The tattoo has a profound meaning

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Theodore Dalrymple was once consulted in the prison in which he worked by an inmate who was the proud father of two:

I asked him whether he still saw them: continued contact with their biological offspring being something of a rarity among the imprisoned paternal community. Instead of answering me directly, he rolled up his sleeves and pointed to two tattoos on his forearm, red hearts with scrolls across them bearing the names of his children — two tattoos among many others, needless to say. He hadn’t seen either of his children for years, and had never contributed anything to their upkeep. Indeed, the idea that he should have done so was so completely alien to him and to the mores of the world in which he moved that the thought had never crossed his mind, even fleetingly. By contrast, he obviously believed that his tattoos were a sign of genuine devotion to his children. Their names were engraved, if not on his heart exactly, at least on hearts painfully engraved on his skin, and one could easily imagine a touching deathbed scene in which he would be reunited at last with his children and would there show them the tattoos as proof that he had never really forgotten or abandoned them. They would probably accept this as having been true, and therefore forgive him his dereliction of duty.

In fact, more than 95 percent of imprisoned white British criminals are tattooed. The statistical association between tattooing and criminality is very much stronger (with the exception of that between criminality and smoking) than that with any of the more conventionally investigated factors, such as broken homes, drug addiction, low intelligence, and poor educational attainment.


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.

It is perfectly possible, however, to be a vegetarian, or even to believe in witchcraft, without resort to the tattoo parlor. What makes individuals choose to undergo the painful, expensive, and virtually irrevocable process of tattooing? Having listened to an unspecified number of tattooed members of the middle classes, the author identifies several motives, all of which struck me as unflatteringly revealing of the soul of modern man.

First there is the assertion of individuality. One of the author’s informants says,

[Being tattooed] separates me from anybody else. No one else has anything like what I have. I feel a little bit different from Joe Shmoe in the street, and I guess it makes me feel special.

This is infinitely sad. That a person’s individuality should be made to depend upon so crude an outward sign as a tattoo is in fact an indication of the fragility of that person’s identity. He must feel simultaneously overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people around him who make it so very difficult for him to differentiate himself from them, and an urgent necessity to do so. This necessity is all the more imperative in an age of celebrity, when fame and public notoriety are to so many people the only goals worth pursuing: indeed, when public adulation itself seems almost the sole guarantor of true personal existence. But their reach exceeds their grasp.

Of course, such outward signs of individuality as tattoos are inherently self-defeating. It cannot ever be long before someone has himself tattooed in a yet more startling, more “original” fashion (indeed, tattoo conventions regularly offer prizes for the “most unique” tattoo). But there is a deeper reason why such efforts at asserting one’s unique individuality are pathetically bound to fail: for true individuality does not arise from a decision to be an individual. A man who decides to be an eccentric, and therefore to behave eccentrically, is not an eccentric at all, but an actor, and usually a bad one at that. A true eccentric is a man who behaves eccentrically because it simply does not occur to him to behave otherwise.

“Personal growth” is cited as another important motive for having oneself tattooed. It is said to be “empowering.” A woman who had a bad marriage had herself tattooed with a wolf.

I ended up getting this wolf, which to me was power and strength over all the abuse and all the things that went on in my life. It was a sense of freedom… . I wanted it … to become myself.

Another woman said that her tattoo was something she did, that she brought into being, as if the fact that it was hers were a sufficient guarantee of its worth.

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.

The author entirely misses the cultural significance of the spread of tattoos into the middle classes, even though one of her interlocutors, a teacher at a university, gives her a strong clue:

I was saying, “Fuck you, school, and I don’t really care if you know I have a tattoo.” I also at this time started getting pierced because basically I’m taking my anger out on this school… . I knew it would freak them out, which gave me no small amount of pleasure.

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.

Of course, this antinomianism (itself so tiresomely bourgeois) has a tinny ring. I am reminded of the recent obituary of a British pop star in The Daily Telegraph (the fact that this newspaper, once the favorite reading matter of retired admirals pickled in port, should carry obituaries of pop stars at all is itself a cultural shift of some significance). The subject of the obituary was said to have been so irritated by what he considered the false gentility of the school he attended that he forever after used the demotic speech of South London. In other words, he adopted, in the name of authenticity, a form of language that was not his own and did not come naturally to him. The fate of all people who imitate others to achieve authenticity is to live a lie.

Besides, the bourgeois who has himself tattooed is, as this book indicates, at least as anxious to distinguish himself from the real proletarian as he is to identify with him. The tattoo is thus to the modern bourgeois what playing shepherdess was to Marie Antoinette. The woman whose tattoo was supposed to say “Fuck you” to her university did not really want to become the janitor of her faculty building, and probably would have very little to say to him. Egalitarians usually have a very strong sense of hierarchy.


  1. Graham says:

    A rich, filling stew of critique.

    The only thing missing on the specific subject of tattoos, which I think I got from Dalrymple in some past context [or from Derbyshire], is that in addition to tattoos moving up the class scale, they have switched from being mainly badges of group membership to badges of the faux individuality he describes.

    So, from almost invariably men to both sexes;
    From lower class to include middle class;
    from group affiliation and allegiance to “individuality”.

    All in all, it gives me more respect for bikers and prison gangs, not to mention Japanese and Russian organized crime, who maintain the glorious traditional roles of the tattoo. Maybe some sailors and soldiers in countries whose services permit wearing tattoos.

  2. Ezra says:

    When the tattoo on a woman of some sort of intricate design and color is applied it CAN look quite impressive. But with aging the colors fade and then it is just a purple blotch.

    What of these tattoo as alleged are the sign of belonging to some sort of secret society? Anyone know if there is truth to that?

  3. Graham says:

    Dalrymple has a good line in a lot of his past work, based on his medical practice, in pointing out how many dominant arguments in the social sciences, or at least social norms, are not “evidence-based”. And then free-ranging against them on a philosophical level, from whence those norms actually came.

    In pieces like this, I love that he can tackle the larger cultural trends on the same plane.

  4. Graham says:

    Well, a lot of what we discuss about criminal tattoos is pop culture based, I’ll give you that.

    I had thought that the idea of the elaborate tattoo systems of the yakuza or Russian gangs was backed up by law enforcement, social scientists, and maybe just possibly members of those societies.

    I have a hard time believing the sort of thing your average self identified rebel female sports today has anything to do with membership in anything other than a fatuous trend in popular culture.

    My acquaintance with Wiccans or other neopagans has been a bit limited and some time ago, though nonzero. I wasn’t aware in those cases of any tats being present. That’s not a decisive indicator. They could still have membership tats in place to some degree. Though they’re not really a secret society.

  5. Kirk says:

    One of the interesting things is looking at the current fad-set for cultural artifacts like tattoos, and trying to figure out why it is that that the former middle-class and upper-class groups are adopting the signature traits of the under-class. The entire phenomenon of “wiggers”, white boys who want to be rappers is entirely bizarre to me. Where has this ever showed up before, in history? Has it always been a “thing”? I’m not sure that it has, particularly in regard to the class self-hatred they demonstrate.

    In ancient Rome and Greece, you might have seen young Roman and Greek women embracing the lower classes as passing fancies in terms of gladiators, but for them to actively seek out and marry them, to bear their children…? Even in the face of massively abusive relationships with many of those lower-class males? I’m not sure that’s ever happened, before. Certainly not at all well-documented, in my readings.

    The West is currently dealing with the issue of its elites committing suicide, both moral and cultural. It remains to be seen what effect that’s going to have, but I can’t help but think it ain’t going to be good. It’s a sad commentary on things, but when the only guy in a group of college-educated officers in the Army to “get” a cultural reference to Greek mythology is the junior-ranking enlisted guy, we may have a bit of a problem. One reason I gave up on getting a commission in the Army was the fact that I had discovered that I really wouldn’t be dealing with a “higher grade of intellect” in a lot of cases–About the third time you’re explaining who Sisyphus was to a group of company-grade officers, you realize that using a modern college education as a gate for selection probably isn’t really that relevant to things.

    I could live with officers not knowing most of the Western canon; what absolutely and profoundly disturbed the shit out of me was that the vast majority had no idea who the hell Jomini was, or Vegetius. Clausewitz, they’d usually vaguely recognize, and they’d all have the requisite display copies of military history up on the shelf, but did they ever actually read them…? Not that I ever observed.

    It’s like this throughout the culture; you go looking out at other areas, and the same lack of interest in the background details of their professions is present across the board. I recall a high school teacher who proudly boasted that the last book he’d read was in college, ten years earlier. He was teaching history and US government. Also heard the same asshole comment that he should probably read the Constitution for the first time, since he’d be teaching it that semester…

    There are a lot of reasons I am more than a little contemptuous of academia and the “educated elite”. The majority of the people participating in that world have eschewed true education and scholarship, de-emphasized original thought and erudition in favor of things like conformity and grievance. It does not bode well for our collective future.

  6. Bruce says:

    It’s always been bad tone to flaunt a scar, and the lower classes have always had bad tone. For the last half century we’ve a bipartisan agreement in favor of lower wages through higher immigration, and the less money you have the more you are pushed into the lower classes. Also, as colleges have lowered their standards, they’ve become lower in class.

  7. Kirk says:

    Errr… Always been bad tone to flaunt a scar…?

    19th Century German students from Heidelberg would like to talk to you… Look up the term “Schmiss” in German, and do some research on the issue of facial scars. Time was, you didn’t have one, you were socially outcast as a male in parts of upper-class Germany.

  8. Bruce says:

    Mencken said ‘Prussian’ was used for ‘cockroach’ in the civilized parts of Germany. Ask Kafka.

  9. Kirk says:

    It was always “Prussian this” and “Prussian that”, up until Napoleon came knocking… Then, it was “Oh, what wonderful people to have as fellow Germanics…”.

    Prussia gets a bad rap because of stereotypes. The reality is quite different–If you want to get a more balanced view of it all, go back and look at the history of where the Finns learned the art of modern war. The story of the Jaakari, who formed the basis of the modern Finnish Army, is an interesting one:

    That’s part of the reality of Prussia, and you can argue quite effectively that part of the Prussian military tradition led to the later developments of the Sturmtruppen, who effectively created most of our modern infantry tactics centered on decentralized leadership and tactics. The image of the lock-step Prussian militarist isn’t at all accurate–Much of the German military tradition for initiative and low-level leadership came out of the Prussians. von Lettow-Vorbeck was a Prussian through-and-through, and he was one of the few high-ranking Germans that told Hitler to go piss up a rope when the Nazis came calling to have him join the regime in order to lend it some legitimacy.

    The whole “Prussian militarist” thing is a stereotype that ought to have you calling most stereotypes into question, due to the inaccuracy. Remember that most of the plotters against Hitler were Prussian aristocrats, and that von Stauffenberg was one of those “Prussian militarists” everyone is so horrified about. They weren’t perfect people, by any means, but they also weren’t the monsters that popular imagination has them as, either.

    Interesting point for someone to spend some time researching, BTW, is the whole “light infantry” movement in Europe, of which the Jaegers were only one example of. There were also the Bersaglieri in Italy, the Chasseurs a Pied (and, Alpin…) in France, and the Rifles in Great Britain. Fascinating stuff to research, and since they were the mostly-unknown rootstock for much of our modern infantry tactics, well worth the effort of looking up. I wish there were more material for them, but nobody really gives a rip about these things, in general–It’s more interesting to learn about guns, tanks, and ships than the men who use them.

  10. Graham says:

    There is often some behavioural similarity and mutual sympathy between the higher upper classes and the underclasses- they’re the only ones who can get away with and most freely indulge in interpersonal violence, unrestrained sexuality of any kind, substance abuse, and so on. OK, perhaps the upper class American has less scope for personal violence than aristocrats of yore, but they can still get away with more than the bourgeois. And all the rest is still in place.

    Sometimes the upper and under types are doing the same sorts of things separately and unaware of one another, sure, but sometimes they are quite, ahem, intermingled in personnel, assignments, and venues.

    Some times and places that has likely even generated a bit of mutual sympathy. Sometimes it even generates one of the many political forms of high and low versus middle. Usually that’s upper class and respectable workers against middle class and managers, but sometimes it’s upper class rallying the most degraded of the peasantry and mob to arms to suppress the bourgeois or equivalent.

    But there’s also an element of superficiality to it in a society that’s still minimally healthy. The upper class rake slumming in the actual slums trying to play Dorian Gray doesn’t actually think he’s a member and still has a certain contempt for his surroundings. Sebastian Flyte dying in Tangier knows he failed to live up to something. These days that last saving grace, arrogance or shame is gone.

    I don’t know if it’s cited in any of the classical Roman historians, or if so which one(s), or if it’s just one of the calumnies leveled by the more moralizing of them, but modern literature has the idea of Roman matrons messing about with gladiators and slaves. TV shows didn’t make it up, at least.

    Of course, they would be high ranking wives and daughters who had already produced children, or who knew what precautions or postcautions to use, who if it came to the painful [and dangerous] consequence for the dumber ones would at least have no compunction about disposing of the child in a society that sanctioned such things. And likely had female kin support lined up to help and guide. Or they might be old enough to worry less about it and were just applying the [more limited than the male] rights and discretion of the female senior family members over male property. Just like their husbands or fathers would do with male or female property.

    How common that really was is another question. Can’t imagine it never happened. The Romans were still humans. There would naturally be some requirement for the males in senior positions [the husband, the male head of the family if it was not him] to tolerate this sort of behaviour, for whatever reasons of their own. THeir concern would naturally involve ensuring no risk of polluting the household with slave offspring, I should think. Or any other male’s offspring really.

    Of course there is also somewhere in the record the idea that some upper class women were looking for gladiators specifically to father children on them. Can’t imagine what was in that for their husbands and fathers, so curious how real that phenomenon was and how carefully managed.

    And of course probably none of those women ever imagined ever ending up in a medium to long term relationship with a gladiator or slave, or any situation other than intermittent controlled encounters. And would have had some resources to order other males to repay any misbehaviour by said slave tenfold. Nothing like an upper class woman hooking up long term with a violent underclass male today. I can’t imagine any Roman woman of the upper classes would have either thought she could get away with that [her family's men would put paid to it] or would have been dumb enough not to anticipate the consequences of being long in the power of such a man.

    We are a stupid, stupid people.

  11. Graham says:

    The wigger phenomenon is weird. I’ve seen variants up to and including a French-Canadian circa 20 year old in the full rig and doing the whole walking and hand gesture routine and talking like he was straight outta the hood. His African-Canadian buddies did not demonstrate any apparent sense this was peculiar. But who can say? We can all laugh on the inside when we need to.

    Star Trek Voyager [sorry] did a variant on this. The holographic sentient AI Doctor set up a holo program in which he could experience life as the head of a family of sort of sentient holograms. He made it the most sickeningly sweet pseudo 1950s setting you could find, just to drive the point home. His teen “son” joined a group of similarly aged boys [human and other diverse Earth-resident humanoids] who mimicked Klingon warrior culture and dress and values, to the Dr’s distress. How could his “son” reject his heritage as a “member” of Earth’s peaceful utopian society?

    My reaction was why would anyone seeking such behaviour modes automatically borrow from those of an alien society instead of their own ample cultural resources. Oh, wait, because you have memory wiped your civilization or morally condemned your entire past and all such behaviours and left them no resources. Also, it was kind of a backhanded insult to the Klingons to use a tawdry rip off of their culture as the chose vehicle for a bunch of teenage toughs. But what can you do? Klingons wouldn’t lower themselves to file a complaint.

  12. Graham says:

    It was modish in the WW1 era to condemn Prussian militarism in almost the same terms as we later condemned Nazism. In the runup to the war, a bit, in the war propaganda, a lot, and even after. IIRC, the original French monument at the Compiegne armistice site read something like “Here succumbed the criminal pride of the German Reich, overcome by the free peoples it tried to enslave”. That still strikes me as a little over the top, even allowing an above average level of German war guilt, and even allowing for their more expansive war aims. Territorial conquest wasn’t exactly off the European menu at the time, and one of our allies was Russia.

    In WW2, I guess it’s not surprising that the next gen propagandists would conflate National Socialism and Prussian militarism so closely in many of their materials, or cast them as natural allies in some of the more sophisticated ones.

    There’s not zero validity to it, looking at the long sweep of German social trends of the preceding century, but it always was simple minded to see them as the same, especially in societies that had until recently been wildly militaristic themselves by the standards of our own current opinionmakers. [Military parades, horrors, were a more common sight in Britain and France then. There are postcards and photos.]

    And the Prussian state model had its virtues. Rational public administration with an ethic of professionalism and service. A hegelian concept of a state ruled by law. Different laws, sure. But clear procedure and forms. THeir own ideals of justice and humanity. And, sure, later on Bismarck’s welfare state. Support for science and education.

    And all the stuff Kirk cited, too.

  13. Faze says:

    Dalrymple is brilliant here as elsewhere, and makes some great observations. However, as the medical evidence builds, it comes to look less well for a physician to still use “vegetarian” as a synonym for “asshole”.

  14. Wan Wei Lin says:

    Graham, interesting observation of the similarities between the elite upper class and the lower class. Most normal people are repvulsed by the behaviour at both ends of the social spectrum.

    Some years ago when in my 50′s a beautiful young women was the server at a fast food restaurant I frequent. She was highly tattooed and modified with gages and piercings. I asked her given her natural beauty why all the ‘artwork’. She expressed her artful inclinations towards color and self-expression. I acknowledged her answer and then asked had she never seen tattoos and piercings would she have got them. She seemed stunned by the question and startled by her own response which was no probably not.

    Tattoos are a sign of general cultural rot. The university teacher’s ‘fuck you’ attitude is pervasive as a symptom of less respect for self, others and the individual’s place in society. The individual is the tribe into himself.

  15. Bruce says:

    Money and class aren’t identical, but they rhyme. Prussians averaged a lot less money than Germans from the areas with cities in them for two thousand years, and they still aren’t as classy. Merkel doesn’t sweat the loss of public order from her immigrants because she’s East German raised, she thinks public order is something nasty cops ram up the public’s ass anyway, not something nice people build together for themselves.

    And in America the bipartisan consensus in favor of lower wages through higher immigration rhymes with low-class behahvior.

  16. Ezra says:

    The dueling scar is still popular in some German cultural circles, I am told. Professional persons like to sport one. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc. A sign to be seen by young single women of your educated status and potential earning potential. Horse hair sewn into the scar to make it stand out more.

  17. Graham says:

    Wan Wei Lin,

    You imply an importance nuance to all this that I had glossed over.

    I should say that tats have moved, not from being a badge of group membership to one of pure individualism, but rather from being a badge of membership in a discrete, identifiable group with reasonably demanding criteria for which the tat is a symbol, to membership in a generalized, trend-type “group” that places no demands, does nothing in particular, and masquerades as “individualism” for the lazy.

    The former way of describing it works, but only as a kind of shorthand.

    I’d have some respect for the duelling scar, if only because at least you have to have exchanged blows with a sword. It might be more or less painful than a tat, but it’s more active and less passive. But that might be just class and cultural bias on my part. The horse hair thing does sound Eurogangsta.

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