Everyone else in the op-ed racket seems to be writing about some rainstorm or other that happened almost a year ago, but David Brooks comes through in today’s NYT with a gripping and timely piece about this breaking new trend: tattoos. Believe it or not, people are marking their skin, with ink! What deep insight, what keen powers of observation for Brooks to notice this. And these people seem to think it marks them in some unique way despite the fact that all these other people are doing it! How silly, they don’t even realize how comformist they are in their non-conformity. As Brooks so wisely sums up in his majestic closing statement: “Another generation of hipsters laid low by the ironies of consumerism.” Wow. By highlighting this 15-year-old “trend,” he has torn the mask off “hipster” culture at last with this column and proven once and for all that all supposed acts of subversion are phony and resistance to the happy progress of American consumerism is futile.
Now, I’m no fan of tattoos myself, but something about hearing Brooks make a similar case as me makes me want to rethink it a bit. Brooks is essentially denaturing the argument made in Heath and Potter’s Nation of Rebels and before in Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool to seize yet another opportunity to mock people for signaling self-awareness, a tendency he conflates with elitism and selfishness. He makes out people with tattoos to be a shallow bunch of short-sighted simpletons who are blinkered by their worship of empty gestures of individualism (the only individualist gesture that matters, of course, is entrepreneurship). The stories tattoos tell are far more complex than Brooks is willing to admit; they have long ceased to be expressions of how dangerous or different a person thinks she is. Also, having a tattoo is not “an alienated look” as Brooks suggests—by his very logic, tattoos are an expression of belonging to the zeitgeist, not rejecting it. He seems trapped in preconceptions about tattooing that ceased to apply sometime around the Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album. Some people may tattoo as a form as self-harm, as an elaborate form of cutting, but probably the majority do so not to express anger but pride. Brooks is quick to sneer at youth culture as conformist, but when has youth culture ever been about anything but pseudo-rebellion? To call it “conservative” as he does is to distort the terminology—seeking to belong isn’t the same as espousing a political ideology. Or is Brooks admitting that to be conservative is to be conformist and cowardly?
It seems much more likely that there’s nothing insincere or aberrent in one’s getting a tattoo—the conformity inherent in the practice at this point seems to confirm that. A person’s not simply erroneously calculating how rebellious or subversive they will become. Instead I would imagine one gets a satisying feeling of having followed through with a serious committment (something you’d expect Brooks to cheer) and displayed some courage (it’s not joining the Army, but tattoos do hurt). And the ownership over one’s own body one asserts by marking it in some conscious way is a private matter, ultimately, which is why most tattoos, I’m guessing, are not usually immediately visible to stangers—they are often in a more intimate place and can serve as a way of showing you trust someone. You show the tattoo, you tell the story behind it, which Brooks dismisses as some self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing narrrative about shopping, since he sees tattoos as nothing more than “perfect consumer items”, but which can often be more a way for a person to organize and articulate a long-developing self-awareness and share it with a privileged few. Brooks won’t admit that these people may not care about how “mainstream” they are, that their minds are on something wholly different, that they could be concerned with any kind of issue larger than themselves (like, say, how their government could fail to plan for a major disaster they knew was coming and allow one of its cities to be ruined, perhaps permanently). If tattoos are consumer goods, they are mundane ones, no more deserving of contemptuous treatment than any of the other goods—T-shirts, cars, housewares, etc.—we use to communicate ideas about ourselves to others. I agree that there are probably better ways to communicate, and certainly more important messages to communicate than the ones goods limit a person to, but why single out tattoos? Why not condemn the entire consumer economy, or all consumers? After all the only thing separating a hipster from a redneck (or country club suburbanite or any of the other demographics Brooks has fetishized) is irony, and in the end that doesn’t show up anywhere on the balance sheet.