James Howard Kunstler: mainstream tattoos = social dysfunction

(Not sure if this is Great enough for Great Debates; please move to IMHO if it’s better there.)

A statement by the famed Peak Oil author that I thought was interesting:

Many people, to some extent, agree with Kunstler; after all, try getting a Wall Street job with visible tattoos and see how far you get. What do you think of tattooing as an indicator of “civilization”? Is there anything inherently “barbaric” about it? Does it really belong in the mainstream? What is its “proper” place in society? Why is it any different than, say, multiple lip and facial piercings, which is even less tolerated in “civilized” circles? Does its “mainstreaming” say anything about our society for good OR for ill?

At the QuikTrip convenience store and the Burger King half a block from my house, employees with tattoos care required to wear bandages to cover their tattoos. So they are unacceptable not just the top of the social hierarchy.

I’m baffled by their sudden social acceptability, and the popularity of shows like Miami Ink. But I’m hopeful that such wide mainstream acceptance means the trend is nearly over, and that soon tattoos are going to be unfashionable. And the thought that all these people are going to have been rendered irrevocably unfashionable fills me with schadenfreude.

Back in the late 1970s, like most of my peers, owned a “leisure suit”. Baby blue, made out of polyester. It was the fashion, undeniably (I had a perm as well). The best thing about that suit is that it went to Goodwill 30 years ago. I am not wearing that suit today. I haven’t been forced to wear that suit 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 30 years. If I had been wearing a baby blue leisure suit 24/7, people would assume that I was an idiot, and I would have been rendered unemployable.

I’m lucky in that my newly 18 year old niece does not seem to have any desire to get one. I told her, wear whatever you like. Cut your hair, die it, braid it, shave it off. Where any makeup you wish. All these things can be changed, and you retain the freedom to re-invent yourself. A tattoo limits your choices.

I have no desire to get a tattoo and I doubt I ever will, but I would have to ask Mr. Kunstler: Why? What about tattoos is “uncivilized”? Vandalism, petty crime, not-so-petty crime, personal rudeness, extreme political partisanship, certain forms of religious fanaticism, greed to the extent that one disregards the rules of fair business practices, cheating on one’s spouse–I can think of lots of things that I might see as an indication of social dysfunction or as indications of some sort of rising “barbarism”. What they all have in common is some disrespect for or disregard of the rights of others (or a strong tendency to lead to such).

Tattoos are just a form of personal adornment. One might find them esthetically unattractive, or esthetically pleasing, or find some one and some the other; but even if one finds all tattoos esthetically unattractive, it’s silly to equate this to “barbarism”. It makes as much (and as little) sense to claim that neckties that are too wide or too narrow for one’s tastes are harbingers of the doom of civilization.

Wow. Mr. Kunstler may be ready to call vasts swathes of the world “uncivilized”, but I’m sure not. Where I lived in Cameroon every last person had facial tattoos/scars. These were usually just tasteful lines on the temples. The effect was often quite beautiful.

Anyway, they weren’t the richest people in the world, but were certainly civilized (living in sedentary communities, belonging to a major religion, having complex political organization, having decent contact with the outside world.) Tattoos were completely socially acceptable and everyone from babies to grandmothers had them.

Now in our own culture tattoos do have a history of being associated with shady people. America has a long history of being fascinated with the underground and adopting trends. This stuff goes back centuries. The popularity of tattoos is in part a manifestation of this, and in part because we live in an increasingly multicultural society and are appropriating bits of other people’s tattoo cultures.

Personally I think a healthy mistrust of authority and our ability to adapt with other cultures is a part of what makes America great. So yeah, I guess I think the tattoo trend is a good sign (note that I have no tattoos myself.)

Tattoos–or any other personal adornment, permanent or temporary–carry different meanings in different cultures. Like culture itself, those meanings evolve.

As tattoos become mainstream, their meaning will evolve. In this culture, the image tattoos convey has been historically associated with lower class, impulsive behaviour, and fewer teeth. As tattoos go mainstream, the message they broadcast will change.

While tattoos are not sign of barbaric behaviour, per se, they are certainly a sign of short-sightedness. There is a difference between cultures which have hundreds of years of history and passing fads. Permanent mutilation–um, I mean “adornment”–for an impermanent cultural fancy does not seem the brightest of approaches. Twenty years can be the difference between “I am an individual with my Own Tastes” and “I was a nitwit who thought I was expressing my individuality.”
For this observer, the biggest drawback of a tattoo is that the choice and quality of design too often perfectly match the canvas. Bad enough to be linguistically challenged–wearing a tattoo with a Chinese character when you can’t even speak English invites ridicule. Want to summarize your aesthetics? Get one of those neat demon things. So cool. How about a neat saying that you’ve found so profound it deserves a permanent place? Just pray like mad no one starts a conversation around the author–chances are your ability to evaluate the preciousness of your little phrase will suggest it wasn’t exactly chosen from a list of all possible pithy sayings.

Angelina Jolie is still hot, though.

I have two tattoos–a rose on my right wrist and a no smoking sign on my right ankle. I got them both after I turned 50 and am about as mainstream as it gets.

Well, the divorce rate has been dropping since '94 cite. DItto violent crime. So I propose that the increasing prevalence of tattoos are slowly decreasing the barbarism in our society and will eventually lead to a new age of enlightenment in which murder and divorce are a thing of the past.

“Ivana’s a sculptor, she’s tending bar
She’s piercing her nipples, in the name of art
And Rick’s an accountant, that likes tattoos
Keeps 'em all hidden, so his boss approves”

  • Emmet Swimming

Kunstler is being a crank here. And, frankly, not a very good one. The long history of knee-jerk social conservatism has long decried such things and barbarism has not yet overtaken the west.

Just in the last few centuries:

  1. Make up. The wearing of such was consideration prima facie evidence that a women was a prostitute and the widespread use of it a sign of the moral degeneracy of civilization.

  2. On the subject, as initiated by Chief Pedant up there, about mutilation I would bring up the subject of earrings. Women, and men, have been piercing their ears for centuries in the west. It would certainly count as ‘mutilation’ by any account yet it is seen as perfectly natural.

  3. Several generations of music. Long before the better known ‘menace’ of Rock and Roll such now-considered-tame music forms as jazz, swing, and ragtime were considered a sign of the death of civilization and the moral standing of those who liked them. Seriously, we’re taking Frankie Blue-Eyes here being a threat to the west.

  4. Husbands ‘allowing’ wives to work. This was seen as emasculating to the man in the equation instead of partners contributing to the family coffers.

  5. Hell, women being educated. Yet another thing that was considered detrimental to civilization was an educated woman who wouldn’t ‘know her place’.

Others too numerous to list.

In the end, such fashion choices tend to be defined by the generation in their 20s and then it moves up from there. It’s happened for a long time and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of stopping. Kuntzler is just being a fool.

And, for the record, I’m a middle-aged owner of a few newspapers. I have had articles published in such wild-eyed radical publications as The Wall Street Journal and by The Washington Post Group. And I sport two tattoos, both of which are for my kids. I’m also have a few holes in my ears that appear to be permanent. Clearly, I’m a threat to all of civilization. I’m playing for Thunderdome.

I hate tattoos. Hate them, hate them, hate them. They’re invariably hideous, they all turn greenish in time, and they all look stupid, and 98% of them are stupidly chosen and badly drawn. They always, without a single exception, make the wearer look worse. The absolute best make the wearer look just slightly worse, and the really bad or cliched ones (like tribal or barbed wire arm “bands”) make the wearer look like a massive retard. I don’t understand why anyone would get a tattoo, or if they must insist on it, why they wouldn’t just get a henna tattoo and then you don’t have to live with it forever and could change them to suit your mood.

And I even I think Kunstler is being a retard.

I mean, people in the 1960s though longer hair on men was a sign that Western civilization was collapsing. I am not exaggerrating; it was a major social issue, a serious matter indeed.

Tattoos will be embarassing and dated in 30 years, but so what.

And how. I have always associated them with old men and cartoon characters, until recently. My grandfather had tattoos, and I recall growing up, he always warned me, “never get a tattoo”. His regret was clear, and made a lasting impression on me.

I remember a visit to my grandfather-in-law where he made a disparaging comment about a guy with long hair.

My wife pointed to the picture of Jesus on the wall and said, “Get back to me when his hair is longer than that.”

Grandpa had to concede the point. :stuck_out_tongue:

Tattoos are something I used to think were stupid, because my only experience of them was cliched tribal designs, stupid Chinese characters on white people, and shit like that. But as I got to know more punk rockers and musicians and artists and other avant-garde people who are more on the fringes of society, I totally changed my attitude when I saw some of the amazing art that lots of these people have on their bodies. Now I’m even thinking of getting a tattoo myself.

I know a lawyer - a very good one, who’s even served as a judge on numerous occasions - who wears three-piece tailored suits and looks like a straight arrow guy. But on the weekends, I see him at a local punk-rock bar, wearing leather vests and punk clothes, and his arms are completely sleeved in tattoos - the most artistic, interesting, colorful, and badass looking tattoos ever. And he has a bike - not a fully loaded, yuppie, poser bike, but an actual stripped down, chopped Harley. The guy is amazingly articulate and extremely entertaining to talk to, and people like him prove that you can never judge someone by his cover.

Yawn. Tattoos are a fashion choice, like any other. There are some great ones, a slew of good and mediocre ones, and whole ton of crappy imitators. Many cultures have a long history of tattooing, to call that barbarism is nothing more than ethnocentric bigotry. There isn’t any difference between a tribesman who marks himself for religious reasons and someone who gets a cross done on their arm.

Right, but people like him prove that tattoos still have a long way to go to being considered OK in polite society. If he’s a big top flight lawyer, I would guess he never lets anyone in his firm see his tattoos. And I imagine, outside of rock stars, athletes and actors, that most other industries are the same.

And I personally think that facial tattoos will always be a sign of a degenerate. I have never seen a facial tattoo that looked good and most look like the person went crazy and pointed to the wrong body part to get tattooed.

I also agree that while they’re a silly trend and they’ll be difficult to get rid of once the trend passes, they are most certainly not a sign of anything ominous. Kunstler is a crank.

AIUI though, tattoo removal tech is becoming better. If you know an 18 year old with an aptitude for medicine, maybe you should advise them to look into dermatology as a career path.

I think all self-mutilation is stupid and marginal. I also think tattoos are exceptionally unattractive to look at. I do suspect that the mainstreaming is an early sign of the “Idiocrization” of America.

Why are tattoos considered fashion… something done for other people to look at?

My tattoo isn’t seen by anyone else except my husband. It’s for me.

My husband’s tattoos are for him. Not for anyone else. We are the only two that ever see them.

How does that relate in any way to the leisure suit and perm mentioned above?

I would say it doesn’t, it’s not part of this debate, really. You’re the tattoo equivalents of the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. :wink: To the rest of the world, you’re unadorned with ink.

Well, this guy is very well known in town as “the biker lawyer” and he represents all kinds of outlaw types (he has a private practice, he’s not part of a firm.) Everyone knows he has those tattoos. He doesn’t wear the suit to conceal the tattoos or something, he wears the suit because it’s professional and it looks sharp. But you can see him all over town in punk rock clothes and vests and on his bike.

But he’s very well-respected as a lawyer.

I personally think tattoos should NOT be mainstream because “mainstream” stuff sucks. Tattoos belong on people who are different and unique. The “mainstream” people who get tattoos are the ones who get stupid tattoos and cliched shit inked on them.

" Originally Posted by James Howard Kunstler
The activity taking place [at the pictured tattoo parlor], however, is a symptom of the growing barbarism in American life. Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos (on main street) is a harbinger of social dysfunction."

or the act of calling acceptance of tattoos a sign of social dysfunction could just drop you into the category of morons who said that gays would be the downfall of society, the same about rock and roll/jazz/blues/rap/hip hop/whatever.
a moron with a big personal distaste for tats is still a moron not worth listening to.
like racism, sexism, and homophobia brought on by religious believe instead of clear thought it will die its slow death along with the old farts who believe it to be true inspite of any and all evidence to the contrary.

I have 3 tats, all have a deep personal meaning to me, if you dont like them then fuck off. but if you dont like them and want to get vocal and in my face about them, I dont know what to say. maybe you should get some help for that.