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Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community

. By Margo DeMello. Durham, N.C.: Due !ni"ersity #ress, $%%%.


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Clinton 0. 1anders
!ni"ersity of Connecticut
2ne of my professors in graduate school used to maintain that sociology
3as shaped 4y 3hat he called the 5re"erse Midas touch67e"erything that
turns to gold, 3e touch. The past decade has seen the general topic of
4ody modification sho3 some gilded edges as ,usually younger- social
scientists increasingly ha"e focused attention on the social 3orlds sur8
rounding scarification, piercing, 4randing, tattooing, and other modes of
permanent 4ody alteration. Margo DeMello9s
Bodies of Inscription is argua4ly the 4est 4oo8length discussion of corporeal decoration to
appear in recent years.
Boo 0e"ie3s
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In the introductory chapter, DeMello sets out her central thesis7that
tattooing and the 5tattoo community6 ha"e undergone a 5social e"olution6
as middle8class artists and enthusiasts ha"e ripped tattooing a3ay from
its traditional, 3oring8class roots. This, she maintains, has transformed
the tattoo from 5a sign of patriotism and a mar of re4ellion6 into a 5sign
of status6 ,p. <-. This appropriation has, in turn, marginali=ed 3oring8
class mem4ers of the 5tattoo community,6 saniti=ed the image ,and images-
of tattooing, and esta4lished a ne3 system of meanings 4ased on non8
>estern, 5primiti"e6 orientations and designs. To demonstrate this e"o8
lution she focuses on 5tattoo narrati"es6 dra3n from her o3n e&perience
as a tattooed person, ethnographic o4ser"ations in tattoo studios and
con"entions, inter"ie3s 3ith tattooists and collectors, and content anal8
yses of ma?or tattoo maga=ines and e&changes found on the ma?or Internet
listser"s de"oted to tattooing.
Chapter ' deals 3ith the issue of 5community6 as used 4y the author.
0ather than 4eing a 5static, place84ound phenomenon6 ,p. ';-, the tattoo
community is a function of the 5discourse6 that is produced and repro8
duced 3hen those in"ol"ed 3ith tattooing tal among themsel"es in shops,
con"entions, and the "arious media de"oted to tattooing. It is in these
"enues that the ideologies, rituals, and 4oundaries that define the com8
munity are esta4lished and perpetuated.
Chapters $ and < offer one of the 4est discussions of the history of
tattooing currently a"aila4le. In chapter $ DeMello mo"es from @ames
Coo9s encounter 3ith #olynesian tattooing in the ':th century, through
the incursion of tattooing into North America in the '*th century and
the 5golden age of tattooing6 4et3een the t3o 3orld 3ars, to the 4eginning
of the 5tattoo renaissance6 in the '*/%s. Her discussion of tattoo attractions
in frea sho3s and carni"als and her 4rief account of the rise of 4ier,
Chicano, and prison tattooing ,e&panded in chap. <- are especially inter8
esting. The author e&tends her discussion of the tattoo renaissance in
chapter <, stressing the central importance of images and style dra3n
from @apanese tattooing ,ire=umi- and the inno"ati"e 3or done 4y 5ne3,6
more artistically oriented, tattooists such as Don Ad Hardy, 1hotsie Bor8
man, Cyle Tuttle, and Ceo Dulueta. 1he concludes 4y touching on the
more recent rise of 5nu sool6 tattooists 3ho re?ected the apprenticeship
system of traditional tattooing and concentrated on inscri4ing 5tri4al6
images, a4stract designs, and fantasy art. Her central point in this retelling
of tattoo history is that the tattoo 3orld 3as radically altered as the
decorati"e practice 3as appropriated 4y middle8class tattooists and col8
lectors and remo"ed from its traditional cultural home among 4iers,
prisoners, youth gang mem4ers, and other disreputa4le mem4ers of the
3oring class.
Eollo3ing a fine discussion of tattoo maga=ines and tattoo organi=ations
,principally the National Tattoo Association and the Association of #ro8
fessional Tattooists- in chapter ), DeMello offers t3o chapters that amplify
her 4asic points a4out the cultural e"olution of tattooing. 1he emphasi=es
American @ournal of 1ociology
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the central impact of 5ne3 class6 social mo"ements ,self8help, Ne3 Age,
feminist spirituality, ecological, and the men9s mo"ement- on tattoo images
and the 3ays in 3hich tattooed people ha"e come to understand their
sin decorations. Here she maes use of 5tattoo narrati"es6 dra3n from
inter"ie3s and Internet sources to support her contention that in the ne3,
postmodern community,6 of tattooing tattooed people ha"e turned a3ay
from the traditional, 3oring8class understanding of tattoos as su4"ersi"e
and 4oundary setting to3ard a ne3ly constructed meaning in 3hich the
tattoo is an aesthetic representation of personal identity. The final chapter
touches on the faddish character of contemporary tattooing and the 5class
4aclash6 ,p. '*'-, 3hich is resulting in a return to the styles and images
of traditional Americana tattooing.
Bodies of Inscription
pro"ides an interesting and reada4le o"er"ie3 of
tattooing, and it 3ill pro"ide the neophyte reader 3ith an outstanding
introduction to this fascinating social phenomenon. Ho3e"er, someone
3ho is relati"ely familiar 3ith tattooing and the tattoo community might
not find DeMello9s central thesis7that the '*:%s ushered in a radically
ne3 orientation to tattooing as mem4ers of the middle8class e&propriated
it from the 3oring class7entirely con"incing. In focusing on a particular
segment of the larger tattoo su4culture, the author tends to o"erstate the
homogeneity of this 3orld of cultural production. Traditional Americana
style of tattooing is ali"e and 3ell ,as DeMello admits in her closing
chapter- and the 5old6 affiliati"e and outraging functions of tattoos ha"e
hardly gi"en 3ay to the tattooee9s supposedly 5ne36 desire to mar per8
sonal status and indi"idual identity. Nonetheless, the author uses her data
to present a con"incing case and pro"ides a discussion of tattooing that
adds significantly to the gro3ing 4ody of literature on purposi"e 4ody
modification.

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