Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Motion and Language of Tattoos

The greatest opportunity that traveling provides to the participant is the ability to learn new things about the region being experienced. The knowledge that comes with this place will also have a consequent effect on the traveler himself. He will be changed by that which he learns from the place, either knowingly or subconsciously. The place will forever remain with him in the sense that it is absorbed into his memory and will be triggered by various stimuli that he experiences as a result of contact with different people and places. It is in this same sense that the tattoo forever remains with the “wearer.” Moreover, the tattoo will never remain constant. It creates a new type of language each place it goes. O’Connell at one point states, “My tattooing, speaking my relationship to Ahoundel-a-Nutt, was better than letters of introduction” (Ellis 5). Since a tattoo is not a written language in the sense of words, phrases and paragraphs, it has the unique ability to change meanings by crossing any existent language barriers. With regard to this inability to completely define a tattoo comes an inherent trust between the artist and the wearer. The wearer has to place faith in the artist that the vision he has of the tattoo will be echoed in the design with the artist’s final stroke.

One of the most intriguing aspects of a tattoo is its own ability to travel. The character given in the introduction of James F. O’Connell is a great example of the many powers that a tattoo possesses. As Dr. Ellis writes of the origins of Pacific tattooing, “tattoo moved from the Pacific into the rest of the world” (Ellis 1). There is a certain amount of motion attributed to the art of tattooing. The motion of the repeated strokes upon the skin gives the design its shape. The tattoo then relies on the movement of the person. It forever travels with the person, assuming new opinions and definitions, both good and bad, as it is seen in other places. “O’Connell finds in the motifs an identity” (Ellis 3). This is seen in the description of O’Connell’s return to the States. In the Pacific, his tattoo was a sign of adulthood and placement, especially that of a lineage. However, in the States, the tattoo assumed a negative connotation of deviance and “otherness” than that which was accepted in the culture. This shows the enormous amount of power that tattoos have on people’s perceptions of other people. It is a type of language without words that prematurely dictates one’s opinion of another completely by vision without truly knowing that person. The notion of language has been seen before in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. He shows Marco Polo’s initial inability to relate his travels to Khan, ultimately relying on physical action and signals instead of words. In this same sense, a tattoo is an expression apart from words and regular language. It is a visible form of a culture’s effect on a person and that person’s own emotions and thoughts.

The tattoo presents a language in and of itself. One thing that a person experiences while traveling is the many different languages that comprise the world. In my own travels around Europe, I experienced Spanish, French and Gaelic or Irish depending on what region of Ireland you were in. Language is a key component of a region’s dynamic and of its inherent identity. Only hearing a few words from a given language, a person can often be identified with a given region. For instance, if someone overhears, “Gracias” it immediately triggers that person’s Spanish descent or some sort of Spanish influence upon that person. In the same way, a tattoo is a language in itself. Dr. Ellis writes of O’Connell, “He believed that the tattoo formed a text that could be read if only he could learn a new language” (Ellis 1). O’Connell was unable to read his own tattoo regardless of his ownership of it. He traveled back to America instilling upon the tattoo his own ideas of what it meant. This shows a tattoo’s changing nature due to people’s interpretations of what they see. Tattoos are also able to travel with respect to the past and the present. A tattoo has the ability to transcribe a region’s history into the present, thus preserving its past ideals and societal claims. This is seen when Dr. Ellis writes, “Tattoo encompasses history, genealogy, and cosmology, the distant past and the immediate present, and embodies the sacred and the physical” (Ellis 10). In other ways, tattoos are issued to commemorate a journey. Dr. Ellis describes Jerusalem pilgrims who obtained “Jerusalem crosses” as signs of their devotion. In this way, the tattoo remembers the motion of the person.

In my own travels I have come across numerous tattoos and have always been interested in them. I would have one of my own by this point in my life if I felt as though I had something worthwhile-enough to ink. I wanted to get one while I was in Ireland to represent my own “journey” but never came upon anything substantial enough for an act like that. A tattoo that I have seen personally and that fits this theory of its own language and motion crossed my path this summer. I was working in a seafood restaurant when a young man walked in with short sleeves. A few lines of words were seen extended past the shirt. After talking, he lifted up the shirt sleeve to reveal a number of other sentences and designs going left to right, right to left, up and down, and even backwards and forwards. The tattoo was a commemoration for him of the different things he has seen in his life that have affected him in some significant way. It is this type of design that I think expresses a tattoo’s ability for motion as well as for changing language. Depending on the motion of the eye, the tattoo would express a different event or a different story while also assuming a different type of expression of language, some being short phrases with decorations or symbols and others being completely comprised of words making sentences a short paragraph long. This particular tattoo expressed motion, both his own travels as well as the flow of the physical tattoo, while simultaneously creating a new language that describes the importance of the events that each witness views with a different mindset.

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