Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The New Tattooed Irishman

While vacationing in Scotland, my friends and I stopped into an Irish bar down the block from a mutual friend’s flat. In no time at all, we struck-up a conversation with an Irishman visiting Edinburgh on holiday. He did not identify himself (aside from his nationality) so I regrettably have no name to call him.

Bolstered by ‘Dutch Courage’ this Irishman soon brought up the IRA. It should be noted that nearly every Irish-American traveling throughout Northern Ireland, and occassionally the UK, will be assumed to be (by Catholics in part, but more generally Protestants) sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army. While I feel that, historically, the IRA was a necessity, its modern incarnation is merely a gang of thugs that terrorizes and abuses the people it was founded to protect and liberate. But despite my political inclinations, our newly acquainted friend was quite comfortable in announcing his own beliefs. And though he was out-going by nature, it was clear that this man was not one to entertain any political sedition, no matter how well meaning. Thus, I kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.

To go one further, the man (now totally in the bag) took off his motorcycle boot and showed us a tattoo of the Union Jack. It might be strange that an avowed hater of the crown would get a tattoo of its strongest symbol, but the tattoo was on the bottom of his foot. I’m paraphrasing here but his explanation was as follows: I have this tattooed on my foot so that every waking morning, when I step out of bed, I step on the Union Jack. This was a fascinating revelation to me and seems to synch-up strongly with several of the themes touched on in Tattooing the World’s Introduction.

It is unlikely that the tattooed man intended his tattoo to have any meaning aside from that which he told us. However, there is no denying that his act of getting tattooed and the tattoo itself have many layers of meaning. Perhaps the most obvious theme as relating to Tattooing the World is the idea of protest. It is clear that cultures throughout the Pacific, after being subjected to Western yokes, embraced the tattoo as not just a signifier of maturity, but one of liberation. Dr. Ellis writes, “Tattoo becomes a sign of protest, a banner of a sovereign people of the land” (Ellis 25). The Union Jack tattoo, similarly, is a sign of protest, though not as clearly demonstrated as the Marquesan practices. Rather than demonstrating his protest to the public, the tattooed man is affirming and physically validating his own beliefs. To thine own self be true, as it were.

Furthermore, Dr. Ellis writes, “Tattoo went underground and under the clothes imported by the missionaries” (24).The clothing acted in a way to camouflage the Tahitian tradition of tattoo. The Tahitian people utilized the clothes that were forced upon them in a manner that subverted the missionaries’ message. They turned the tools of oppression into agents of liberation. So too did this Irishman transform what he viewed as a symbol of oppression into one of spiteful rebellion. He took a symbol that is considered by many English citizens as representative of their highest glories and quite literally made it as low as possible.

Finally, the idea of tattoo as analogous to language is important. Dr. Ellis writes, “Despite these rich meanings, tattoo may not be assimilated into any language, whether pictographic, logographic, or script” (12). In this case, not only is the Union Jack tattoo analogous to language, but is in many ways stronger than language. The physical act of marking oneself with a symbol speaks more powerfully than any anti-English literature, be it from the pen of Thomas Paine, Wolfe Tone, or Gerry Adams.

After reading the Introduction, I cannot help but wonder what James O’Connell, the original “tattooed Irishman” (9) might think of this new tattooed Irishman.

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