Tattoos, from Diction to Addiction: Tattoos as "Symbolic Marks"

Lic. Hilda Clelia Catz

This paper describes the point of tension of a body that conceals and reveals through its marks, which do not always form a narrative sequence, but on the contrary, an addictive one.



. . . That which is deepest, the skin conceals and reveals 

We know that tattoos have existed since the dawn of humanity, and yet their numerous and complex meanings have depended on the times and the culture. This work is the result of clinical research into these procedures that adolescents and young adults have performed on their bodies, though I cannot say that they are the only age groups to do so. I will consider tattoos as revealing scars that, from my point of view, have to do with issues that come up around parental inscriptions in our culture.
From my perspective, research, and clinical experience, tattoos can be conceptualized as revealing scars or “symbolic marks” (Catz, 2011), as inscriptions or decipherments of mourning in a space with creative potential. Cultural, social and individual manifestations representing critical moments, which through twists and turns and offbeat paths, bear this peculiar form of language as the superficial inscription of an unconscious production within the subject.
Thus, I intend to argue for the clinical relevance of tattoos as a graphic language that can facilitate the opening of what I refer to as “symbolic marks” and also facilitate transformations that clear the path to the mental representations necessary for the production, in the present, of psychic conflicts around loss and deficient parenting.
From this perspective, tattoos as “symbolic marks” (Catz, 2011) communicate their potential for true ontological eloquence, which lies somewhere between socio-cultural determinism and personal narrative and implicates at least three generations through images as writing, as social bond, and as aesthetic expression. A wide array of possibilities ranging from diction as an associative narrative to an addiction
The English word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian term tatau, meaning “the feeling of being beaten,” and from Tohu, the name of a Polynesian deity, father of the night and creator of all the paintings on earth (Salamone, 1994). 
We can see that, insofar as their traditional significance is concerned, tattoos serve as a sign of personal identification, as a fashion shared by specific peer groups or by secret societies, as spells and as talismans, as signs of love and fidelity or as protective skins, and, generally, they provide cover from intense anxieties that, most of the time, are suffered but not felt in their full hermeneutical and creative force.
We find ourselves, then, with the notion that any body modification might be directly proportional to the depth of the psychic wound, as Anzieu states, which in the case of tattoos evinces and attests to a wound that remains raw. In such a way, the tattoo assumes relevance as testimony by describing or inscribing belongingness, the subject’s inscription within a personal narrative, which, from my point of view, allows it to be appropriated – to paraphrase Freud, to be able to be heir to a name and to a culture.[1]
Clinically, inclusion of a tattoo within the therapeutic process is particularly revealing because it permits a narrative construction to open within the analytic field that, in many cases, can be discerned as the scars of wounds scaffolding an identity. They both conceal and reveal the cultural framework of the erogenous body in its delicate initial equilibrium, which hints at the relationship between the tattoo as a brand or as a feature, and its ability to confer identity. 
I intend to consider the clinical relevance of tattoos as a graphic language that can facilitate the opening of what I have called “symbolic marks.” I refer to them primarily as the modes of transmission of losses and deficient parenting in the socioeconomic and cultural contexts that we inhabit, where they constitute a form of language not to be ignored by psychoanalysts and which may acquire the characteristics of an addiction.
Along these lines, I found a link to a parental function that I wish to highlight through the following phrase, taken from an indigenous chant from South Dakota that Galeano cites in his book Mirrors: “Father, paint me the earth on my body.”
Now, to focus on the theme of parental inscriptions – I found it particularly interesting to consider Garma’s research (1961), which proposes that decorations of the human body, as observed in the forms of clothing and tattoos, are characteristic of the earliest art forms.
Prehistoric mothers created decorations of the human body to continue conferring magically upon their newborn children all the support they had been able to give them previously during their intrauterine life. Mothers drew on their infants’ bodies with vegetable ink to protect them from wild animals, all the while dressing them and covering them in line with the norms of the social context in which they found themselves. A custom that must have taken on different forms over the course of the distinct phases of the individual who, as he grew, no longer required his mother’s protection but rather independence from it. The latter gave rise to puberty rites, found in all peoples primitive and civilized, in which “marks” of this process may be found across a wide array of forms that are creative, narrative, fictional, and addictive.
According to Garma, psychoanalytic studies of puberty have demonstrated that one of the deepest meanings of puberty rites is as an indication of progress that marks the transition from mother to father (pp. 20-21). To this end, one of the procedures used by totemic peoples – who worshipped animals and carried on with the traditions of skins and tattoos that originated in the ways they learned from their mothers – was to cover one’s body with the skin of the totem animal or to reproduce its likeness on one’s skin through drawings, clothes, or scars.

That is to say that, there have been and there continue to be tattoos since time immemorial, as can be seen in unearthed mummies that have borne tattoos along different parts of their bodies for what are generally considered to have been therapeutic purposes. Such as, for example, the mummy of Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor, which was found in Thebes around 2200 B.C., whose skin bore a series of parallel, blue scars in a straight line beneath her navel (Field, 1958). Tattoos were also used for punitive and discriminatory, as well as creative and ornamental, purposes.
Moreover, we cannot but emphasize that the current delimitation of bodies has transformed into a language beyond words, such as when tattoo artists tell those who are about to get tattooed that there is no greater pain than what they have already felt, implying that the pain caused by the actual execution of the tattoo itself is insignificant.
From my perspective, tattoos both reveal to us and conceal from us the stumbling blocks that pave the haphazard path to adulthood, evidence of a muted existence that transmutes through the skin, and they possess to a truly ontological eloquence that lies somewhere between socio-cultural determinism and personal narrative and implicates at least three generations.
Examples abound, such as prisoners avoiding psychic collapse and resisting a reality that often cannot be put into words. Such as young thieves (pibes chorros) for whom tattoos have their own meaning and take on the dimension of a silent, cryptic language, shared only within small groups. Such as young Israeli Jews who tattoo on their own arms the numbers worn by their grandparents who were once imprisoned at Auschwitz, at a time when the living memory of Holocaust survivors is about to disappear with the loss of their generation.
Analytic work in general is evolving away from interpretations of what tattoos conceal and reveal and from elaborating the losses that were steadily arrested and then frozen in images, and, in the case of addiction, preclude this process.
Nonetheless, from this point of view, tattoos would open the path to the requisite mental representations for psychic conflicts to come about and for their possible transformation through the body and through different interventions, since they have symbolic potential, that is, which may or may not be symbolized, from addiction to diction.
In the case of diction or associative narrative, tattoos leave open the possibility to head towards an eventual mental rebirth, through analysis, by revising a traumatic history. As if somehow those whose environment remained deaf and indolent were called to it, desperate. The tattooed body might be regarded like a letter that never reached its recipient but could now be read in the space of a session, like a letter that needs to be engraved on the skin with a sign, indelible and permanent. It can lead us to find a path that, through gestures, looks, tears, silences and words, leads us to what Winnicott (1958) calls “failure situations that are frozen,” waiting for a place to transition.
We might say that the therapeutic process constitutes such a space, like Ariadne’s thread, a way out from the Labyrinth and, thus, restarts a journey of progress towards experience. We have to reject the claim that says that fashion is the only impetus for wanting a tattoo and choosing to get one, and gradually opening the possibility to establish spaces of potential reflection in which we will always find an individual’s psyche, which leaves behind traces of its enigmatic presence and unfurls new horizons of meanings to be discovered.
I would like to highlight that by including a tattoo within the analytic process it comes to be a preferential tool within the approach. Freud gave the Somatic a place, and, with it, the possibility of intertwining with the Representational Universe. We find psychoanalytic considerations on the tattoo in the works of Freud and Lacan.
In both seminars IX and XI, Lacan emphasizes, inter alia, the relationship between the tattoo as mark or as trait and the identifying function this implies, as well as the erotic concomitant that this entails. I distinctly emphasize this point because of the significance of this relationship to parenting deficits and manic operations when it comes to addictionsto getting them and not leaving room for inquiry, when the anguish is too much to allow associations and the need to continue getting them cannot be helped.
Dejours (1992), in paraphrase, speaks about how “symbolic somatizations” draw attention to their capacity to use the body as an opening to the necessary mental representations for psychic conflicts to take place. I want to emphasize that my use of the term “symbolic marks” derives from this tradition. Like the scars from deep or sudden grief, like a story recorded on the body where a loss lies, symbolically.
From this perspective, a decipherment and/or inscription related to the aforementioned intricacies of the characteristics of parental inscriptions in our culture and to different manifestations of intersubjectivity, with its traumatic and creative potentiality, and to a phenomenon that is subject to countless individual variables.
Through this approach, the aim would be to bring about the possibility of a reflexive and narrative understanding of tattoos in psychoanalytic work and to transform the symptomatic process of grieving into psychic pain, creating a space for its elaboration. Through my research on tattoos, I was able to observe that, more often than not, they impose submission to a certain destiny, rather than the outline of a story – a mandate under the command of an unnamed author.
And there, in that uncertainty, an otherness is at play, which might be concealing or revealing, encrypting or deciphering characteristics of parental deficits and detailing the losses in our culture. A mystery, interrelated to a multi-complexity of possible meanings, and the proposal that tattoos are “symbolic marks” (Catz, 2011), which challenge us to discover them and or to inscribe them for the very first time, even if addiction might attempt to intercept that possibility.
[1]“What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.” (Goethe)

Anzieu, D. (1987), El Yo-Piel. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva.
Catz, H. (2017), ”Tatuajes como Marcas Simbolizantes”. Revista de Psicoanálisis - Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina.
Catz, H. (2011), “El trauma en la piel”, Tatuajes, de las cicatrices mortíferas a las Marcas Simbolizantes (2011). Revista de Psicoanálisis-Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina, Nro.4.
Catz, H. (2005), “Panel sobre tatuajes, presentación de la investigación a través de un caso clínico”. Congreso en Rio de Janeiro de la Asociación Psicoanalítica Internacional, IPA Congress, Rio de Janeiro .
Dejours, Ch. (1989), Investigaciones psicoanalíticas sobre el cuerpo-supresión y subversión en psicosomática”. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI editores, 1992.
Freud, S. (1900a), ”La interpretación de los sueños”. Sobre la psicología de los procesos oníricos, cap.7. Obras Completas, vol.V. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu (1981).
Freud, S. (1901), “Recuerdos de infancia y recuerdos encubridores”, en tomo VI de S. Freud. Obras Completas, Ed. Amorrortu, Buenos Aires/Madrid.
Galeano, E. (2008), Espejos: Una Historia Casi Universal, (Canto indígena de Dakota del Sur), Editorial Siglo XXI (2008). 
Garma, A. (1961, El Psicoanálisis del Arte Ornamental. Buenos.Aires: Editorial Paidos.
Green, A. (1972), De locuras privadas. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu,1990.
Lacan J. (1961), seminario 9: “La identificación”, Buenos Aires, Editorial Paidos.
Lacan, J. (1964-65), seminario 11: “Los cuatro conceptos fundamentales del psicoanálisis”. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidos. 
Salamone, L. (1994), “El tatuaje, una mirada encarnada,  El tatuaje como elemento simbólico” (graduation thesis). Facultad de Comunicación Social. Universidad Autónoma de Occidente. Cali, Colombia.
Winnicott, D. (1958), Collected Papers: “Metapsychological and Clinical Aspects of Regression within the Psycho-Analytical Set-up”. London: Tavistock.

Translated by Jorge Alcantar

More articles by: