Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art

The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art

2018 Update: Download The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo now for $7.

Items I wrote less than eight weeks ago often embarrass me, so I expected to be horrified when I sat down to read my college honors thesis from eight years ago.

Even though it can be painful to review old pieces of writing because the editor in me doesn’t refrain from noticing room for improvement, the process energizes my creative sensibilities for new projects.

Since my forthcoming philosophical Percocet, How to Overcome Heartbreak Without Projectile Vomiting, is an argument about heartbreak’s role in identity formation, I thought it would be helpful to review the structure of my long-forgotten philosophical argument about art.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading the essay, so I turned it into a 75-page book that’s divided into six chapters:


The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art


Introduction: The Philosophy of Art

Part I: Traditional Art and Tattoo Art

Part II: The Conditions for the Creation of Tattoo Art

Part III: How Does Tattooing Evoke New Ideas About Art?

Part IV: The Function of an Animate Medium

Conclusion: The Missing Link in Danto’s Theory

You can download the book here.

Tattoos, like old pieces of writing, are intricate snapshots of time that display our past selves. They are permanent markings on conscious mediums—human beings—who continually evolve and form new identities over time.

Below is the book’s introduction that establishes my argument within the realm of existing art philosophies and demonstrates how we can learn about art through tattoos.


The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art


Introduction: The Philosophy of Art

If an object falls under the category of “art,” then one would suspect it has something in common with other items in this category. Art forms, however, produce strikingly different manifestations of art. For example, sculpture produces three-dimensional art, painting and drawing produce two-dimensional art, and performance art produces a time frame in which the art exists. How do these distinct practices have the possibility of producing creations that are acknowledged as “art?” What constitutes art?

My philosophical study of art focuses on tattoos, a traditionally unaccepted type of art, to help understand the properties that one attributes to art. If tattoos are not “art,” why not? If tattoos are “art,” why so? Figuring out these characteristics about tattoos, specifically, contributes to the general ontology of art. There are a number of debated theories regarding what makes something a work of art. I argue that these theories do not accurately incorporate my conditions for tattoo art due to aspects of tattoo art that are not a part of the traditional visual art forms that these theories discuss. This essay, therefore, has two aims.

First, I will establish the properties of tattoo art that demonstrate it is not only possible for tattoos to be “art,” but that tattooing as an artistic process fulfills certain needs for the artist that other art forms cannot. Next, I will investigate how the concept of a tattoo, a permanent marking on a human being’s skin, evokes new ideas about art that would not be raised if one solely concentrated on traditionally accepted art forms. Visual art, if viewed as a category that contains certain objects, can be more lucidly defined if one knows the certain qualities that an object must possess so that it is not just an object but also a work of “art.” Background information about art philosophy will position my study in relation to established ideas about what art is.

In Aesthetics, Anne Sheppard explains that within the realm of philosophy of art there are three categories that have become useful when evaluating a potential piece of art, but these categories alone are, indeed, incomplete due to the “diversity of examples which art presents.” The three categories that she discusses are Imitation, Expression, and Form. The following explains each category’s prerequisites and proposes my view of the additional factors that need to be taken into consideration for the evaluation of tattoos as potential pieces of artwork.

Imitation. How well does the piece imitate or replicate the subject that it is portraying?
“The view that art is imitation has a long history, for it is one of the earliest theoretical views to be held about art.” Plato’s concept of ideal Forms seems to be the initial source of the use of imitation in art criticism. For Plato, Sheppard explains, “there exist(s) ideal Forms of many qualities, Forms of which the instances in the world of sense experience are only copies … Plato in Republic X relegates virtually all art to an inferior role just because of its imitative nature.” Even though Plato seems to view art as subordinate to his idea of Forms (Platonic Forms), he implies that the artist’s duty is to imitate. It is, then, the duty of the spectator to observe whether or not the artistic creation is a successful imitation of what is supposed to be represented.

There are different ways a work can represent objects from the physical world. If an artist chooses realism, the art critic can then judge the piece based on her actual physical experience with the subjects in question. Were the objects imitated effectively? Are the proportions correct? Is the value and shading accurate? Sheppard notes that this way of evaluating art is flawed because the theory assumes all works of art imitate something to some degree and a work’s value is therefore embedded in its imitative qualities. Even though all works of art are not necessarily representational, and an artist might not use imitation in her work, imitation still has a valid function in art philosophy.

Another way one might choose to imitate an artistic subject is not through realism but through the artist’s personal subjective view. Through this technique, the artist projects her subjective attitude toward the subject into the replication. For example, instead of realistically rendering a portrait of a rat, the artist might intend to draw a “cute” rat, exaggerating its eyes, ears, and smile. It is then the duty of the art critic to judge whether or not the attitude the artist intended to convey about the subject is depicted accurately.

My main concern with the imitation theory, in line with Sheppard’s criticism, is that there are many non-representational works of art. If a work is not intended to imitate something, then this theory will clearly not suffice. Also, even works that intend to represent something from the physical world may include components that are not representational; these aspects are not properly evaluated under this theory.

But how does one know whether or not a work is supposed to be representational? For example, upon viewing a realistic rendering of a landscape, one may assume different information.
The landscape could represent an actual location; it could represent an idealized location. How does a viewer know whether a depicted location is an actual one that he has never seen before or a fanaticized one that the artist created? It is also problematic for one to assume abstract art to be non-representational just because he cannot clearly recognize anything in the work from the physical world. An abstract work might effectively imitate something from the physical world once one learns what the work depicts.

A giant enlargement of a computer chip, for example, might not initially strike an onlooker as anything familiar. However, once one learns that it is a computer chip, it might clearly represent the object, as well as make a statement about the importance of technology in our current culture through the enlarged version of a miniscule but significant object.

A traditional imitation theory for art evaluation is limited due to the nature of traditional visual arts. If a viewer never finds out that the enlarged object is a computer chip, then he may mistakenly overlook the central representational value of the piece and label it non-representational art. Such errors can occur because conventional drawings, paintings, and sculptures are not always viewed in the presence of the artist who created them—the person who can clarify confused notions about the work.

I will argue in the third section of this essay that the notion of whether or not a tattoo is tattoo art can be easily determined because, with tattoos, the artist is always present to explain the representational or non-representational value behind the artwork. My argument proves that regardless of appearance, in any type of visual art, the circumstances of how the artist created the work determines whether or not a work is “art.” I will explain that tattoo art simply reveals these critical circumstances more transparently than traditional types of art.

Before I introduce the next category of artistic evaluation, I should note my treatment, or rather lack of treatment, of aesthetic judgments of beauty and taste. Immanuel Kant’s treatment of beauty will also serve a function in this essay that is separate from my ontological distinction of what art is. I hold that beauty is subjective and subjectivity cannot be a part of an ontological discrimination, such as what fits into the category of art. Therefore, if the term “art” classifies certain types of creations, then there cannot be a subjectivity debate of what fits into this category. A work of art can be called such regardless of what it looks like or who considers it beautiful.

For example, there are strict characteristics that define the categories “people,” “places,” and “things.” If someone is a person, then she cannot be accurately described as a place or thing.
If something is a place, it is not a person or thing. If something is a thing, it is not a person or place. I treat “art” as the same type of category. There are distinct properties that make something “art” and not just some other type of object. Subjective tastes of beauty conflict with the strict boundaries that I place around what makes a work of art and will not be included as a discriminatory factor in my argument for what makes a tattoo, tattoo art—and ultimately, what makes something “art.”

Expression. Sheppard next evaluates the category of expression. An artist may intend to express something when creating artwork, and the artwork itself may express the same notion or a different notion to its audience. Does the audience recognize the message that the artist intended to communicate? What if the audience misinterprets the artist’s intent, but finds a narrative in the piece that pleases the artist, even though he did not necessarily intend to communicate that narrative when creating the piece? What if an audience interprets the piece in a way the artist dislikes? Who is the intended audience? Philosophers such as Nelson Goodman and Arthur Danto critique the expression theory as a method for defining art. What roles do symbols play in the assessment of art? Can one accurately interpret symbols and expression? Is this enigmatic evaluation a central characteristic of art?

Conventional, inanimate mediums, such as paper or canvas, can easily produce artistic creations without straightforward intents, and expression can be over-attributed or under-attributed to a work. For example, a drawing of a rose may just be a drawing of a rose. An artist went outside, saw a rose garden, and drew a rose. However, viewers of the drawing might think the rose is supposed to express something. When an audience discusses the work, some might say the rose represents love, passion, or desire. Since the artist did not intend for it to represent any of these things, it is clear that a conventional artistic work’s expressive capacity depends on the interpretation of viewers and is independent of the artist’s intent.

An audience’s interpretation of what is expressed in an artwork is an important part of an artistic experience, but in order to discover what actually makes a work, “art,” I argue that one must learn what the artist intended to express. Tattoo art allows the viewer to more clearly understand what the artist intended.

For an artistic concept to be tattoo art, it appears on the skin of the artist who envisioned the concept. The type of expression that is intrinsic in tattoo art is absent from traditional art forms and consequently absent from traditional art evaluations. Although other visual art forms convey concepts on external, inanimate mediums, such as paper or canvas, I argue that the type of individual, personal expression embedded in tattoo art concepts need to be manifested on the artist’s physical structure, rather than on an external object. Art created on external objects detached from the artist automatically initiate viewer interpretation because background information from the artist is not readily available.

Tattoo art concepts may be misinterpreted as well, but the constant presence of the artist with the artwork can help clarify these confusions and enable a discussion about expression. If one must express an artistic concept on her physical body, what is special about the concept? Is the concept distinct from a concept that can be manifested through traditional art forms? Tattoo art exemplifies the importance of the conceptual process in all art forms. The discovery of the artistic concept that inspired the creation assists the critic in determining whether or not something is a work of art.

Form. The final category of art evaluation that Sheppard assesses states that “the essence of art is to be found in (its) form.” In the next section of this essay, Traditional Art and Tattoo Art, I will explain Kant’s consideration of form in greater detail. Although I disagree with Kant’s evaluation of tattoos in relation to beauty, his views have influenced my philosophical investigation into the ontology of art through tattoos, and some of his aesthetic concepts do indeed support my valuation of tattoos as a special type of art. For now, here are some general ideas about the form of a work of art.

How is the potential work of art physically manifested? Is it a two-dimensional drawing or painting on paper or canvas? Is it a three-dimensional sculpture? What constitutes the form that art takes? Could art be in the form of human body modifications, alterations, or manipulations? If one is quick to say “no,” why should the forms of art be limited? A non-tangible performance can be art, and the people involved in the performance use their human bodies to act out the artwork. In this case, a traditionally accepted art form involves a contrived and manipulated human being.

It seems that humans as potential mediums for art have been limited to the performing arts. Actors are tools for art when they act out a play or film. Musicians are tools for art when they compose and/or perform music. Dancers are tools for art when they dance. I am interested in activating the human body as a stationary object for art—a place where art is produced and displayed, rather than in performance art where human beings are transient vehicles used for the construction of art in a restricted time period.

Tattoo art intersects visual and performance art. When a tattoo is tattoo art, visual art is the physical manifestation of a necessary conceptual performance. Separately evaluating either performance art or visual art does not fulfill my aim. The examination of the properties that go into the creation of a tattoo art concept, and an examination of what the presence of a tattoo on human skin implies, furthers our knowledge of what we consider art.

Since there is variety within the recognized ways that one can produce art, why should an evaluation of art only include widely accepted art forms? Considering works that are not widely accepted as art helps answer the philosophical dilemma of what counts as art and why.
For example, one’s view would be rejected as false if she stated that Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory is not a work of art; new forms of art, however, incite more controversy.

When new art forms arise, we need to evaluate whether or not the creations produced are works of art, as well as the validity of our assessments. We can use the qualities of conventionally accepted art forms to judge new art forms, but we must also appreciate the distinct properties present in new art forms in order to learn about art. This essay examines tattooing as an art form and balances these two types of judgments.

Peter Green, in The Problem of Art, asks, “How are new departures in Art to be judged?”
We must expand the boundaries of what we evaluate as potential works of art to more substantially understand what art is, why it is necessary, and the function it serves for human beings. Our knowledge of art is sharpened by inspecting objects that are universally accepted as art and also by examining questionably artistic works. If something might be a work of art, what aspects would it have to possess to be included in the universal category? Some philosophers of art have already explored the peripheries of artistic creation.

In the Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto evaluates the circumstances under which mundane objects become works of art. Instead of only studying conventional artistic creations, such as paintings or sculptures, he also examines experimental types of art and art that may be created by accident. What makes a soup can a work of art, and when is it just a soup can? If the two soup cans look the same, how can one tell which is the work of art and which is merely an object? Danto’s inclusive and nondiscriminatory evaluation draws attention to the qualities of art that transcend appearance and superficial judgments.

Analyzing objects and practices that are not broadly considered art can help shape the notion of what art is. Paintings, for example, might all be considered potential works of art, but art cannot be limited to established forms. Though one might not look for art in everyday experiences, it does not necessarily follow that one does not encounter art in everyday experiences.

If individuals go to art galleries and museums to look at art, could the desire for viewing art be fulfilled by commonplace interactions with other individuals? Could markings that are permanently engraved in a human being’s skin be just as artistically engaging as viewing art that is meant to be viewed in a conventional way? These notions imply that tattoos are potential works of art, and if one explores what art is, then it is crucial that he considers practices that could be easily overlooked.

Examining places where one can see art, without confirmation that the work is indeed “art,” helps shape our acknowledgement of art and our appreciation for art. We may take artistic works that highly impact our judgments for granted.

Danto also suggests that a sense of beauty is different from the ontological category of art. He explains that a work can have “certain aesthetic qualities without being a work of art.”
Danto argues that what is beautiful is often times culturally relative, but that one can learn about the qualities that make an object a work of art by the information that one has about the artist in relation to the work’s material substrate and the work of art as a whole.

An object’s beauty, or lack of beauty, is subjective, and therefore should not be included in the ontological discrimination of art. Danto’s view complements my position that appearance is independent from whether or not something is a work of art. How relevant is a potential work of art’s material substrate? Danto values the relationship between the work and the artist, and it is an important factor in my philosophy of art, as well.

Danto’s book Beyond the Brillo Box dissectssymbolic expression. The difficulty with symbolism and expression lies in the determination of whether something should be taken at face value or whether it should be interpreted to represent a broader concept. For example, Danto explains:

Obviously, there are going to be symbols that are not expressions, as there are expressions that are not symbolizations. A logo of a baby could just symbolize babies, as in the maternity ward, but a picture of a baby might be the embodiment of innocence, as in conformity with the program of Christian iconography. Or it could just be a picture of a baby, resembling its denotation.

Given the many different ways a symbol can be viewed, Danto discusses that “signs” are more useful due to the external relationship between the sign and the viewer. A sign’s purpose is external in the sense that signs are used as indicators of explicit emotions, movement, or predictions. Danto notes a frowning face as an explicit sign for sadness and clouds as a sign of rain.

Symbols, conversely, are internal; they are personal and vague—characteristics that are problematic for artistic judgments. If a symbol could represent anything, it could also represent nothing, and we have not learned anything new about the ontological category of art. How can one judge art based on what it expresses if it is so difficult to figure out what a symbol is supposed to represent? Should symbols be ignored or treated at face value?

In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman covers the diverse ways that symbols are used in various art forms to accomplish expression. In this sense, symbols are a means of extending established verbal language. Through symbolic expression, one can create concepts that would not be fully articulated through verbal language alone. Symbols may still be problematic, for the reasons mentioned above, but they are useful in artistic critique if one speculates that art’s purpose is to create a method of communication that might not be as explicit as formal language but makes the viewer think about alternative forms of correspondence that better communicate the artist’s intent. Art, for the artist, may be a form of language that is more effective than words.

There are many different theories of artistic evaluation, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to debate them all. However, in Evaluating Art, George Dickie proposes a theory that he incorporates into his analysis, but quickly disregards it for not holding any merit on its own.
He describes the Subjective Intrinsic Value Theory as “the view that works of art are valuable because they are intrinsically valued by some person or persons.” The major flaw he then determines is that “works of art themselves can be intrinsically valued rather than the experiences generated by them,” and he goes on to argue that the experience that one gets from art is what makes art valuable. Though my philosophy of art focuses on what makes something a work of art, the question of what makes works of art valuable is a related issue.

As I explain shortly, tattoos can be potential works of art just as paintings are potential works of art, but not all tattoos, just like not all paintings, are necessarily works of art. Dickie questions how a work of art itself can be intrinsically valued and favors the idea that it is actually the experience of art that can be valued. I will address Dickie’s criticism that it seems odd to ascribe value to a work of art itself, independent of the experience a viewer has with the work.

I use the idea of an artistic concept’s intrinsic value to demonstrate when a tattoo is tattoo art.
In order for a tattoo to be tattoo art, an artist has to intrinsically value an artistic concept to such a high degree that this concept becomes part of the physical world by becoming part of the artist’s body. How is this process different from other tattoos, and how does this relate to traditional art forms?

The examination of practices that are not traditionally considered art by Western culture is a way to better understand what art is. But why is a separate examination necessary? Why can’t one evaluate tattoos according to traditional standards of art? Some tattoos may be evaluated this way, but, as I explain in the next section, tattoos that I claim to be tattoo art have distinct properties from other art forms, making traditional judgments incomplete and insufficient. These properties differentiate tattoo art from mere tattoos and require new styles of judgment in addition to pre-established artwork standards. What should be considered art?

Art might be found in unusual places, and if we investigate these sources and compare them to traditionally accepted forms of art, as well as discover their unique properties that evoke new ideas about art, we will possess a more crisp understanding of the ontological category of art.

My methodology is not so unique. The juxtaposition of an emerging artistic practice and traditional art in order to justify the practice as a visual art form and show its unique properties is quite present in the history of photography. The process of taking photographs was originally intricate, laborious, and time-consuming, but as photography became more widespread, due to the invention of “roll film and hand cameras,” those who believed photography to be a
“full-fledged modern art form” desired to separate themselves from those who simply took photographs as a hobby. To support these new artists, Alfred Steiglitz opened up a gallery called “291” in November 1905 at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

At 291 gallery’s first exhibition, photographs were displayed alongside “artwork in other media: drawings by Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Picasso; watercolors by Paul Cézanne and Picasso; sculpture by Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman … as well as children’s art and Japanese prints.” The gallery aimed to show the similarities between photographs and established art forms, as well as demonstrate the exclusive capabilities of photography. Steiglitz’s publication, Camera Work, also served this goal. It had significant stories about the art world and was “looked upon throughout the world as the acme of serious art photographers.” In an 1899 article, Steiglitz declared photography as an appropriate practice for “those that loved art and sought some medium other than brush or pencil through which to give expression to their ideas.”

While tattoo art is similar to established art forms, I argue that the practice of tattooing is special. In the next section, I outline the circumstances that make a tattoo tattoo art.

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The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art

About Stefanie Flaxman

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