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A Psychologist Explains Why People Get Bad Tattoos

Clichéd tattoos are "kind of like a safety blanket to give your life meaning," says Dr. Kirby Farrell.

Photo via Flickr user Lindsay

Tattoos say everything you need to know about the society that births them—and America is witnessing an epidemic of bad ones. There are no numbers to back this up, probably because no one has thought to do this sort of survey, but it definitely feels like there are more terrible tattoos than ever. Everywhere you look, people are sporting clichéd branding, dumb quotes, exes' names (remember "Winona Forever"?), phrases mistranslated into foreign languages, and in one strange case, random buzzwords inked all over a guy's face.


In an effort to shed some light on why people keep getting barbed wire biceps and butterfly tramp stamps, I talked to Dr. Kirby Farrell, a University of Massachusetts professor specializing in anthropology, psychology, and history as it relates to human behavior. His latest book, Berserk Style in American Culture, discusses the vocabulary of post-trauma culture in American society.

VICE: What's your interest in bad tattoos?
Kirby Farrell: I'm interested mostly in what you'd call "the anthropology of self-esteem and identity." So I'm thinking of tattoos as a method people use to try to feel significant in the world. I do a lot of work with Ernest Becker—did you ever hear about a book he did? I think he won a Pulitzer Prize for it, called The Denial of Death.

Yes, I've heard of it.
Well, his basic argument is that we're unique among the animals because we're burdened with an awareness of the future, futility, death, and so on. We're constantly devising defenses. Culture is a defense against feeling overwhelmed or futile or doomed. Cultures are full of values and beauties that can make you feel as if your life is significant and has lasting meaning even though you know it's going to be limited. So you could say that tattoos are cultural expressions of of heroism or individuality.

So how does that translate in to an epidemic of bad tattoos?
I guess a lot of people would say they'd get a tattoo as a memorial to remember somebody or some event. For example, getting song lyrics as a tattoo. The phrases, of course, turn out to be unbelievably suffocating clichés. So they're urging you to be a strong individual by imitating all the other animals who are out there putting clichés on their skin.


So where do those two paths cross where, on one hand, people want to do something that brings out their sense of significance and self expression but end up doing the exact opposite by getting what we'd consider a "bad tattoo," or a "clichéd tattoo"?
I think the fantasy of being special and unique and important and heroic, which we've been talking about, is complicated by living in a culture that celebrates those values. We're constantly bombing other countries in order to preserve our "freedom," which presumably means individuality. But at the same time, our culture is intensely conformist. You have businesses constantly trying to imprint a brand on the public awareness. So, for example, if you're tattooing some nitwit cliché from a pop tune, like "I'll love you forever," or "Don't be an imitator" or something, in effect you're branding yourself with industrial entertainment, because rock groups, as we know, are basically money-making machines, fronted by models, funded by the entertainment industry.

So, why would people do that?
One answer is that we're incredibly social animals. You have to keep in mind that the self is not a thing. It's an event. When you're in deep sleep, the self doesn't really exist. The neurochemistry for being a self is not there. So from this point of view, we feel most real when other people are affirming us, and reassuring us, and reinforcing our identity. In all the social rituals you go through, like saying "Hi, how are you? Fine, how are you?" You don't really expect to hear any personal information. It's really just a confirmation that you both exist and acknowledge each other. So in a way, tattoos function in that sort of fashion. They bring attention to you and make you feel real, even if the attention is making you feel like a member of a huge group. A tattoo tells you that you are one of, as it were, a tribe of tattooed folks that are really beautiful and significant. You may even share symbols with somebody else! And at the same time, because of the branding phenomenon, it makes you feel like you're smarter than the next guy who doesn't know enough to buy your particular product, or your particular fashion.


"Culture is constantly tempting us with fantasies of uniqueness and heroism."

It sounds like you're saying that culture, itself, is cliché. So in trying to emulate social culture, we get these bad tattoos.
Culture is constantly tempting us with fantasies of uniqueness and heroism. You're tempted to buy something like a new BMW because it promises to makes you feel heroic on the street. You stand out from the crowd. The crowd—they're just ordinary people, they're gonna die someday and be forgotten. But everybody's looking at you, you're in the spotlight, you're the hero. And at the same time, if you adjust the perspective slightly, they're making ordinary people feel OK to be hero worshippers. You're invited to identify and admire the rich, the heroic, the prestigious, and if you admire them, it becomes "my music" or "my hairdo" or "my products." In effect, you share in the glamour with the fetishistic power of the thing you admire.

So then you're saying it's like getting tricked into a social hero worship movement.
Well, whether or not you're being "tricked" probably depends on how you feel about the validity of clichés and belonging. Like if you want to tattoo yourself with a line from your favorite song, almost certainly you're feeling a kind of emotional excitement and admiration for that song. A kind of warm, romantic ecstasy. You hear people say, "It has special meaning for me." It's a kind of emotional halo that's around this object.


Why is that feeling significant to our self identity?
I think largely people are frightened about the future and cling to some familiar ritual, some familiar tagline, some familiar cliché that you find meaningful. It's kind of like a safety blanket to give your life meaning at a period when maybe your morale is under pressure or you're really excited about something good. But the point is, in either event, the cliché doesn't seem to be a cliché. It seems to have some kind of special meaning.

Related: VICE hangs out with Scottish tattoo artist Valerie Vargas.

OK, changing the subject a little: Tattooing has been around for thousands of years, we're even finding early humans with tattoos. Do you think there is something inherent to human nature that makes us want to tattoo ourselves?
Sure. The cadaver that was found frozen and preserved in the Alps, which I think is about 5,000 years old—he's in a museum in Italy, you can drop by and say hello—the latest research shows that his body has quite a few tattoos on his skin. They tend to be abstract designs. Based on their locations, it's been hypothesized that they were there to distract from uncomfortable physical things like arthritis. Or possibly, that they have some kind of magical significance. If you think about it, from a certain point of view, as all of our behavior tends to be very magical in some ways. Imaging that there's some special power in your symbols, in your tagline, in your brand, that somehow elevates your mood, makes you feel stronger, more capable, better about yourself.


Do you think that's something inherent to humanity?
Sure. As people, we are regularly on the edge of an existential panic. Becker said that if you were to see the world realistically; just how vulnerable and totally insignificant you are, in terms of the cosmos, you'd go crazy. So you constantly need stories that build up your self esteem and make you feel significant, which is, of course, what culture provides.

And so bad tattoos are a representation of that self defense mechanism.
Yes, exactly. Its physical and artistic representations of values you can identify with. We're in this world now where there's a kind of recurring, sudden racism that we haven't really seen since the 1960s or even since the Civil War. Working conditions are extremely punishing, demanding, and depersonalizing for folks on the bottom. You don't really feel entitled to your own identity. So people feel especially pressured to try to find their own magical reinforcement for things that the culture is not really helping you much with. You see money and injury and death and guilt while people want to feel safe and feel like they're in charge of the world in terms of personal self-esteem and well being.

A lot of tattoos seem shortsighted. How do people rationalize the permanence of a tattoo in relation to their own mortality?
A lot of people, especially when they're young, imagine that they're going to be young forever. After all, if the magic that we're talking about in culture really works, then you can feel invincible and immortal, so to speak. And its kind of cliché that teenagers imagine that they're going to live forever; that's why they take crazy risks and do drugs and so on. They can't imagine that they're gonna grow up and look differently than the cultural ideal. You never have to worry about being sick or infirm or in trouble. You never have to worry about being older and having to come to terms with diminishing prospect, diminishing powers, diminishing fantasies.


Do you think that is a reaction to fear or that is an actual obliviousness because of a lack of age?
Well, wouldn't you guess it's both?

I suppose so.
That you're afraid but you don't want to admit you're afraid because it could damage your fragile morale. A damaged morale makes you less effective, less secure, less productive, etc. So you just deny that you're afraid. Probably the basic mechanism of culture is to pretend that everything is just rosy and you're not afraid.

But we are afraid.
Yeah, absolutely. You're dealing with a moment in which people seem to be so hungry for self-esteem and approval and confidence that they're willing to say and do really bizarre, or silly things, because it makes them feel different. It makes them feel unique and significant and alive.

You can find Kirby Farrell's latest book, The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture, here.

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