Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

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What role do art and aesthetics play in "The Tattooer" by Junichiro Tanizaki, particularly in relation to human nature?

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In “The Tattooer,” art and aesthetics become a transformative means of giving and gaining power and control. Art and aesthetics are also linked to the inflicting and endurance of pain in Seikichi's tattooing. While Seikichi gains power by creating art on the bodies of the men he tattoos, he gives some of his own power to the girl.

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"The Tattooer" is a story that focuses on art and aesthetics as a means of not only self-expression but control. Power, particularly the power of women and power gained from both inflicting and bearing pain, plays a significant role.

In the very first paragraph of the story, Tanizaki states that...

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"beauty and strength were one" in the era in which the story takes place. There is a constant connection between strength and beauty, most evident in the process Seikichi uses to tattoo his patrons. Seikichi revels in the power he gains from inflicting pain on men, and in turn the men he tattoos gain pride from their endurance of pain, which results in a gorgeous work of art. With the young girl, Seikichi is more inspired by the end result of his work, which ultimately brings out the girl's innate power. From the moment he sees her, her natural beauty enchants him and stirs a desire to transform this innocent young woman into a much more dominant individual through his art. When he initially encounters the girl (her foot, specifically), there is a contrast between her pure aesthetic and the brutal power of which Seikichi feels she is capable. Tanizaki describes her foot as follows:

Exquisitely chiseled toes, nails like the iridescent shells along the shore at Enoshima, a pearl-like rounded heel, skin so lustrous that it seemed bathed in the limpid waters of a mountain spring—this, indeed, was a foot to be nourished by men's blood, a foot to trample on their bodies.

When Seikichi shows the girl two paintings, one depicting a princess looking down at a man awaiting torture and another showing a woman with a pile of men's corpses at her feet in the midst of a pleasant landscape, the young woman is moved. Although she attempts to turn away from her own cruel desires, Tanizaki tells us, "In this picture the girl felt that she had found something long hidden in the darkness of her own heart."

When Seikichi tattoos her with a black widow spider (it is significant that female black widow spiders often eat the male after mating), he is in a sense giving her some of his own power: "He felt his spirit dissolve into the charcoal-black ink that stained her skin." This line is evidence of the fact that unlike the men he tattoos, whose power he is taking for himself, the girl is gaining power through Seikichi's artwork. He is, for the first time, surrendering; her aesthetic is changed by the tattoo, and with it her entire being. After receiving the tattoo, she becomes authoritative and certain, in sharp contrast to the timid girl she used to be. This is essentially the role of aesthetics and art in the story: it is transformative and hard-earned and has the power to give or take control.

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