Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

More than Skin Deep with Frank Boardman



Frank Boardman interviewed by Roy Cook for AFB

Frank Boardman is is a visiting assistant professor at Worcester State University. Most of his work has been in philosophy, art and rhetoric. He has a completely unwarranted belief that he could also write about parenting, technology or basketball.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: So, let’s begin with a good story about one of your tattoos.

FRANK BOARDMAN: I’m not sure I have a GOOD story. In fact, when I first started getting tattoos the plan was that they would all be rich in meaning and eternal in significance. That would have ensured a good story for each. But that’s the way sixteen-year-olds imagine the importance of their choices. Within a few years, an otherwise-passing thought on a given afternoon that a tattoo would be funny was sufficient for my getting it. But you asked about one tattoo. On my back I have a “V” superimposed over a landscape scene with waterfalls, rocks, or something. I don’t really remember because, as I say, it’s on my back. I forget about it and am startled every few years when I accidentally catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, like there’s a giant bug on my back. Anyway, the “V” originally stood for “Vegan.” It’s twenty years later now and I’m still vegan, but less inclined to be so proud of or pushy about it. But there’s still this corporeal bumper sticker back there. So over the years I’ve changed my answer to the “What does the ‘V’ stand for?” question (after the inquirer reminds me that I have this tattoo). It has variously been: “Voluptuous” (I’m not), “Van Halen” (not a fan), “Verisimilitude” (which the tattoo does not have), “it’s a wedge” (ridiculous) and “Vacuous” (which absolutely applies). So, since this is an aesthetics blog, we might wonder if the meaning of the “V” is “Vegan,” tracking the intentions of the original author (me at 17 and/or the tattooist), or do historical changes in me and my attitudes constitute a change in linguistic context such that the “V” comes to stand for whatever I say it does, or do interpreters (folks standing behind me) get to determine new meanings with their “readings”? In any event, I’m open to suggestions for what I should say the “V” stands for now.

AFB: You raised the issue of what tattoos mean, and what control the bearer of the tattoo has over the meaning of the tattoo. This seems particularly interesting given the mutable nature of tattoos: they age and fade, they can be added to, retouched, or covered up, and they can be altered inadvertently through bodily trauma. How do you think these sorts of changes might affect the meaning of a tattoo, and how do these factors interact with the sort of intentional, tattoo-bearer’s shifts in how they understand their tattoos and what those tattoos mean?


FB: It seems to me there are at least three senses of “meaning” that are relevant to tattoos. For the first two, we can more or less rely on H.P. Grice’s distinction between “natural” and “non-natural” meaning. Tattoos mean naturally insofar as they are indications and (non-symbolic) signs. So the “HOPE” and “PAIN” tattoos on my hands (my “everlasting job stoppers”) mean naturally that I was young and dumb once. In fact, I often say just this when people ask what they mean (apologies to the friend who got the same thing with me), but that’s just me avoiding the question. People want to know something only I’m in a position to tell them. Maybe they want to know what the tattoos mean non-naturally, i.e. what they communicate. Perhaps I wanted to say something about the necessity – and if you wait long enough, the sufficiency – of hope for pain. The third sense of “meaning” has to do with significance. In this sense, a given tattoo can be more or less meaningful. One thing that’s interesting about tattoos is that when people ask you about the meaning of your tattoos, there’s very often an expectation that your answer will include something about their significance. “Why,” they want to know, “is/was this worth having on your body for the rest of your life?” That maybe makes the kind of meaning tattoos have unique. Even so, I’m not sure we don’t have relevant analogues.

Paintings, for instance, are mutable in a lot of the ways you mention above. So maybe having a tattoo isn’t all that different from hanging a painting on your wall. When I display a painting on my wall I’m offering it for our appreciation and interpretation and at the same time trying to say something or other about myself. And maybe that’s all I’m doing with the tattoo, only using myself as the canvas.

But I think one critical difference between the tattoo and the painting is that it would seem absurd to keep anything on my walls that I wouldn’t put there now. And while I wouldn’t get a single one of my tattoos now, I also have no interest in getting them covered or removed. That’s because their significance-meaning outweighs both the fact that their non-natural meaning is nothing I care to communicate and the fact that their natural meaning doesn’t speak too well of me. In this way, then, tattoos are maybe more like an old diary I hold onto, and letting you see them is like inviting you to read. But that’s not quite right either. I’d be inclined to hold you responsible for a morally reprehensible old tattoo in a way that I wouldn’t some terrible sentiment in an old diary. I think that means that something remains of the non-natural meaning of an old tattoo, constantly reproduced by the fact that you didn’t cover it up. They’re more than just a record of who we were or what we believed.

AFB: Another question along these lines is how much control the tattoo artist has over the meaning of a tattoo that they create. In some sense a tattoo is an inscription on a canvas (someone’s body) by an artist, and in most other such cases (setting aside Barthesian death-of-the-author type issues) we attribute a good bit of authority over the meaning of an inscription to the artist doing the inscribing. How does the fact that the canvas is, in this case, an autonomous human change things?


FB: Right, that’s a whole other complication and another difference between paintings and tattoos. When I have someone else’s painting on my wall, it is perfectly appropriate for you to offer an alternative interpretation to mine. But it would be inappropriate for you to do the same with one of my tattoos. And yet I didn’t create the painting or the tattoo. I’m not sure what causes that difference. Even if I commissioned a painting, it seems my intentions wouldn’t matter as much to meaning as they do in the case of my tattoos. It may be that it would seem to us like a violation of the authority we have over our own bodies to question bearers’ interpretations of their own tattoos. But on the other hand, the authority of the tattoo bearer over the meaning of the tattoo isn’t nearly as absolute as the authority we have over our bodies as such.

An example: my wife has a tattoo of a sun with a human face. The artist (a friend of hers) inadvertently gave the sun a face that looks uncannily like his father’s. I think if it were a painting, we’d be inclined to say that he – for some set of complicated Freudian reasons – painted his father without being aware while he was doing it. If you’re an intentionalist about these things, you’d say that’s because his subconscious attention to his father affected his conscious artistic intentions and therefore the meaning of the work. So does my wife have a picture of her friend’s father on her arm? I think she does, which means her authority over the meaning of the tattoo on her arm is not as absolute as is her authority over where the arm goes or who gets to touch it.

Another case comes from tattoos of images from other sources. So I have a piece on my arm from what I believe is a medieval stained glass. There’s a depiction in there of a creature that is very hard to identify. The best – and by that I mean my favorite, not necessarily the most accurate – explanation I’ve heard is that it is a lion; and it doesn’t look much like a lion because the original Northern European artist would likely have never seen a lion, and so worked from others’ descriptions. This is what I tell people when they ask, but if an expert corrects me I’ll have to stop. I can’t make it a lion through any intention or force of will.

AFB: Cool. Any final thoughts on the aesthetics of tattoos? Or on the aesthetics of your tattoos?

FB: These conversations might go in so many different directions. So I’ll just say that I’m pleased that folks are starting to do interesting work in tattoo aesthetics. One final thing from me though: We’ve thus far been treating tattoos more or less as an art form. Nothing wrong with that. Only an impoverished and perhaps retrograde conception of art would preclude tattoo art out of hand. But it would also be a mistake to think that all tattoos are works of art. The distinction between tattoo art and mere tattoo will of course need to be worked out by different theories of art status. But I think we should demand that such theories make some but not all tattoos into artworks.

Finally, thanks for putting together these conversations.  I really look forward to seeing the others in your series!

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