Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-Control *

By Atkinson, Michael | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-Control *

Atkinson, Michael, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

NORTH AMERICA IS EXPERIENCING what some call a second "tattoo renaissance" (DeMello, 2000). As part of this revolution in the popular cultural significance of tattooed flesh, tattooing is ascending to unprecedented levels of popularity among a vast array of social groups. Once a long-standing symbol of the North American underclass, this "body project" (Shilling, 1993) is now a floating signifier of a full panorama of social statuses, roles and identities. The tattoo is blossoming as a polysemic symbol of Canadian culture, and is actively inserted into the identity politics of a melange of actors. More so than in any previous era, tattoos are, as Hebdige (1979) might describe, "pregnant" with cultural significance.

Sociologists and other academics, however, almost invariably describe tattooing as cultural deviance (Atkinson, 2003a; DeMello, 2000; Copes and Forsyth, 1993; Irwin, 2000). Studies of tattooing among the mentally challenged (Ceniceros, 1998; Measey, 1972), prisoners (Kent, 1997; Seaton, 1987), gang members (Rubin, 1988), and deviant youth subcultures (Atkinson, 2002), represent the tattoo as a badge of dislocated, ostracized, and disenfranchised communities. Apart from anthropological analyses of tattooing in Japanese, Melanesian, African, and Polynesian cultures (Gell, 1993; Kaplan and Dubro, 1986; Kitamura and Kitamura, 2001; Mascia-Lees and Sharpe, 1992), few social scientific studies portray tattooing as either rational or pro-social. Even comprehensive historical (Caplan, 2000; Gilbert, 2000) or ethnographic (DeMello, 2000; Irwin, 2000; Vail, 1999) analyses of the practice selectively link tattooed bodies to stigmatized populations. Tattooing is decoded as esoterically normative within the boundaries of historically marginal groups, as its profanity well represents group members' feelings of difference and exclusion. It is deciphered, in Cohen's (1955) terminology, as a deviant "collective solution" to sentiments of social inferiority.

While tattooing is by no means widely respected in Western cultures, its one-dimensional depiction as uncontested deviance is sociologically myopic (see DeMello, 1995; Fisher, 2002; Friedman, 1996; Gallick, 1996). A majority of empirical analyses of tattooing fail to consider how the body project symbolizes conformity to prevailing cultural body idiom, or expectations of affective control upheld throughout Western nations. Even fewer juxtapose the booming popularity of tattooing against cultural prescriptions to engage in a style of body work underpinned by the impetus to display one's "individualism" to others. Theorists regularly ignore whether tattooing may be a part of what White and Young (1997) refer to as the established "middle-class body ascetic," or what Monaghan (2001) describes as "vibrant physicality."

In this paper, the tattooing projects of selected Canadians are inspected as acts of compliance to "established" (Elias and Scotson, 1965) codes of bodily control and display. While tattooing is not the pinnacle of normative behaviour in Canada, the self-expressed meanings of Canadians' tattooing projects smack with compliance to a diffuse cultural imperative to engage in disciplined body work. Through a theoretical framework provided by figurational sociology (Elias, 1983; 1994; 1996), contemporary sensibilities about tattooed skin are interpreted as an extension of long-term civilizing processes.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Mainstay social-psychological interpretations of tattooing revolve around a construction of tattoo enthusiasm as inherently pathological (Gittleson and Wallfn, 1973; Grumet, 1983; Houghton et al., 1996; Howell et al., 1971; Newman, 1982). Social psychologists typically contend that a tattooed body is the manifestation of a mind fraught with disorder. Furthermore, they suggest wearers cannot conform to dominant social norms, values and beliefs as a result of developmental or cognitive defect (see Williams, 1998).

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