The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

The Flesh Made Word: Tattoos, Transgression, and the Modified Body

Christine Rosen

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

In 1882, the Duke of York, who later became King George V of England, traveled to Japan with his brother, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Prince George had an audience with Emperor Meiji and, according to historian Donald Keene, presented Empress Maruko with two wallabies from Australia. He also visited a tattoo artist, who inscribed a dragon on the arm of the future king (as well as one on his brother).1 They were not the first royals to have themselves tattooed—twenty years earlier, their father, King Edward VII, had had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm during a visit to the Holy Land. And in 1066, King Harold II’s tattoos were used to identify his body after he died at the Battle of Hastings.

Human beings have always marked themselves. Özti the Iceman, a Bronze Age man whose 5,000-year-old remains were found in the Alps on the Austria-Italy border, had several tattoos, including a small cross behind his left knee. Using a computed tomography scan, researchers at the British Museum recently discovered that a female Egyptian mummy dating from 700 CE had the name “Michael” tattooed on her thigh. Tattoos and other body modifications have long been a way to mark one’s membership in a group. Members of indigenous tribes, practitioners of certain religions, sailors, prisoners, and gang members have all used permanent body marking as a way to signal belonging.

Today, devotees of body modification are a thriving subculture with their own social networks, e-zines, websites, conventions, and celebrities. They embrace not only tattooing but also practices such as scarification (deliberate scarring of the skin), subdermal implants such as bumps and spikes on the forehead, various body piercings and dental modifications, and stretching of the lips, earlobes, and nostrils, among other body parts. The heavily tattooed men and women who used to be displayed as “freaks” at carnival sideshows would barely get a second glance at a contemporary body modification convention such as ModCon.

In an era of excessive individualism, our markings and modifications are viewed not as a sign of freakishness or outlier behavior but as an expression of personal taste, devoid of historical or cultural baggage. I doubt that the waitress at my favorite pizza place, who has a delicate butterfly tattoo winding up her wrist, thought much about the fact that her ink gives her a shared history, stretching back centuries, with both British royalty and prison gang members. “I just thought it was beautiful,” she told me, when I asked her why she got tattooed. And it is.

But as body modification becomes more individually expressive and less an expression of affiliation, its cultural meaning becomes clouded. What does the weakening of stigma associated with some body modifications suggest about cultural change? What does our embrace of the extremes of body modification reveal about our understanding of the integrity of the human body? What do these extremes have to teach us about more accepted cultural practices such as dieting and cosmetic surgery? And what motivates us to do these things to ourselves?

A Personal Mantra

Tattoos are a useful case study because they have moved from stigma to acceptance and back again many times in history. Once the province of criminals and other stigmatized groups, in the past thirty years tattoos have become a mainstream feature of American culture. You can find tattoos on people of nearly every class and race. Today, “It was spring break” is just as likely to be the answer to the question of why someone got tattooed as “I was in prison” was for previous generations. People now embrace tattoos to honor someone who died, to commemorate an important life event, or to have a permanent reminder of a personal mantra. Julia Gnuse, an American woman with more than 95 percent of her body tattooed, originally began covering herself with ink to mask the ravages of porphyria, a condition that leads to blistering and scarring of the skin.

A 2012 Harris Interactive poll found that one in five American adults has a tattoo, with people thirty to thirty-nine more likely to be tattooed than members of any other age group. Evidently, most people who get “inked” don’t regret their tattoos; 86 percent of the respondents said they never had. The association of tattoos with deviance or criminality has apparently faded; 75 percent of the people surveyed said that having a tattoo didn’t make a difference in what they thought about someone’s likely behavior.2

Demographically, there are few differences among those who do and don’t get tattooed: Slightly more Hispanic people than white or black people have tattoos, and slightly more women than men. Politically, tattoos have nearly bipartisan appeal—17 percent of Republicans versus 22 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of independents have them. The military has loosened restrictions on tattoos for enlisted personnel, and popular musicians and celebrities frequently display their tattoos in movies and photos.

More extreme forms of body modification are even making appearances in the realm of high fashion: The fall 2015 Givenchy runway show featured models with (fake) pierced septums and glued-on stones meant to resemble cheek piercings, and a photographer, Christian Saint, recently published a book titled Tattoo Super Models. “I think people are realizing that tattoos are not that different from fashion itself,” said Saint in an interview with the British newspaper The Daily Mail. “Their artwork is as much of who they are as the clothes they wear.”3

Extreme modification practices are also seeping into the mainstream. The checkout clerk at my grocery store has two black stretchers in his earlobes. When I asked him about them, he shrugged and said he “just wanted to try it out.” The holes are about half an inch in diameter now and no more noticeable than a small pair of hoop earrings. In a culture that has embraced cheek, lip, pectoral, and many other kinds of implants and injections routinely sought by cosmetic surgery patients, it seems unfair to label a man with stretched earlobes as any more or less freakish than a woman with distended, cosmetically enhanced lips. The line between cosmetic and therapeutic practices appears no longer to exist in contemporary culture; judging by the amount of money people spend on it every year (more than $12 billion in the United States in 2013), cosmetic surgery is therapy for many people.4

As we begin to view body modification as an expression of individual aesthetic preference and less as a marker of deviant behavior, cultural theorists have a harder time making sense of it. The field of cultural studies often looks to the margins to better understand the center, and often takes a celebratory rather than critical approach to those it deems “transgressive.” This is problematic with regard to body modification. Only 25 percent of the people with tattoos surveyed by Harris Interactive said getting one made them feel more rebellious. (Far more claimed it made them feel “sexy.”) Once a practice is mainstreamed and commodified and stripped of its subversive associations, can it really be called transgressive?

Defining Deviance

The difficulty of defining deviance is one of the problems that bedevil Beverly Yuen Thompson’s recent book, Covered in Ink, her “ethnography” of what she calls a “deviant group”: heavily tattooed women. The author, herself one of these women, begins with the obligatory discussion of her own victim status: “As a mixed-race Chinese/White and petite woman, I face stereotyping.”5

Thompson is highly sensitive about what others think about her tattoos. Throughout the book, she complains that strangers ask “silly and uninformed questions” about them, such as “Did that hurt?” or “What does that mean?” She is offended when people compliment her by saying “Nice tats,” because she feels that it sounds too much like “Nice tits.” “I felt that my tattoos were beautiful and reflective of my inner self, yet I feared misunderstanding from the general public,” she writes. Even so, most of the other heavily tattooed women she interviews describe their experience in public space as generally positive, and are less bothered by the unwelcome critical remarks they sometimes receive.6

In spite of this diversity of experience, Thompson feels she must politicize the meaning of the “socially sanctioning glares” she claims to receive on a regular basis. Citing sociologist Erving Goffman’s pioneering work on social interaction in public space, she argues that tattooed women face especially hurtful stigma and opprobrium in public because they are acting in a way that transgresses social boundaries.7

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu claimed that evaluating the deficiencies of another’s appearance is one of the ways the “petit bourgeois” exercise their power over others whom they deem “vulgar.” “These refusals, almost always expressed in the mode of distaste, are often accompanied by pitying or indignant remarks about the corresponding tastes. (‘I can’t understand how anyone can like that!’),” he wrote.8

But in a society where both the powerful and the powerless embrace modifications such as tattoos, refusal goes both ways. Once, when I was with my young sons, we encountered someone who had visible, graphic tattoos of scantily clad women on his arms. My kids naturally asked me about the tattoos (within earshot of the man who was tattooed). I explained to them that he had the right to put whatever he wanted on himself, just as they had a right to have an opinion about it. Although I would rather not have had my five-year-old boys see highly sexualized images of naked ladies on a man’s arm, I don’t think seeing those tattoos harmed them. But what if his tattoos had included racist statements? Would I have been within the bounds of civil behavior to say something about his uncivil display?

In his work, Goffman describes the rules of civil interaction in public space as akin to a delicate dance—a give-and-take that requires the active and thoughtful participation of both people in a social encounter if it is to go smoothly. Thompson, by contrast, wants others, despite their understandable curiosity, to suppress their reactions to and interpretations of her highly visible tattoos; there is no give-and-take, only her autonomy. She even suggests that the non-tattooed can’t understand the culture of the tattooed, and condescendingly describes the efforts of a young woman who wanted to make a documentary about tattooed women by noting her failure to find participants: Because the would-be filmmaker was “non-tattooed, her knowledge about the culture was lacking, and this came through in her approach.”9

Spectacle, Performance, and Power

What emerges from Thompson’s approach is a need to impose her own categories on others’ expressions of themselves. A woman with one tattoo isn’t transgressive, Thompson argues, because it is now socially acceptable to have “small, cute, and hidden tattoos.”10 That tiny dolphin that you had inked on your ankle in college isn’t transgressive enough—you are still laboring under false consciousness and trying to live up to misguided standards of female beauty. If your leg is tattooed with zombies or skulls or snakes, however, you’ve struck a blow against the patriarchy. But what if you live in a conservative religious community where tattooing is forbidden? One tiny, hidden, “feminine” tattoo might represent a far greater challenge to authority than a sleeve of tats would on an atheist barista in Brooklyn.

There is an inherent contradiction in the cultural studies work of scholars such as Thompson. She wants tattoos (her own and those of others) to mean something, something that aligns with her view of power and social relationships in contemporary culture. She wants them to show that women are using their power to upend social expectations by embracing a previously masculine practice (heavy tattooing) and claiming it as their own. But she also wants people to pretend not to notice the results of their upending of expectations. The final chapter of her book includes a guide to “tattoo etiquette” in which she advises non-tattooed people (that is, the majority of the population) how to behave.

You could glean far better tips on etiquette and a far more complex view of the cultural tropes of body modification by watching one of the many reality television shows that feature tattoo artists. Series such as Miami Ink and Black Ink Crew offer intimate glimpses of the business of tattooing.

Some of the shows follow the model of cosmetic-surgery reality programming, featuring botched procedures and sensationalistic personality clashes meant to fuel ratings. But others offer insight into the motivations of people who want tattoos—and there are as many motivations as there are styles of body modification. Trying to impose theory on such a diversity of practices, as practitioners of cultural studies are wont to do, often sheds more heat than light.

And what about the more extreme modification practices? Experimental performance artist Ron Athey regularly inserts large needles and metal hooks into his skin, as well as performing scarification and branding in front of live audiences. He calls this self-harm a form of art, a commentary on being an HIV-positive gay man who grew up in a restrictive Pentecostal household. “My work always has a philosophical question, a thesis,” Athey told a reporter for Vice. One of his facial tattoos is a teardrop below his eye.11

Other extreme body modifiers have become celebrities and performance artists who make their living displaying their modifications: Maria Jose Cristerna, a Mexican mother of four and former lawyer who now works as a disc jockey, calls herself “Vampire Lady”; she has had her teeth filed down to fangs, has been tattooed on nearly every inch of her skin, and had titanium horns implanted in her head. Eric Sprague, a performance artist from Texas who calls himself “Lizardman,” has piercings, tattoos, and implants along his forehead; he even had his tongue surgically bifurcated to resemble a lizard’s tongue.

To many people, the more extreme forms of body modification suggest a kind of debasement of the human form, a rejection of the body rather than a celebration of it. Scholars such as Sheila Jeffreys have criticized body modifiers’ invocation of autonomy and postmodern feminism to justify their practices. She calls body modification a form of “mutilation” and argues that it is “a result of, rather than resistance to, the occupation of a despised social status under male dominance.”12 She views body modifiers as more like the young women who engage in self-harm practices such as cutting or those who suffer from eating disorders.

On Tumblr and other social media platforms, you can find countless teenage boys and girls hosting “nonjudgmental” pages documenting various forms of self-harm such as cutting and eating disorders. What is it that makes one form of self-inflicted violence “art” and another an expression of depression or other mental illness?

Many of the techniques celebrated by cultural theorists as transgressive (ear stretching, certain forms of scarification) are appropriated from indigenous people who themselves have often been considered victims of oppression by cultural theorists. Fakir Mustafar (born Roland Loomis), a self-described “Master Piercer and shaman,” has been experimenting on himself for decades and is considered to be the founder of a “modern primitivism” that embraces a range of body modification practices. Now in his eighties, he offers “Fakir Intensives”—workshops on the “art, skills, and magic of body piercing and branding”—and by branding he does not mean the techniques of marketers and advertisers.13

In her book In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification, scholar Victoria Pitts describes a young man active in body modification: “His attitude toward the body is postmodern and cyberpunk—he mixes tribal and high-tech practices to create a hybrid style and sees the body as a limitless frontier for exploration and technological innovation.” Pitts believes that his actions “create not only spectacle and controversy but also new forms of social rebellion through the body.”14

But Pitts and other theorists must also acknowledge that many of their “transgressive” subjects are white, middle-class Western men and women who are not acting so much like “modern primitives” intent on “postcolonial discourse” as they are like the customers at the Build-a-Bear stores that dot American malls: adding and subtracting modifications to create an expression of something lovably personal, an ideal expression of their individual aesthetic preferences, not a commentary on power and social norms.

The Meaning of the Body

Cultures get the theory they deserve. The logical conclusion of our excessively individualistic and commodified culture is memoir masquerading as theory, and personal experience standing in for social empowerment. Take the work of Lianne McTavish, a professor of art at the University of Alberta, who engaged in “embodied research” by entering the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships. Claiming that she was not subject to the male gaze but appropriating it, she published a scholarly book, Feminist Figure Girl: Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy, in which she describes her pursuit of a “visibly muscular X shape, with wide shoulders and lats that taper into a narrow waist then flare out again with chiseled glutes and hams.” She argues that bodybuilding isn’t merely a stereotypically masculine domain; she found acceptance of a wide range of physical appearances and an “open and flexible practice” not unlike yoga. But unlike yoga, her punishing, months-long training and diet regimen ended not with her achieving inner peace but competing against other women on a stage while slathered with tanning dye and decked out in a “tiny blue velvet bikini” and plastic high heels, a vision of female empowerment likely unimaginable to, say, the nineteenth-century suffragists.15

Then again, the notion of empowerment, like the descriptor transgressive, can be used to describe so many things that it has lost much of its rhetorical force. Is every porn star who buys enormous breast implants empowering herself by enhancing her body’s market value, or becoming a victim of patriarchy by conforming to its demands? Some cultural theorists argue that plastic surgery can never be transgressive because the women having it are conforming to beauty stereotypes (often while keeping their conformity “hidden” by lying about their surgical alterations); plastic surgery junkies pursue a “normative body project,” as one cultural theorist has argued. Body modification advocates, by contrast, make a deliberately public statement about their bodies that challenges norms. “Pierced, scarred, and tattooed…the body is a site of symbolic resistance, a source of personal empowerment, and the basis for the creation of a sense of self-identity,” declares Daniel Wocjik, an English professor who has written about body modification.16

But what is normal? With the virtual increasingly replacing the real, perhaps the real has to become more extreme to feel genuine. As we perform and live more of our lives online, our memories and experiences and identities take on an increasingly ephemeral and homogenized quality; a metal spike through the ear, by contrast, is a lastingly corporeal statement.

And as body modification itself becomes normalized, the need to attach theories to people’s motivations disappears. Both of my sisters are tattooed—my older sister has one small tattoo (which cultural theorists such as Thompson would define as typically feminine and thus not genuinely transgressive), and my younger sister is extensively tattooed. Neither regrets getting inked. Nor do my sisters entertain complicated theories about what their tattoos might mean to anyone else. They got them because they wanted to. Their tattoos are an expression of their sense of self, like the clothing they wear or the hobbies they pursue.

Cultural theorists would say that that’s only the beginning of the story, not the end. They would be right in one sense: Body modification is always a cultural signifier because the body is the site of our views about what a person is (or should be) and how that person should (or should not) behave. There are reasons why we modify our own bodies, and there are reasons why social groups pressure their members to look a certain way. Societies generally want conformity (and stability) from their members, but individuals within social groups often seek to highlight their difference and individuality.

If practitioners of body modification want the freedom to see their bodies as expressions of their individuality, then they must also accept that others might freely express their disapproval. In a world where we’re encouraged to rank, review, promote, “like,” or retweet every meal we eat and item we purchase, why should someone else’s aesthetic choices, however quixotic, be free from our relentless, instantaneous rush to judgment?

Our current approach to body modification—haphazard, arbitrary, and driven almost entirely by individual preference—is not without its own risks. By embracing modification as personal preference, we avoid wrestling with some important questions: What is the meaning of the body? Is it something sacred, a temporary gift that we have a responsibility to use well? Is it a bequest from God, or nature, for which we bear responsibility?

Today we treat our bodies like material possessions over which we have exclusive ownership and, we incorrectly assume, total control. But questions about the human body will only become more important in the near future, when we will have access to a range of new technological and genetic enhancements that will force us to confront what it even means to be human. The conversations we should be having aren’t about deviance and power and the fetishization of difference; they are about the integrity of the human body. After all, our physical bodies are the means by which we understand ourselves and the world, and the greatest proof of our shared history as human beings. They are what we have in common with each other, no matter how much we attempt to change. That understanding, like the tattooists’ skill with needle and ink, is something we must cultivate if we don’t want it to fade.


  1. Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852−1912 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 811.
  2. Harris Interactive, “One in Five U.S. Adults Now Has a Tattoo,” February 23, 2012;
  3. Christian Saint, Tattoo Super Models (New York: Goliath Books, 2015); Maybelle Morgan and Toni Jones, “Think Tattoos Are for Thugs? Think Again,” Daily Mail Online, March 13, 2015;
  4. “Statistics, Surveys, and Trends,” American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, March 20, 2014;
  5. Beverly Yuen Thompson, Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 5.
  6. Ibid., 3−4.
  7. Ibid., 4, 19.
  8. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 58, 61.
  9. Thompson, Covered in Ink, 12.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. Amelia Abraham, “Ron Athey Bleeds for His Art,” Vice, September 24, 2014;
  12. Sheila Jeffreys, “‘Body Art’ and Social Status: Cutting, Tattooing, and Piercing from a Feminist Perspective,” Feminism and Psychology 10, no. 4 (2000), 410;
  13. This information on Mustafar is from his website,
  14. Victoria Pitts, In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 2.
  15. Lianne McTavish, “What I Learned by Becoming a Body-Builder at Age 45,” The New Republic, March 30, 2015; See also McTavish, Feminist Figure Girl: Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015).
  16. Daniel Wocjik, Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995); Keith Alexander, “About Piercing,” Body Modification Ezine, 1999, quoted in Jeffreys.

Christine Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation. She is the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and The Extinction of Experience (forthcoming).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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