The change in the population that practices tattooing is as old as the history of mankind itself. When you study the history of tattoo, you will find a constant switch throughout the centuries. Sociologists will interpret this vacillation as cultural changes in modes, styles and values. From a psychoanalytical point of view, the study of tattoos explicitly reveals the fundamental relation between the body and the signifier in its different facets.2.
One the one hand, there is the tattoo as a signifier that marks the body and initiates the subject in a social, symbolic order. As Jacques-Alain Miller says in Propos sur la mutilation, the practice of tattooing as a written mark on the body belongs to the ritual mutilations that have a socializing function. They realize a symbolic recognition of the body, which in this way becomes inscribed in a cultural, symbolic order. The well-known circular tattoos on the face of the Maori for example tell us the social status of the bearer: his place in the tribe, the history of his family. Roman soldiers got their tattoo when they had proven their courage so that they deserved to belong to the legion. Sailors got an anchor tattoo on their body when they had crossed the ocean, a swallow after their first 5000 miles. So their body told the story of their lives. Tattoo practices and their symbolic inscription regulated the relation of a subject towards sexuality and death. The ritual inscriptions inscribed the subject into the different sexes and regulated the question of jouissance in a phallic register. Tattoos accompanied the passage of the subject to the hereafter. It guaranteed a symbolic survival after death. In later times tattoos served in different periods as a status symbol to mark for example the nobility of the bearer.
On the other hand a tattoo – which comes from tatau, literally meaning a percussion on the body – is a mark on the body, a real percussion of the signifier on the body that marks an Other jouissance and leaves an indelible mark of that jouissance that has to be fixated and banished definitely out of any symbolic order. Roman soldiers were considered to be barbarians and were so marked by a tattoo to fixate this barbary and to prevent them from deserting. Slaves were marked with the tattoo tax paid on the forehead, so they could never integrate. Criminals got the inscription dog on their forehead, so that they were banished out of the community. The Japanese mafia finds its origin in this group of criminals with their tattoo, which excluded them from society. The whore of Babylon got a tattoo on her body as a permanent mark of her obscenity. A recent example in our history is the tattooing of a number on the arm by the Nazis in the camp of Auschwitz. It was a mark of another jouissance that needed to be exterminated. So throughout history, a tattoo has been the mark of the ‘undesirables’.
Instead of cultural changes, the permanent switch in the history of tattooing between agalma and palea reveals the double face of the signifier as a real Janus (ie: the permanent switch in the history of tattooing between agalma and palea reveals the double face of the signifier as a real Janus, and not so much cultural changes). The tattoo has always been a sign of inclusion, which concerns the signifier and its symbolic inscription, and a sign of exclusion, which concerns the signifier as an indelible mark of jouissance.
In a time of a decline of the Name of the Father and the great Ideals, the modern subject has to invent other practices in order to regulate his identity and his jouissance. Based on what I said before, the revival of the tattoo in its double function is thus not so astonishing.
We regularly encounter this in our modern clinic and we can see how it has become a very singular body practice. More and more subjects create their own singular design instead of using universal symbols. And although universal symbols are still used or even revive, they’re no longer used as a universal classificatory symbol on the male side of the sexuation. It concerns much more a singular invention to regulate an Other jouissance that has to be situated on the female side of the sexuation.
We would rather speak of an increasing feminization of the practice of the tattoo. Which is a much more interesting point of view than a statistical approach in terms of percentages.