What is the central idea of 36 tattoos by David Shields?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many of the questions in this article by David Shields point to the idea of ownership implied in tattoos and tattooing, as thegreywarden identifies in his post.

Some of these questions are overt, as when Shields considers the case of NBA players potentially renting or selling space on their bodies to be tattooed by advertisers. 

"Selling, say, his left shoulder to a shoe company, would Stephon Marbury be losing control over his body or exerting control over capitalism?"

At other points, the idea of ownership is implicit and serves to complicate any potentially simple understanding of how tattoos function in 2002 (when the article was published) vis a vis the concepts of identity, identification, and speech.

Quoting an example from The Wall Street Journal, Shields implicitly questions a continued connection between previously mentioned practices of tattooing the losers after a war of conquest and the ideas present in contemporary choices of tattoos.

"'Human barcodes are also hip. The heavy- metal band Slipknot has a barcode logo, with the stripes emblazoned across their prison-jumpsuit outfits.'"

The notion at the heart of this inquiry is one that relates to a complex idea of the interplay between identity, consciousness of one's motives, consciousness of historical context and personal agency.

One crucial undercurrent in the article is the suggestion that people choosing to get tattoos are doing so as a means of affiliation (which can be collegiate, as in the case of Michael Jordan's tattoo, or corporate, as in the case of the Nike employees getting tattooed with Nike's corporate logo). Thus, instead of standing as a mark of individuality, the tattoo becomes a mark of attachment, of group affiliation, or even of sub-ordinance to a group. Instead of proclaiming self-ownership, the tattoo articulates an idea that actually may run opposite to the idea of self-ownership and individuality.

Even this inverted statement of affiliation is complicated (wherein the individual espouses, by choice, a connection to a larger group). There is good reason to address the psychological importance of personal agency that leads a person to choose to associate with a larger group via tattoo. By making the choice, the individual acquires some semblance of primacy in the situation. He or she chooses instead of being chosen. This gives some power to the individual.

Along the same lines, tattooed proof of affiliation can overcome a potential sense of alienation and may do so even in the ironic case where the tattoo is itself an expression of alienation that connects one to others who are similarly alienated. This is exemplified in the case of the yakuza in Japan.

"'The yakuza expressed these ideals in tattooing: because it was painful, it was proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them forever outlaws.'"

Yet the article persists in presenting questions about self-awareness. Despite the contemporary and historical examples of the functions of tattooing, we still have to ask whether or not the individual has enough critical distance from the signs and symbols inherent in the act of tattooing -- and from the act itself -- to truly understand all the various meanings of a tattoo that connects him or her to a group, a team, a television show, or a company.

Ultimately, however, the article presents the idea of tattooing as a complex means of self-identifying in today's world, though it has historically been used for marking property, marking prisoners, etc. The tattoo becomes something of a cipher -- a mark that is not entirely legible in terms of its deepest meanings, but which can be seen as a re-appropriation of an individual's power to choose affiliations positively.  

thegreywarden | Student

36 Tattoos by David Shields is a wonderful piece of literature that talks about a topic that is largely a part of American culture today- tattoos. 

In his work, Shields gives us a brief history of tattoos, and how popular they were in the past. He also describes what tattoos mean to many people today, mainly professional athletes. 

The central idea of this story is to ask the many questions people have regarding tattoos. A question that Shields asks throughout the piece is: "Who owns these words?" Here Shields is wondering if the reason why many people get tattoos is because they have meaning to them, or if it is for something else, such as just to show off or to go against the norm. Shields also discusses why some professional athletes do not have tattoos. One answer he received was because he was "old-fashioned".

Most of the piece is quotes from others about their opinion on tattoos. Shields allows the readers to come to conclusions about tattoos themselves. He leaves the reader with the thought-provoking question of:

"Who owns this body, this body of words?"

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