“The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate”
-Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1908
Is the desire to decorate the body based on shame? Or is it vanity? The idea of tattooing seems so…anti-modern. In the context of primitivism, the decoration of the body, whether it be applied images and patterns or permanent images and distortions, is as old as humankind, so much so that I would speculate that this practice predates the wearing of clothing any greater than a loincloth.
For early modernists, the reality of decoration was antithetical to a new world. Adolf Loos’ seminal work on Ornament & Crime equated the decoration of a building with the tattooing of the body. For him, both were examples of the descent of man and civilization and he is hyper-critical of the practice. However he does state:
The urge to ornament one’s face and everything within reach is the start of plastic art.
He continues with a contradictory statement about it being the “baby talk” of painting, but continues along lines of eroticism, even stating that the Christian cross is the most erotic of ornaments:
A horizontal dash: the prone woman.
A vertical dash: the man penetrating her.
Loo’s view, although radical at the time, strikes a more reactionary cord in our time. A reference to these opposing views of fashion demonstrate its extremes.
On the left is well-known minimalist Yohji Yamamoto and on the right is an image drawn from Pinterest of African fashion. For Loos, the dress on the right reflects the idea of primitivism or, worse, a grotesque reflection of the body. Yohji Yamamoto’s simple chemise and pants are a Loosian vibrato of undecorated functionalism.
Clothing, and particularly fashion, is erotic. The simple presentation of a lack of clothing is ironically clinical. Even pornography begins in a state of dress. The removal of layers is the erotic process leading to the sexual event.
This can lead us to the idea that the ultimate erotic dress is the tattoo. A tattoo is permanent clothing requiring the naked in order to be seen.
The thrill of tattooing has descended on pop culture. The appeal of cultures that have a tradition of tattooing whether it be the henna drawings in the Middle East, the faces of the Maori or the Japanese tradition of full body tattoos.
The tattoos of now initially started with the images of the wandering soul – anchors from the boats he road, names & images of forgotten lovers and lost relatives – but the aficionado moved into symbols associated with older cultures – the tribal arm band, the Maori symbol, the koi wrapping down the arm.
The state of disconnection in our modern world makes us strive to connect through the association with symbols with the rationale:
The meaning of the tattoo, however, is not as ephemeral as the ability to change clothes to suit the person and the context.
Lately, I have been interested in the tattoos that look to contemporary symbols, none of these more clearly critical as the barcode. The barcode is the ultimate representation of consumerism, reducing the world to a SKU. The placement of a barcode on the back of the neck shifts the perception of the person from the mind (the immaterial) to the body (the material). The commodity no longer serves the person, like the Burberry trench coat shielding the wearer from rain, but the article of clothing and the wearer merge into a single commodity.
If the business of fashion relies on the continued purchase of new clothes to suit the new aesthetic, does the permanence of the tattoo work against the premise of fashion’s impermanence? Although the subject matter of the tattoo is evolving, the previous “species” of tattoos will never be extinct.