Skin as Medium

Last semester, my students had a really cool conversation about whether tattoos are a medium and/or rhetorical.As I teach a new semester of digital rhetoric, I’m contemplating the nature of media and new media. Of course, I always return to Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” If we accept McLuhan’s premise that how a message is communicated is as important as its content, then tattoos may be the ultimate form of self expression.

For people who get tattoos, the content can be extremely personal. For example, many people get a memorial tattoo after someone close to them dies. In “‘So That They Never Forget the Holocaust:’ Memorial Tattoos and Embodied Holocaust Remembrance,” Verena Hutter (2016) argues that some of these tattoos are “embodied memory and/or performed trauma” (269). Hutter examines a New York Times piece “A Tattoo to Remember” in which the grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors remember their family’s struggle by purposefully tattooing the numbers Nazis assigned their ancestors. The tattoo represents an intersection of faith, heritage, and history.  The symbol content of the brief serial number would be empty without the medium, a tattoo.

20121001_TATTOO-slide-3LPV-jumbo
Photo Credit: New York Times photographer Uriel Sinai

While not every tattoo has the same depth, the pain and permanence make them a deliberate statement about the self. What does that Tinkerbell tattoo on your foot say about you?  Does it say you want to be a walking billboard for Disney?  Not really. But it might say that to 18 year-old you, Tinkerbell connected to your childhood and fond memories of watching Peter Pan with your friends.

Tattoos no longer have the counter-cultural cachet they once had. Thirty years ago, tattoos usually signified drug use,enlisted military service, or carnival work. However, in the mid-90s, everyone started getting tattoos. As “alternative” music became mainstream, so did other alternative styles – tattoos, piercings, and  purple hair. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of people between 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos have different rhetorical value now.

Nevertheless, when skin is the medium and hours of pain and days of discomfort are required for communication, it seems that a tattoo is no less rhetorical than an essay. And like most writing, it’s done collaboratively, takes practice, and you usually start small before embarking on a full sleeve.

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