The art of script

Kat von D's lower belly speaks

In late September, the National Post published a story about the popularity of script-style tattoos (thanks, Brian). Aside from the mention of our old friend Megan Fox, other names dropped on the page include Kat von D and Susan Sarandon — women who have tattooed words, initials, or phrases on themselves. There is even mention of a woman who put an entire alphabet on herself. From what I can gather in the article, there is not much love for the trend radiating from this author. In fact, the author almost seems to be saying that words, or the scripts used to express them visually, are not proper tattoos and not art. I gather this from statements like: “But why not write meaningful mottos in a diary, on a Post-it or on a Facebook wall? Why place them permanently on the body, and often in places where they can’t be read (save for in a mirror — where they’ll be seen backward)? Are we as a society so exhibitionistic that we must show off our inspirations, so amnesiac as to forget the words that mean the most to us unless we mark them on our skins?” I had to calm myself to prevent the massive rant of profanity that was forming in my mind. I’m much better now. However, right off the bat I take high offense to a few things implied here: (1) placing words of inspiration on FB is less exhibitionist? or equally exhibitionist? WTF? I tend to think it’s more shallow and completely, utterly, intensely exhibitionist to post inspiration on FB than on my own body. FB is entirely for the social, it is entirely about how you appear to others and how you want to appear to others, and a lot less about the individual in their own personhood. A tattoo is all about the person, all about the individual in his/her own skin. Now, I’m not saying there are not people out there who get tattoos to show them off, but I would argue the majority of tattoo bearers would say it’s not all about display for the public — it’s personal enjoyment. Even if no one ever saw the words of inspiration the person bearing them knows it’s there, knows why, and is the one gaining the benefits from it. A person CHOOSES to reveal a tattoo to others, and that person often doesn’t care what others think. (2) Just because Fox (and a few hollywood elite) does a ‘show and tell’ for reporters about her inspirations doesn’t mean all of us with words tattooed on ourselves are exhibitionist. Don’t go there.

Why shouldn’t one put words of inspiration on themselves permanently? Are words of inspiration really that different from images or portraits of inspiration? Are words not as aesthetically valuable as images? Do words somehow express less than a picture? Given how artistic and sculptural some fonts are, it is hard to believe they would not be considered art, (e.g., Manuscript Illumination, Japanese or Chinese calligraphy …. really, not art? Fuck me.) Note: I am not just being argumentative because I have words on my own body. I actually think anyone who wants to say that somehow words are less ‘worthy’ of being tattoos or express less than images is full of shit. Words or letters can be art. Monks around the world proved that ages ago, as did calligraphers of other cultures. And given the comments made about Fox in the article (i.e., Fox cannot see her quote on her back), I have to ask: do we have to see the words on our bodies for them to have meaning (aka does she have to see it all the time for it to have meaning)? And does one tattoo words on themselves in order not to forget them? Ummm … ‘NO’, on all counts. Written words are visual representations of meanings, personal ones and meanings we share as a community of speakers/writers, and hence they have as much value as art or anything else. And words of inspiration can continue to be inspiring, whether i keep them close on my body or in the book. What is so wrong with wearing inspiration, wearing something that makes me feel good and maybe a better person?

If we use the picture from the article of Kat von D (pasted it above), her “Hollywood” in lipstick tells us a lot. The fact that it is in lipstick, red lipstick at that, says she loves the glitz and glam of hollywood. I’d even say by the font and the choice of classic red lipstick, she loves old Hollywood as much as the present day Hollywood. The placement is very feminine and sexy, it can hang out of a pair of low jeans and/or a short shirt if she wishes to show it off (as in the pic), but not in a vulgar way demonstrating she’s a rocker girl with some taste and class. The tattoo makes me think of a vibrant, bold, youthful woman, who enjoys femininity and glamour, and isn’t afraid of some pain for glory. Now, I got all that from one word … a word which actually speaks like an image, and resembles a picture. A word can stand for many things, and bring about many feelings, most important of which is what the word means to the body who wears it.

Let’s take the argument farther. Words are made up of strokes, aka lines. The tattoos of the Maori (Ta Moko) resemble black lines and yet they are much more than just a bunch of lines on the face or body. The tattoos of a Maori member detail rites of passage, life events, social status and rank, personality traits, and were considered a thing of beauty and attractiveness. In other words, the lines are more than lines — they tell a story in the same way a picture can. Maori tattoos served as an ID card does today, as detailed here:

The male facial tattoo – Moko – is generally divided into eight sections :
1. Ngakaipikirau (rank). The center forehead area
2. Ngunga (position). Around the brows
3. Uirere (hapu rank). The eyes and nose area
4. Uma (first or second marriage). The temples
5. Raurau (signature). The area under the nose
6. Taiohou (work). The cheek area
7. Wairua (mana). The chin
8. Taitoto (birth status). The jaw

“Ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father’s side, while the right hand side indicates the mother’s ancestry. Descent was a foremost requirement before a Moko could be undertaken. If one side of a person’s ancestry was not of rank, that side of the face would have no Moko design. Likewise if, in the centre forehead area there is no Moko design, this means the wearer either has no rank, or has not inherited rank.” ( So, those lines do mean something more than what they appear … they tell you a story, almost like words do, about the one who wears them proudly. And as much as the Maori member wears them to display his rank and details to his community, he also wears them as self-achievement, a reminder filled with inspiration and the journey he has travelled.

Maori Face Tattoo Map

The Maori face map: My face tells my story

I’m not saying all words or phrases make great looking tattoos: some fonts don’t translate well onto skin or age well, and some phrases might be too long for certain body placement. Aside from the font issue which might be a tattoo artist considering what is best for his/her client in the long run, the rest is really about personal choice and taste. It’s not for others to say what you should get tattooed on your body. If you want to tattoo Kant’s Transcendental Deduction (A & B) from his Critique of Pure Reason on your ass in German Fraktur script, then that is your right as an individual. Maybe Kant’s CPR awoke you from a dogmatic slumber caused by Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, and prevented your philosophically inclined suicide, or maybe you find the words a thing of beauty (just make sure you feel this way sober). Maybe you want to remind yourself every day of how far you have come, and where you are headed. I just don’t think it’s right for someone to start dictating what a proper tattoo is and isn’t, setting up arbitrary aesthetic standards for an art that should be dictated by personal taste and identity, and aesthetics agreed upon by the artist and the recipient. In short I am saying this: No art dicks allowed, take your bias and rules some place else.

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