The Tattoo/Fascist Contradiction.
The Tattoo/Fascist Contradiction.
AuthoreX de Medici
DetailsSixth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
Country of context
The Tattoo/Fascist Contradiction
by eX de Medici
Greetings citizens and friends.
Get ready…a long bow is about to be drawn…
Welcome to crumbling Neocon dream world, open your Hearts and minds and wallets. Sssh! The Others are everywhere, spying, invading our shiny monetised identity. We are the best crash test dummies in the world. Why bother with identity we’ve got one, and its global. We love our stuff and its imperative we have a true scientific gauge of our success; poor people. Here’s the secret; Guns. They always work and they are sexy. They always get us the stuff we want. As long as we’ve got them we can drive fear from our world. We’ll get them first, then they can’t get our stuff, we can have theirs, even better. I need more stuff to stuff into my hungry ghost. Why settle with one house when we can have five, because we want it, deserve it. Give us God, Values, Freedom, Aspiration, Choice, Competition. Breed for Jesus, breed for Allah.
Where to begin?
A drive to critique power.
I am progeny of Empire and product of Government. My parents’ ancestors arrived on the shores of the Norfolk Island penal colony in 1790 as sex slave breeding stock and free labour for Empire. My father studied Political Science at the ANU and worked as a career Federal Public Servant until his retirement.
Things look good when they are tidy like a comic. Canberra of my youth was a beautifully illustrated comic. Flat green expanses of manicured lawns bordered by thin lines of pale concrete, then a grey stripe cut down the middle with white dashes. In the background, the twin thugs of pared-back modernity, Treasury and Foreign Affairs and Trade. Across the road, our National Library, a deconstruction of classical Greek proportion in white marble and Leonard French. Exact upside down reflections in the night lake mirror glitter inside my childhood comic. The battalion of Parks and Gardens workers kept the city like a perfect photograph, trees trimmed, lawns mown, leaves cleared, annuals aesthetically corralled into geometric styles, colours and patterns through the seasons. Nothing got old. Canberra was born modern. My suburb, like all the suburbs in the plan comprised a full spectrum of community, low and medium density public housing to discreet dreams of architectural style in harmony with the landscape. Everyone shopped at their local, corridors of parkland snaked the length and breadth of the city providing play areas for everyone. I was part of the social experiment which is Canberra, and continue to stay, as it and I have an abiding and lively intellectual relationship. Political constructions of both the physical and social environment continue to operate as the primary imprint in my early development. Social engineering for good. Maybe. Curiously, I have this inexplicable, abiding distrust of Authority. I have no right to. This is Canberra and Canberra is a fabulous idea.
Where to begin…
Counsel works the clay of unreason…They throw babies into the ocean…they are going to kill us…war is glory…watch his hand…its wrist hypnotic, glittering Rolex with 172 diamonds in platinum 50 thousand bucks and sells water…Nature, that bloody bitch. Napalm her, dig her up, make holes in her sink your wells stake your claim. She’s a pain in the arse those trees are ugly where’s my toilet paper I’ll make those trees wipe my market driven arse. Craters are better looking. The Others, our enemies love trees and that bloody bitch and animals without souls God hates them so do we. I didn’t hear you, repeat after me, we hate the Others. That’s better. Good children. Amen to god.
You may wonder why I am addressing a printmaking symposium. I am not a printmaker, although I have made prints of varying types over the years, photocopies and transfer from copies, stencils, photographs, monoprints. I have never centralised my practice. I exhibit photographs yet am not a photographer. I research unclassified insects at the CSIRO managed Australian National Insect Collection, to apply to my two dimensional work with guns, I am trained in neither science nor scientific illustration. I do performances for fun and adjunct information for other work, and am not a performance artist. I choose the medium which best illustrates how I am thinking. I make tattoos with my collaborators but do not function within the tattoo industry, a corrupt and unconstitutional situation.
There are though, some clear relationships between the tattoo and the print. The machined tattoo is engraved into the surface of the body, leaving a deposit of ink inside, visible through the skin’s soft, warm translucent surface.
The development of the Japanese tattoo through the woodblock print in the late Edo period is a highly influential form in the evolution of the western tattoo. And as young Deb Hill will alight on, in the practice of Buddhist/Animist tattooing as practiced in Thailand.
Moko, (face, thigh and buttock carving and staining) of Aerotora New Zealand aligns itself with the practice of woodcarving in Maori cultural history. Moko ceased to exist as a traditional technique in the tsunami of British and European colonisation in the mid to late C19. Evangelical proselytisers made a mockery of those who carried the mark of dynastic chiefs, their descendants and their slaves. The tattoo was, after all, the means by which Satan’s minions, the sons of Bad Cain, could be distinguished from god’s people. This most influential passage from Genesis 4,13-15 needs to be cited in the context of this paper.
And Cain said unto the Lord:
“My punishment is greater than I can bear.
Behold, thou hast driven me out
this day from the face of the earth:
And from thy face shall I be hid,
And I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth.
And it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me
Shall slay me”.
And the Lord said unto him
“Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain
vengence shall be taken upon him sevenfold”
And the Lord put a sign upon Cain:
Lest anyone finding him should kill him.
Divide and rule theory is an effective old tool, and successfully employed today. Consider the creeping application of pro-nuclear propaganda utilised by Government, mining companies and their shareholders in the global warming debate. In 2001 I used the Ranger Uranium Mine site as co-subject in a commissioned portrait of the band Midnight Oil for the National Portrait gallery. I took lots of photographs from a helicopter and on the ground. I took one image at the entrance to the mine site, a sign showing the daily stock market price for uranium ore, it was US$8.75 per pound. Today that price has tripled.
If you’re not with us, you are against the environment.
The woman’s malu and man’s pe-a of Western Samoa is a brutal trial of entry into adulthood, using the technique of beating pigment into the skin with the ‘hammer and nails’, a mallet and comb combination. An infant animating an adult body is a menace to any society. Samoans perceive that the extreme pain accompanying the tattoo process drives the baby out of the adult forever. I know this as I have undergone the trial of this form. Mini-me has left my building. The Samoan tattoo continues as one of the last surviving traditional tattoos from Pacific antiquity despite the rigorous attempts made by Methodist, Mormon and other Christian-identity sects to destroy the form. Although the Samoans embraced their new fearworthy militaristic and vengeful god, they ferociously maintained the rites of tattoo despite sanctions of exclusion placed upon them by priests. Malu and Pe-a directly reference ocean and land as providers. The complex, elegant geometry of both Malu and Pe-a are mirrored in architectural methods of lashing together the interior wooden structures of the Fale. The tattoo is a timely cultural product like any other. Except there’s blood.
The modern Japanese tattoo sprang to life in the late Edo period early C19, a spectacular, sudden and radical evolution from primitivism, to the form we know of today.
This tattoo arrived in a time of suppression and disquiet under extreme militarised political conservatism, when Japan was effectively a police state. Information was regulated through prohibition and censure of Kabuki, printmaking, tattooing and literature, all methods of analysis, commentary and communication. Suppression provided the political motivation for these mediums to flourish. The swift metamorphosis of traditional primitive mark making; lines, dots representing love pledges between courtesan and client etc. into sophisticated all over body suits is thought to have been seeded in Japan by a publication titled ‘Shui-hu Chuan”, a long Chinese novel compiled in C14 by the pseudonymous Shih Nai-an. The story follows the adventures of Sung Chiang and his band of 36 major and 72 lesser heroes. 17 of the characters sported spectacular all-over tattoos. This company of renegades driven to the margins by men of power, served the common good by the retrieval of ill-gotten wealth accumulated by corrupt officials. The bravos dyed their flag in human blood and lit their night lamps with oil squeezed from the fat of their victim’s brains.
It is important to note in the period the novel was written, the tattoo in China was a minor, criminalized activity languishing in prehistoric form. The warriors were a complete fiction. The tattoo was uttered into reality through this novel, the embodiment of philosophical rights and futures of fictitious characterisation.
By early C18 this Robin Hood story made its way to Japan, where it escaped censorship by the military government, as it was considered a ruling class classic. By the early C19, a phenomenally popular version of the novel with woodblock illustrations by Katsushika Hokusai, was published in Japanese titled ‘Suikoden’ or ‘The Water Margin’. The woodcuts depicting the fictitious tattooed insurgents would become the template for what is considered ‘traditional’ Japanese body suit tattooing.
The fact that such a rapid development of the medium occurred in a period of intense policing and repression could provide a potential contribution into further examination of the global surge of the medium in the last ten years. The failure of diplomacy at the altar of the market could suggest an equation between growing anxiety, mixed messaging and contradiction by leaders, with assertion of identity and difference by members of the population.
Prisons are fertile ground in the attempt to assert identity within the constraints set by the State. Rituals of prisoner induction into the system include meticulous documentation of tattoos by prison officials using photographic and observational pen and ink mapping. The photographic portrait is a time capsule and must continue to faithfully represent that individual for the duration of incarceration, that is, the maintenance of length and style of hair and facial hair, no new tattoos. This portrait is essential in the unlikely case of escape, a good likeness can be disseminated instantly through all media platforms. All personal possessions are removed, all links to life beyond the institution mediated at the razor wire and the barrel of a gun. The state is possessive of its criminal classes and likes to hang on to its herd… Michel Foucault reads this form of state possession as latent sadosexual fetishisation of the disempowered ‘other’. Maybe. Tattooing is definitively prohibited within the Australian penal system, and the action is punishable once within it. It operates as signifier to identity, tenacity and experience. There is no surprise that the tattoo is conducted as a highly secretive and popular activity within prison walls as the only, and therefore the consummate ideal of the assertion of identity and belonging. Tattoo magazines, images and literature are banned without review. Prohibition brings not only disease in these confines, but some serious travesties in application and design. The epidemic of the debilitating and rarely curable Hepatitis C virus rampages through all prison populations in Australia. To this day, Correctional Services wilfully perpetuates, through prohibition, an endemic virus originating within the penal system, and upon release, into the greater community and health care service. Artificial pigmentation is infinitely more dangerous than an untreatable epidemic. Authority truly understands the deepest root of identity, and how to control it.
Where to begin?
In 1990 I returned from Los Angeles, where I learned the craft under a woman tattooist, Kari Barba. This residency was funded by the Australia Council, a brave move on the VACB’s part, as later evidenced by a lively Senate Estimates Committee sitting exchange documented in Hansard, between Bronwyn Bishop and Paul Keating. Ms Bishop demanded the repatriation of the residential funding, honest taxpayers’ money, as tattooing was a filthy and obscene practice which had no relationship with culture or refinement. Paul responded in his withering best, in defence. Admittedly, the tattoo in Australia at that time was in a poor state, asleep in the tired detritus of a 1940’s American/Asian hybrid of sentimental military service emblems, now known as old school tattooing and currently flourishing in the commercial trade on thousands of young bodies who have witnessed the horrors of war on Playstation. Tattooing was exploding out of itself in the US. Australia was a backwater where many tattooists didn’t wear gloves or know how to turn on an autoclave, or how to prevent cross-contamination of the work environment with blood products. HIV/AIDS had been in public consciousness for 7 years. The Australian tattoo industry was openly anti-women, anti-gay, anti-Asian, anti-black and pro-white biker. The situation was appalling. It has changed little since then. It’s surface looks shinier, but it’s the same old bigoted beast within.
Tattooing is a convenient metaphor, and like most areas of discourse and practice reveals more of itself as one’s engagement deepens, revealing unseen, unthought subtleties and equations with other streams in life. The tattoo is a big bag of contradiction. Like our times.
The tattoo contains somewhat different debates to those developed through art connoisseurship. In the past, I have quarantined certain aspects of the medium from public discussion.
The greater perspective of the tattoo as an Industry, is one of opposition to the beautiful living messengers and lively academic discussion emanating from the practice. The Industry exists as a National protection racket comprising cartels of like-minded secretive, fascistic, men-only organised crime gangs, tenaciously regulating their national domain employing lawless, unaccountable methodologies. Complex laws of land ownership in Australia could be roughly described in layers, the primary; Traditional Ownership, the secondry; Empirical Interventionist, and laying over the top; networked territories of organised crime. There are only a few kilometres of land in this large country where tattooists can practice freely and are able to express their Constitutional citizen’s rights, and these places are packed with practitioners. It is an extremely difficult situation for tattooists who are philosophically enlightened and yet compelled to comply.
The Industry contradicts the purpose.
The tattoo operates in an environment, purpose and reality far from the debates which have engaged the mainstream world of art, history and criticism. Generally speaking, discourse on the tattoo has been relegated to anthropological studies in the Tribal or Indigenous Nobility section of the canon, or in Psychology and the Social Sciences in the Pathology of Social Aberrance section.
The western tattoo has been seriously marginalised and vilified by mythical objective distancing techniques of scholarship as readable human failure, a veritable lexicon of the collective miasmic psychoses of youth and underclasses and to a lesser degree, the dissolute libertine upper classes. It is for this reason I have told half-truths in my public discussions, lectures etc. for the seventeen years of my engagement in tattooing. I wanted to open an alternative perspective of the great human abstraction signified by the tattoo.
Tattooed skin operates as a circular mediating membrane between the abstraction of consciousness and the physical self as an operational machine in the world. Unification. This osmotic exchange witnessed by the tattoo operates as a site of masculine competition, youthfulness, sexual and reproductive power, the uncontrollable Other, blood and pain, the deviate, the criminal others. All of this is true, but by no means comprehensive. It flourishes now in a time of rightist nihilist materialist pluralities. This explosion has been going on for years. In 1989, the tattoo was classified by cultural historians in Europe and the US, as a medium undergoing ‘renaissance’. A second wave of the Pacific tattoo struck Europe and the US via the artists Dan Thome and Leo Zulueta’s western rebirthing of Polynesian and Micronesian traditions by grafting them to the anarchist and punk movement as it struggled through the Thatcher years.
The western tattoo is often classified as one of the signifiers of the reviled ‘cult of individuality’, a theory which has accompanied the advent of the cult of acquisition, hysterical celebrity worship the rise of New Rightists at the holy alters of their idols God and Market. The tattoo is irreligious, it signifies Possession outside of the constructs of the god/state nexus, of the separated entities; body and mind. The tattoo is enemy to orthodoxy. It is ancientness itself, imprinted by our species’ deepest cultural history, moving with us through the great expanses of human existence. Tattooing is perennially touted as faddish. It’s an enduring fad. Rules of submission to invisible supernatural dominance are defined by compliance with Genesis and Leviticus. No marks no cuts. (Who’s yr Daddy?). The godless body, that is, the dissenting self-possessed adult body leaking its abstracted and mysterious inner life onto its surface is anathema to theocratic and state submission.
The tattoo stakes a claim of self-possession inside the body’s surface, and all that entails; the political, social, physical, emotional, fatuous and capricious facets of the human state. There is a growing corpus on the subject. The contemporary and the traditional reside simultaneously sealed in analogue skin. Some vast and distant memory risen to the surface. In plain view. Some years ago, I found an old word, out of use for millennia, hiding out in St. Mark’s Theological Library in Barton. The word was Tuptein, its etymology shrouded in the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. It seems to mean the original impression, the shape left behind by the first stamp. The shape of the first thing. The context is a religious one with reference to the Supernatural God-construction, but I liked the notion of an abstract impression trajecting through time. The human as message-object.
Where to begin? 1996.
I was invited to speak as part of the 1996 Print Symposium about an ongoing collection of ‘monoprints’ derived from the tattoo process. The monoprint swabs number around 1500 and consist of humble sheets of paper towel found in any supermarket, marked with a single print from a bleeding human. Not any old blotted blob of human leakage, but a perfect little print in reverse of the chosen image; a star, a skull in a top hat smoking a cigar, Ned Kelly’s birth and death dates, the name of a deceased son/daughter/mother/father, a moeti or family heraldic shield. Anything in fact, any image. These are the blood remnants of variation and sameness within our species, intellectual and emotional human experience stranded on cheap kitchen paper. I recall engraving the date of the loss of a limb below the knee on its stump. The medium necessitates the development of human relationship. It requires emotional intelligence and a collaborative outlook. Wouldn’t it be a lark if an etching plate or lump of clay determined its own visual and spatial content, or cried out, no more pain as it anarchically jumps off the worktable to escape its maker. It is this aspect, of relationship, which continues to keep me interested in this marvellous form.
Where to Begin…
On the night of the 1996 Federal election, I set myself a strategy to speak in a language acceptable to the incoming conservatives. That is, skilful representation and the utilisation of known, existing formulae for picture making. My aim was to produce the most ungroovy and acceptably conservative work I could dream up. As part of the toolkit for the strategy I examined the political device of Volkskunst, the art of the people as defined and proscribed by the Nazi party, as return to a rustic, romanticised, mythologised, nationalised identity. The trick was to try to catch the reactionary eye with attractive, comfortable, conservative picture making, and reveal my rage in the most covert and compressed way possible. The strategy was in effect, an Ambush, through the eye.
The first works of the strategy in 1996 comprised two very large unsubtle drawings titled the Spectres. The first, a traditional four armed swastika, was drawn in red, black and white, the colours of the fascist, with dark centipede-like forms engulfing and burying it. The second Spectre, depicting a contemporary three pronged symbol currently used by the new right around the world, the flag of Broederbond, a shadowy organization who orchestrated and animated Apartheid in South Africa, I drew in a corporate shade of blue nestling reborn in lively acanthus leaves. The two works’ titles were invoked by a couple of lines from William Blake’s poem Vala/Four Zoas,
“The Spectre rose in pain A Shadow blue obscure and dismal. Like a statue of lead Bent by it’s fall from a high tower the dolorous shadow rose. “
It is a strange synchronicity that these few lines were invoked again in 2003, whilst watching a news video depicting crowds of American soldiers in a mob of Iraqis gathered in Saddam Square, red-zone Bagdad, attempting to pull down the bendy statue of Saddam…a dolorous and leaden moment indeed.
The spectres have as their companion in thought-crime, a 10th Anniversary issue, included in this exhibition. The United Spectres #3, one image in six plates was editioned by Rosalind Atkins at the Australian Print Workshop under the auspices of the 2005-6 Collie Print Trust Fellowship. This etching is an extension of the original Spectre drivers, the swastika as a prehistoric human sign with a modern semiotic taint. United Spectre #3 operates behind the aegis of the C16 artists Hans Holbein and Albrecht Durer. Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts, a treatment of the earlier Danse macabre of the Innocents cycle of pictures (1424-5) which decorated the walls of the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, depict the presence of a human skeleton shadowing various archetypal representatives of the stratum of human society. This Reaper ushers the individual into his or her death, whether nun, knight or plowman, all face the same fate. At the same time as positioning the skeleton as harbinger of death, Holbein offers a critique of power and corruption, signposting such archetypes as The Judge and the Bishop caught out by death, in an act of contradiction, public office and corruption. Holbein died of the Plague. The image of the skull is one of great power and irony when it’s a tattoo.
Death’s visible residence inside the Living.
Albrecht Durer’s commissioned drawings and woodcuts for aristocratic heraldic design, particularly his treatment of helmet mantling for Wilhelm and Wolfgang von Rogondorf’s Coat of Arms (designed around 1520) provided the model for the environment of the blue Spectre, a model that was reprised for my 10th anniversary editioned prints. This lush ornamental treatment, based on the acanthus leaf, appeared as engraving into the metal of Maximillian I’s ceremonial body armour, another of Durer’s patrons. This mantling style became the gold standard for the tooled surfaces of body armour, swords, daggers and guns. To this day these leaf forms remain true to their aristocratic roots, engraved into the surface of contemporary luxury power tools, revolvers, pistols and rifles.
Instead of the general sense of foreboding accompanying the outcome of the 1996 Federal election, the inspiration of the first two Spectres, this anniversary edition discusses a trilateral fascist reality. I became interested in the Master/Slave relationship as an aspect of Friedreich Nietzsche’s Theory of Resentment, the perpetual living poison inside the heart of payback. As a descendent of white slaves, I played with this idea; can an authentic experience of the complete loss of human rights translate across generations through ever-weakening memory and language? Do the facts underpinning the experience become so homeopathic as to disappear, leaving behind an essentialised imprint of some blurry abstract knowledge. Was a resentful slave hiding out in me? I had driven out the malevolent baby, and found a resentful slave! The redaction process of convict genealogy in Australia was one of deliberate forgetfulness. Criminals lurking in the gene pool hold no cachet for advancement. Has this forgetting evolved into a trait embedded inside the mercurial Australian identity? Contemporary philosophers posit that Forgetting or Postmodern fraud is global and its vector is the internet.
United Spectres #3 contains three militaristic, nationalistic emblems engaged in an interwoven relationship; the swastika, the star of Israel and Islam and the 13 stars of the Southern Confederate flag of the U.S.A. The slave and the slavers present relationships of a seemingly exponential semiotic complexity. Bad blood leaking across the generations. The slave can never forget. The Master can never remember.
My engagement to attempt a comprehension of what fuels human fascist impulse, that is, power and control through violence, derives from two simultaneous streams. The first within my own experience of the Tattoo Industry and its regulatory forces, and secondly in the greater perspective of federal and international governance, the maintenance and expansion of class based economic prestige, access and control of labour and shifts in public language through disinformation and propaganda. Lawless organised crime underworlds and a law abusing above world share similar self-interested political and economic desires. Uniforms and hairstyles may differ, but aims, techniques and outcomes look the same. Historically, the same gender perpetuates the same ideas like a train crash on an infernal video loop. No offence intended, some of my best friends are men.
The ‘Left’ were recently described by a current Member of Parliament as ‘degenerate’. It was a shocking statement. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbles gave the word an unforgettable semiotic sediment, and it’s its ugly head is raised again in 2007.
It is not only within the machinations of the State where the fascist impulse to direct identity resides. Yesterday’s leftist conspiracy theories i.e. outlandish discourses of corporate directed outcomes in legislation have been transformed into governance as corporate business plan. Mockery is a brilliant colonising methodology. One is only suspicious of the motivation underpinning CCTV if one is a criminal. We are subject to the deft manipulation of reason by self-interested lawyerwordmagicians turned politicians with connections, streaming disinformation, endless vapid slogan words like Evil, Freedom and Competition and Choice. Ignorance is Strength sisters and brothers.
Where to end…
Think of an heiress to vulgarity, take a thousand of pictures of her with her clothing half on, there she is in Prada and Krug splashing all over her vintage Balenciaga, watch her homemade internet porn over and over till you think she knows who you are, she’s on a vacant news broadcast drunk behind the wheel with cocaine all over her face…watch my hand… watch out for those cameras, your State is watching you as you sleepwalk through your favourite celebrity’s impoverished life crying paparazzi ruined my life. You pour out your emotion and empty your wallet for a poor celebrity.
Adolph Hitler stated in 1938, “It is lucky for the Leaders that the people do not think”.
© eX de Medici.
Paper delivered at the Sixth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2007.