Self, Skin and Ink

Review of Chris William Martin, The Social Semiotics of Tattoos: Skin and Self. Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.


By Gary Genosko

Sociology and semiotics have long been cozy bedfellows. While there is no doubting the semiotic richness of tattoos, the methodological question about how to sociologically study the phenomenon in contemporary terms is answered by this book. Martin forges a hybrid approach that enlists discourse analysis, dramaturgical analysis, symbolic interactionism, and an in-depth ethnographic immersion for over a year in how meaning is made (from the material to the most abstract levels) within a community of tattooists and their clients. Martin’s site research in a tattoo studio and his role as unpaid employee (aspiring apprentice) and tattooee is succinctly defined near the outset. His role was “to aid in maintaining a unified perspective with the artist in order to fend off clients and their friends’ demands for greater power over the situation.” (43)  As a trusted confidante, Martin observed up close the strategic nature of one artist’s interactions with clients, and the fraught relationships this artist had with other artists in the studio, especially a new hire who suddenly left. Martin’s reflections on the situation are nuanced, as he is able to analyze how the disappeared artist’s “recipes of knowledge” were masterfully deployed to deceive others, leading to conflict on a number of fronts simultaneously; one of these fronts includes Martin’s experience of his own anxiety in receiving a full tattoo sleeve from him that did not initially at least meet his own expectations. 

Contemporary tattooing has been pushed and pulled by a number of larger economic forces, specifically the pressures of urban gentrification and the artification of the business. Taking a material semiotic perspective on the non-human actants of the tattoo studio, Martin meticulously describes changes in the tools of the trade – props like needles and their configurations and the new rotary machines and organic inks – and the changing nomenclatures attached to these. He then delineates typologically the styles and codes of tattooing, emphasizing several key factors. Tattooists tend to transit into the trade from formal artistic training, and Martin provides several significant examples of the institutionalization and legitimation of tattooing in museums and galleries, as it joins graffiti in the mainstream. 

Martin’s approach to tattoo culture is post-deviance; gone are the waterfront, prison and gang locales of yesterday, yet he doesn’t lose touch with the traditional relationships that informed the practice. In particular, some of the most engaging pages in his study concern the apprenticeship training system and the hostility that practitioners have towards tattoo schools.  He constructs a semiotic square that parses the combinatorial possibilities and tensions between art and craft, exposing the consequences of losing art for the sake of craft (becoming less popular), and gaining art while negating craft (providing an opening for tattoo schools and the erasure of the apprenticeship model). Martin never loses sight of the interactional artist-client relationship, and is insightful when it comes to explaining why some clients are turned down, to which he adds the influence of the Internet, and the tattoo enthusiast’s amendments to proposed designs that includes factors such as the permanence of ink, what to do about mistakes, and the growing business of cover-ups of existing tattoos. What to do about permanence in an impermanent world is a running theme. 

Utilizing a series of interviews with tattoo enthusiasts, Martin not only explains what kind of object a tattoo is, but why people wear tattoos. Tattoos are exercises in self-identity building in dynamic, processual and collaborative settings. Tattoos are as Martin points out “anchors of the self” (86) and they combat ephemerality, act as bulwarks against forgetting, and embody personal connotations. A skin semiotics must also pay attention to the distribution of tattoos over the body, especially at the visibility barrier of the hands, neck and face, as these augment permanence as they cannot be easily covered. Martin uses his interviews to underline cross-cultural influences in the symbolic content of tattoos and gender constructions, and conversations with several female enthusiasts enlist a robust Foucauldian vocabulary leveraged to expose their body reclamation projects and the fraught lines of intergenerational acceptance of tattoos on women within their extended families. 

Martin takes up one of the factors that helps tattoo culture thrive today, namely, its borrowing of artistic styles and histories. At the same time, one of the great virtues of his analysis is that he keeps artification flush with emotional investment. “Tattoo classicism” (147) is a concept he develops to signify styles embedded in art history, such as single-needle pencil styles that look drawn, portraiture in the photo-realist mode, and black and gray scale works. These styles help to make tattoos digestible for mass audiences and they help the profession attract institutional endorsements.  However, emotion is never far away. The aesthetic choices of tattooed persons are highly affective, and this is especially evident in cases of memorialization, but in almost every case studied, tattoos embody deep personal meanings. 

Martin aspires to the kind of ethnography that would highlight the real voices of tattoo enthusiasts who, despite an upsurge in popularity, he describes as a “growing minority.” (166) Tattooing has found a niche in the lives of millennials and in hipster subculture. More women than ever are joining the ranks of enthusiasts and artists.  Yet more work needs to be done on the emotional labour performed by tattoo artists in their interactions with clients, and this is high on Martin’s to do next list because it was one of his roles during his fieldwork to “lower the toll” (174) of such labour. In this spirit, then, Martin provides a few reflective pages on how he fell in love with tattoo culture in a stirring appendix.  

If the book has a weakness it is that Martin is willing to borrow from so many sociological theories, while overtly rejecting only one as ill-adapted to the task, that the balance tips away from close semiotic analysis into a sprawling attempt to apply select contemporary sociological concepts to tattooing in Canada. Still, The Social Semiotics of Tattoos is a welcome invitation to researchers in formation to consider fieldwork in a practice that is in flux, subject to trends, grappling with the eco-consciousness of its consumer base after a legacy of toxic inks, and weighing the costs and benefits of a lack of industry oversight.        

Gary Genosko is Professor of Communication and Digital Media at Ontario Tech University and the author, with Kristina Marcellus, of Back Issues: Periodicals and the Formation of Critical and Cultural Theory in Canada (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019). 


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