Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ink on Skin: An Extension of Language

Delving deeper into the world of tattoo, I am struck by the similarities in the way we understand tattoo and the way we understand language. Tattoo itself seems to be another language, but I think it's more suitable to say that tattoo is an extension of language—an extension of what we can understand that we understand. (So, of course we need to invite Derrida into this conversation.)

In the introduction to Tattooing the World, we are presented with the idea that tattoos speak to us through our interpretations of them. In O'Connell's story, these overlapping interpretations are "the Pacific, the personal or performative, and the social" (3). We can break down our interpretation of language in a similar way: through the author, the text, and the reader(s). In Derrida's Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, he implies that language is its own authority; tattoo, also, becomes its own authority with its own power since no one interpretation or interpretive community can find the meaning of a tattoo, since each tattoo carries the weight of tradition, the individual significance and the infinite interpretations from outside. The tattoo, then, is really a power beyond human beings, though human beings employ the art.

I think the understanding of tattoo as a "silent placeholder" (15) is really fascinating and supports the idea of tattoo as a power beyond human understanding. In the case of the "inscrutable" Chinese characters, they are "a guarantee of intelligibility because the present viewer cannot sound of read them" (15). If we don't fully understand tattoo, then that creates a potential energy of intelligence that we seek to find meaning within. 

Because tattoo can be read in so many different ways, its meaning is very sacred. The person being tattooed might choose the marking, but the marking in turn recreates and re-identifies that person from then on. Like language, although we create it and use it for expression and understanding, it is a greater force and mystery than we could have endowed it with ourselves. 

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