So do tattoos have to be meaningful?  The answer, of course, is yes and no.

Some tattoo collectors get tattoos because they think the imagery is beautiful, while others are looking to wear an ideology or a symbol.  For lack of better terms, I will label the former group as aesthetic clients (tattoos for their looks) and the latter as semantic clients (tattoos for their meaning).  I like labeling people (and jars of preserves).

A client who gets a phrase like carpe diem is getting a semantic tattoo.  Obviously, they can choose to beautify the phrase with fancy script or garnish it with a skull or flowers, but the primary drive for the tattoo is to send a message (maybe to themselves, maybe to the world) that they are, indeed, seizing the sh!t out of the day.

Aesthetic collectors are compelled by the beauty of a design first and foremost.  The tattoo can certainly have deeper meanings, but the collector can choose to explain what the tattoo means or not.  To the public, the aesthetic tattoo is the image first.  Maybe it’s a bird, maybe it’s a plane, maybe it’s Superman.  I’d like to point out that the common passerby doesn’t usually demand to know the meaning behind symbols that are familiar to them.  It seems that if the tattoo is of an image that tickles a Jungian chord in their soul, they don’t need to dig deeper into the meaning.  For example, no one has ever asked me what the skull on my leg means, as if the meaning of the skull were a) so apparent that it precluded asking, or b) so creepy that they didn’t want to know.

“Hey, what’s that skull on your leg mean?”

“It means that I am a cannibal.”

“Really?”

“No.  But people do taste like chicken.  Just kidding.  Not really.”

“You’re weird.”

“You’re delicious.”

Also, as tattooers we can sometimes divide ourselves into the same camps.  My friend Jen Moore at Sanctuary Tattoo practices tattooing as a healing art form, so her clients’ projects are consistently semantic.  I used to tease her and say “Hey, Jen!  See this dragon on my arm?  Do you know what it stands for?  NOTHING!  IT’S JUST A DRAGON!  Hahahahahahaha….”

I’ve made some gross oversimplifications in this blog entry, but through the process of oversimplification, I’ve sometimes facilitated clients in focusing their tattoos.  Sure, you’re getting a portrait of your mom, but do you need to have the word mother above it?  If so, is it because you don’t know that it’s your own mother?  Or do you want everyone else to know that it’s your mother?  Is the tattoo aesthetic, semantic, or both?  Or is it overly semantic when it would be just fine as a purely aesthetic project? 

Most times, tattoos are an amalgam of both aesthetic and semantic.  And perhaps by not labeling the tattoo at all, it will actually be free to grow and change with you?  That’s what I tend to think, but as a lifelong aesthete, I’ve always had anti-semantic opinions. 

Time to get asthmatic on some aesthetics!  Here are some in progress pieces and a few small finished tattoos (just in case you think I don’t actually finish any tattoos).


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