Body art culture redefines free expression
The definition of art has been an area of contention possibly from the very first time someone hung a portrait on a wall. Over the years, countless talented artists and art appreciators have struggled to come up with a universally accepted answer, arguing for broader or narrower definitions of art according to their own beliefs about creativity and expression.
One definition that may be a little easier to pin down is that of body art. “That’s basically anything you can do to express yourself, using your own body,” tattoo artist Josh McQuade said as he bent intently over the calligraphic axe design he was drawing. “Anything body, hair, piercings — any way you can express yourself by using yourself.”
McQuade has been a tattoo artist for 18 years and currently works at Jester’s Court on Oakland Avenue. As he sketched at the front desk, a man entered the shop, bringing a gust of snow and a piece of paper clutched in his hand. He greeted McQuade and showed him the paper — it was an ornate dragonfly. An appointment was made and the man left, leaving the design for McQuade to study.“Everyone is different. You can never guess what anyone’s going to get when they first walk in,” he remarked.
The new customer seemed like the type to want a skull emblazoned on his bicep, rather than a dragonfly. This method of stereotyping that comes with society’s perspective on body art and tattoos often masks the meaning behind this art.
“This one probably has a story behind it,” McQuade announced. “It looks like a Maori style. Most of them have stories, but sometimes you get a kid who comes in and asks me to put whatever I want on him. I usually gave those people chicken wings.”
Jack London once said, “Show me a man with a tattoo, and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” People throughout history have used tattoos as a way of communicating something about themselves. Maori tattoos signified a person’s status and rank, marking rites of passage and significant events. Yantra tattooing in Thailand supposedly gives protection and magical powers to the wearer.
Over the years, tattoos have served as talismans, status symbols, family associations, and markers of significant events, and they have appeared in numerous societies all around the world.
Today in America, people seem to get tattoos for a variety of reasons, sometimes to mark a meaningful occasion or even simply as a way to acquire a new, distinct accessory. So even though they might not be used for magical purposes today, people still use them to express themselves. And though amulets and talismans aren’t often seen on forearms and necks, the occasional wizard makes an appearance. “I’ve done, like, 20 wizards a few years ago.” McQuade said, shaking his head. This influx of sorcerers probably coincided with the release of the Harry Potter movies.
Pop culture influences tattoo choices today as well. Many people use their bodies to show their interests, choosing designs ranging from wizards to band names to profiles of Michael Jackson and Bugs Bunny. Pop culture, religion, and loved and lost ones all inspire tattoos. Of course, people get tattoos for more serious and personal reasons as well. First-year music major
Hannah Roberts has the Greek letters alpha and omega on her wrists. “They are for no particular reason, but I had been thinking about it for a while before I decided to get them,” she said. “I knew I wanted something religious, and I thought through several different ideas before finally ending up with the one I have.”
Roberts confidently acknowledged that she thinks her body art accurately portrays who she is. On the definition of body art, Roberts’ response was similar to McQuade’s: “I think body art is simply decorating your body to express yourself. I don’t think it necessarily refers to tattoos.”
Piercings also have a long and extensive history and symbology, and people today have adapted this form of body art to include gauges, bars, and other types of metalwork. Most people today, especially women, subscribe to this type of body art in the form of ear piercing, although many others have piercings on other body parts as well — nose and navel piercings are also fairly common, and eyebrows, lips, or any other body part that can be subject to piercing can be spotted. Although not as expressive as a picture on a forearm, many claim that piercing is a form of body art as well.
Following this broad definition of body art, body art can also include procedures much less permanent than tattoos and piercings. Hair dyeing is a fairly common, inexpensive, and temporary form of body art. Many people dye their hair typical colors like auburn or blond, but atypical colors like pink and blue can also be a form of self-expression.
Recently, crazy hair colors have been appearing in high fashion and blogger circles. Proenza Schouler, Comme des Garçons, and Chanel have all featured models with pastel and neon hair in their 2010 spring or summer collections. Icy blues and cotton-candy pinks seem to be inspiring designers and fashion followers alike. But whether you follow fashion, are taking a tip from Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or have always secretly had a desire for unique and imaginative hair, dyeing is a fun way to experiment with your style and way of expressing yourself.
In spite of its relative popularity, body art is still a subject of contention in society. It is true that piercings and tattoos are very permanent procedures.
While some people take the use of art on their bodies seriously and plan the meaning behind each procedure, to some it isn’t extremely meaningful at all, and only a new way to add some excitement to their daily look, akin to a bold new haircut.
It has also been argued that unlike a canvas, your body is not a disposable medium, and it should not be treated as such. Many think that art should be saved for paper and pencils, not skin and needles.
A bad drawing on a piece of paper can be thrown away and a new one can be used in its place — what happens if a tattoo turns out badly, or if your feelings about it change in the next few years, or if you get it for the entirely wrong reasons?
Though this is an argument against permanent body art, it could also be used to support the opposite position. Doesn’t the permanence of the message, whatever it is, heighten the meaning and the experience of it as a whole? Whether a biblical quote or a smiley face, it’s an experience that can’t be erased or thrown away as easily as a piece of paper.
Whether you support the idea of body art or think that art should be reserved for the canvas, at least appreciate people who truly take the time and effort to try to understand who they are and portray it to the world.
Whether it be neon green hair or a dragonfly on a bicep, understand that someone is purposefully trying to convey something about themselves, and while Daffy Duck may not be the interesting past that Jack London had in mind, it’s definitely a conversation starter.