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Questioning Permanence: Would You Get a QR Code Tattoo?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What would you have tattooed on your arm? Photo by Janine Carney. Used with permission. Click image for photo blog.

Are you inked?

I’m not, though I’ve thought about it seriously and have a pretty good idea of what I would get and where I would put it—if I could work up the nerve to get in the chair. I’ll tell you one thing: It most certainly is not a QR code like Fred Bosch, who designed his tattoo to link to something new every time it’s scanned. While the idea is intriguing and presents an interesting re-imagining of tattoos in the digital age, it seems to run counter to the nature of tattoos.

Tattoo As Talisman and Symbol

The word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word “tatau” (wound) and the the Polynesian root “ta” (drawing), which neatly summarizes the history of the practice (1). Humans have been inscribing their bodies (and the bodies of others) for thousands of years for self decoration, to display affiliation, and for punitive reasons. The oldest example of a tattooed individual is 5,200 year-old Ötzi the Iceman, who was found in 1991 in the area of the Italian-Austrian border. He had several tattoos on his back, right knee, and around his ankles, which researchers believe may have served medicinal purposes—possibly a form of acupuncture before acupuncture existed (2). Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian mummies dating to 2000 B.C. And sculpted artifacts and figurines marked by body art and piercings provide clues that tattooing was widely practiced from 500 B.C. to – 500 A.D. (3).

Tattoos have been used to signify occupation, patriotism, loyalty, and religious affiliation. For example, there is a rich maritime tradition of tattoos, including initials (both seamen’s own and those of significant others), anchors, mermaids, fish, ships, and religious symbols (4). It seems that most seafarers in the 18th and 19th centuries entered the ranks of the tattooed with initials—possibly for identification purposes—before adding different imagery (5), reflecting what was popular at the time: seafarers born after the American Declaration of Independence displayed more patriotic symbols (e.g., flags, eagles, stars, the words “Independence” and “Liberty,” and the year 1776 than those born prior). And there are also some interesting superstitions tied to them suggesting that tattooing has been an important means of exerting control over one’s situation (6):

  • H-O-L-D-F-A-S-T, one letter on the back of each finger, next to the hand knuckle, will save a sailor whose life depends on holding a rope.
  • A crucifix on the back will save the seaman from flogging because no boatswain’s mate would whip a cross, and if he did, the cross would alleviate the pain.
  • A seaman who could stand to have a full rigged ship tattooed on his chest would automatically make a good topman.
  • Crucifixes tattooed on each arm and leg would save a man who had fallen in the water and found himself among 775,000 hungry white sharks, who would not even bother smelling him.

That last point might be a bit of a fisherman’s tale (what if it’s 774,000 white sharks?), but it serves nicely to show how deeply enmeshed tattooing has been with certain occupations.

Early Christians got tattoos of religious symbols. Tattoos were purchased by pilgrims and Crusaders as proof that they had made it to Jerusalem, serving as a symbol of witness and identification. The Church largely did not approve even though there was biblical authorization for the practice: While there is evidence that “God’s word and work were passed on through generations through tattoos inscribed on the bodies of Saints, like the stigmata on St. Francis of Assisi,” the idea that the unmarked body is representative of God’s image and should not be altered was persistent (7).

The Mark of the Deviant

Tattoos have also been associated with savagery and deviance. Greeks, Romans, and Celts used tattoos to mark prisoners, servants, and slaves. Civilized Greeks viewed tattoos as degrading and used it as a way to mark criminals and slaves who were a flight risk—the mark was placed on their foreheads or faces and were meant to help easily identify the individual. This form of branding is repeated elsewhere throughout time:

“Before the Civil War, ads in North America for runaway slaves distinguished three kinds of body marking. A ‘Negro’ runaway, if born and previously marked in Africa, would be said to have ‘country marks,’ in addition to scars from diseases, accidents, or beatings, and brands showing the name of the owner” (8).

It should come as no surprise that the Greek word for the resulting mark was stigma, bearing the same negative connotation as it does today. Punitive markings were then a means of control, serving as a record of power and subjugation, as is most clearly evidenced by the Nazi branding of Jewish concentration camp prisoners (9). They stripped the individual of their personal identity and social connections, and imposed an artificial identity that established ownership—you belonged to the nation.  In late antiquity, punitive tattooing expanded to include soldiers and workers in military factories of the Byzantine Empire, who were marked for identification to inhibit desertion, but in an interesting twist, these marks also served as an indicator of rank and were also viewed as occupational insignias.

This association with deviance has been hard to shake. When colonial expansion brought Europeans in contact with people among whom tattoos were commonplace and adopted by both sexes, the idea of the tattoo as a savage symbol gained footing:

“The tattooed body is first widely observed, then, as an artefact of Europe’s encounter with its ‘new’ worlds, initially the Americas, then the South Pacific. Images, descriptions and eventually ‘specimens’ of tattooed people had been brought back acros the Atlantic since the 16th century; among other exotica imported to satisfy European fascination with this first new world, two tattooed ‘Indian princes’ toured English and European fairgrounds in the early 1720s” (10).

Though the exposure did much to broaden awareness of tattoos and introduce Pacific and Asian techniques and styles to a larger audience, tattoos remained on the fringes of European society:

“Within a few years some Europeans were also taking financial advantage of the public fascination with exotically decorated bodies. Typically these showmen equipped themselves with sensational stories of adventure, kidnap or captivity to accompany and explain the origin of the elaborate tattoos they displayed. Among the earliest were Joseph Cabri, the first European known to have tattoos across his whole body, and the English sailor John Rutherford, who toured Europe in the 1820s with a dramatic tale of capture and forcible tattooing and scarification by Maoris” (11).

The stories, for the record, were by and large false, but they drew a crowd. These exhibitions would give rise to the “Tattooed Lady,” and while tattoos were slowly gaining ground in Europe as a form of self decoration, the activity was largely a male one and it was further stigmatized as criminal investigators used the marks to identify persons of interest—cementing the idea that tattoos were the trademark of the outsider. This perspective overlooked the ways tattoos have been used as means of personal identification by non-Westerners, and minimized the meanings that can be gleaned from the intricate designs.

Toward A Personal Brand

Tattoos can craft a personal brand. Photo by Janine Carney. Used with permission. Click image for photo blog.

Tattoos create a “social skin” that reconcile the individual with society (12). In African societies, for example, tattoos established local identity as well as status and membership in different social groups. In the Edo Kingdom of Benin, no male citizen could claim his place as a member of palace society without a tattoo. Similarly, Igbo scarification denoted age, gender, and political affiliation. And Kayapo body modifications are a social initiation to the larger social group because they are tied to life-cycle events.

Contemporary attitudes are changing—though slowly. The “tattoo rennaisance” that began in the 1960s identified by art historian Arnold Rubin marked shifts in practice and experience, including the establishment of tattoo artists as professionals, increased access to tattoos, a shift in iconography to include full body art and Asian styles, and the broadening of clientele. By the 1990s, tattoos had become fairly pervasive among the middle-class, normalized by celebrity use but still plagued by hints of disapproval marked by judgments about the morality of tattooed individual.

Sociologist Katherine Irwin has documented the experience of this disapproval as being rooted in a fear of deviating from convention, losing status among peers and relatives, and having success compromised. The basis of this fear is ill defined but perhaps we can understand it in terms of the punitive administration of tattoos. If you bore a tattoo as punishment, you were stripped of free will, independence, and identity. To be marked by several tattoos for this reason put you on par with hardened criminals. These social consequences may have survived in perception. In this line of reasoning, to seek a tattoo voluntarily is an impulsive act that the individual will regret, which contributes to a sense of and fear of disapproval. There is a concern that deviant behavior will taint the network because behaviors reflect the skills (or apparent lack thereof) concerning connected parties like relatives and friends. Still, the nature of tattoos as that which highlight the boundaries between the individual and society and between experience and representation persists:

“For some men and women, becoming tattooed marked a passage from one life phase to another. Potential tattooees often saw this passage as representing movement out of an oppressive phase and entrance into a freer and more independent one. This passage included such activities as moving out of their parents’ houses, graduating from college, or ending unsavory relationships. Because they saw having tattoos as a violation of female beauty norms, many women used their tattoos to symbolically “take back their bodies” from their husbands’ or boyfriends’ control” (13).

When forced on a person, as in the case of punishment, tattoos may serve as a means of control and branding. However, following these experiences, they can also be a means of reclaiming self and (re)establishing oneself within a social order:

In Brazil, on the Indian subcontinent, in Russia, and elsewhere, convicts marked by the penal authorities are known to reclaim their bodies by writing over the inscriptions or by displaying them in new social situations as a sign of resistance. Penal and gang tattoos often represent a coalescence of socially imposed and voluntarily assumed marks, gaining some of their power from the fusion of subjection and resistance. Similarly, sex workers are said to reclaim their bodies through tattooing, using their tattoos to confront the fantasies that others project onto them (14).

Irwin describes a type of mediation that occurs where tattooees work to establish the act of getting a tattoo as a thoughtful process (14). They use tattoos to commemorate celebrations marked by conventional norms, show consideration in choosing and emphasizing a meaningful symbol, are careful to select a clean, reputable establishment, and often—particularly if it is a first tattoo—will choose a discrete location. Irwin maintains that these steps do much to assuage the concerns of a conventional perspective.

Tattoos aren’t necessarily a way to break from the social order—as has been the fear—but can be a way to establish a deeper connection to a social group, as they have been used elsewhere historically. They are a way of of publicly sharing one’s interests, and the artistic quality of tattoos today does much to dispel the notion that they are ugly, antisocial tools. That is not to say that some people don’t get tattoos to be different, but this act of public display (even if it is only a representative display typically covered by an article of clothing) is an act of sharing an element of self and creating a personal brand. Individuals with multiple tattoos are engaged in creating a rich symbology weaving together meaning and experience utterly unique to them that may grant them access to multiple social groups.

So, About That QR Code Tattoo?

If tattoos are a personal brand, the QR code tattoo could potentially be an excellent branding tool. It neatly does away with concerns about iconography and can be discretely placed. It seems to lend itself to convention. It also offers flexibility: Imagine not having to to remove your ex-lover’s name from your body, and instead, just changing the associated image with your QR code.  It might perhaps be a really interesting way to get ink that doesn’t get old—tattoos that can grow and change with you. On the other hand, it seems largely depersonalized, which runs counter to the idea of being inked, and of having some visible sign of something that’s important to you that can grant you access to the communities to which you belong.

Show and Tell

Tattoos are sometimes deeply personal, sometimes social, and are always meaningful. They reflect who we are and what’s important to us.

So what would I get if I ever took the plunge? The Eye of Horus—though I’ll spare you the explanation why until I actually get it done. What about you? Do you have one? Are you thinking about doing it? Would you do it?

By the way, I’d be remiss not to point you to Carl Zimmer’s collection of science-themed tattoos, Science Ink. The New York Times feature on the collection shares several of the fantastic tattoos people have had done.

References:
Caplan, J. (1997). ‘Speaking Scars’: The Tattoo in Popular Practice and Medico-Legal Debate in Nineteenth-Century Europe. History Workshop Journal: HWJ (44), 107-42 PMID: 11619699

Dye, I (1989). The tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133 (4), 520-554

Irwin, K. (2001). Legitimating the First Tattoo: Moral Passage through Informal Interaction Symbolic Interaction, 24 (1), 49-73 DOI: 10.1525/si.2001.24.1.49

Schildkrout, E. (2004). Inscribing the Body Annual Review of Anthropology, 33 (1), 319-344 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143947

Notes:

(1) Caplan 1997:117.
(2) This article from the Smithsonian has more on the Iceman and Egyptian tattooing practices.
(3) Sculptures from the Jama-Coaque culture show piercing on the face and torso of men and women; Mayan figurines depict body art for royalty; and fourth-century Thracian vases show tattooed figures (Schildkrout 2004: 326).
(4) Dye 1989: 537.
(5) How did they get those tattoos? One potential method called for a thin trail of gunpowder to be laid out on the skin, or rubbed into cuts in the skin modeled after the design, and then ignited, leaving behind a black scar in the shape of the design. While researchers have dismissed this as a myth, it seems a likely means of getting tattooed given the availability of gunpowder on the ships (Dye 1989: 531).
(6) Dye 1989: 521.
(7) Dye 1989: 547.
(8) Schildkrout 2004: 323.
(9) An earlier version of this post omitted a reference to the tattooing of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Following comments below, a small change was made to include this information
(10) Caplan 1997: 117.
(11) Caplan 1997: 119.
(12) Schildkrout 2004: 321.
(13) Irwin 2001: 56.
(14) Schildkrout 2004: 324 – 325.
(15) Irwin 2001: 60-64.

 

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. scicurious 8:41 am 01/6/2012

    Love this post! Very interesting. Though I do wish you’d included something on tattooing of concentration camp victims during the Holocaust, it’s something that’s taken on a lot of meaning in modern Jewish life.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 8:48 am 01/6/2012

    Thanks so much, Sci. You’re right—I was remiss not to discuss Holocaust tattoos as a punitive action. It absolutely served as a means of control and stripped the bearer of identity, reducing them to a number. It’s my understanding that this was a bit of a double wound because tattoos are not permitted in Orthodox traditions. I’ll make a small modification to this effect. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about how these marks are embraced today, but I would welcome any additional comments that could help clarify this point.

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  3. 3. scicurious 9:09 am 01/6/2012

    Thanks! I was really wondering how people view them today, in particular, how survivors view them, and how their views have changed over time (if at all).

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  4. 4. jasongoldman 4:20 pm 01/6/2012

    As the grandchild of two Holocaust survivors (and the great-grand-whatever of half a dozen other survivors), I’d say that the relationship between those tattoos and survivors varies quite a bit from person to person…I’m not sure there’s a predominant viewpoint.

    For me, asking about the tattoo on my grandfather’s arm (my grandmother did not have one), was one of my earliest entry points into learning about the Holocaust. This seems common for people who are ~2 generations removed from the Holocaust (that is, grandchildren of survivors), as there are multiple kids books about it, variously titled something like “The Number on Grandpa’s Arm.” As the last remaining survivors continue to die, I’m sure this will change, and Jewish educators and parents will have to rely on other sorts of entry-points into teaching children about their history.

    Also, just to clarify, tattoos are not permitted at all in Judaism (not just for any one group of Jews), its just that some people (typically, the less observant) decide not to be bound by some of those religious practices. In other words, its not that the non-Orthodox are “allowed,” its that they’ve chosen not to abide by the rule. Perhaps its a trivial distinction, but I think its worth mentioning. The rule derives from a very basic mind-body (or soul-body) duality, where the idea is that our souls are ours, but our bodies are “on loan” from god, and we are therefore not to alter them.

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  5. 5. pberge 5:08 pm 01/6/2012

    Excellent article!

    I got my first tattoo just before my 32nd birthday to mark the transition from one phase of my life into another. Over a year and close to 30 hours under the needle later and it is almost complete. The tattoo has both artistic value and deep personal meaning to me. It is a permanent reminder of what I went through to get to where I am today and nothing that happens to me in the future can ever change that.

    This is exactly why I would never get a QR code tattoo. First, they have no artistic value to me at all. QR codes are ugly and I wouldn’t want one on my body for that reason alone. Beyond that, the entire concept of a QR code as a tattoo just seems ridiculous to me. Why would I want to limit who could actually see my tattoo to those with smart phones who flag me down and ask me to hold still while fumbling around trying to find their QR code scanning app? It all sounds very tedious and silly. What about the awkward, “Sorry, I have no cell reception, you can’t see my tattoo right now” conversations that are bound to occur. Inevitably there will be the Rick Roll tattoos and ones that link to images which have absolutely nothing to do with tattoos, or flat out advertising.

    If I really want people passing me on the street to visit my blog, I’ll get a t-shirt made up, or pass out business cards. If I want people to see a picture I put up on a website, I’ll pull out my iPhone and show them. The QR code tattoo is an example of something that should not be translated into the digital world. Tattoos should be about ink and skin, not smartphones. If someone wants to see my tattoo, the only thing required should be rolling up my sleeves.

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:00 pm 01/6/2012

    Jason, thanks so much for sharing your experiences and for helping us understand a but more about Judaism. Your point is well taken on the nature of permissions and observances and is applicable to all religions. The distinction between degree of observance may mark the lines where religious groups overlap with other social groups under the banner of religion—an interesting thing to consider!

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  7. 7. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:05 pm 01/6/2012

    pberg, congrats on your milestone tattoo! I imagine the process becomes a part of the meaning of the tattoo, and your sense of accomplishment. Maybe milestone tattoos can be talked about as a ritual of closure.

    By the way, those awkward conversations were brilliant!

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  8. 8. frankboase 3:49 am 01/7/2012

    I have heard that tattoos can now be done using small (tiny) glass beads that contain coloured ink. Apparently these glass beads can be dissolved using a laser, leaving no trace. maybe Krystal you could include a chapter on the technical future of tattooing?

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  9. 9. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:49 am 01/7/2012

    Interesting. Any tattoo artists out there who can confirm/discredit?

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  10. 10. killgrove 10:01 am 01/10/2012

    Great post, Krystal! I’m reminded of the so-called Siberian Ice Maiden (or the Altai Lady/Princess), a fairly rare example of a tattooed woman from antiquity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_Maiden_(Siberia)#Ice_Maiden). Dating to about 2,500 years ago, she had these amazing animal tattoos – and plenty of people have sought to re-create them on their own skin (e.g., http://catphi.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/1pazyryk_ice_maiden_tattoo_modern_version.jpg).

    To answer your question about QR code tattoos… I’d only get one if it were also art. For example, artist Gregoire Guellemin makes nifty QR codes in the shape of Mona Lisa, a skull, and others: http://www.behance.net/gallery/QR-Code-art/2766409.

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  11. 11. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 1:57 pm 01/10/2012

    killgrove, thank for the link! She’s really cool! I can see why people would want to emulate her tattoos.

    Following this post, I learned about some of the ways QR codes are becoming more stylized, so I guess there’s room here for artistic interpretation. I think the ability to change what it links to might be appealing because then it’s something that can shift over time. But I’m troubled that it just has a “big brother” kind of feel to it. I’ll stick with the Eye of Horus :)

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