Jill A. Fisher
Literature on American tattooing appears in varied forms, from the scholarly journals of anthropology, history and sociology to newspaper stand magazines that can be construed as ‘soft’ pornography. What this spectrum of literary forms has in common is a relative marginalization in which American tattooing is perceived as part of a deviant subculture and not a topic of serious intellectual interest. Academics involved in this research have referred to colleagues’ attitudes about research on tattooing as a deviant interest in deviance. In addition, many academics have an agenda of legitimating the practice of tattooing by explicating its social and cultural patterns. Although much of this work is important scholarly investigation, I have found that many authors romanticize the practice of tattooing in ways that often do not correspond with their analyses. This article will, in part, respond to the tensions between analyzing and romanticizing tattooing as cultural practice(s). The purpose of this article is to explore the complex relationship between power and the physical and social practices of tattooing in the late capitalist state. Beginning with the history of tattooing as a cultural practice – from ancient Greece through the colonial period to contemporary USA – I will highlight the temporal and geographical changes in the practices and perceptions of tattooing. My hope is that its history in Western civilization will offer insights into the ways in which tattooing is practiced in the late 20th-century USA. In addition to creating a historical narrative, I will also situate the sociocultural practice of tattooing the body for the tattooist and the ‘tattooee’. This investigation into body inscription will serve as a means to elucidate the contemporary practice of tattooing as one that is simultaneously physical and social, with multiple levels of constructed meaning.
Body & Society © 2002 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 8(4): 91–107 [1357–034X(200212)8:4;91–107;028513] as a cultural signiﬁer in the late 20th-century USA. I will attempt to show how tattooing as a form of body modiﬁcation can be analyzed as a form of resistance to or a symptom of a culture that has commodiﬁed the body.