Tattoos, Taboos and The Risk of Permanence
I was brought up in a home where tattoos were associated with deviance, bodgies, widgies, bikers, sailors and sinfulness. Yet my own children have many tattoos, some the size of all their back. My youngest daughter has 13 tattoos! A study of the semiotics of tattoos tells us much about the semiotics of culture, the creation of taboos and how young people today ‘make their mark’ against Bauman’s Liquid Modernity . In my love of the music scene it was the ‘bad boys’ of Rose Tattoo and AC/DC that used the brand of the tattoo as a symbol of rebellion.
When you live in the moment of the certainty of uncertainty, in Fromm’s Faith, it’s quite a statement to adopt a gesture of permanence. Such is the nature of risk.
It was the ‘Whipping Parson’ Samuel Marsden who landed in New Zealand and systematically sought to destroy Maori culture by his fundamentalist invocation of the Bible against tattoos. Such a study of tattoos serves as reminder of how myth and symbol are the same thing. Marsden and those like him who manufacture risk when there is none invoke the same myth making in the safety industry. A myth doesn’t have to be factually true to be either powerful or real (Ricoeur). The making of myth is the power of taboo.
Of course tattoos are not just about a permanent mark on the skin, there is a whole Social Psychology and Semiotics associated with the meaning of tattoos (see Tattoos as Narratives: Skin and Self. Public Journal of Semiotics: Volume 4, Issue 2 2013 and Skin, Ink, and Meaning: Podcasts about the Social Semiotics of Tattoos ). Such a study of tattoos can tell us much about the semiotic nature of culture, taboo and associated understandings of risk, the risk of permanence.
For a long time tattoos were ‘made’ taboo (also read Mary Douglas ). The making of taboos and the study of rituals and gesture should be of much interest to people in the risk industry that thrives on the making of salvation rituals against taboos. The taboo for Safety is anything that causes harm, the salvation ritual that follows has been the completion of paperwork. Of course the completion of paperwork is neither effective nor connected to the tackling of risk but the myth stands that if one completes a SWMS one is saved.
Tattoo art and street art have now gained a sense of respectability and orthodoxy which to some extent has robbed the process of its risk. One of the strange paradoxes of the work of Banksy is how Hollywood has legitimized his art and robbed it of its revolutionary risk. This is what orthodoxies do. They tend to quash vision by bringing legitimacy into the fold and neutralizing its radical nature. If one is seeking to reform an organization by joining it, there is no evidence that this works. What happens under the dynamic of organizing is the reverse the organization changes you. Most envisioning is outside of orthodoxies. The aha moment gets lost in a sea of OKness. When orthodoxy contains what is radical, the radical envisions a new method.
Isn’t it strange that the risk of rebellion in this Liquid age is the permanence of the tattoo. Risk used to be about impermanence and this is flipped on its head in the permanence of the tattoo. BTW, tattoo removal only accounts for 5% of the market.
Taboo is created by the infusion of moral language tied to activity and righteousness similarly with activities that counter taboo. None of this is discussed in the AIHS BoK on Ethics but such an understanding of taboo is essential for understanding how the risk industry creates taboos by its moralisms.
Taboos are mostly ‘understood’ through ‘social contract’ not by regulation. So, if we want to understand what gestures and rituals Risk and Safety have created against risk taboos perhaps study how social pressures in organisations work and show off your tattoos.