To see tattoos as bound with the body and part of the individual is to acknowledge agency. Conversely, to yield to a thought unchecked by that of the image owner is to assume power over that individual. Art in a museum, art hung on a wall or on a pedestal, is up to interpretation. Art etched into the body is art etched into the soul and thus is who it adorns.


¹ “Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?”. 2017. Chabad.Org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/631046/jewish/Why-Does-Judaism-Forbid-Tattoos.htm.
² “The Commodification Of Body Modification”. 2017. http://198.182.205.248/Documents/Offices%20and%20Services/CommunityOutreach/JournalOfIdeology/The%20Commodification%20of%20Body%20Modification%20-%20Foster%20and%20Hummel.pdf.
³ Robinson, Howard. 2017. “Dualism”. Plato.Stanford.Edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/.
⁴ “War Pictures: The Grotesque As A Mobilizing Tactic”. 2017. Sociology.Ucdavis.Edu. http://sociology.ucdavis.edu/people/halfmann/grotesque.
⁵ Linfield, Susie. 2012. The Cruel Radiance. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
⁶ Heimlich, Russell. 2017. “Tattoo Taboo”. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2010/03/24/tattoo-taboo/.
⁷ Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices Of Looking. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
⁸ “Hermeneutics & The Art Of Tattoo”. 2010. https://tattooedphilosopher.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/hermeneutics-the-art-of-tattoo/.
⁹ “Tattoos: The Ancient And Mysterious History”. 2017. Smithsonian. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/.
¹⁰ “Leviticus 19, King James Version”. 2017. Bible.Com. https://www.bible.com/bible/1/LEV.19.28.
¹¹ Mona,. 2013. “What Is Somaesthetics?”. https://embodimentblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/what-is-somaesthetics/.
¹² Ryynänen, Max. 2015. “Throwing The Body Into The Fight: The Body As An Instrument In Political Art”. The Journal Of Somaesthetics 1 (1). https://journals.aau.dk/index.php/JOS/article/view/1073/943.

Tom Littrell

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