Transformation in Memoriam

My Maneki NekoI will admit, I have never been a fan of “in memoriam” tattoos … for myself that is. I mean, I understand why people get them and that, for some, they can bring comfort and joy. But, for sentimental little me, it just would be something that would make me feel the absence and loss more strongly, and on a daily basis, rather than any positive benefit. So, with many beloved friends and family having died during my life, I’ve been content to look at pictures or home movies, and reflect on my memories of my time with them rather than ink something in memoriam on my skin. This being said, I do think the tattooed body is filled with ‘moments in time’ captured in ink; many of the tattoos on my own body reflect a special time in my life, or a certain mindset, or a moment of self-defining – almost like wearing a colourful photo album and biography on my flesh. In this way, I guess one could say tattoos are ‘in memoriam’ to moments of life gone (aka no dead people required). Maybe. But I digress.

On Friday of last week I lost one of my dearest friends to cancer. He was 16.5 years old and he was with me for over 15 years; by my side, snuggling, inspiring, zen-ful, loving, purring and always meowing. Mr. Mog, my big ginger buddha, died of natural causes related to a cancer that metastasized in his lungs. He stopped breathing – oxygen stopped flowing to his heart and brain, and he died on the floor in the vet’s office right in front of me. Mr. Mog had an adopted bother who died in February 2011, the day after Valentine’s Day to be exact. Herr Kohl was a mere 10 years old, and he had to be euthanized because of a neurological disease that was swelling his brain and causing horrible seizures and paralysis. Both my boys were rescued, one from the human society and the other from an apartment he was abandoned in by a negligent woman – both now gone, and even being the existentialist i am i can confidently say both are at some kind of peace in that they are no longer suffering. As much as I have come to terms with all of this, I miss them terribly. They were loving boys, and quite the little characters.

I don’t bring this up to make anybody weepy, but rather as context for what I will next say. One of my tattoos seems to now have become an ‘In Memoriam” – it has transitioned from an inspiration to a signification, and completely without my intention. I noticed this the other day when i got out of the shower and caught a glimpse of my upper back. In the middle of my upper back, I have a Maneki Neko tattoo – the Japanese beckoning cat, something one sees in many Asian stores and restaurants. I’ve always loved those little figures, they make me smile. Mine has his right paw raised high, he is tri-coloured (orange, black and white), and his gold coin has the Japanese symbols for love and harmony inscribed (the two things I need the most luck with in my life, the two things i can honestly say both cognitively and philosophically constantly escape my full grasp …. I cannot be alone here). When my artist and I were drawing this guy up, I wanted to use both Kohl and Mog as inspiration: Mog’s round body and facial expression, along with his orange and white colourings, and from Kohl the black and white coloration, and a largely white belly. Mac, having been my artist for years, drew this design up PERFECTLY and EXACTLY the way I wanted it – so amazing. In doing this, in taking inspiration from my feline boys, I ended up giving myself a tattoo that would eventually, inevitably, turn into a memorial tattoo, even though I did it completely unwittingly. As much as I knew my boys were mortal, nothing supernatural or eternal about these lovely kitties, I guess it never crossed my mind that one day they’d be gone. Or, rather, it was something I didn’t want to think about. Why make myself overly existential and depressed … and rather all goth about things?

There is irony here, and it relates to Gadamer – one of my favourite philosophers. As you probably know if you read this blog, a few weeks back I gave a paper on Gadamer (Hermeneutical Aesthetics and the Art of Tattoo) for the Association of Art Historians, and I’ve also blogged on Gadamer before on this very topic, and I have an article on this very topic appearing in a volume on Tattoos and Philosophy … my point is Gadamer has been very present in my philosophical mind for a long while now. As much as I am rather Kantian at the moment, Gadamer is never far from my thoughts. But I guess I never extended his words on ‘Art as Symbol’ to myself, I never took the self-reflection to its farthest extent – it never smacked me in the face, until now. To refresh, art as symbol: “… a work of art is never fully exhausted by the symbols that carry it, but does not exist apart from those who or that which sustain it. The symbol resonates with suggestions of meanings, and at the same time we are also presented with the notion that not all is given to us. There is an excess of meaning in an artwork, and simultaneously there is the promise of more meaning, and the promise of there being other meanings.” My tattoo has evolved in meaning in that it has taken on more meaning, a new status I guess you could say – the ‘in memoriam’. The death of my oldest feline friend has revealed, through self-reflection, that my tattoo is a reminder of his life, of Kohl’s life, and what they brought to mine. They inspired the tattoo in its design, and so they are inextricably bound up in its meaning. This is not to say that my Maneki Neko won’t take on more meanings later or evolve in other ways of significance, but as of right now it has come to mean both a traditional Japanese symbol of luck (for love and harmony), AND a symbolic visual of the two feline friends that are now gone from my life. I guess another lesson to learn from Gadamer is that act of self-reflection that comes about with art as symbol, or here tattoo art as symbol, is also itself sublime – the tattoo’s meaning and the self-reflection one will encounter are never complete, never fully understood, and there is promise of more to come and with new understandings.

Maybe there is harmony to be had in this – I get to remember my boys, treasure my time with them, and discover more about myself. There is definitely love there, for the furry feet I now miss.


More Kantian Tattoos, But This Time a Different Angle


Last time I talked about Kant and tattoos, I took stuff from the 3rd Critique. This term I have been back to teaching the 1st Critique again, and the more I think about it the more I think I can actually bend it to tattoos as well.  

One of the most famous distinctions in the 1st Critique occurs during the discussion of Space and Time in the Transcendental Aesthetic.  When Kant speaks of these pure forms of intuition, how they apply to the manifold of chaotic sense data that floods in through your senses, this is the flood of stimuli that later becomes processed through the imagination, then the pure forms of the understanding, and finally unified by the original unity of apperception (the I), resulting in a cognitive output by a being with a unified consciousness …. Kant first mentions his famous distinction results known as phenomena-noumena. Basically, the pure forms of space and time as well as the pure concepts of the understanding can only apply to empirical data that has come in through the senses, and what results (the unified cognitive output) reflects the process it has undergone – aka since it has been processed by a being with 5 senses, 12 categories (pure concepts of the understanding), a spontaneously creative imagination and rule-oriented faculty of understanding, the resulting ‘picture’ has boundaries – the apparatus that assembled it has set the shape. So, if objects in the world have stimuli for 13 types of senses and 5 dimensions, maybe a trillion colours, we simply cannot know these aspects because our cognitive apparatus cannot pick up or process those cues. I will flag the word ‘know’ here, since he is talking about what we can known, not what exists. Kant is leaving room for the fact that there maybe many things about the world we simply cannot perceive or process through our 5 senses and human brain, not yet anyway (we have yet to evolve more senses or apprehension of more dimensions). So many people have taken this distinction to be metaphysical when in fact it is largely and intended to be mainly epistemological:  these two distinctions are actually two aspects of the same reality, speaking to what we can know of reality, not what exists or the status that thing has in the world. If a creature could only see in black and white, and two dimensions, then their picture of the world will be composed from that. Now, I’m not saying Kant didn’t make some claims that sound rather metaphysical … he did at one point say noumena cannot be in space and time. He should have just shut the fuck up and said we cannot know – end of story. But I digress…..

Participating in a tattoo art history panel all day got me to thinking about several threads, one of which I will discuss now. What can a phenomena be?  The normal answer usually consists of mental contents or ideas that form as a result of the stimuli, but I think what we overlook is the question of where meaning fits in here.  Is meaning phenomena or noumena? If it is phenomena then it is entirely knowable by us and if we take a literal understanding of Kant, it would be a subjective cognitive creation, rooting in some type of objective validity and be something we can judge.  If it is noumena, then it is described as unknowable to us and independent of our minds, acknowledgment, and our language or art.  If we take tattoos, both notions here are unsatisfactory really because their limitations – meanings can be subjective and personal, but they are often larger than ourselves and never fully given, but meanings do feel at times utterly beyond ourselves, sublime really, many times determined by others than ourselves, and so difficult to pinpoint with certainty that maybe they are unknowable and we refuse to admit that. If one asks a tattooed person what their ink means, even then they only get a picture of the present, possibly the past, but never the completed, never the future. Meaning is constantly in motion, constantly evolving, and so one can never have the end point. But meaning seems to be something we create and have as a human species – I’ve yet to see plants talk about what sunshine means to them or what the trees are saying with their canopy designs. So, what am I saying? Meaning seems to be both, it has both aspects. This phenomena-noumena distinction seems to be one of access and experiential background: the tattooed person has full access to their memories, feelings, preferences, and empirical situation in the world, and hence they have most of the noumenal aspects concerning their ink. They are even along for the ride as their ink takes on new meanings and significance, and this is a sign that even they lack to have all knowledge of the noumenal side. Maybe that is okay though, a little mystery in the mix. But the onlooker, the witness, has only the phenomenal side of things. Even when they ask the tattooed person what it all means, they only gain a better glance at the phenomenal.

Tattooed bodies actually exemplify the phenomena-noumena distinction. The person who bears tattoos has their own meanings, their own memories and significance for each piece of inked splendour. A person who witnesses another’s tattoos forms their own ideas of the meaning and significance of the inked artwork based on their life experience. This interpretation maybe right, it maybe wrong, but it speaks only to what can be known through the cognitive process of experiential things and not to existence of them. The fact that you are even thinking about what a tattoo means says you have already accepted it exists – to judge it means you’ve made this assumption. Unless you are dreaming or maybe being tricked by that evil Demon that had fun with old Descartes, then reality isn’t so certain. So, then you’re fucked and this distinction is just not going to help.

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