Although they seem like a fashion, tattoos have multiple meanings and express traits of each subjectivity almost since the beginning of time. Doctor of Psychology and psychoanalyst Hilda Catz studies the subject with a keen eye on Tattoos as symbolizing marks (Ricardo Vergara Editions). His research uses clinical cases and film analysis. Catz focuses on adolescents and young adults, although he clarifies that “it is not something exclusive to these age groups.” He takes tattoos as “revealing scars” that have to do “with the problems raised around the particularities of parental inscriptions in our culture,” according to the core of his research.
Catz points out that in tattoos there is a cross between sociocultural determinisms and the singular history of the subjects. How is this evidenced? “By this I mean the clinical relevance that tattoos have for the psychoanalytic process. I consider that the skin is, in some way, like a canvas, and it was used since the beginning of time for different purposes: protection, sacred value, belonging to the community, testimony, homage … A sense of existence is transmitted and generated through the skin. In other words, the fashion argument must be rejected as the only trigger for the desire and choice to make a tattoo. Always we find ourselves with the collective psyche and the individual psyche that leaves traces of an enigmatic presence, as if revealing new horizons of meanings to be discovered ”, explains Catz, a member of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association.
–What can tattoos contribute to the analytical act?
– They can contribute a lot because they have to do with the individual psyche. The best I can convey about this is through a poem by Felisberto Hernández, the famous Uruguayan poet, considered the “Uruguayan Borges.” It has a phrase: “I know that thoughts walk through the body. I know that thoughts walk barefoot through the body, and not all go up to the head and dress in words.” Here is a point that interests me: the significant importance and symbolizing potential of tattoos, either as a social function, as an artistic expressiveness but also embodied in an individual body that, in some way, is a mediator between the self and society. Through the tattoo, the absent becomes present.
– Could there be in the act of tattooing an unconscious production of the subject?
–Absolutely. It is an unconscious production of the subject. It expands, it frees itself, somehow re-establishes ties of identity and, in some cases, bodily modifications as ways of escaping. They escaped from the marginal and clandestine places that they had before. Of course they are traversed by the dictatorship of biopolitical mandates, of the media, but unlike the ephemerality of fashion they have something of perpetuity. And they disrupt the public, the private. They are biographies inscribed on the body. One patient told me: “Now, instead of writing letters to us, we get tattoos.” There is some of that that is under the skin that can be seen from inside the body as well as from outside and has a symbolizing force and potential that I attribute to it in the analytic session, when it appears, the value of a zip (a term of computing that involves decompressing files): if we can “open” it (because we can’t open all the zip files) there is all the condensed information of that person.
–Can differences be established between those who tattoo a small drawing and those who practically decide to tattoo their entire body?
–Yes, of course. Tattooing the whole body is when it becomes an addiction. There is a range that goes from how neurotic we all are, where always underneath the tattoo lies a loss. This does not mean something condemning but quite the opposite: it is like an attempt to elaborate duels.
– Of course, because many times the tattoo has to do with keeping the memory of a loss alive, right?
–Exactly. But regarding the other question, one thing is to get a tattoo, two, three or four, and another thing is not being able to stop getting tattoos; That is to say, the person may feel that they did their homage, that they made a testimony and another thing is when they cannot stop doing tattoos that we are already in the field of non-diction, of addiction. One thing is a person who gets a tattoo and tells you a fascinating novel about that tattoo, or tells you a story, tells you a story, moves you. They make a memory and make an exchange. There we are on the terrain of what we all are, neurotic, where that cry in search of a grip shows that there is an appropriation of the body, a kind of signature of received, and it is transformed into a potential process of symbolization. And another thing is when you can’t stop, where you can’t ask why the person closes, they can’t talk about it. There is no elaboration.
“Is every tattoo an enigma?”
Yes, and for me it is a cry for a foothold; or more than a cry, we can say a call in search of a foothold. And it always becomes an enigma. The design of what is chosen to be tattooed is also important, the area of the body, the moment in life in which it was done, especially the first one. I always ask about the first one, the moment in life when the tattoo was made, what was happening in his life at that moment, what they said about the tattoo in his environment. Then, there a possibility of reflection around, of creative work, of passing to diction is established. I try that the tattoo passes into the narrative, respecting its value as a tattoo, design, art, but that it can pass into the narrative in the encounter with another. So, that tattoo opens up a complexity and multiplicity of meanings, which is different when the whole body is tattooed and there is no way to enter it because it already becomes like a fortress. One thing is that it is for communication with the other and another thing is when it is a kind of impregnable fortress.
-If before it was a symbol of virility to have a tattoo as, for example, it could be the case of sailors, today with what can it be related?
–First of all we have to relate it to the complex thought that Edgard Morín speaks. He has a book, Needles in the skin, in which he makes a brief historical tour of the tattoo. Of course, drawings are a multicultural practice and art in the body for Western culture that was limited to certain classes at some point, which had no legitimacy; he had a primitive punitive scheme from which he has not yet completely gotten rid of. But at the same time it was gaining ground and began to be something of a kind of staging for others. By enduring the pain and itching of that needle, we also seek to obtain a meaningful body loaded with meaning, whether it is a man or a woman. And also there this will be determined by the location in the differentiated body geographies. In general, tattoo artists tell you: “This pain is nothing comparable to the pain you already suffered.” There it refers us to the fact that it is used a lot as a tribute, as a testimony, as belonging to a group.