Design Opinion

On Modifying Oneself

“I believe that man is in the last resort so free a being that his right to be what he believes himself to be cannot be contested.” ~ George C. Lichtenberg.

Identity. So much ambiguity to the meaning of this word. One, how others see you. Another, how you see yourself. Can you say you are only the person whose personal details appear in your national identification papers? Or are you more than that? What is the “more”? It takes a lifetime to know oneself.  It takes others maybe an hour, or even shorter than that, to sum up who they think you are. And then, what’s the accuracy of that? Is our version of ourselves the same as others’ version of us? I’d say, almost never.

Some of us want others to see us as we are, yet some of us want others to see us as who we want them to think we are. The way we decide to appear has a part to play. Modifying oneself is what we do every day. Your daily grooming from the moment you wake up is about how you feel and how you want others to see you, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Body art is one of the ways we modify our looks. However, many would deem body art as an extreme form of body mutilation, and in the words of the famous body modification artist, Fakir Musafar, “Physical difference frightens people in our culture more than anything else. You can be aberrant as hell mentally, politically, socially but do one little thing physically — put a bone in your nose — and boy, you’re in trouble!” This discourse revolves around contemporary application of body art, excluding traditional tribal (indigenous peoples) applications, although many of today’s tattoo designs imitate or are appropriations of ethnically traditional art.

Body art, from a personal experience, is not meant to be offensive (though it might be provoking in some parts of society). It is about self-gratification and appreciation of one’s own body through extensions and enhancements with ink and steel. The body can serve as the canvas by which one adorns oneself as a form of personal expression. It is understandable that people do define those who have body art with a certain identity that they associate with (prisoners, gangsters, trend-followers, etc.)  because humans have this intrinsic need to do so. Maybe this has more to do with the viewer than the wearer? Further to that, perhaps this has more to do with placing someone in a preconceived niche. For me, body art is not the only way to define a person. A person’s character is much larger and more complex than simply appearance. Of course how a person acts and behaves can also be a reflection of character. Having said that, it would be interesting then to look at HOW and WHY a person with body art decides what kind of tattoos and where to place them, or what kind of piercings and where to have them done on the body. Why? Because those decisions could represent the wearer’s mind, how he/she sees and feels about his/her world.

However, from a personal viewpoint, there are certain ‘rules’ one should abide by because we live in societies where we need to find a balance in being considerate to others yet able to express ourselves. For body art enthusiasts, this is a challenge because they have to decide what designs are not only visually pleasing but inoffensive to the majority of people. A wise body art wearer does not want to be outstanding for the wrong reasons. Tattoos and piercings very seldom escape the stares of others but should not affect communication about them. At the same time, body art should resonate with oneself. Many tend to think that body art is merely addictively poking oneself with needles and metal, but in reality, like art in a wider context, it comes with great consideration, and precision in planning, as well as purpose and the relationship to one’s character or even one’s soul or possibly one’s journey in life.

Mine is a journey that began almost 20 years ago, just with a little tattoo, designed by myself, on my right thumb. I’ve always loved rings and I thought why not a permanent one? And that slowly and steadily led to the ones that I have today. As with many aspects of my life, I like to have a say in my tattoos, instead of just letting someone else, i.e. the tattoo artist, decide for me. Therefore, I am part of the creation of  each of my tattoos, from start to finish.

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My art and I: Embodying my designs. Photo credits: Damien Egan.

I know I want to explore future extensions of my tattoos. So — so many ideas and options are available and I have worked closely with the artists. I research tattoo ideas and discuss about them. I constantly ask: Where on my body to add more? How will they flow with those that I already have? Would will they be too much? How do I personalise the designs? And so the journey of body art, for me, continues. Just like life, it is the journey that is always most exciting and gratifying. When the outcome is achieved, I move on and look for new quests.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.” ~ Pablo Picasso.

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