One of my readers brought James Howard Kunstler to my attention – yet another cranky prophet-wannabe with no credentials in the domains he discusses. A few years ago, he opined on tattoos thusly: “Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos is a harbinger of social dysfunction.” You see, social collapse has nothing to do with predatory banks, preemptive invasions, punitive theocracies, unequal distribution of wealth. No sir! Tattooing is the true cause of the impending apocalypse. Along with rock music, long-haired men and women in the professional work force.
I have mentioned a few times that my father’s side were seamen – captains and engineers in the merchant marine. They lived the hard lives of sailors, probably softened by their relative status within the iron hierarchy of ships. Several died away from home, including my grandfather and two of my father’s brothers who died in their twenties of TB, a perennial scourge of the profession back then. We don’t even know where some are buried. In their brief shore leaves, I suspect many of them got tattoos. I recall seeing a shadow under the thin fabric of my eldest uncle’s summer shirt, but I didn’t get to ask him before death took him.
This August, I got a tattoo. I asked my friend Heather Oliver (whose artwork graces this site and my stories) to create a design for me. She rose to the challenge magnificently. By this act I wanted to honor my father’s line, now going extinct (I’m the sole twig left of that once-great tree); to mark the narrow escape from my first brush with cancer; and to remind myself that I should try to finish and publish my stories before the Hunter stoops on me for the final time.
Tattooing means different things across people and cultures – but it’s interesting to consider that outside the West, tattooing done willingly was often a status symbol, from the Scythians to the Maori. To a large extent, it is also considered a rite of passage and/or a signal of entry to a soldier-like fraternity, whether this is the army, a criminal organization, a prison group or the Knights of St. John; in this guise, the practice has been associated with masculine “bravery” (since it involves pain) and group identity.
These aspects of the process are highlighted in one of the best SF novels, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite: an Earth ship has ended up on a planet whose lifeforms are poisonous, forcing the human settlers into carefully regulated cannibalism – although they have retained enough technology to engineer some foodstuffs. Children are raised communally and watched for signs of a talent. When one is discerned, they receive their first tattoo, become members of an extended family and acquire human status (aka: they’re no longer potential food).
In my own stories, the Koredháni people, who consciously decided to adapt themselves to their new planetary home, are matrilineal and polyandrous because of a dearth of women (they also hail from the Minoans, who seem to have had at least one of these tendencies). The second night after a handfasting, the co-husbands give the newcomer a tattoo (using nanotech, which is prominent in their living arrangements). The design, chosen by the newcomer, almost invariably marks his previous allegiance or provenance, so that memory of his lineage is kept alive even after he is part of his wife’s hearth.
On the individual level, people often get a tattoo to decorate a scar – a gesture of defiance against the ravages of illness. Also, recent technology advances have made possible the use of tattoos as medical monitors: glucose meters for diabetics, for example, removing the need for constant needle jabs. The flip side of all this neat stuff, of course, is forcible tattoing, which predated the Nazi concentration camps: slaves and soldiers were routinely tattooed in the Roman empire to prevent them from running off. It was deemed more humane than branding. Its Hellenic name “stigma” (dotting) led to the term stigmatize, with its known connotations.
For me, it’s interesting to think that tattoos, despite their vaunted “permanence”, are among the first of our parts to disappear when our bodies rest in fire, water or earth – unless we have the luck of the young Pazyryk warrior priestess who merited six horses in her journey to the other world. Her kurgan was filled with water which then froze. So when Natalia Polosmak opened the tomb in 1993, its occupant emerged almost entirely intact, from her wild silk blouse to her gold-inlaid felt headdress… and the ravishing soot tattoo on her shoulder. She was a shaman; and in the end, tattoos are talismans: a way of reconnecting with what we sundered from when we became (perhaps too) self-aware.