“Cut off your head / Don’t hesitate / Do it today / It’s great / Throw out your brains / They’re a disease / Cut off your head / Think with your needs”

A while back Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote an interesting piece in Reason about tattoos and criminals:

Unlike a legal trademark, an underworld brand can’t be defended with little more than an expensive attorney. If another gang steps into your turf, you can opt for a violent defense of your signal of choice. But gangsters who previously relied on large gaudy tattoos to get a message across can hardly go around roughing up every 17-year-old with a tramp stamp on her tailbone.

As tattoos go mainstream, criminals have to adapt. These days, even art on your neck, collarbone, and wrists is barely enough to signal your commitment to subcultures that are totally legal.

But there are still some kinds of tattoos—including those inky eyelid admonitions and the homespun variety created with a shard of a ballpoint pen during long hours behind bars—that retain their signaling power, demonstrating a commitment to the criminal way of life. A guy with extensive Aryan Brotherhood facial tattoos is unlikely to snitch on his buddies. The only thing worse than getting an eyelid tattoo is having one removed. What’s he going to do, go into witness protection and start a new life as a kindergarten teacher in Ohio?

The criminal world is an extreme variation of what goes on in regular society and cultures and subcultures within it. The criminals are having to adapt to non-criminals using similar markings to express solidarity with non-criminal activities. The more interesting aspect of this is that non-criminals are doing it. With tattoos, it’s counter-culture that comes to mind, but that itself is a variation of what goes on in more mainstream culture, particularly among women.

Half of social organization is about differentiation. Setting up a hierarchy. Declaring yourself outside of the hierarchy. Setting yourself up within an alternate hierarchy. With tattoos and the like, it’s relatively simple and in-keeping with the motivations of Aryans in prison. The more difficult you make it to go back, the larger sacrifice you are require, the easier it is to prevent everyone from merely copying you. Having a tattoo on your shoulder that is hidden while wearing a shirt is relatively easy. My clean-cut brother Mitch has one. Counter-cultural types don’t want to be a part of any group to which Mitch belongs, so they have to do what Mitch won’t do. Though he and I haven’t talked about it, I suspect that he would think twice about putting a tattoo where a shirt wouldn’t cover it. I’ve lightly (very lightly) dallied in the idea of getting a tattoo in the past, but would never ever consider getting one that I couldn’t hide.

Which is part of the point. You have to draw a line that people like me won’t cross in order for your self-marking to be worth anything. Half of the point is to separate poseurs like Mitch and me from the people who really want to make a statement. So you replace shoulder tattoos with arm-sized ones. You replace ear rings with those ear-spacers that deform the ear. And on and on.

Even more interesting to me than this is how mainstream female fashion seems to do it in more subtle ways. Make the clothes insanely expensive so that the non-dedicated and non-wealthy can afford then. Make the shoes so uncomfortable that the non-dedicated won’t bother. Make the clothes accentuate any and all body fat so that those that aren’t a perfect size two can’t get away with wearing them.

The combination of what women to do themselves and the increasing acceptability of body markings and piercings and other things on men make me wonder if we are headed down the same path. With prole creep and tattoos becoming more and more acceptable, will mainstream male society follow-suit to the point that those of us that don’t have any markings that can’t be covered up with a t-shirt will be considered hopelessly square? Not an uplifting thought.

Category: Coffeehouse

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6 Responses to Every God Demands Its Sacrifice

  1. PeterW says:

    But I think signaling is largely conserved. Those women who compete based on appearance and wealth are extracting themselves from the typically modern competition on career status and the traditional competition on childrearing ability. Similarly if men started competing on fashion, body-type, and ability to emulate thug culture, then other aspects of competition (job status, ability to emulate elite culture) would fall by the wayside.

    But of course some status games are superior to others. The types of competition you name are either zero- or negative-sum, and I suspect that that was the evolutionary norm. Social status is inherently zero-sum, and people’s attitude towards, say, wealth inequality today indicate that viewing people instinctively view all sorts of competition as zero-sum. But cultures that became successful managed to develop ways to channel competition towards productive ends. Capitalism manages to harness competition in a socially productive way. Cultural norms that favor parental investment in families help to offset the costs of socially beneficial family formation. As destructive as excess competition based on educational attainment can be, it still leaves people with more knowledge and skills than they came in with.

    I agree that we should deplore the proliferation of other status games, but not because it increases the total amount of status seeking; rather, because it diverts energy (which I take to be fixed) from the kinds of status seeking that’s beneficial for society.

  2. trumwill says:

    But I think signaling is largely conserved.

    I quite agree. It’s all about signaling. Did I inadvertently say otherwise?

    I don’t oppose zero-sum status signaling. Or rather, I don’t like it, but it’s like not liking hurricanes. It’s pretty built into the fabric of things. So I think we agree there, too.

    I think where I do get bothered (because I have failed to entirely come to terms with it, I suppose) is when these days are either (grossly) materially wasteful or destructive. I consider tattoos to be the latter because they (in extremes) destroy the beauty of the human body, though I recognize that’s a matter of taste.

    Not coincidentally, though, tattoos are a status game where I am hindered in my ability to compete (by aesthetic tastes and an unwillingness to entirely commit to the counter-culture) and so it makes sense that I would consider that sort of status-seeking to be destructive.

  3. Peter says:

    The only thing worse than getting an eyelid tattoo is having one removed.

    Eyelid tattoos are so 2008. Today eyeball tattoos are all the rage.

    Speaking of things that women do to themselves … oh, never mind.

  4. PeterW says:

    Yep, I think we’re in agreement. You make a good point that people tend to favor competition in areas where they’re strong (right: markets, left: social relations), and egalitarianism in areas where they’re weak (right: strong social norms, left: taxation and redistribution). That’s a bias we have to be aware of. But again, we’ve painstakingly developed these few ways to channel competition to productive uses: capitalism, education, family formation, and it seems a pity to throw away these cultural technologies in favor of random zero-sum games.

  5. PeterW says:

    I was just reading CS Lewis’s The Inner Ring, a lecture that touches on the issue of status seeking: http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring.php

  6. Mike Hunt says:

    Tattoos are for losers. I would NEVER hire or date ANYONE with a tattoo, or excessive piercings for that matter.

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