It is important to remember that not everything we see was designed purely for our own gaze. Though many things may appear aesthetically pleasing, this may not be their sole purpose.
Cars can look nice, but even if they don’t – I am looking at you Fiat Multipla – they can still function and adequately carry out their intended purpose; to get a person from A to B. The same can be said of umbrellas, some are designer, some are styled really nicely, and some are ludicrous cat-like monstrosities with fake ears, but first and foremost, no matter how they look, they must perform their function of keeping someone dry. If it achieves that, the looks are secondary.
Too often we take the aesthetics and the image as the primary driver, the main role, or the most important function. Shoes have to look good rather than be comfortable, musicians have to be attractive rather than talented, and our food has to be served artistically on slate boards with decorative leaves and gratings, who cares if it only hits a five on the taste Richter scale.
It is this almost constant appeal to our most dominant of senses that seems to have led us to believe that anything in sight is designed for us to look at. The mere fact that our eyes can see it then means that it was meant to be seen by our eyes.
This belief, as I am sure you are aware, is illogical. It designates a purpose after the fact and is a narrow and naive way of seeking meaning from things.
The reason I am writing about this is because I recently met a talented young (non-tattoo) artist and illustrator named Izzy Hodge (check out her work, foxes and badgers galore, and who doesn’t love them right). Being the creative arty type that she is, I was surprised to hear Izzy voice her opinion that tattoos are essentially down to vanity.
Having only just met Izzy, I did not want to interrogate her position too forcefully, but it got me thinking, was she right? Are tattoos simply a vanity issue?
To be vain is to “have or show an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance, abilities, or worth”, at least that is the definition that I found online. Immediately I am aware that this definition does not sound like me and neither does it sound much like any of my tattooed friends. If anything my friends are quite the opposite, they are unhappy with their appearance and lacking in self-confidence, perhaps going some way to explaining the desire for ever more ink.
I would also fall in to this category; not entirely content with how I look, forever chasing that final piece of art, always looking to add to the collection. Rather than getting ink because I have a high opinion of my appearance, I get ink precisely because that high opinion is absent. I do not speak for everyone, but personally, I am still on a journey to become comfortable with my own body. Each new piece of art is a little step towards acceptance, each session is a necessary addition in order to reach my goal.
To say that tattoos are vain is to suggest that the art on someone’s skin is not for that individual, but for the public. The fact that the public can see it then somehow transforms a tattoo from being an individuals choice with its own personal meaning into a display of vanity, power, or beauty, for the world to marvel at and comment on.
The body may be a canvas, but tattoos are not designed for public viewing. Tattoos are a private collection of art that just so happen to get public attention on a semi-regular basis.
I imagine many tattoo enthusiasts and addicts would get ink regardless of the potential future audience. For example, if you were to work your whole life with blind people would you stop getting tattoos because nobody would ever see them? I very much doubt you would. Or if you lived in a cold climate where you had to wear many layers in order to keep warm, thus covering your skin from sight, would you stop getting tattoos? Again, I think the answer would be no.
Iceland, for example, is one of the coldest countries to live in the world. Temperatures in the summer are said to peak at 13 degrees Celsius and winter sees average temperatures of around -2 degrees Celsius. Yet despite these near Arctic conditions, Iceland has a thriving tattoo scene, with Reykjavik, its capital, playing host to its 10th successive tattoo convention in June of this year.
I do understand why people believe tattoos to be a vanity issue, and undoubtedly there are some people who choose tattoos based on how they will be perceived by others. Not so much wanting a tattoo themselves, but wanting to be seen as having a tattoo. In this former instance, Izzy, and others like her, may be correct in linking the ink to a sense of vanity. But to say that across the board tattoos are due to vanity is to over-simplify the issue and paint everyone with a brush that is only suitable for a very small percentage.
Izzy’s belief that you get tattoos for others to look at may be a case of the false-consensus effect; a psychological term for when people assume that their own opinions are normal and that others think the same way as they do. The fact that Izzy believes tattoos to be vain tells us more about her than it does about tattoos, and explains why Izzy has no tattoos of her own – she does not want ink, because she does not want to appear as vain.
I have been guilty of following this false-consensus effect as well. Recently I commented on someone applying make-up before going to meet their boyfriend. I believed that she was applying the make-up for the benefit of her boyfriend, but it did not occur to me that she could just as easily have been applying the make-up for her own benefit, which in fact she was. In this example, I was not only guilty of the false-consensus effect, but I was also guilty of the stereotypical patriarchal thought that make-up, nice clothes and jewellery were for the sole benefit of a man’s eyes.
If make-up is not an issue of vanity then other adornments which we add to our bodies surely cant be considered as vain either. Our hairstyles, our clothes, our ear and nose piercings, and of course, our tattoos.
On the issue of vanity and tattoos, I believe that the importance lies not in how you look, but how you see.
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This article was originally published in Skin Deep Tattoo Magazine issue 256.