Must it mean something?

Through The Looking Glass

Humpty Dumpty: What does it all mean?

`Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,’ Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, `but tell me your name and your business.’

`My name is Alice, but –‘

`It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. `What does it mean?’

`Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

`Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: `my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.'”

—– Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass, Chapter VI,
Humpty Dumpty

It’s no secret, I LOVE Lewis Carroll’s writings. I loved the Alice books as a child, before I realized how philosophical they actually were. And what does Humpty Dumpty have to do with being tattooed? Well, anyone who has even one tattoo has probably been asked by another person, “what does it mean?” There seems to be an implication too that getting a tattoo means something, that it must signify some event, some special person, or some feeling. The TLC tattoo TV shows Miami Ink and LA Ink reinforce this notion since every client tells you during the tattoo or at the end of it, what it means to them. Granted, a tattoo isn’t always a word or words, but can be a symbol (a picture or design, etc.), so that makes it slightly different to what Humpty Dumpty is talking about with names. However, what is at stake whether it be a tattoo or a name is meaning. MUST a tattoo always mean something? Can someone get a tattoo “just for the hell of it” or because they simply like the design, nothing more? I think so, god knows I’ve done it. Haven’t you? Further, must a tattoo mean only one thing? But this seems to imply that a meaning is fixed and concrete. Since even words change meaning over time, geography, and with usage (example that comes to mind is the word ‘pimp’), I don’t think any or all meanings remain fixed, and I don’t think most meanings are singular or simple. And who makes things mean what they do? I could open the door to Wittgenstein here, talk of meanings and usage, but I’ll leave him on the step to sit. Does any given tattoo mean the same thing always? The short answer seems to be: no, not always. Those people with a list of ex-partner names down their arm or chest, many crossed out, could pipe in here as I am sure the significance of the name (and the feelings) have changed. And then there are those who remove or cover a tattoo, and not simply because it was done by an untalented artist.

I could try to say that the meaning a tattoo has is purely personal, but even that isn’t right. When displayed to the public arena, tattoos become interpreted, and how you are treated by the public results from such interpretations. For example, you might tattoo a pentagram on your forearm because you love The Sisters of Mercy, but someone else who sees it might think you’re a Wiccan or even (ignorantly) a Satanist. And if the meaning was purely personal, there wouldn’t be an issue with someone getting a swastika or some piece of hate propaganda on their forehead. (I know a few artists who would refuse to tattoo certain things like swastikas on people, because they know the meaning would end up tied to themselves. There is a tattooing ethics at work, but that is another day’s topic.) Even when the public interpretation conflicts with the personal one, I think the question remains: does a tattoo have to mean something, and in this case is there one meaning more correct than another? I want to say ‘No’ on all counts.

Returning to Mr. Humpty Dumpty:
“`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.'”

Humpty Dumpty’s position on meaning is this: words/names must mean something, and that meaning is what I make. Of course, with words that would make it hard to communicate with others since we have no guarantee everyone would arrive at the same meanings for the words needed to be used. However, with tattoos it looks to work better: what you put on your body is defined by the meaning you give it, and that personal meaning is far more important than what other people think. After all, you live in your body, and they do not. Now, if you are a person like me who thinks not every tattoo or thing must have meaning, then you push Humpty Dumpty off that wall for bringing this up, and you tell him you meant it.


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