THE ELABORATIVE DECORATIVE tattoo has become a stamp of the urban-American body. To be tattooed is to be permanently reminded of a personal rite of passage, yet the standard design choices offered in walk-in tattoo parlors are ultra-clichés: butterflies on butts, daggers on pecs, and biceps ablaze with hearts and dragons have lost even the currency of kitsch. Recently, however, a new breed of imaginative authority figures—gurus of the needle—have stepped in to redraw, re-create, regenerate the fashion of tattoos. At the same time, artists and individuals outside the “tattoo circle” have also been trying to reinvent the practice.

Arising from fashionable issues of physical and emotional transformation, these new tattoos tell elaborate personal stories and address issues and themes central to the discourse of contemporary art: they retread Surrealist motifs, traffic in visual puns, and tap into problems of self-aggrandizement and the politics of violence and power. Contemporary culture demands exaggerated personal narratives. What could be more exaggerated, more “interactive,” than a permanent tattoo?

“It’s her [Auschwitz] I.D. number.” She reached for the photo and showed it to him. “Hers. I call her Eva. . . . the tattoo.” She pointed at the woman’s arm. “I want to remember her. I want to keep her alive. I’m wearing [her] tattoo like an MIA bracelet.”

. . . Far from being the neat life cycle that Shakespeare envisioned, with old age returning to infancy, Eve found in the middle a ludicrous rebirth. And mewling and puking, she had gotten the tattoo, which she glanced at now between knowing smiles and which instantly made her feel calm.
Emily Prager, Eve’s Tattoo, 1991

The conventions of indelible body-drawing have been studied from the perspectives of ethnography, esthetics, and social history, spawning a rash of published studies, symposia, and documentary exhibitions.1 Yet much of this work tends to understand the tattoo according to its old function as a kind of badge or flag—a branded emblem used for “tribal identification, identification of class status,” or related purposes2—upholding tattooing practice as a continuation of earlier conventions linked to primitive art. In this era of collective “self-help” rituals, tattoos actually constitute another mode of self-reinvention. Having a tattoo once meant that you belonged outside the mainstream: you were a sailor, a gang member—in some way “other.” Today, body decoration has been co-opted by a marketplace that makes no distinction between high and low culture, a market in which leather jackets, Harley Davidson motorbikes, graffiti art, Rolex watches, and plastic surgery can all be mixed and matched as part of the same fashion statement.

In a collection of essays on tattoos and body decoration from the late ’80s there appeared a photograph of a man’s arm. On it was tattooed a text, in crude, Gothic lettering: “Having a tattoo is a common man’s way of appreciating art.”3 Real prestige means not only owning or wearing a work of art, but being one too, especially if you are a work by a recognized artist. If the ’80s were about having a Sol LeWitt drawn on your living room walls until eternity or the moving van, the ’90s are about having a permanent and more personal relationship with the work of an artist. Don’t just own a Lawrence Weiner or an Allen Ruppersberg, have one on your body—in your skin. The aura of the artist’s celebrity becomes an accessory to your identity.

If you could describe to me the perfect image that you want to give of yourself to others, I could tattoo it on your chest. And if my design succeeds you will be able to regain the love of those you have lost.
—Phillippe Parreno, Sans Titre, 19924

In a recent art-world manifestation of tattooing entitled “Tattoo Collection I”—an exhibition of photographs, sculpture, and, more important, drawings (projects) and short fictional pieces relating to the subject—the projects, many of them small, emblematic, and enigmatic, force the viewer to address the tattoo directly. What does it mean? The narrative generated between the visual proposition and the “collector” of the visual narrative is the key.

An artist once told me that, when young, he was almost tattooed while serving in the U.S. Navy. To prepare himself for the pain, he drank. He picked out the drawing, held out his arm, and at the first insert of ink to skin he passed out. He insisted this was from the unusual mix of alcohol and the high-frequency whir of the electric needle. What he found in the morning was nausea and one blue-black dot on his forearm. It is illegal in the state of Texas to tattoo an unconscious person. The artist keeps the blue-black dot because he likes to tell its story.

Among the objects in “Tattoo Collection I” were two fragments of tattooed skin, each suspended in a jar of formaldehyde. The reality of a patch of skin without a body brought one into an unusually direct confrontation with the many proposals presented in the space. These gruesome specimens seemed to ask, Who was their artist? To whom did they once belong? Why were they removed from the body, or bodies? Who owns the tattooed image after death? Can the rights to the image be bequeathed? The flayed skin removed the narrative from its context. The story died.

I was told that he was the only tattooer in the world able to do it. You could ask him anything, the bizarre, the sick, the mystical, the impossible, and in the most improbable and the most painful inner places of the body. . . .

I couldn’t bear his gaze, as if it were he who suffered beneath the needle. He attacked the crows [the image he was tattooing] with a rare fascination, a morbid precision. He wiped up the blackened blood that oozed out of the wound. I was happy. Then he sighed a long sigh, as of relief and retired to a corner of the kitchen. Delighted with what I saw, I said loudly, “It seems that van Gogh committed suicide right after having painted.” He didn’t reply, I only heard the blast vibrating the walls.
—Tonino Benacquista, Nouvelle, 19925

Deborah Irmas is a writer who lives in Paris.


1. See, for example, Arnold Rubin, ed., Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, Los Angeles: The Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, 1988; Samuel Steward. Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, New York: Haworth Press, 1990; and V. Vale and Andrea Juno, eds., Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual, San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1989.

2. Marcia Tucker, “Tattoo: The State of the Art,” Artforum 19 no. 9, May 1981, p. 42.

3. Illustrated in Rubin, p. 218.

4. Phillippe Parreno, Sans Titre, in “Tattoo Collection I,” an exhibition prepared by Air de Paris, Nice, and Galerie Urbi et Orbi, Paris. The exhibition appeared at Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris, in the summer of 1992, and subsequently at Daniel Buchholz, Cologne, and the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Author’s translation.

5. Tonino Benacquista, “Nouvelle,” from “Tattoo Collection I.” Author’s translation.