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Review of  The Social Semiotics of Tattoos


Reviewer: Andrew Jocuns
Book Title: The Social Semiotics of Tattoos
Book Author: Chris William Martin
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 30.4136

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Review:
SUMMARY

Over twenty years ago right after I was discharged from a short stint in the military I met someone at a party who was asking about my military experience and one of the questions he asked was to see my tattoos. To his chagrin I had none to offer. This anecdote touches on a point that is raised by Chris William Martin’s ethnography on the social semiotics of tattoos, that until quite recently tattoos were considered deviant or more closely associated with certain segments of the population, e.g. veterans, bikers. The book is a well written and very engaging ethnographic text on tattoo artists and tattoo enthusiasts comprising eight chapters and an appendix. The audience for this work is quite varied: undergraduates, graduate students and professionals who are interested in contemporary ethnographic accounts that take a social semiotic as well as symbolic interactionist stance. I would also add that the book is accessible to non-academic audiences so tattoo artists and enthusiasts would also find the book a worthy read. The book makes strong use of symbolic interactionism in its ethnographic stance and fits well within the ethnographic literature from the Chicago School of Sociology.

Introduction

The introduction lays out the problem under investigation, an ethnography of tattoo artists at a place referred to as the Studio and tattoo enthusiasts in “liquid modern times” (page 2). Liquid modernity is a concept which is frequently referred to in this book and refers to how modernity creates a chaotic sense of identity in a continuation of modernity, not post-modern, where people can shift quickly between social positions and identities. The concept was coined by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who notes how liquid modern humans frequently shift jobs, relationships, spouses, living conditions, and values in a liquid and increasingly mobile manner. The introduction also includes some reflexive ethnographic narrative about another theme that emerges in the book, “getting inked,” where notions of the anxiety of permanence fill tattoo enthusiasts prior to getting a tattoo. A brief history of tattooing is offered followed by a discussion of how the notion of deviance and tattoos has begun to shift into an era of wider acceptance of tattoos in western society, noting a 2008 Pew research poll that notes 40% of millennials surveyed claimed to have a tattoo. The author argues that in liquid modernity there has been a noticeable change in the semiotic meanings of tattoos in terms of cultural patterns and artistic meanings for both tattoo artists and tattoo enthusiasts.

Chapter 1 introduces the theoretical and methodological practices that the author used in implementing this ethnography. The author covers such paradigms as symbolic interactionism, specifically Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical approach to social interaction. Noting that detailed observation is more integral to argumentation than abstract theoretical accounts, the author emphasizes Goffman’s “definition of the situation” as the way to describe appropriate behavior in public. While the definitions and framework the author provides are solid, the real strength in this chapter is how each definition is provided an example from interaction in The Studio. For example on page 26 Goffman’s concept of frontstage/backstage is introduced and notes how he experienced this, “…I tended to see the front stage and the forefront of the back stage. I personally witnessed the shifting of the persona of these artists from confident to nervous, from truthful to deceitful.” This kind of example emphasizes not only the position that the ethnographer took up in The Studio, but also what access he had to the positioning of tattoo enthusiasts and tattoo artists. The weaknesses of Goffman’s approach, semiotics and social semiotics are taken up in the remaining sections of the chapter. Of note, in terms of semiotics and social semiotics, the author mentions how there is no grammar of tattoos but rather there are multiple meanings of a tattoo which can be personal as well as cultural. However, a set of expectations in terms of a tattoo code does exist as far as genre, style, etc.

Chapter 2 is the first analytical chapter and focuses upon ethnographic experiences in The Studio which weaves together the interactional dynamics of Goffman with the semiotics of Danesi. One of the takeaways from the book as a whole is how the author discusses the anxiety and self-doubt that fills the tattoo artists about how they accomplish their work, which the author mentions occasionally through Goffman’s facework and face-saving strategies. “Lines can easily be blown out or skin can be chewed up” (page 39). The data comes from first person reflexive narrative experiences within the author’s fieldnotes as well as photographs of The Studio. Another theme in the book that emerges from this chapter is the role of performative deception in a tattoo artist, Kraken, who claims to be more acclaimed as an artist than the work he can pull off. He ultimately leaves the studio without a notice.

Chapter 3 focuses upon recent cultural shifts with the emergence of some significant tattoo artists and custom tattooing, tattoo artists are now considered artists, what the author refers to as the artification of tattooing. The author notes the role of art school trained tattooists, who were able to find more lucrative work as tattoo artists than as artists, as one of the forces behind this shift from transgression to acceptance and artform. Tattoos have now been transformed from “flash pieces” to works of art. The chapter also focuses upon the tools of the trade of tattooing, which includes a lot more intricate technology than a non-intimate may imagine (coil machines, ink, rotary machines, elastic bands). Another interesting discussion is on the craft of tattooing, in which tattooing and traditional tattoo artists learned the craft through a mentor-apprentice relationship. Such issues as authorship of tattoos, competition and permanence are taken up in that latter part of the chapter. The author recounts a story of a client who wanted a tattoo on his neck, which none of the artists in the studio agreed to do, not because of where it was located, but over concern for potentially being responsible for a tattoo that the client may regret in the future, thus exemplifying how contemporary tattoo artists take permanence into consideration.

Chapter 4 discusses notions of self and the body as well as identity. The notion of one’s self-identity as being the primary reason that one gets “inked” leads into a discussion of the social semiotic analysis taken up in the next three chapters influenced by Danesi’s (2007) questions for effective semiotic analysis and Riggins’ (1990) analysis of domestic artifacts. For the latter the focus of the analysis is on referencing and mapping. Referencing analyzes the tattoo from a cultural/artistic/historic understanding of the object in question. Mapping allows the tattoo enthusiast to explain the meanings and history of their interest in the tattoo in question. The analysis that follows is very detailed in terms of the history of an object as well as the interview conducted with tattoo enthusiasts. A good example of this is the discussion of Harry’s tattoo; Harry has tattoos that symbolize his priesthood of the Temple of Set, loosely related to Satanism. The author goes into great detail about the history and significance of the symbols and the Temple of Set itself and its relation to Satanism and how Harry perceives and feels about the tattoos in question.

Chapter 5 Martin conducts a similar analysis of several tattoo enthusiasts but here the focus is upon gender and tattoos. The more powerful analysis in this chapter focuses on Helen’s tattoos one of which are ice skates. These are in honor of her father who encouraged her interest in playing hockey despite there being little opportunity for her to play as there was no girl’s hockey program in her town. The author also notes in this chapter how women’s tattooed bodies were considered far more transgressive than those of men. This is further exemplified in the discussion of Rachael whose grandmother referred to her and her tattoos as “damaged goods” (page 135).

Chapter 6 discusses how tattoos can serve as forms of art. as well as emotional signifiers or remembrances of people. The author takes up the notion of tattoo classicism where “…form over expression becomes the key signifier” (page 147). The example of the latter is a tattoo on Helen which is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s artwork as well as how photographic realism has become a significant feature of modern tattoo artistry. Howard Becker’s book Art Worlds (1984) takes up a few pages in this chapter, particularly how Becker notes that art worlds are defined by all of the people who come together to make art happen. This ranges from the artist, to the enthusiast, to the benefactor, etc. In short, the consumption and production of art are socio-culturally produced. The chapter concludes with the discussion of a memorial tattoo meant to represent a tattoo enthusiasts two siblings who passed away at very young ages.

Conclusions provide a short summary of the research presented in the book, potential future research, which includes examining tattooing and its emotional labor, and final remarks, noting the focus on professionalism, artification and social interaction that have changed the perception of tattoos and tattooing.

EVALUATION

If there is a criticism of this work it would have concern how it stands as an ethnographic text. The author mentions that 1 years’ worth of ethnography was conducted for this project; yet the attention to it in this book is bound up in two chapters and the appendix. The latter is where I will focus my criticism because a lot of interesting and important contextual information is left in the appendix, which seems to focus solely on the methods. There are some good reflexive ethnographic narratives that are left hanging in the appendix that should have been worked into the individual chapters and would have made the early chapters, which focused on the ethnography, much stronger. Another criticism is in how the two different analyses were not really connected. I feel the author could have had a chapter where the larger ethnography of the Studio and the interviews with tattoo enthusiasts were connected in a nexus or network type of analysis to illustrate how tattoo artists and enthusiasts are related in complex ways.

I disagree with the author’s discussion of how field theory (i.e. Bourdieu 1979) would not work for the present study. Specifically, with regard to the notion of habitus, I don’t know how you can talk about tattoos and their history without taking into account the historical bodies of the social actors? In fact, the author accomplishes this task with the analysis of referencing and then mapping the history of the individual tattoo enthusiast’s explanation of the choices that were involved in the tattoos. Despite these criticisms, this work is a very strong ethnographic text which fuses together social semiotics and ethnography in a very accessible form.

REFERENCES

Bauman, Z. (2012). Liquid modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Becker, H. S. (1984). Art worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press,.

Bourdieu, P. (1979). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge

Danesi, M. (2007). The quest for meaning: A guide to semiotic theory and practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Riggins, S. H. (1990). The power of things: The role of domestic objects in the presentation of self. In S. H. Riggins (Ed.), Beyond Goffman: Studies on Communication, Institution and Social Interaction (pp. 341–367). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Riggins, S. H. (1994). Fieldwork in the Living Room: An Autoethnographic Essay. In S. H. Riggins (Ed.), The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-semiotics of Objects (pp. 101–147). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Goffman, E. (1999). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books/Doubleday.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Andrew Jocuns is a sociolinguist who has conducted research on discourse and learning in the United States and Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Indonesia. He has held positions in both academia and government. Presently he teaches courses in linguistics at Thammasat University in Thailand where he is also conducting research on: linguistic landscapes, intercultural communication, and Thai English.

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