Honest Lewis
Sep 5, 2017 · 7 min read

Tattoos and the Class War

(A Polemic)

This is a polemic. It is an intentionally controversial and contentious point of discussion phrased using combative language. This polemic exists to stir debate and discussion on the topic of white-on-white class based cultural appropriation and how this act of cultural theft has transformed the tattooing as a form of outsider art to a form of bourgeoisie self-expression. This polemic contains anecdotes and references to personal experiences and therefore none of it can be taken as or interpreted as objective truth. I have faith in your capacity to deal with that.

We are, after all, adults.

My doctor showed me his new tattoo. He was proud of it — a Harley Davidson Eagle. After he was done showing me his new tattoo he rolled up his other sleeve and showed me his first tattoo — the Tennessee Titan’s logo. My doctor was proud of that one too. He got his first tattoo at 59 years old. I understand that he was showing them off to me in an attempt to forge a personal connection with me. He had no idea the contempt I have for tattoos that make a person into a billboard for a thing. He was proud of his easily concealed transgression against social norms but I was incapable of feeling pride in his display. All I could do was reevaluate my life choices.

There was once a time when if you saw a guy with a full sleeve of tattoos you could make a few assumptions. That guy was a dangerous 1% biker. That guy knew where to get crystal meth. That guy was on crystal meth. Or that guy knew how to cook crystal meth. He might have been a felon, or a sailor, or a boxer, or some other species of criminal. There was a time when scary looking tattooed white people were in fact scary rather than stylish. Back then tattooing was a thing done by people who didn’t care about fucking up their future employment prospects. It was art done by outsiders for outsiders. It was a thing done by lower-class people in places full of ‘exotic’ brown people. It was drilled into the skin, self-mutilation, as fashion and like all fashion it served to communicate class allegiance and class identification. It was non-verbal communication carved in flesh, in bold type, written in ink and blood that spelled out this single sentence, “I do not belong.”

Tattooing was a bad thing for bad people. Your boss knew it. The cops knew it. The doctors you’d try to convince to give you painkillers for your broken arm knew it. And your mom — Well your mom hated it.

I saw her at work. Three years from retirement and she was showing off that happy-sad mask tattoo on her forearm. She had no idea that if I sported ink like that the cops would treat me like a gang member, take photographs of it to track it and add me and it to a database of people with suspected gang affiliations. My co-worker had never had to touch that world and so she was clueless that she had taken something from a culture of poor criminality. She was privileged enough to never even consider that both what she was doing and what she had chosen belonged to someone long before it belonged to her.

“Why did you pick that?” I asked.

“It is pretty,” she said.

“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.

It was all I could do.

One could easily argue that much of modern American tattooing is based on cultural appropriation. I can’t dispute that. I’m no Maori warrior but I am covered in blackwork — I get it. That line of debate is a valid point of conversation. And while I accept what Terence the African said somewhere around 160B.C. as truth “Homo sum, homini, nihil a me alieum puto.” — I am human, I think nothing human is alien to me — I also recognize cultural appropriation as a true and undeniable aspect of our civilization and macro-culture. And I know that cultural appropriation done without thought to context, respect, and forethought is damaging, disrespectful and illustrates the power imbalances that permeate our society. This is what tattooing has become, a theft and appropriation of poor working class and criminal culture by well-meaning but culturally ignorant middle, upper-middle, and upper class people.

When I was 19 I asked him to tattoo my neck. He told me he wasn’t going to be any part of fucking up my life and my future. He told me to come back when I was sleeved and committed.

“This is a lifestyle, Kid” He said. “And you can’t buy your way into it with a hundred bucks.”

I understood. Six years later I was in a garage in Las Vegas while a guy with a tattoo on his face finished my sleeve.

“Would you like me to go up onto your neck?” He asked.

“I’m ready.” I replied.

He took a break to slam some speed and then he did it. And he made the kind of glorious mistakes on my skin that you can only earn, never purchase.

Tattooing was once a thing people did to say, “I do not belong” but the case has changed. People do it now to fit in. To belong. To prove that they belong. To improve their personal brand. If you see a guy with a full sleeve of tattoos today you can make a certain set of assumptions. He knows where a really good vegan restaurant is. He knows a great place to get an organic fair trade cup of coffee. He is on a first name basis with the cashier at the artisanal brewery and cheese store. And yes, I am making broad generalizations. But let’s keep in mind that these broad generalizations are coming from your poor white trash working class underground novelist poet polemicist and are aimed up the class ladder. They are punches up at people who have commoditized a culture that they didn’t even know existed — couldn’t know existed due to their privilege and the class isolation created by that privilege. They are punches up at people who didn’t realize things are earned rather than bought — who couldn’t possibly know that because of their favored place in our false and failed meritocracy, a system that misinformed them of their inherent worth and value and place. People who might know and understand the damages of cultural appropriation but who are incapable of applying that concept within the confines of their own race because the only white people they know are white people like them: neat, clean, traditionally educated, gainfully employed, and generically creative. This transformation from outsider art to insider art carries with it all the damages of appropriation — the lack of understanding, the disrespect of class and culture, and perhaps most insidiously the concept of ownership. This is poor criminal culture that’s ownership has become a commodity of the well-off.

When his doctor was drawing blood for his Hep-C test she asked him if he had ever gotten a tattoo in an unlicensed location. He told the doctor that he had once gotten a tattoo in a hotel room full of hookers. That’s how it is. That’s it. When we make it safe we remove it from its source. And when we make it sterile we sever it from its culture. And I am in no way advocating dirty needles and communicable disease, I’m just saying that when you cut something off from its roots and turn into what is literally a state licensed and approved form of artistic expression its culture is taken from it. It is made common and normal and boring and trite and cliché. It is made in to just another thing another thing to buy and sell. And we have too much of that already.

And I know you love your tattoo. And I know it is meaningful to you. And I know it is special and memorializes something and tells the world how you want the world to see you and I know it tells your story and solipsism, solipsism, solipsism. That doesn’t matter. It is a thing that exists within the context of other things. And this particular thing exists within the context of marginalized working class poor white people and their marginalized working class artists. When you take that you are stealing culture.

Carve that on your neck motherfucker.

And now for the cynical part:

Listen: I get it. I’m a white passing adopted Indigenous American. I am identified as poor white trash — even by those MFA types I hang around with. I get that my experiences with tattoos come from a combination of criminality and a low-class upbringing. I get that as part of this the art I have inscribed in my body constitutes a large degree of appropriation and theft. I’m part of the problem too. And me complaining about my culture being taken from me is chaff in the wind compared to those things taken, adopted, and stolen from other far far more marginalized groups. I get it. That’s the cynical part. It just happens to be directed towards myself.

And I’m not some old man yelling at all you kids to get off of my lawn. I’m letting you know, kindly, that right this minute someone whose culture you have stolen might be sizing you up as a potential mark.

Because ultimately that is what most of us are.

Honest Lewis

Written by

Novelist, polemicist, activist, and poet. He is the author of the novel Parasites and the Diogenes of Nashville, TN.

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