I don’t go to my employer’s Manhattan office much anymore; mostly I work from home, to save the time and inconvenience of riding the subway from Brooklyn to Midtown. I did go in today, though, for a lunch meeting with some other members of our software-development team.
It’s July, and so there is plenty of exposed skin on view here in the city. As I walked back to the office just now I was struck by how many young people, especially pretty young women, have chosen to cover themselves with tattoos, often hideously ugly ones. (I realize this is nothing very new, but being in the skimpily dressed crowds around Times Square just now really drove the point home.)
Why are people doing this to themselves? In my day tattooing was the mark of the lowest classes, of criminals and itinerants and gang members. (It still is, of course.) But now it is seeping up the social scale — I doubt many debutantes or members of the British nobility are sporting much ink yet, but it seems rampant among the white-collar middle-class workers I saw everywhere on the streets of Midtown just now. Indeed, even my own nephew, who I would have thought was a sensible and well-brought-up young man, has decorated his chest with six-inch-tall images of the animated characters Bender and Fry (from the TV series Futurama.) Why would anyone in his right mind do such a thing?
I ought to know the answer myself, in fact: when I was nineteen, a girl I was seeing went to get a little star put on her abdomen, and I, a young and impulsive swain, had three of the same applied to my left shoulder. I soon regretted it, however, and went so far as to have them lasered off (at considerable expense) a few years later. Why did I do it in the first place? For the same reason I took up smoking, I suppose: it made me feel grown-up and slightly tough (and of course there was that girl…). But even then I had ambivalent feelings about it, and the stars were tiny things, drawn only in outline, and easily hidden — nothing like the huge, indelible tattoos I see all around me nowadays, applied to people who are, presumably, responsible adults. One of the sideshow attractions I saw on the street just now was an otherwise normal-looking woman in her thirties, with two young children. She had tattoos running all the way up one of her legs, completely covering the skin like a stocking, and some sort of barbed-wire affair girdling her upper arm.
Anyway, imagine my surprise when, back in the office, I spent a few minutes poking around online while waiting for some software to build, and saw a lively thread about just this topic over at VFR. (See also Theodore Dalrymple’s essay on tattooing, linked therein.) The discussion appears to be converging on what I think is the right assessment: that modern society, in its relentless destruction of all cultural standards, traditions, values, norms, and affinities, has so radically atomized the individual that he or she is reduced to expressing selfhood in a way that exactly matches the superficiality of the “culture” itself: by mutilating the surface of the body. Particularly on-target was a commenter by the name of Matt, who wrote that it is “a rejection of the tyranny of unchosen natural beauty in favor of man-made mutilation”. That’s absolutely correct, I think: as we increasingly reject and deny the natural categories and structures, both social and physical, that until now have given human life its order and form, it becomes more necessary to be radically self-created to have any value, to be anything at all.