Which is worse: heavily tattooed people, or lesbian couples who want your children to play with their children? Answer: Heavily tattooed lesbians who want your children to play with their children.

In the last couple of years, heavy tattooing has spread like wildfire. Everywhere you go, you see young men with their forearms completely covered in gross and repulsive tattoos (as well as many young women with lighter tattoos). Sometimes I say to them: “Is that permanent? Why would you do such a disgusting thing to your own body?”

Last week, driving with a friend in Essex County, New Jersey, I walked into some automobile-related retail establishment to ask directions. There were two young men there. One, standing closer to me, was on the phone, and I waited to speak to him. The other, standing behind the first man and further way, beckoned to me to come speak with him. His forearms were covered in tattoos made in frightening shapes that looked like talons. I said to him, “I don’t want to talk to you, your tattoos are repulsive.”

He was not a freak. He was an ordinary young man in suburban New Jersey, working in a regular job, dealing with the public. But he had disfigured his body with this horrifying thing, making himself into a freak.

Here, for once, is a social phenomenon for which I have no explanation.

The subject came to mind because of a discussion at The Thinking Housewife yesterday. This comment, which I posted there, explains what it’s about:

When I began to read Jennifer’s post, about a neighborhood lesbian couple who want her children to play with their children, I was thinking what a difficult situation this is to be in. How does one avoid unwanted social contacts with homosexual couples without offending them, or perhaps even putting oneself in their sites for future intimidation?

But then Jennifer wrote:

We live in an apartment complex and several times now, the lesbian or her partner have come over and brought the little one with them. They clearly expect my children to play with the child, which they have so far done, politely. However, I don’t approve of their lifestyle, and I find the more “butch” member of the couple to be almost intimidating. She is aggressive, mannish and heavily tattooed with a nearly shaved head.

That simplifies the issue, removing any grey area or ambivalence. I would never allow a heavily tattooed (or lightly tattooed) person to enter my house on a social visit, period. Why is Jennifer allowing this freak in her house?

If I were in her position, this is what I would say: “I find your tattoos repulsive and disgusting. It makes me feel sick to look at them. You chose to disfigure your body, so that every time other people saw you, they would be forced to look at the frightening sight of your disfigured body. So not only are you repulsive to look at, but, since you did this through your own choice, you obviously haven’t the slightest consideration for other people. Why then should other people have any consideration for you? You are not welcome in my home, and I do not want my children to play with yours.”

- end of initial entry -

Samson J. writes:

Some time ago I moved from one part of Canada to another. In my former area, heavy tattooing is still rare, and so I was stunned to arrive here and observe the utter ubiquity of absolutely shocking, garish tattoos. No pretense is made to keep the tattoos minimal and tasteful.

As for an explanation, I completely lack one for why young women are getting these things. For males, though, the phenomenon is fairly easy to interpret: it largely represents a “race to the bottom” in displaying thuggery and a base form of masculinity, now that real, authentic manhood basically no longer exists.

LA replies:

That’s a good explanation of why otherwise normal young men are doing this.

Buck writes:

I wrote this comment after reading only the first sentence of your entry. I thought “freak” myself.

I live in a upper middle class area. The average income is among the highest in the nation for an area its size. All of a sudden two tattoo shops opened up within months of each other. One, maybe, to see how business goes. But two?

I have a friend who owns three very successful businesses. He’s married and in his late thirties. He spends a small fortune to wear very expensive suits for work. About six months ago he got a full sleeve: an arm inked from the wrist all the way up and cleanly around the full deltoid. Solid ink, black, dark blue and some blood red. Zero flesh remaining.

I was baffled. Still am. I couldn’t say a word when he showed it. John, that’s beautiful. Nice job! I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would permanently mutilate his body to such a dramatic extent. Apparently there was a freak living inside of him that was waiting for the right time to come out. Men, I don’t care so much, we’re ugly anyway, though it says that something is deeply wrong, something that I don’t understand. But women, attractive women loaded up with exposed ink is so alien that it has to be a sign of the actual end of something important to our civilization.

The butch lesbian has to be the most angry of human creatures walking the earth. I can imagine why she wants to be in everyone’s face. The giant chip on her shoulder has materialized in the ugly ink that challenges us from her skin.

My brother got a forearm tattoo in the army in 1968. He was so embarrassed by it that he has worn long sleeves year-round ever since. My best friend got an upper arm tattoo in the Marines and he’s been hiding it ever since. He married a Japanese women, and was deathly afraid of her family seeing it. In Japan, the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia are the only ones who wear ink. Obviously there’s some serious intimidation going on there.

LA replies:

I’ll just repeat what Buck said: “But women, attractive women loaded up with exposed ink is so alien that it has to be a sign of the actual end of something important to our civilization.”

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

The “vanishing manhood” explanation of tattooing among men is partly true, but it is possible to go further. In a culture (for lack of a better word) where no one possesses an inward character, soul, or spirit, the only way to appear individual is by external advertising. The non-souls, male and female, who tattoo and sacrify themselves to appear as individuals swiftly run into the limits of their condition because all tattoos, earrings, and noserings look pretty much alike. The inner life, where it exists, is much more capable of individuation than is gross body-alteration.

A relevant detail from American literature begs citation. In Herman Melville’s early novel Typee, the main character jumps ship in Polynesia, making a stereotypical youthful judgment about civilization. He sojourns for a while among island savages, is grudgingly accepted in the tribe, but soon grows fearful for two causes. One is that he quickly discerns that the jolly islanders are cannibals and headhunters. Another is that his islander blood-brother wants to tattoo him. All the male islanders are tattooed, many of them over their entire body as well as the face. In the end, the narrator reaffirms civilization by escaping from the tribe and taking ship again.

In Moby Dick, Queequeg is tattooed, including his face, but Queequeg has left tribal life and has integrated himself in the whaling crew; he is, in other words, moving in the direction of civilization.

What we are witnessing today is not the re-barbarization of society (“the vertical insertion of the barbarians,” as Jose Ortega called it in The Revolt of the Masses), but the descent of whole social classes into savagery, which differs from barbarism. Queequeg was a barbarian, capable of seeing the value in civilized life and of choosing it over tribal life (to a degree). A savage is someone who hates civilization, feels “dissed” by it, and who therefore constantly attacks it in hopes of destroying it.

James P. writes:

Theodore Dalrymple’s essay from 2000 remains relevant:

Why do members of the middle classes now adorn themselves in this savage fashion? The author draws not only on her own experience, but also upon that of tattooists and their customers. She believes that tattoos have philosophical meaning for those who bear them. The philosophy in question is a witches’ brew of new age “spiritualism,” ecological paganism, elevation of the primitive, and vegetarianism. It is the kind of philosophy that emerges when religious feeling is no longer disciplined by religious ritual that is established by tradition and upheld by social pressure….

What is striking about these “tattoo narratives” (as the author calls them) is their vacuous egoism. The interlocutors speak, and appear to think, in pure psychobabble, that debased and vague confessional language that allows people to imagine they are baring their souls when in fact they are exposing their shallowness. This is something the author does not notice because she herself belongs to the psychobabble culture. One cannot but feel sorrow for people who think that by permanently disfiguring themselves they are somehow declaring their independence or expressing their individuality. The tattoo has a profound meaning: the superficiality of modern man’s existence….

Here we see the bodily consequence of an intellectual climate that has long extolled opposition and hostility to what exists as the only honorable and ethical stand to take towards it. Of course, such an attitude is fundamentally ahistorical and lacking in respect for the achievements of the past, and only people who live in an eternal, egoistic present moment could adopt it. (The eternity of the present moment is, of course, the key to modern shallowness.) The tattoo is thus the art form of the cultural vandal, and it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the cultural vandal’s views should almost always be expressed with inarticulate sub-demotic vulgarity.

It is also no accident that some members of the middle classes should have adopted a typically proletarian form of bodily adornment as a badge not only of independence, but also of liberal virtue. A tattoo establishes them as tolerant, open-minded, and sympathetic towards those below them in the social scale: the highest virtues of which they can conceive. The tattoo thus appeals to the kind of modern bourgeois who believes that foulness of language is a token of purity of heart, or at least of sincerity. The tattoo, like the constant resort to the swearword, is an attack on bourgeois propriety, and as such a demonstration of largeness of heart and generosity of spirit.

Matt writes:

Liberalism envisions a society of free and equal autonomous individuals, self-created through reason and will, with absolutely equal rights subject only to refraining from infringing on the rights of others (or at least of other liberals, who consent to the liberal social contract). The modern form of liberalism has divorced man from his property, since property became viewed as de-facto perpetuation of traditional tyrannical aristocracy. The body, however, is still “property”: it is a domain over which each equally free emancipated individual has absolute godlike authority.

Part of being a free, self-created, autonomous individual is absolute unaccountable control over one’s body: thus the liberal obsession with abortion, euthanasia, and other corporeal atrocities. A tattoo or other self-mutilation is a self-assertion of absolute godhood over one’s body. It is also a rejection of the tyranny of unchosen natural beauty in favor of man-made mutilation: a form of Picasso’s anti-nature cubism asserted over one’s own body.

So there isn’t anything mysterious about the motivation behind getting a tattoo. It is the same old denial of any transcendent authority, of any fixed human nature, of any objective standard of beauty, and of any unchosen impediment to the free and equal autonomous will of the individual, which runs through all of liberalism.

LA replies:

I thank Matt for this. Before his comment came in, I was thinking of saying something along the same lines, but with an addition. As Matt says, liberalism tells man that he creates himself out of his own free choices, without reference to any forces outside or above himself. But a culture that simultaneously deifies the self and denies the transcendent makes the self meaningless, because all the things that would give actual content to the self have been taken away. Since the available ways of “creating oneself,” of expressing one’s uniqueness, are now so terribly limited, people soon turn to anti-natural and horrifying methods of self-expression.

Thus in a culture that systematically denies nature, tradition, and God, the most efficaceous way of expressing your individuality is to mutilate your body.

Kathlene M. writes:

A blogger named “Dr. Pinna” attempts to answer the reason for this phenomenon (and he includes a picture of a heavily tattooed arm). He writes:

In the last two decades, across the world, millions of young people have decided to have tattoos placed on their bodies.


This phenomenon is so unusual that thousands of articles have been written about the astounding number of people now wearing tattoos. It is estimated, that approximately 30 to 40 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 38 have obtained tattoos .

… Young people have decided that one of the best ways to demonstrate their sexuality is by having tattoos on their body. There are other reasons for having tattoos but this is the primary reason.

So, tattoos are a way to demonstrate sexuality? That’s a surprise to me, because heavy tattooing would be a mating deterrent for those who find tattoos repulsive. Dr. Pinna also surmises that the heavy metals found in today’s tattoo pigments will lead to cancer and disease for many of these people in the future. I wonder if Obamacare will cover the care for these people?

Matt writes:

You wrote:

But a culture that simultaneously deifies the self and denies the transcendent makes the self meaningless, because all the things that would give actual content to the self have been taken away. Since the available ways of “creating oneself,” of expressing one’s uniqueness, are now so terribly limited, people soon turn to anti-natural and horrifying methods of self-expression.

Perfect. The more liberalism insists on political freedom and equal rights emancipated from anything and everything which transcends the individual and his autonomous will, the more society becomes a hive of isolated narcissists living in padded cells, drawing pictures, on the parchments of their bodies, of the worlds over which they are tinpot gods.

Kathlene M. writes:

I forward a particularly good article, written in 2011, that discusses how an emergency physician (EP) views tattoos and piercings. An interesting excerpt and conclusion are below. I would add that not only are tattoos and piercings signs of suicidal tendencies in patients, but also in the society:

Psychologic Associations of Body Modifications

The EP should be more concerned about illnesses and suicidal behavior in those with body modifications. Tattooing correlates with the perception of decreased mental health, and tattooing and body piercing together correlate highly with increased “sensation-seeking” behavior.

A study of young tattooed Korean males conducted in Korea, where body modification is considered part of counterculture, used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory personality test and found high scores in items of psychopathic deviance and schizophrenia, suggesting that those with tattoos were impulsive, hostile, and prone to delinquent behavior. A data analysis of 4,700 individuals who responded to a Web site (www.bmezine.com) for body modification found a high frequency of abuse in the background of those who participated.

This survey also found that 36.6 percent of the males had suicidal ideation and 19.5 percent had attempted suicide. For the females, a statistically significant higher suicidality rate was found, with percentage values of 40.8 percent and 33.3 percent respectively Skegg noted that piercing was more common among women rated as having low constraint or high negative emotionality and was less common among those with high positive emotionality. Therefore, one can conclude that body piercing and tattoos, especially in females, could be a sign of suicidal behavior. However, no association has been found with eating disorders.

Some authors have attempted to show positive association for these body modifications. In a study of women with eating disorders, the authors suggested that body piercing could be seen as reflecting a positive attitude towards the body, an expression of care.[23] In addition people with piercings are more likely to give attention to their physical appearance and are less likely to be overweight than people without piercings….


Tattoos and piercings have become widespread practices that enjoy greater social acceptance than ever before. Body modification is important to the EP because it provides information about the “patient.” The physician can learn a great deal about these patients via their body modification, including information of immediate relevance to their medical evaluation.

Secondarily, T&P are directly responsible for an increasing number of emergency department visits due to both immediate and delayed complications. The EP armed with knowledge about T&P/body modifications can forge more functional doctor patient relationships, obtain critical historical data, and provide better treatment and referral for this patient population.

Dr. Pinna says:

I have written numerous articles on tattoos. I believe that the metals in the inks will cause cancer after a long period of time.

It is a sad commentary that the young people in the world want to destroy the natural characteristics of their bodies. This is the first time in history that young people are degrading their bodies. It is a bad omen. It indicates that young people have lost contact with reality.

LA replies:

A couple of years ago, I would have had no question about his conclusions—that people with tattoos and piercings are troubled people. But more recently the tattoos and piercing have become so common that it seems to me (as per my opening anecdote in this entry) that many people we would think of as otherwise normal have both light and heavy tattooing.

Matthew H. writes:

Dalrymple notes:

It is also no accident that some members of the middle classes should have adopted a typically proletarian form of bodily adornment as a badge not only of independence, but also of liberal virtue. A tattoo establishes them as tolerant, open-minded, and sympathetic towards those below them in the social scale: the highest virtues of which they can conceive.

Perhaps the bizarre tattoo craze is a manifestation of our society’s obsession with the cult of Blackness that others have noted. The black man is indelibly stamped with his Blackness. He is also widely associated in the modern Western imagination with rebellion, transgression, sexual license, violence, and so on—all the qualities that whites of recent generations have increasingly come to see as good. At the same time our society has conferred on blacks a special moral status that only they are allowed to attain.

Whites who have been taught to feel morally inferior and who crave the special status of blacks have resorted to various ways of getting a piece of it for themselves: adopting the bohemian lifestyle, taking drugs, engaging in promiscuous sex, wearing sunglasses, etc. But all these things, as disastrous as some of them are for the individuals who do them, can largely be overcome. Hippies can take a bath, junkies can go straight, sluts can get married, and sunglasses can be tossed in the back of a drawer.

But a full arm or face tattoo—now there’s the indelible stamp of Otherness that Western hipsters have been seeking since Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay, The White Negro, first defined the “problem” whites supposedly face—that they are, well, just too white. Like black skin, the tattoo can never be washed off. “Hallelujah!,” the tattooed hipster thinks to himself, “At last I’m not so white anymore!”

But a black man is born that way and his appearance is perfectly appropriate in and of itself and he may very well not relish the fact that his color has become an icon of transgression. The tattoo freak, on the other hand, has chosen to make himself so. His stamp is not merely permanent but is, as you have noted, repulsive, a statement of his (at least momentary) contempt for human decency.

In short, when we meet a normally dressed black man we must ask ourselves (as we would with any other person), “What sort of individual is this?” By contrast, the tattoo freak (of whatever color) has told us loud and clear: “I am neither credible nor trustworthy.”

As an aside, I have long noted the truth of Dalrymple’s parenthetical comment, “(The eternity of the present moment is, of course, the key to modern shallowness.)”

It seems to me that the progress of Western culture ended about 1968. Since then it has been a perpetual regurgitation of the same elements over and over again.

LA replies:

There have been several terrific comments in this thread, and I don’t want to seem to be playing favorites. But Matthew H.’s comment is stunningly brilliant.

Alan Roebuck writes:

You said, “Thus in a culture that systematically denies nature, tradition, and God, the most efficacious way of expressing your individuality is to mutilate your own body.”

Indeed. And how about this: Violence is a primal form of self-expression, and when violence against others is too dangerous, violence against yourself will do.

And here are some relevant passages from my essay, “Why you are demoralized, and what you must do about it””

Ugliness is not just an unpleasant fact of life. Under the current system ugliness is relentlessly promoted, and those who speak out against the promotion and even worship of ugliness are branded troublemakers.

Based on the three transcendent values of truth, goodness and beauty, we can divide ugliness into the intellectual, the moral and the esthetic …

Through a personal display of esthetic ugliness a man confesses the disorder in his soul; through the acceptance of this ugliness he gains a measure of comfort by apparently having his confession accepted and absolved; through the promotion of ugliness he gains the feeling of dragging the rest of us down to his level, in which case his disorder is apparently not a disorder at all, but just an innocuous lifestyle choice. For these reasons it is no wonder that many worship ugliness. For the aschemiolator [worshipper of ugliness], ugliness is not an unpleasant occasional fact of life. It is a way of life and a god who protects its devotees from the threat of normality.

Karl D. writes:

Full disclosure. I got a tattoo on my upper arm when I was around 21 years old. It is about the diameter of a drinking glass. It doesn’t really bother me now and it is well hidden even when wearing short sleeved shirts. When I had it done I was in a Rock n Roll band and was grasping for some kind of masculinity much like Samson J. alluded to in his comment. I have been reading a book called Wild at Heart by Christian writer John Eldredge, which specifically deals with a couple of generations of young men who have no idea what it means to be a man, be it through absent fathers, liberalism, or the church. He spends a good deal of time taking the church to task for feminizing Christianity and effectively holding men back from living and embracing the very thing that God created them to be: men. It is a quick and interesting read.

Ken Hechtman writes:

Thomas Bertonneau and Theodore Dalrymple have it right.

Twenty-five years ago the RE/Search series of books were hugely influential among young countercultural types like myself. Taken together, they were a roadmap to the culture we were trying to be part of. I used to trade them back and forth with my friends and still have a few titles in my collection. The one that documented the then emerging tattoo/piercing/scarification trend was called Modern Primitives. (See this and this.)

One line on the publisher’s page caught my attention.

All of the people interviewed are looking for something very simple: a way of fighting back at mass production consumer society that prizes standardization above all else. Through “primitive” modifications, they are taking possession of the only thing that any of us will ever really own: our bodies. [Whole Earth Review.]

This might have been true 30 years ago. Today, tattoos and piercings are just another consumer product. I’ve seen them on bank tellers. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Buck writes:

I remember a story from a year-or-so ago about an 80 year old woman who loaded her body with ink and declared it to be liberating. I can’t find the story. Here’s another 80 year old woman who found a practical application. Then I came across this four year old story about the social stigma that is driving women to have their tattoos removed.

Which way is up?

Joseph E. writes:

We are really going downhill when we are reduced to complaining about “heavy tattooing,” when, as you point out, “light tattooing” is no more acceptable. “Light tattoos” are the gateway drug. Any permanent body art on the skin that is visible to the general eye should be absolutely unacceptable on the street or at any decent social occasion. Removable body paint of the type that children get at a public fair, which washes off in the shower, should be the limit.

The public ban, by the way, should apply to offensive or repulsive T-shirt slogans, and ought to be legally enforced. No one has the right to shove this stuff at his fellow citizens in the name of “free expression.”

I was glad to see James P. refer to Dalyrymple on tats. The good Dr. Daniel was complaining about them as early as this article from 1995

I was struck by this comment:

It doesn’t take long or cost much to have a small tattoo done, though an hour or two of the process is the most people can stand at any one session. You can stigmatize yourself thoroughly in an hour for a mere $50.

I wonder, is the “Matt” who comments so sagely on VFR the same fellow I see on the late John Reilly’s forum?

LA replies:

I don’t know about John Reilly’s forum, but Matt is the same famous Matt who commented extensively at VFR during its first three years and began occasionally commenting again in the past year.

Natassia writes:

I am nearly 29. A few years ago I wanted a tattoo (I just couldn’t bring myself to part with the money for one, and I hadn’t decided on a unique design.)

Most of my family members, all white middle class suburbanites, have at least one: my father, my younger sister, my aunt, my cousins, my stepfather, my husband, and my brothers-in-law (at least three of them). Many of my friends and their husbands or boyfriends had tattoos as well. Most want more.

My father, at least, is embarrassed about his.

But when I realized that there was nothing unique, rebellious, or nonconformist about getting a tattoo, I decided against it. I mean, “everyone’s doing it,” so how lame is that? Even as a teenager, I adamantly refused to do anything remotely “rebellious” that everyone was doing (smoking, taking drugs, etc.)

I realize now that I am very unusual in my sphere of family and friends in that I do not have a tattoo.

One reason some people get tattoos, at least in my family, is to show loyalty and devotion to a family member—usually a child but sometimes a spouse or a parent. Permanently to mark one’s body with the name of another person is like wearing a visible vow that cannot be erased (except through painful and expensive procedures.) At least that is how I have interpreted it. It is primitive, but obviously the primitive can be attractive to the civilized person on a visceral level.

Buck writes:

Laura Wood has an entry from April, 2010, “On the Morality of Tattoos,” where she quoted this from the Jewish Law:

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead: neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks. I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19.28)

Laura Wood writes:

Previous heated debates at TTH on the morality of tattoos can be found here and here. Some readers strongly objected to my point that tattoos are immoral. Here is a thoroughly tattooed British grandmother, a Grandma Queequeg, who said of her body graffiti, “It’s very empowering, I think, for me in a positive sense.”

LA replies:

Thanks for sending.

But I quibble at the name “Grandma Queequeg.” As I think Thomas Bertonneau pointed out above, Queequeg is a savage on the way (partly) to civilization; he is good and noble. This woman is a Westerner on the way to savagery; she is wicked and base.

Peter F. writes:

Young men are getting tattoos as a product of the mainstreaming of gangsta rap and hip-hop culture; tattoos have long been a part of the hardest hard-core gangsta crowd and in our nation’s prisons. As you noted, these macho types supply the role models and the basis of “manhood” in today’s society now that the cultural left has largely succeeded in destroying or at least emasculating traditional (genuine) manhood. This phenomenon is also linked to the general reprimitivization now occurring in the Western world.

Concerning women, and why they are getting “tramp stamps,” let me offer the following: today’s woman is told she can do anything—especially anything a man can do. Why not get a tattoo; the guys are doing it, right?

So, at one level, it is simply mimicry. But there is more. The traditional notion of aspiring to be a lady and to lady-like behavior is anachronistic among females today. Indeed, now that our decadent culture has elevated physical appearance in women above all else, there is something of an arms race among women: they have to take ever more dramatic measures to get the attention of men, whether it is taking off their clothes, “sexting,” or getting a tattoo. As you have noted, the only “sin” in today’s world is to judge someone. Everything else goes.

Brandon F. writes:

So I am guessing my new VFR logo tattoo on my forearm isn’t Auster-approved?

Carol M. writes:

Fascinating discussion and I do hope I’m not too late.

My theory is that tattoos are a visible souvenir of invisible sin. That these people are vaguely aware of their own waywardness? lostness? but do not want to change now of course, and they think they can hold themselves where they are now and have no regrets. This is me! Too late to change, no redemption for me! Until I want it, of course.

The upside for me is that I more lovingly regard my own aging but clear, tat-free skin. I was/am full of sin, of course, but I left the door open for repentance, and did repent, when I became a Catholic.

Kristor writes:

I read through the thread on tattoos this afternoon and it prompted a short essay over at Orthosphere where, as usual, I take the analysis out to the bitter edge. The kernel was the thought that tattooing is an expression of the liberal attitude that nothing is objectively out of bounds, nothing forbidden; an attitude which is implicitly atheist. But if nothing is really forbidden—if nothing is really bad—then by the same token nothing is really any good, either. Tattooing, then, is an indication of deep spiritual despair, however thoroughly it may be disguised by bravado, sensuality, or insouciance.

July 12

Joseph E. writes:

Theodore Dalrymple, in the August 1995 City Journal, discusses the emotional and physical pain suffered by those who come to regret tattoos and want to remove them; especially as this often requires repetitive and painful laser surgery.

Very poignant is the case of Bryon Widener, a grotesquely tattooed white supremacist who found it impossible to obtain decent employment until he underwent 25 laser treatments to remove them. He had to find a rich angel to pay for it. Of course any extreme tattoos, especially facial ones, will severely limit your employability.

Like your corespondent Ken Hechtman, I was fascinated by the ReSearch book on body modification in the 1980s. But I never had the slightest desire to do any of this stuff to myself, and now I know why my fascination was mingled with revulsion.

I found Fakir Musafar, who was covered extensively in the Modern Primitives book, extremely disturbing.

Charles Upton, the Sufi religious traditionalist, has written that many aspects of modern culture, from fantasies of genetic engineering and stem cell research to the obsession with the probing and manipulation of the body by “alien abductors” hallucinated by UFO cultists, show a veiled desire to deface and deform the human body which is the imago dei and the temple of the Holy Spirit. I think Upton is on to something. Recall Matt’s pithy phrase, “corporeal atrocities.”

I was also impressed by the sharp distinction Thomas Bertonneau makes between savagery and barbarism.

Congratulations to you and Laura Wood for starting a very interesting discussion.

Samson J. writes:

I don’t know whether this counts as “synchronicity,” but I recently had a conversation about tattoos with an old friend who now works in a hospital in Western Canada. He said almost the same thing that you’ve written: “When I first got here, I couldn’t believe the tattoos on some of the nurses. They are otherwise normal, responsible people with normal jobs.” [LA replies: I want to underscore that: a hospital allows its nurses to have tattoos, including extreme tattoos.]

I might mention, to inject a personal element, that like some other commenters I have two tattoos which I now despise and regret. I obtained them when I was a foolish college student, and I hate them not because I’m opposed to all tattooing in theory (I’m actually not) but because they are constant reminders to me of a time when I was so thoroughly lost that I would permanently alter myself simply to feel “cool” or (falsely) “masculine.”

Matt writes:

Modernity, frustrated by the fact that man has not become God, still tries to insist that each man is a god in his own free and equal sphere. The most obvious sphere in which man’s free and equal autonomy seems possible to the modern liberal is the sphere of his own body. Unfortunately for modernity, God is God of everything: there exists no sphere whatsoever within which Man gets to be God. But Man wanting to be God is an old story, in which the present self-mutilation epidemic is a minor footnote.

I’ve never posted at John Reilly’s forum, and I’m mildly embarrassed to be called famous.

LA replies:

In the little world of VFR, you’re famous.

Paul T. writes:

Another possibility; tattoos suggest toughness and indifference to pain (being associated historically with convicts and sailors in the lower ranks, many of them conscripts). If you live in a society which is basically benevolent, you have no need to signal the world at large that you’re as tough as a sailor or a convict. But what if the world has become one in which, for example, the authorities will stand up for the rights of aliens and even of people openly hostile to you, while hanging you out to dry? A world in which you can’t even say what you’re thinking without fear of job loss or social ostracism? A world in which many of the jobs that you and your contemporaries could have had have been outsourced to places far away? Such a world will seem malevolent, increasingly resembling Hobbes’s state of nature—the “war of all against all”—and in a world like that it may seem only prudent to advertise on your body that you are tough and indifferent to whatever it may throw at you.

It’s a little like posting a sign or decal on your house indicating that a security system is in place (my favorite in this genre being the parody sign, “this house protected by Smith & Wesson”).

LA replies:

There’s something to what you’re saying. Perhaps some of the tattooed but otherwise normal-looking young men are potential conservatives.

Paul Henri writes:

Liberalism is self-contradictory and doubly sinful. It idolizes its ideal property rights and covets the property rights of others. It idolizes the property rights of individuals to protect their bodies from harm by others, to deface their precious bodies, to kill themselves, to transform their sex (supposedly), and to murder the unborn children within their bodies. It idolizes the property possessor rather than the creator, a mortal sin.

Yet it rejects the property rights of individuals who possess more property than others do or possess property that they, the liberals, want to use. In other words, it covets thy neighbor’s property, a mortal sin.

Jewel A. writes:

Your reaction to heavy tattooing is exactly the same as mine. My son-in-law tried to join the Marines, but they wouldn’t accept him because of his “grief tats.” This is another hideous phenomenon that is becoming too popular. I wrote about it here.

I believe that television shows have popularized the most vulgar and base behavior. It isn’t just the obscene tattoos, but the piercings which seem to me to be a marker of a society that has become satanic. We see the utter desecration of the temple (our bodies) and how, hand in hand, it goes with disbelief in God, the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, and a call to holiness. But that is just my thought. Others might have a less religious point of view about the proliferation of “body art.”

July 12, 5:39 p.m.

James P. writes:

Samson J. wrote:

I don’t know whether this counts as “synchronicity,” but I recently had a conversation about tattoos with an old friend who now works in a hospital in Western Canada. He said almost the same thing that you’ve written: “When I first got here, I couldn’t believe the tattoos on some of the nurses. They are otherwise normal, responsible people with normal jobs.” [LA replies: I want to underscore that: a hospital allows its nurses to have tattoos, including extreme tattoos.]

When my mother was in the hospital a few years ago, she refused to permit any visibly tattooed nurses to attend to her. My mother is a physician, and her view was that someone possibly exposed to HIV or hepatitis should not be her nurse. The problem, of course, was that so many of the nurses had tattoos …

LA replies:

I am stunned to learn this. I had no idea that this phenomenon existed, that hospitals in Canada and the U.S. employ nurses with visible tattoos. And it’s equally stunning that hardly anyone has written about this before. Where is the conservative movement?—Whoops. I’m the one who keeps saying that there is no conservative movement.

Joseph E. writes:

The Matt who posts at Reilly’s Long View is a young student of philosophy, a Catholic convert with a strong traditionalist bent. His language and general point of view are so similar to VFR’s Matt that I strongly suspected they might be the same person. I could easily imagine him voicing the opinions on liberalism and rebellious autonomy that the famous Matt did in this discussion.

It seems that the blogosphere is fortunate to possess two very articulate traditionalist Matts.

Brett S. writes:

My revulsion at tattoos was a first hint that I might be a Romantic-conservative. I didn’t understand it at the time.

Tattoos are more of the symbol speaking for the act. All of leftism is this way: art requires explanation, policy must be justified with ideology instead of a measurement of its consequences, all social acts and statements take precedence over long-term effects.

To put a tattoo on oneself is to try to fix a moment in time and meaning with a symbol, but not in the way that literature does; it’s an attempt to change the self in order to stay in that moment or commemorate it. [LA replies: that is an incisive and original explanation of why people do it. And it makes complete sense. Liberalism regards the self, and thus the desires and experiences of the self, as the center of the universe. But these experiences are fleeting. How can they be made to transcend the passage of time? By visibly and permanently memorializing them in one’s body. You really, really dig your girlfriend? Carve your feelings for your girlfriend in your skin, then those feelings will last, in some form, as long as you live. It’s better than a wedding vow.]

Like nostalgia, it’s a painful self-limitation.

It’s also an ugly thing, a human thing, a tendency to scrawl our ego-identity over life itself in an effort to make ourselves seem in control. It’s like graffiti, or plastic surgery. We are faking reality with symbols that are human-only and thus in denial of consequences and meaning.

As a teenage metalhead, I was always around people with tattoos. I have never wanted one. To me they represent the death of life itself, and the death of potential, replaced by a symbol that is so subjective its meaning can only be social or the projection of ego.

At this point, I see tattoos much like other attempts by people to remain “relevant.” They are futile and immature, and suggest a lost direction and an ersatz “hope,” much like liberalism itself. They are signals, not symbols—signals of a disease of the soul.

LA replies:

I’m going to have to catalogue all the great explanations of the tattooing craze that have been posted in this thread. This has been one of the insightful discussions VFR has ever head.

Michael K. writes:

While I agree with most of the comments concerning the motivations and effects of tattooing, and while I agree that heavy tattooing is a sign of serious dysfunction (particularly as practiced by virtually all Westerners), I don’t believe I could agree with a position that tattoos are in all cases harmful or negative. In some Christian communities, tattooing has been promoted for centuries and for good reasons. For example, Egyptian Copts have traditionally tattooed crosses on their foreheads of wrists, not only to maintain their identification with the community, but also to make forced conversions more difficult.

From an article about Coptic tattoos:

[T]hey help build a sense of community in this ancient and highly symbolic flock. The Copts are, literally, the oldest Egyptian surviving community in that ancient land. On one level, the tattoo tradition must single them out for special, and often unwanted, attention in a land that in recent decades has veered closer to more radical forms of Islam. But as our Coptic friends explained to us, those tattoos serve another purpose. They make it harder for Muslim extremists to kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. It’s hard to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist.

I have attached a photo of some Coptic tattoos.)

My personal experience has led me to believe that tattoos may under limited circumstances be positive. Soon after my conversion to Christianity from atheism when I was in my early twenties and recklessly passionate for God, I had a small tattoo of the Chi Rho symbol—the ancient monogram of Jesus Christ—placed on my right ankle. My motivation in doing so was to mark myself for all time as a servant of God. At the time, I believed this action justified by Scripture, specifically Galatians 6:17 where Paul says “I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus” (ASV). While I know that Paul was almost certainly referring to scars received from beatings while proclaiming the Gospel, at the time in the late ’90s, I did not see any possibility of actual persecution in this country for being a Christian (based upon developments in recent years, my opinion has changed on this possibility). Whether or not I was correct, at the time I thought that a tattoo would be an acceptable substitute.

In the years since and having carefully considered its presence, I can honestly say that I have not had cause to regret the tattoo. While I have recently considered having it removed due to negative associations tattoos have with the culture at large and influenced by persuasive comments in your website and others, my tattoo has been the cause of nothing but good fruit in my life. Whenever my faith has wavered over the years, its constant presence has reminded me of the commitment I made to the Lord in my youth, and I believe these reminders have helped keep me in the Faith.

Karl D. writes:

Joseph E. said:

“I found Fakir Musafar, who was covered extensively in the Modern Primitives book, extremely disturbing.”

I actually met Fakir Musafar in person (long story). And, yes, he was as disturbing and weird in the flesh as in Modern Primitives. I too am quite familiar with the Re-Search series of books mentioned before. There was another book at the same time that dealt with tattooing, piercing, and a host of weird and disturbing things in which Westerners were participating in growing numbers. It was called Apocalypse Culture. I always thought that was a great title and aptly describes what we are witnessing today. The book approachrd the subject from a quasi sympathetic and neutral stance. It was most definitely not a conservative book.

P.S. The name Fakir Musafar and Re- Search books were the last thing I ever expected to read about on VFR. Your readers are an interesting and eclectic bunch.

July 13

Joseph E. writes:

Your commenter wrote:

“To put a tattoo on oneself is to try to fix a moment in time and meaning with a symbol, but not in the way that literature does; it’s an attempt to change the self in order to stay in that moment or commemorate it.”

In his novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis describes his hero eating a fruit on another planet which is so exquisite that he immediately craves more; then he reflects that the desire to “fix” the memory of such a pleasure itself contains the germ of evil. Elsewhere he points out that the passion for natural beauty is often unsatisfied if one returns to same spot—say the Grand Canyon, or a particular forest or waterfall—hoping for a repetition of the original thrill. His explanation is that such experiences are meant to point us towards God, and should not be made ends in themselves.

Vinnie writes:

I am a teacher in a military school. Many of my students have tattoos, and most of the tats are of the amateur variety, i.e., drawn by a drunken friend at some jerk’s house, with a sewing needle and india ink.

I once had a kid in my study hall / home room who had a rather large cross tattooed on his back. The only reason I knew of the tattoo was that he leapt to his feet one day, pulled up his shirt and showed it to me. I had already formulated a theory which said that tattoos are so narcissistic in origin that the best way to combat the “tattoo culture” is to refuse to listen to the “story” that goes along with them. So I tried out my theory on this kid. He showed me his tattoo, and then said, “Let me tell ya why I got this cross. It was because … ” and, before he could finish I said, “I don’t want to know. Furthermore, I don’t care. Everybody has a story to tell, and your story is no better than anyone else’s.”

The poor kid was only 15 or 16, and I will admit that my radical truth therapy just about made him physically implode. I can’t describe the look that he had on his face. But it was clear that he simply had never envisioned a world in which his “self” was just not very important. He eventually ran away from the school (it is a boarding school), and I have not seen him since. (Though he has tried to Friend me on Facebook. Ugh.)

Reading the comments on the VFR website has been a fascinating experience. I too had read Dalrymple’s essay on the subject of tattoos years ago. Perhaps his comments had subliminally caused my own theory to percolate, so I don’t claim originality here. But it’s interesting to see how my gut instinct has been confirmed by my own experiences, and the experiences of you and your readers.

Keep up the good work!

Joseph E. writes:

Karl D.’s long story about Fakir Musafar would probably bear retelling. I looked up Fakir back then and then just yesterday. His birth name was Roland Loomis and for years I thought he was a Scot because he was born in Aberdeen. It turns out it was Aberdeen, South Dakota. The guy was a recording studio executive at one time.

I remember Apocalypse Culture well; published by the appropriately named Feral House, which is still around. I may still have my copy somewhere around the house. Adam Parfrey, the editor, is also still going strong.

Apocalypse Culture was definitely not conservative but certainly not at all lefty PC; so far as I could discern a political slant to the book it was a sort of esoteric Nietzschean fascism. There was a quite sympathetic essay on the extreme European right intellectuals; Celine, Spengler, the Mosleys, the Vichy crowd. I think this was by Parfrey himself.

There were also interesting essays on the almost forgotten ’60s cult leader Mel Lyman and the notorious Process Church. (I have a close friend who was involved with the Process in Chicago).

I do not remember whether AC argued that the fringe phenomena the book described would go mainstream or not. Since in addition to tattooing and body modification, it discussed necrophilia, sadistic serial killing, lycanthropy, and genocide—let us hope not.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 11, 2012 10:13 AM | Send

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