Written in the Flesh—The Transformational Magic of the Tattoo

 

To tattoo one’s body is merely one of the thousand ways of conjugating the verb ‘to be’ that fundamental concept of our metaphysics—Michael Thévos

 What lies deepest of all in man, is the skin—Paul Valery

 

In the last several decades both in academic circles and as a method of healing, analytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with its central focus on the unconscious and the multilayered psyche, has decreased in popularity. Seemingly, reflective of the current zeitgeist, cognitive therapy with its narrow focus of symptom reduction, has taken the lead. In the popular therapeutic discourse, symptom relief, has replaced symbolical understanding of the symptom—the symptom understood as an access point to unconscious and potentially transformative aspects of the personality.

In contrast, tattoos, and other forms of body modification, as a method of healing (having been utilized for centuries to cure arthritis, to express autonomy, and to connect with higher and sacred curative powers), have increased in popularity. Seemingly reflective and reinforcing of a zeitgeist which emphasizes the innate metaphysic of becoming and memorializing that metaphysic on the surface of the body, tattoos have made an explosive impact. Currently, tattoos creep like vines on the arms, legs and torsos of many, unabashedly and comfortably crossing gender, educational and social barriers.

In fact, ink art has exploded, and now according to research studies 15 to 38 percent of Americans have some kind of long-term body art. What was once considered self-mutilating behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become the cure. Body art is on the move, and for the first time in history American women are more likely than men to get tattooed; 23% have tattoos as compared to 19% of men; and 14% of men and women have two or more. It is a now a credible hypothesis, that the increase in body modifications have arisen to fill the vacuum left by the loss of a symbolic and metaphorical connection to the unconscious.

Tattooing and the process of tattooing brings the emphasis back to the body, the skin, and most directly to the multi-layered psyche as a focus of interest. In fact, except for psychoanalysis, little in my opinion more directly connects the body, and corporality to interiority and the Self, than various forms of body modification. Privileging the body, always privileges psyche; modifying the body, often awakens and strengthens linkages between consciousness, and the unconscious psyche.

Although many express the importance of the surface appeal of their tattoos, rarely does the narrative end at that point. Most, who tell their stories, weave an intricate connection between the tattoo of choice, the story of its healing potential, and its connection to the never-ending project of self-expression and transformation. “Written on the skin—the very membrane that separates the self from the world—tattoos are diary entries, public announcements, conversation pieces, counter-cultural totems, valentines to lovers, memorial to the dead, reminders to the self. They are scars and symptoms, mistakes and corrections.  Collectively they form a secret history of grappling with the self in relationship to body….” [i] In fact, tattoos often directly transform the place of profound wounding, (from sexual assaults, to deeply invasive or deforming surgeries) sealing and containing them, reclaiming the body for the Self and initiating a generative process within.

The defining feature of tattooing is the making of indelible pigmented traces which are inside or underneath the skin behind what seems like a transparent layer. When in tattoo, the skin is transformed, and gives its own half-life over to a newly “living” image. This underscores the tattoo’s potential to effectively represent the interior of the psyche. It is the transformation of an area of the skin into an image (or script) which appears to elevate the tattoo to a form of psychic expression. This combined with choosing a particular image, and designating a particular placement on the body, places the power in the hands of the person who is experiencing something internally and makes choices. These choices result in a physical permanent mark on the skin, and a potential point of deep connection with the unconscious psyche.

One can conceive of the process of tattooing as a converting of the skin into a “ritual space” for healing.[ii] The tattoo and the process of tattooing, despite its conversion into a sanitized and modernized process, remains a form of corporeal transformation. What is external is transformed into something internal to the subject; and memory, a critical property of contemporary self-identity, is externalized and fixed upon the skin. Accordingly, tattoo artist Vkyvyn Lazonga claims that “getting pierced and tattooed tends to develop a person’s awareness of memory; the piercings or tattoos become points of reference that reinforce the self and history, and such practice do more than merely ‘remind’ or ‘reinforce’, they may also elicit who the person is or is becoming. In this sense they evoke, not only the registration of external events but internal depth.” [iii] Chinchilla, the British tattooist adds that, “everything that she inks on people is already inside them…she only opens the skin and lets it out.” [iv]

What is central to the conversion of the skin to a vehicle of psychic transport is what Alfred Gell, in his account of Polynesian tattooing, has termed the, “technical schema” of tattooing: “the puncturing, cutting and piercing of the skin; the flow of blood and the infliction of pain; the healing and closure of the wound; and the indelible trace of the process, a visible and permanent mark on, yet underneath the skin: ‘an inside which comes from the outside…’ the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior.” [v]

 Central to this process, is both the intentional wounding, the opening and then closing of the body, and the pain. Pain is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of the process of body modification and psychic penetration. Such practices speak to important and powerful concerns around flesh (body) and Self, linked with these processes of bodily inscription. Lacassagne[vi] speaks of these tattooed marks as “scars that speak”. I would add here, these are scars that not only speak, but in so doing, create a dialogue between inner and outer, and between interiority and exteriority.

This method of theorizing about the tattoo, is interesting as it captures a quality of the paradoxical and turns on the idea that there is an interaction or play between the “interior” and the “exterior” aspects of the tattoo, and the indelible mark that is simultaneously on and under the surface of the skin. This play of opposites, inside and outside, symbolic and corporeal and their interaction creating something new, underscores Jungian thought, and provides a context with which to explore with our analysands, (a population already involved in symbolic work) how tattoos function within their own internal-external processes, and opens the question, if this population, requires bodily inscription less than other groups.

In this context, it is interesting to understand, the moment when an analysand already involved in a deep symbolic connection to psyche, develops the need to have an indelible pigmented mark carved into their skin. Is that a moment akin to how Jung imagined the “big dream,” a notification from psyche of a momentous transition in the person’s life? Culling from the many narratives surrounding tattooing, I think this may be true.  But, if this is the case, the question arises as to why some analysands are called to mark the occasion in this way; why is it that he or she are called to have it, “written in the flesh”; and how does this act impact the on-going treatment? Cultural and social changes, provide the opportunity for those who seek analysis to feel comfortable tattooing, but this is clearly not the whole of what is involved. The link between the metaphorical connections involved in body modification, and the generative movement of psyche appears to be a fruitful area for further study.

[i] Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion, 2013, p. 147.
[ii] Lars Krutak, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, p. 8.
[iii] V. Vale and Andrea Juno, ‘Introduction” in Modern Primitives, ed. Vale and Juno, p. 5.
[iv] Tattoo International, CLLV, November 1994, p. 11.
[v] Alfred Gell, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, 1993, pp.38-39, quoted in Susan Benson, “Inscription of the Self: Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing,” p.237…in Caplan, Written on the Body.
[vi] Quoted in Ibid p. 237.

Author
Joan Golden-Alexis, PHD, is a clinical psychologist, and certified Jungian analyst, practicing in New York City. She is on the teaching faculty of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian analysts, the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association of New York, and the clinical faculty of Yeshiva Graduate School of Psychology. Her practice consists of individuals and couples. She can be reached at drjgolden@earthlink.net.

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