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.

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I am a Birth Machine.

H. R. Giger's Birth Machine

I still remember the first time I saw H. R. Giger’s Birth Machine in one of his books, I was totally captivated: the beautiful metal, the little babies wearing goggles, the outline of a gun. So many meanings leaped into my mind – overpopulation, child soldiers, reproductive control … an endless flow of interpretations and ideas.

Nearly 6 years ago I was in Germany on research for my PhD, and during that time I also traveled briefly through Switzerland and stayed for a couple of days in a small village called La Gruy├Ęre. In that village, with the scent of fondue ever-present, I found the Giger Museum and the Giger-Bar. There I came face to face with Birth Machine, and once again my mind was spinning. Upon returning to Marburg, Germany where I was staying, I went to a local tattoo artist – Gandi @ AllStar Tattooz – and told him I wanted the Birth Machine tattooed on my body. He was all too happy to do this, being a fan of Giger as well, and so he inked Giger’s Birth Machine on half my left thigh. (Thanks, Gandi!) ­čÖé

I have been asked several times why in the world I’d want a giant gun on my thigh. And while I greatly appreciate Giger’s work aesthetically, this piece does have some philosophical importance to me. I think Simone de Beauvoir best explains it, this time looking to Ethics of Ambiguity and some of her early work. It’s all about freedom, baby. I have already blogged about Beauvoir, alongside Bettie Page and Iris Marion Young, and here I will pick up on some similar themes from that post. No stilettos here though, only a gun.

Simone de Beauvoir

According to Beauvoir, people experience freedom through a spontaneous internal drive and this drive is crushed by the weight of the world. Human existence is an ambiguous mix of a wanting to transcend the given conditions of the world and being confined or defeated by it – a world with events you have no control over, at times no choices or options as to what happens. Beauvoir says we must accept this ambiguity rather than run from it or mask it. In order to have freedom and live authentically, we must engage our freedom in projects that arise from spontaneous choices in the face of this ambiguity. Our goals or ends must never be absolute or concrete, not only because this makes them less about freedom and choice (and less spontaneous), but it also cuts them off from us – the ones who choose. Static goals become absolute, less about choice, and are often easy to escape into. To be free is not to do whatever the fuck you want. Freedom, for Beauvoir, is the conscious assumption of freedom through projects which are chosen in a moment and acted upon, and renewed moment to moment. Freedom is action and self-making choices, and accepting the ambiguity we live within. One self-consciously chooses to be who one is at every moment of every day, in every project. This implies that the meaning of our actions is not derived from any external source like God or society, but in the person’s very act of choosing. We are ethical beings in so far as we accept the consequences and responsibility that our choices have : “to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.”

Beauvoir strongly believed that the freedom of oneself required freedom of others to be actualized. As much as individuals make choices, they live in communities with other people, who also are free to make choices. Our freedom is always at the crossroads with the freedoms of others. This idea was discussed in detail in her 1944 work Pyrrhus et Cin├ęas as well. Since there is no god, it is up to humans to create ethical bonds with each other. These bonds require the creation and execution of projects that express freedom, our own and that of others. Rather than seeing “the other” as a threat to freedom, which her partner Sartre did (he was a bit paranoid), she sees others as a necessary axis of my freedom. Without others, I could not be free. My choices are often a call to the freedoms of others, so they can respond or ignore me. Without others, my actions are useless and absurd – they fall back upon themselves. Problems arise in a world of freely acting people of course, things like slavery, tyranny, and oppression, but these too are choices people make. Bad or hurtful choices, but choices nonetheless. One always has a choice to act against social evils like these: whether one remains silent or joins the protest against oppressive forces, it’s all a free choice. It’s your choice. No one escapes from freedom!!

According to what I have read, Birth Machine is a statement about overpopulation: every woman’s womb is essentially a loaded gun. If this power is abused it could be the death of everyone. With a woman’s choice to have lots of children comes consequences – on society, on the ecosystem, on the food chain, etc., and on the woman herself as well. In other words, her choice to have a large brood affects the freedoms of others and herself. I say ‘woman’ here because the idea of a gun with its chambers and barrel, the bullets resting inside all comfy, the bullets being babies … screams ‘womb’ to me. There are also a lot of feminine forms, female genitalia, or symbols of woman depicted in Giger’s art. Women are often depicted as sexual, sometimes maternal, but always strong. Giger’s Birth Machine in particular speaks to a woman’s freedom to choose not to have children. Populating the world is a choice, it is an exercise of freedom (most of the time, we won’t count rape here). In the very least, it is a warning, a call to control her fertility in ways that do not lead to the end of humankind. Once again, freedom and choices. Now, this freedom could not be realized without sperm, even if from a sperm bank some other (guy) had to deposit it in a cup, some nurse had to collect it, and some lady had to pose naked for a magazine, some company produced the hand lotion and the cup, and … you get the point. So, the freedom to procreate requires others, without them a woman could not make the free choice to embark on ‘project pregnant’. But this freedom to procreate also affects others, directly and indirectly – there is only so much food to eat and grow, water to drink, clean air, natural resources to use, only so many teachers, doctors, and so many vaccines. And I only have so much patience on the plane or in the store with screaming kids … So, maybe pop 1 bullet out instead of 4, 7, or 10 … and let’s keep the safety on, ladies!

Giger’s piece also speaks to the power women possess concerning life itself – the creation of it, sustaining it, and the freedom that life will possess after the baby is born. In this way, Giger’s art speaks to the machine post birth, so to speak. Children are more than bodies on the planet sucking up resources, they also grow up to become productive members of society. They affect change, and the choices they make affect others’ freedoms. This is a part of the risk of having children – odds are the same you can give birth to a future Hitler or a future Sister Theresa or a future accountant. This is part of the choice. So, your ‘bullet’ could grow up to destroy the world through her/his actions, not just by being one too many for the world to handle.

So, could we call Giger’s Birth Machine a feminist artwork? I’m not really sure. I want to say ‘yes’ because I think part of the message is about reproductive rights, and the power reproductive rights have. A woman able to control her reproduction is good for herself and the world. If the Catholic Church had its way, there would be no birth control and no abortion, and sex would only happen for the purpose of reproduction. This renders women as ‘guns without a safety’ (as well as purely baby factories), maybe even machine guns in some cases … rapid-firing all over. What comes to mind here is the ‘lady’ in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life who casually delivers a baby while doing the dishes, and has so many children that she must give them up for scientific experiments. However, this work of Giger’s is about the potential destructive power ‘creating life’ has, a message to everyone and for everyone – men and women. In this way, I want to say Giger’s Birth Machine is more than a feminist work – it is largely a social and political artwork, like Picasso’s Guernica or the framed pair of soiled panties I saw at his museum, upstairs in the personal art collection (the woman who wore them had been viciously raped). Sorry, I don’t remember who the artist was but the art left an impression on my psyche. But, instead of saying yes or no here, I think it’s best left up to the viewer to interpret. Gadamer would agree here.

Would Beauvoir have liked Giger’s Birth Machine? I think so, for many of the reasons I have stated here — Woman might be the second sex, the ‘other,’ but she’s got the power to create and to end life. Stick that in your fucking pipe and smoke it!

My Giger Birth Machine Tattoo

Last of the Left

Above my Godlike/Zarathustra-style tattoo is a piece I had done in 1997 (finished in 1998). It’s in need of some touch up, some of the black in the flames has faded and is looking streaky, but for being nearly 14 years old and never having been touched up it has held up well.

A number of years ago


This is one of the tattoos I got because I felt like it, aka no other deep meaning besides the fact I liked all three elements that constitute it. It’s a skull with bat wings over its eyes, like a mask, surrounded by flames, and all in black/grey (colour would have been too cheesy). I drew it myself, over a lunch break from classes one snowy day during my undergrad years. Philosophically it really means nothing, existentially maybe it’s a reminder of my punky-gothy younger days (I say ‘younger days’ because I still love all the same music, I just don’t have a dyed mohawk any longer, or wear a spiky dog collar as my daily jewelry, or copious amount of dark make-up), but really it’s just there because I felt like it at that moment. A “just because” tattoo, you could say. At some point over the next year or two I will fill the rest of my upper arm in, the bare parts around the flames and onto my shoulder-blade, and at that time I will have the flames re-inked as well. Note: This tattoo is not easy to take a picture of because it moves with my shoulder and arm muscles, so at times it appears crooked or it’s expression changes slightly depending on my arm position.
And I should say thanks to Laurie @ Nighthawk for realizing my drawing into ink. ­čÖé

As he stands now

The art of my left arm pt. 2 …

Blinded by great music ... The inside of my left arm is based on a newer KMFDM album cover — KMFDM vs. Skold (2009), and you do see a bit of it in my “about me” picture. I not only love the music on this album, but the artwork reminded me of my roots in philosophy … so a bit of nostalgia you could say. When i began my philosophy education, I looked very much like that girl — I had died black hair (I did wear pigtails occasionally) and I smoked (as all philosophers seem to at one time, it goes so well with the cup of coffee, the cafe chair, and the existentialism). But instead of just copying the artwork exactly, I asked Wayne to make her hair blonde, purple and black … all three colours of hair I had during my university education (the varying lengths and styles was too insane really, too demanding), and the blindfold I had him change the lettering to say “Ontology”. This of course lead to a conversation of what ontology was. Since I started studying ontology what seems like a long time ago, I have been captivated by it … as if blindfolded by it. The unanswered questions, the puzzles and mysteries … the tons of attempts at answering them. The same can be said for Philosophy in general for me: I see it everywhere and in all things, and I love its mysteries and puzzles, the grey areas we can dwell in, and I love the dialogue between philosophers. So yes, I am blinded by philosophy …. not science as Thomas Dolby would want me to be.

Blinded by Ontology

The art of my left ….

My left arm has already been featured here for the Lewis Carroll quote that resides on my forearm, and the upper part of that arm is a mix of philosophy and music. I have been a fan of KMFDM since I was about 12 years old, and I continue to be because I find their music stimulating both philosophically and rhythmically. I love the mix of industrial, some punk, and some good old grinding metal (creating that ultra heavy beat!), and I especially adore the thought provoking lyrics. I have even had a chance to met and talk philosophy with the lead singer, Sascha “Kapt’n K” Konietzko when they played in Toronto a few years back. So, my upper left is a tribute to both these loves.

KMFDM Godlike Single (1990, Wax Trax Records)

A very Nietzsche-like picture. Der ├ťbermensch ....

Wayne from Tora did both of these tattoos, so kudos to him. My outside left arm design comes from KMFDM’s Godlike single. The picture reminds me of Nietzsche’s ├ťbermensch, one who controls their life and takes on the world (so to speak), but it also for me speaks to what it means to be a philosopher, and an ontologist at that: to take the world in your hand almost like an object of study in the hopes of unlocking its secrets, gaining wisdom and enlightenment.
My ├ťbermensch

My tribute to KMFDM & Nietzsche.

A Riddle & A Forearm

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare. …….

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `that’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

Alice sighed wearily. `I think you might do something better with the time,’ she said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , Ch. VII

Carroll provided no answer to this tea party riddle in the original 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and people have attempted ever since to answer it:   “Poe wrote on both”, “one is a rest for pens, the other a pest for wrens”, “The higher the fewer”, “One may communicate to the dead through either”, and “both have inky quills”.  Carroll eventually did respond to the demand for an answer, when in the 1896 preface to Alice he wrote “Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: ‘Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

I have been asked many, many times why I tattooed this riddle on my forearm. And I guess here I get to explain myself, providing a more thorough answer than simply my deep admiration for Lewis Carroll. First, I am a philosopher by trade and as one I spend a lot of my time attempting to solve riddles or paradoxes there are no answers to. For example, What is the meaning of life?, or What is Justice?, How can some thing change and yet be the same thing? or the Ship of Theseus paradox. Second, riddles like the raven and the writing desk require knowledge of what is essential to each and states of affairs. I study the realist phenomenology of Adolf Reinach, and that work focuses largely on essences (timeless, changeless entities; primordial source for all meaning and intelligibility) and states of affairs (a thing’s necessary, essential predicates). That’s all I am saying on that. If you want to know more, you can either search the internet, read my book or articles, or you can invite me to coffee and i can tell you more.

My favorite riddle done by Mac @ Nighthawk

My favorite riddle done by Mac @ Nighthawk

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