Tattoos and Identity: Choose not a life of imitation

Kirby Farrell | May 29, 2015

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Believe it or not, there’s actually a website(link is external) pitching “nine brilliant lyrical tattoo ideas that will have leave an indelible impression on your skin and your soul.” Even more astonishing, it recommends tattooing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ maxim Choose not a life of imitation on your hide. And to really hook you, photos show the slogan tattooed on body parts from breastbone to instep.

OK, it may be a fad. But if so, why this fad? At first glance the pitch is just a string of empty advertising words like “brilliant” that are a meaningless grunt of enthusiasm.  And “Choose not a life of imitation” sounds like a lame truism that Bart Simpson’s teacher would make him write a hundred times on the blackboard. How could such clichés send anybody to the tattoo parlor?

As if that’s not puzzling enough, the pitch is an ad. It’s selling not tattoos but an idea that lures customers—and advertisers that pay the website for your clicks. The site’s voice mixes friendly advice and bossy certainty like an ad for vitamin “supplements.”

Even more puzzling: the pitch is selling personal authenticity.  Choose not imitation is Polonius’s “To thine own self be true,” which in turn cribs from Socrates and high school graduation speeches. And it’s a mind-fuddling contradiction: Be truly yourself—do what other customers are doing.  Do what I tell you. What’s going on here?

For one thing, the friendly bossiness does put you in a flattering role. If you follow their advice, you’ll be heroically using your body to display your wisdom to other people for the rest of your life. Of course there’s a catch. By needling Choose not imitation under your skin, you’ll also be advertising sophomore wisdom like a sandwich board or Ronald McDonald. And you’ll be promoting the website and a tattooed pop rock band. It’s like wearing a cool teeshirt with a cool brandname on it. You’re an ad selling ads to get more people selling ads.

And why not? These days everybody’s marketing themselves in social media, only they call it sharing. On Facebook, say, you display friendly bits of yourself, and nobody expects a cry from the heart. Since Facebook sells your information to marketers, you’re working for them and advertising them. And since It’s a culture of Likes, and naturally you want to be liked, you can’t help selling yourself to Facebook “friends.”

But you want to be more than an ad in a world where intimacy means personal hygiene sprays and relationships are built on a high fibre breakfast. And the tattoo peddlers know it, too. That’s why they promise that their cool tattoo ideas will make “an indelibleimpression on your skin and your soul.” You’ll really feel the maxim, like facsimile pain in bondage play in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Is it all just vapor? Maybe not.

Choose not imitation isn’t logic, it’s a song lyric. And music arouses a halo of emotion: associations with significant moments. You “understand” melodies yet they’re not logical the way words are. They repeat, they build toward a climax. They can feel intoxicating and keep playing in your head without your conscious prompting. So the song lyrics can develop the enchanting qualities of a fetish.

We’re fetishists, you recall, when we attribute special powers to something outside of us: money, a new BMW, a rabbit’s foot, that beloved snapshot, a safety blanket. Songs have fetish power. So do tattoos. Jared Loughner tattooed bullets on his back to psych himself up for his psychotic shooting rampage in Tucson. For most of us, fetishes have a quality of play. Jared Loughner, poor devil, really believed.

With a tattoo you can attempt to capture the momentary enchantment and make itindelible. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tattoo could give you the feeling of the song, which could recover its special experiences which evoke, as Romeo and Juliet say, the face of heaven? Wouldn’t it be even more awesome if you’ve never had those feelings but wish like hell that you could?

But wait! as the ad says, there’s more! Tattoos get attention. And since the self is not a thing but a process, we need other people’s attention to feel real. Like oxygen, attention is crucial. This is one reason solitary confinement drives prisoners insane, and why romance creates ecstasy.  Even social media are good for a thrill of attention.

But how can you feel significant—heroic—if everybody is wearing your tattoo, imitating your Choose not imitation? It’s one of life’s routine illusions. We want to be heroic—which can be terrifying as well as terrific. But we also want the security and power of a group. Culture invents things such as teams to ease this conflict. On a team you can be a hero-worshiper around the team’s star player even as you and “your” winning team are also heroic.

In politics, the US is sharply conflicted about sharing identity as a team or being a lone heroic individual.  When we think about it, the usual balance falls apart. We’re more comfortable as consumers. In marketing, customers can be branded alike and buy the same product, and yet feel special about “my” face cream, “my” TV show, “my” music. The photoshopped glamor and ingenuity of marketing helps keep you enchanted so you don’t notice that you’re imitating a billion other bipeds.

If you’re at home in your inner life and trust your judgment, would you need a marketer telling you how to think?

One danger is that you may notice the illusion and feel empty. You look for deeper, more personal concerns. But nobody’s sharing deep experience on Twitter. In fact the language of inner life is increasingly screened out in a world of computer choice, where a life story is reduced to a decision tree: make the right decision, the right keystroke, and the program will take care of you. [1] You’re less likely to learn much language for inner life.

The marketers of choose not imitation encourage denial. They promise you an “indelible impression on your skin and your soul.” They’re selling lasting significance: heroic meaning that you can hold onto in a world of pixels, pills, and trivia. By giving your “soul” the “impression” of lasting significance, the sales pitch offers you nothing less than symbolic immortality. Marking yourself with the magic words is like reciting a mantra, over and over, in hopes that something meaningful will happen.

But then, why wait?  Put yourself in a conversation. Live your words. Make your own meaning.

[1] For more details, have a look at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201208/ambivalence-a…

Also Steven Quartz & Annette Asp, “Unequal Yet Happy,” NY Times, April 11, 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/unequal-yet-happy.html?…(link is external)

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And now available:  from Leveller’s Press and on Amazon: https://store.collectivecopies.com/store/show/Lev%20018(link is external)

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ABANDON explores letting go as a behavior and a fantasy about behavior. Abandon terrifies but also fascinates us with the possibility of getting access to hidden resources by throwing off inhibitions. Farrell investigates how the idea of running amok lurks as a style in movies, sex, gambing, sports, war, banking and religion.

 Helena Farrell
Source: Tacit Muse: Helena Farrell

“This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has re-framed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.  Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.”

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.

One Comment

  1. “It’s like wearing a cool teeshirt with a cool brandname on it.” Not to mention ensuring you’ll be a customer for laser tatoo removal when you’re tired of being a walking ad. 🙂

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