Putting the Counter in Culture – Why we need queer spaces in tattooing

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Tattoos, as a representative form of a counter-discourse, have surprisingly entered into the popular idiom of things cool, so much so that one might find its counter-culture tag unnecessary. However, to cram the art of tattoos in the chock-a-bloc normative singularity of popular culture would be a gross mistake, for the simple reason that tattoos are not the product of the hollow fetishisms of the star-worshipping, hashtag spewing (okay, hashtags are good but not the excess of it), self(ie)-obsessed, diversity-disapproving, whitewashing (not just Hollywood, , un-fair and un-lovely) culture.

Unicorns can dance by @moglisqualor in VANCOUVER #qttr

A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

So if the culture of tattoos deviates so much from the popular, is there really any need for a counter culture to spring up and establish its own discourse? The answer to this would be a resounding YES! The Instagram handle, @queer_tattooers is a proof that there is need for a space where tattoos by and for the LGBTQ community could find acceptance and appreciation and be documented for enhanced visibility, without the fear of queer shaming. Despite the radical vibe that the tattoo scene gives off, it is, sadly, like most other art forms and social constructs, heteronormative. This is where the idea that the popular culture is appreciative of tattoos falters. Tattoos are accepted only in degrees, which include gender and social identity among other things.

Seriousness by @framacho_silva in Berlin #qttr A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

Consider this, if you are a person belonging to the entertainment industry or any field popular such as sports, a tattoo on your body is acceptable and even to some extent fit to emulate, but if you are in a formal sector a tattoo might, unfortunately, raise some eyebrows.

Serious warrior armpit by @agelostfb in Athens #qttr

A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

The queer tattoo culture is a reminder that gender roles have even been extended to tattooing (it is also prevalent in other forms of body modification, such as body piercing) as well, and that the LGBTQ community does not subscribe to such subconscious normalisation. Hence, the queer aesthetics and sensibilities manifest as tattoos and lend support to the cause of all-inclusiveness. Besides, what is normal?

Bodies by @stephane_devidal_tattoo in Zürich #qttr A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

And what is abnormal? One of my teachers, in my very first year of graduation, had recounted an incident involving his friend. That friend was visiting the United States and he happened to join a Pride Parade at the behest of another friend. “All my notions about normal and abnormal went for a toss,” he recounted thus, for normal is simply an action done or an ideology followed by the larger section of society, at a given point in time, just like fashion. So, inevitably, there has sprung a wall between the normal and the abnormal or the marginalised, even in tattooing.

Truths by @milenakirsche in Berlin #qttr

A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

So how are queer tattoos different from the heteronormative ones? It is common to see straight men sporting tattoos that bear reference to, either directly or indirectly, to symbols of masculinity (it is important to keep in mind that masculinity is not bad, toxic masculinity is, which manifests in the form of tattoos high on sexism and violence). It is, however, not uncommon among straight men to show their emotional side through tattoos, but they do so by channelising it through the predefined course of heteronormativity. Most of such tattoos would bear reference to family, religion, aspirations or beliefs that in no way could question their masculinity (Masculinity, however, is very much present in queer spaces, with much fetishising of body building, masculine body art and everything ‘strong’ that, in a way, like patriarchal constructs, it undermines the feminine, and as a result isn’t all inclusive).

Sexy satyr done in Los Angeles by @_disinhibition #qttr

A photo posted by QUEER TATTOOING & SAFE SPACES (@queer_tattooers) on

On the other hand, feminine tattoos are always, as if by a decree, supposed to be bound within the confines of cuteness. A sexually aggressive tattoo, even if straight, is likely to earn women the title of ‘slut’. The same goes for body piercing (and I am talking about India and its immediate neighbours); any piercing other than on the nose and ears is frowned upon.

Tattoo by Slawomir Nitschke

Few years back, I had seen a movie, ‘Seven Psychopaths’ (and had loved it). The movie, in between doses of black comedy, makes a running commentary on the way Hollywood works, especially on the lines of racism, gender, sexual orientation and violence. I remember multiple characters in the movie referencing to the queer community as weak. One character says, “Peace is for queers”, another on the same lines says, “Dream sequences are for ‘fags’”. The second statement intrigued me a lot. It is because for some movies I have seen and texts I have read that I make an instant connection to dreams with unicorns; and unicorns are prominent symbols in the queer aesthetics.

Other common queer tattoos comprise of scenes from flora and fauna, intricate tribal and Asian designs, tattoos referencing, directly or indirectly, to the identity as the member of the LGBTQ community. Tattoos bearing reference to equality also find many takers. Lots of tattoos focus heavily on the sexual orientation by depicting graphic sexual imagery. Some tattoos, bearing a historical context, like a pink downward-pointing triangle tattoo (a relic from the Nazi concentration camps, where homosexual prisoners were marked with these badges to single them out from the rest of the prisoners), have tasted resurgence and is, although not by everyone in the queer community, celebrated as a symbol of the stand against the heteronormative forces.

The members of LGBTQ community wear their tattoos as pride and as a mark of dissent, deviation from the popular. It is important that these voices of dissent be registered; even if they are not accepted, the counter currents of this and every other counter culture must be visible, its presence must be felt by the larger community. For only by being vocal and visible, the people at the margins can hope to enter the larger discourse, and a directory of queer tattoos is an important step forward towards this goal.


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