Ink / Tattoo. I always wanted to write about it, especially since I moved to Tokyo. A lot of things can be said about it – from its stereotypes to the problem of cultural appropriation of indigenous patterns, from its social meanings to its acceptance / non-acceptance in Japan. Yet, I never really developed some coherent thoughts on the topic, until now. Until I had a brief conversation with someone the other day about whether or not to get inked. The conversation got me thinking what it really means for me to have visible ink on my body, and what it means to have it specifically in a Japanese context.
Tattoos are no longer the mark of whatever archaic stereotypes they conjure up in your mind. Whilst living in London, I met more than a few doctors, bankers, and academics with visible ink.
I am one of them. I have a tattoo. It is on my wrist. A bird flying along the trajectory of Möbius Strip. Subtly beautiful – is what people usually say of my ink. Yet, the comment is often followed by a question. Why on your wrist? It is so visible. Don’t you need to hide it for work and for some other occasions? I understand where this question comes from. Despite the increasing popularity, in Japan, tattoos still signify some kind of outsider-ness – outside of societal norms, outside of whatever we think normal. I work for a government institution, and, I tell you, it is the microcosm of ‘normal’ Japanese society. Hence, the question.
To be clear, I know what is appropriate and what is not in this country. I know how conservative the institution I work for is. And, I know some people judge me, quietly or otherwise, when they see my ink, especially in a work context. It would be a lie if I say that I’ve never wondered what others would make of my tattoo, and of myself as one with visible ink. Yet, at the end of the day, I couldn’t care as less as I do about why others have inked, or for that matter, have not inked, their bodies.
When getting a tattoo, the question of whether I could hide it or not if need be, was not really my primary concern. I did not get a tattoo on my body to hide it after all. Nor did I get it to be rebellious, as a visual statement to tell the world that I excuse myself from whatever Japanese societal norms I feel uncomfortable with or I feel imposed upon me. Nor does my ink signify a special occasion, as a form of commemoration, because I am not built for that kind of commitment to one particular instance of my life. Nor have I gotten in on the fun with tattoos from my ‘wild’ days – well, whatever wild days means.
At the most basic level, for me, a tattoo – and, the act of getting inked – is idiosyncratic symbolism, a practice of using tropes, images, or words to represent abstract ideas or qualities for myself. As a symbol, my ink – Möbius Strip and a bird – goes beyond the spatial and temporal reality of my own. It brings me back to the past, but also takes me to the future, while simultaneously grounds me in the present. Generally speaking, there are, of course, so many metaphors of Möbius Strip and of a bird respectively. People interpret my tattoo in a variety of ways. And yet, for me, it reflects and implies something which, though thus variously expressed, is ineffable, something which, though thus rendered multiform, remains inscrutable. Ink is, hence, symbolical, and simultaneously idiosyncratic. As idiosyncratic symbolism, my tattoo holds my mind to my own kind of truth, but I know it is not itself ‘the’ truth.
Though absolutely personal with its meaning obscure to others, my tattoo is a symbolic representation of something. So, what does it mean to me? What does it symbolise for me?
In answering these questions, I should enter one qualification here. Clearly, there is a huge difference between symbolism of visible ink on my body, and symbolism of, for instance, the literary aesthetics developed by symbolist poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, or of intensely personal, obscure, and ambiguous references we see in the works of Gustav Climt, Edvard Munch, Frida Khalo, and other symbolist painters and visual artists. Precisely because ink is on my own body, its symbolism inevitably intersects with the concept of ownership and agency, with the sense that one’s body is one’s own (self-ownership) and the sense that one controls one’s body.
The idea of ownership goes back in classical philosophy, in an economic egalitarianism of the classical liberal notion of private property and land appropriation, which were developed against the backdrop of the fundamental concern for individual freedom and the claim about the necessity – or else, inevitability – of competitive property relations (yes, think John Locke, and his thesis). To put it in the simplest manner, it is the claim that we own ourselves – our bodies, abilities, labour, and by extension the products of exercise of our bodies, abilities and labour.
But the claim has its own problem. It has all the prerogatives of forms of subjugation based on, for example, social contract, or slavery. It reinforces the problematic relationship between property, individualism, and being.
For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is…With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism)
The concept of property in one’s own person, expressed as the right of person to have the integrity of her body, is quite a deflection from the liberalism concept. We don’t just own ourselves. We don’t just have the bundle of things. If we are inviolable ends-in-ourselves (here, I am following Robert Nozick), we have a certain right to the various elements that make up our selves. Such right, whilst setting limits on how we treat others, and vice versa, ultimately ensures that it is us to determine whether and how we use our self-owned bodies and their powers.
Surely, it sounds simple. But the matter is a little more complicated. My body is a female body, existing in the context of modern liberal state. Objectification of my body, my appearance, my female being, is so frequent that I sometimes feel as if I am losing my own body – of course, in a metaphorical sense. Also, I am a citizen of modern liberal state, wherein biopower of the state fosters human life including mine, transform my body into a biological problem, the sovereign’s problem that ought to be controlled (see my post on marriage and biopower). My own body is collectivised as the population, and regulated as the subject of whatever governing techniques the state imposes. Frankly, I feel as if my sense of owning my own body is somewhat curtailed, and by extension, my agency – manifestation of my capacity to act – is also curtailed.
Of course, as a being, as in Heideggerian sense, my agency is already preconditioned by the context I find myself embedded within. Then, the problem for me is twofold. First, my being is preconditioned by the social and political structure, the legitimacy of which depends on its ability to curtail the individual’s sense of self-ownership, and to forge quasi-right and quasi-agency of individuals that are complicit to the mechanism of power. And yet, I am absolutely aware that this very condition under which I exist right now is not the only condition available. I know there are alternatives. I know there are possibilities of things otherwise. And these possibilities, or even a thought of possibility, challenge what is conisidered normal, and make me rather skeptical about normality of that which I am embedded within.
To ink my body is, perhaps, to remind myself that I have the right to my own body, and that I have a capacity to act upon whatever I wish and desire to do with and on my body. And thus, it is also to remain, at least for me, in Japanese context, skeptical about the prerogative of the idea of ‘normality’ and our conformity with it.
In thinking about possibilities, it has occurred to me that tattoos also represent a kind of impossibility, or put otherwise, contrariety of being – the sense of permanence on my mortal body. I am guessing, one of the reasons why some people decide not to ink their bodies is the fact that tattoos will remain, unless you remove them, permanently on your body. To be clear, my question about permanence and mortality is not necessarily about a kind of commitment that getting a tattoo requires you. In retrospect, my choice specifically of Möbius Strip is very telling. Choosing Möbius Strip, which often represents infinity, as a trope of my ink, seems to reflect my deep interest in this philosophical, and perhaps also teleological, question about mortality of human body, and about permanence, seemingly though it may be, of our collective being.
Permanence and impermanence. Immortality and mortality. These pairings are often understood in terms of oppositionality. But, looking at these words not as mere oppositions, but as a single unified whole, I see that nothing could better describe a paradox of being, the very essence of human condition.
The modern sense of time, the single, secular, and linear historical narrative of human progression, and the temporalisation of our political, social, cultural, and religious institutions – these give us an illusion of perpetuality of human communiy. A collective life that transcends the definite, mortal realities of individuals. And yet, this transcendence – or else, our longing for that kind of transcendence – is probably rooted deeply in the existential understanding of our death, our mortality, within the temporal framing that evokes a sense of permanence.
But is the death at which Dasein [Being-In] arrives, a fulfillment in this sense? With its death, Dasein has indeed ‘fulfilled a course’. But in doing so, has it necessarily exhausted its specific possibilities? Rather, are not these precisely what gets taken away from Dasein? Even ‘unfulfilled’ Dasein ends. (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time)
Death signifies mortality of human being. But, no one can actually experience her own death. No one can experience the exact instance in which her being no longer subscribes itself to life, to the world, and to all the possibilities of being. So, perhaps, death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of our being. And, insofar as the notion of possibility manifests the idea that a present possibility will be and can be realisable in the future, hence embeds within itself the sense of linear temporality, death as the possibility of the absolute impossibility gives us a sense of almost perpetual continuity.
So, I understand the mortality of my body, of my being, under the notion, illusionary or otherwise, of permanence. And the visible ink that stays on my body for always signifies, on the one hand, everything that makes up my mortal being (my body, a sense of impermanence of my life), and on the other hand, everything that I cannot experience as a living being (my death, a sense of permanence).
Look, when I decided to get inked, I didn’t really think about all of these things with coherence and integrity. And, the point is not really to suggest that you need to have some profound reasons to get inked. You can get a tattoo to commemorate something or someone, or to appreciate the work of a particular tattoo artist, or to mark your cultural and social identity on your body. Or, you can get a tattoo just because. Tattoos are, after all, idiosyncratic symbolism. For the same reason, you don’t need to justify why you are against tattoos, or why you don’t appreciate this particular form of aesthetics, of commitment, of manifestation.
The take-away, if anything, is this: There is always something that symbolically holds your mind to your own individual truth, but you should know that it is not itself the truth. There are instances in which your right to your body, and your agency as an individual, are to be curtailed and compromised, because we are all socialised into a very modern social, political, and economic institutions. And, I think, a profound sense of agency and of self-ownership of your own body – a form of individualism, I shall say – that you have, or you develop, through whatever means that holds you to your truth, will provide you with a backdrop against which you understand the precondition of your being (life, death, birth, emotionality, aspiration etc.), and by extension all the possibilities you have within yourself under that particular condition of your being.