Beautiful barbarism: the art of getting inked

As for the primitive, I hark back to it because we are still very primitive. How many thousands of years of culture, think you, have rubbed and polished at our raw edges? One probably; at the best, no more than two. And that takes us back to screaming savagery, when, gross of body and deed, we drank blood from the skulls of our enemies, and hailed as highest paradise the orgies and carnage of Valhalla. – Jack London

Perhaps that’s why a significant  segment of society hates on ink; tattoos are a reminder of a primitive self that mankind has spent many many years trying to forget. It’s called denial; a chosen misunderstanding. Tattoos say ‘I am what I am’; human, flawed and savage – and this makes some of us uncomfortable. Tattoos symbolise vulgar barbarism – an uncouthness that is intrinsic to the essence of what makes us human. We live in a world that forces us to deny our human nature because it is, to be quite frank, rather disgusting – think war, sexism, abuse, poverty blah blah blah just to remind yourself just how terrible we can be. Without rules to enforce the denial of our essence, chaos reigns – William Golding reminded us of this disturbing fact in the Lord of the Flies. The point; law is necessary – human beings have learned this over time, which is why we no longer drink the blood from the skulls of our enemies…

…but we do get tattooed.

So humanity has learned how to be decent (on the face of it) but we are still undeniably human, in other words, disgusting, flawed and savage. Human nature has not changed; we have merely learned control (for the most part). But our savage nature cannot help but rebel against the authoritative rules required to mete out the mores and values of society – some people murder, rape and pillage… in rebellious exertion of temperament. Others use a more acceptable means of expression; art. As human beings, we fight the system that has birthed our collective identity by expressing our darkest thoughts through a channel that is deemed acceptable by the norms of society. Art is this channel. It is a coping mechanism; a means of siphoning our innate barbarism.

In all ages, far back into prehistory, we find human beings have painted and adorned themselves. H.G. Wells

Not that tattoos are all ‘dark and disturbing’ in subject. Chinese symbols, roses, stars, cursive names, butterflies, fairies, dragons even skulls – icons of popular culture – have appropriated the dangerous allure of tattoo art. When it comes to tattoos, the subject matter is almost irrelevant; society’s scorn for the art of tattoo has more to do with the medium of expression as opposed to the content. Tattoos are painful, archaic and ‘unsophisticated’ supposedly, not even having a Rembrandt engraved on your skin is a compensating factor. And if the tattoo image so happens to be ‘unacceptable’; because the medium that channels the deviant subject matter is acceptable, man’s savage nature is overlooked as mere fantasy. Again, a necessary denial that is prerequisite for preserving the illusory notion of civilization.

The interesting thing about tattoos is that even a tattoo purely for its own sake, for art’s sake, is embellished with meaning – it emphasises an appreciation for the aesthetic (relatively speaking of course) as well as an unavoidable assertion of savagery. Humankind will continue to push the boundaries of what is prescribed as moral, it’s in our nature to rebel; rebellion against parents, society, norms, mediocrity… whether consciously or unconsciously motivated, it’s all the same. A tattoo says “rebellion” without necessarily meaning to.

On a conscious level, tattoos are a means of expression. It’s as simple as that. I certainly didn’t get a tattoo to piss my mom off. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like the confrontational nature of a tattoo; that it forces people to acknowledge an undeniable barbarism that is intrinsic to mankind but most often denied – sound like rebellion? My tattoos are aesthetically and intellectually motivated. They are symbols of that which I love – the philosophies that dictate my existence and envelope my character: God, Life, Beauty and Art.

A Geisha; the personification of Art. The sacrifice and discipline involved in a Geisha’s pursuit of Art and Beauty, and the perfection thereof, is something I greatly admire.

The word “Life”, inspired by Faith of the Fallen (Terry Goodkind). Although I have spent many sentences explaining how disgusting human nature is, people have the potential for inspired magnificence. Beauty is the yin to the yang of disgust – one cannot exist without the presence of the other. The protagonist in Faith of the Fallen sculpts a statue that is an ode to Life – to its passionate beauty. The artwork, aptly entitled Life, reveals a dedication to the sustainability of Life, an entity and ideal that is valued above all else. The statue is the tangible representation of individual nobility, strength and vitality. My tattoo is a tribute to the beauty of LIFE.

A verse (Psalm 46v1) a tribute to my God. In a world that detests religion and despises Christianity it was important for me to acknowledge my beliefs by having them engraved on my skin. Tattoos are a moot point for Christians but here’s something that is poignant:

From this time onward let no one trouble me; for, as for me, I bear, branded on my body, the scars of Jesus as my Master. Saint Paul, Galatians 6:17

Undoubtedly the man was speaking metaphorically but the point resonates…

Freedom, even if an ideological illusion, yearns for artistic expression. Art, in all its mediums, always represents a fight to be free. Tattoos are art and expression at their most desperate, intimate and essential.

There is no perfect beauty that hath not strangeness in the proportion. Sir Francis Bacon, London, 1639