Monday, September 06, 2004

Tattoos: Scarification and Atonement

Tattoos are a contemporary cultural phenomenon. Cultural phenomena do not occur in a vacuum but signify underlying meanings. What do tattoos signify? Tom Beaudoin, in his book Virtual Faith, argues that tattoos signify deeper religious meaning. Beaudoin says:
"Clearly, there's an economic dimension, and there's -- we choose to say that tattoo parlors are selling a product. Clearly there's a sociological dimension, which is to say, people want to be part of a crowd, so they get tattooed, but also, I think we have to ask whether there's a spiritual dimension, and what I began to suspect -- and this has been confirmed in the last six months of touring with the book and talking with young people -- is that this experience of being deeply marked, that is the experience of being tattooed, is a religious experience, however implicit. "And so the widespread interest in tattooing is evidence of a religious impulse, a religious quest, that people are trying to satisfy through these particular, secular goods. "And I must say, as I try to explain this to people -- this is not only my idea, of course. All sorts of religious traditions throughout history have used body markings and body piercings to express religious identity, and as I discussed this with young folks around the United States, many of them do find that that explanation has resonance for them, that this was a deeply marking experience, you might say, for them, an experience of permanence in a culture of flux."
So, while many get tattoos to be "part of the crowd," others find religious meaning in being "scarified." Beaudoin makes an analogy between this and Christ being scarred for our sins. For some, it may be that getting a tattoo is a way of being wounded for transgressions.
My own feeling is that there is a lot of woundedness in America that comes from our increasingly parentless generation and the accompanying feelings of betrayal and rejection. I meet the parentless generation weekly and see their wounds. Scarification as a way of atoning for the sins of others thus is a sad signifier of a particularly painful time.