Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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Jack Woods interviewed by Roy Cook for AFB

Jack Woods is University Academic Fellow in Mathematical Philosophy (боже мой) at the University of Leeds. Prior to this post, he worked at Bilkent University (in Ankara, Turkey). He studied at the University of Minnesota (MA) and took his PhD from Princeton University. He works in philosophy of logic and mathematics, as well as metaethics, the theory of normativity, and philosophy of language. Recent publications include “The Authority of Formality” (Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol 13), “Logical Partisanhood” (Philosophical Studies), “Intertranslatability, Theoretical Equivalence, and Perversion” (Thought), and “Emptying a Paradox of Ground” (Journal of Philosophical Logic). Prior to studying and working as a philosopher, he played in short-lived punk bands and worked as a bouncer at clubs in Boston, including the Rat, the Middle East, and P.J. Kilroys (Fathers Too), nearly all of which are now closed.

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

JACK WOODS: So my favorite tattoo came about totally by accident. I had a bit of Latin – Ubi Dubium Ibi Libertas – tattooed on my chest at 19 and I did the translation myself. Thank god I did it mostly right, but – as I’m prone to do anyways – I made a spelling mistake and dropped an ‘r’ from ‘Libertas, resulting in my chest saying ”where there is doubt, there is [word that means nothing]”. Oof. Years later, a pal of mine was doing tattoos in his kitchen (they used to be illegal in Boston), and I asked him to correct the tattoo. He offered to squeeze the ‘r’ in, but I demurred. Better, I thought – and still think! – to have the correction public. So he tattooed the ‘r’ below the tattoo and added a correction caret.

The result is my favorite tattoo (well, except perhaps for my Hilbert tattoos). I like to think of it as saying ”it’s better to be right, on balance, than to look perfect.” But maybe that’s just me trying to post hoc justify my adolescent mistake!


AFB:  So your favorite tattoo is a corrected version of a mistaken original. Is this two tattoos? How should we individuate tattoos?

JW: It’s an excellent question. I think of it as one tattoo, but now I’m starting to wonder whether that’s right. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a composite of two tattoos.

Another case of this is on my arms. I have “Wir müssen wissen” on one, and “Wir werden wissen” on the other. Of course, the reference is to one quote from Hilbert, but they’re disconnected. Does that make them two tattoos?

AFB: This raises and interesting question about the ontology of tattoos. One of the questions inked people get asked most often is “How many tattoos do you have?” What do you say when asked this, and do you think there is a correct answer to this question?

JW: I think there’s probably not any single right answer to this question. It’s certainly not simple spatial continuity—there’s no reason that you couldn’t have two tattoos abutting one another. It’s also not directly correlated with a connected sequence of tattoo sessions – some people just go in and ask to have a certain body part covered (in a sleeve, etc.)

Another interesting problem here has to do with cover-ups. My first professional tattoo covered up a little ace of spades I got tattooed at a kitchen table (with a needle soaked in bleach… :-/) in my teens. It makes a difference to the color and texture of the tattoo that covers it up. But it’s intuitively not part of the tattoo anymore than an underpainting is automatically part of a painting. One suspects that there’s going to be some kind of intensional or dispositional account of what makes up a single tattoo, but where this isn’t fixed absolutely.

AFB: Cover-ups raise a number of interesting questions with regards to ontology. In some sense, the ace of spades still exists “under” or “intermingled” with the cover-up tattoo. Is the ace of spades still one of your tattoos (in the sense we might “discover” a second painting underneath a painting we are familiar with)? Or does the cover-up destroy the original?

JW: I wonder whether that’s contingent on the fact that we can’t, at least at present, simply remove the “overtattoo”. Again, I suspect that whatever is true here is going to be an intensional or dispositional fact. Or, rather, a fact about what we qua community are disposed to say about these cases in general in conjunction with facts about the tattoo itself and it’s intended design. So, for instance, I have a poem in Turkish on my right calf. Given that it was applied in one sitting and is coming from a unified piece of writing (by the poet Orhan Veli), it’s intuitively one tattoo. But, suppose instead that I just had a collection of Turkish words I liked the sound of and I got one tattooed on me every 6 months or so. Intuitively, if these facts are known about the case, we’d treat it as a bunch of tattoos that happen to be arranged in a way resembling a poem (or at least that’s what I suspect we’d say). So whether or not it’s one tattoo or a bunch has to do with far more than spatial contiguity (each word is separated, of course) and application procedure. I think this reflects the view I favor in aesthetics (and philosophy) generally, that we defer to a particular community in deciding the extension of certain aesthetic, normative, and ontological properties. Of course, there’s also the question about tattoos that mean things…here it’s plausible that our intentions play far less of a role.


AFB: You just mentioned “tattoos that mean things”. But how does this work? How exactly do tattoos get meanings? What communities might be relevant to determining what, exactly, a tattoo means, and how so?

JW: Well, let’s distinguish two things. First of all, there’s the sort of meaning intended to be expressed by a particular tattoo. Personally, I don’t have much truck with this; my tattoos are things I thought were cool, but they don’t have much significance. The only exception is my left forearm, which contains the address of a club – the Rat – I used to work at. This was part of a deal the entire staff of the club made. But I don’t think this kind of meaning is very interesting in the case of tattoos. We can imbue significance on things as we want, the only thing tattoos have going for them in this respect is that it’s hard to lose them, unlike a wedding ring or your lucky sock.

What I’m interested in is cases where a particular tattoo has “conventional” meaning. The most famous case of this is prison tattoos. We all know that – or we should! – that a teardrop means you’ve murdered someone (number of teardrops = number of murders), a hollow teardrop means you’ve tried to or stabbed someone up, a clock with no hands represents doing time, etc. Likewise, there are gang tattoos (one of mine bears a passing accidental resemblance to a biker gang tattoo, which got me in trouble once), sailor tattoos (crossed cannons mean you’ve served on a military ship, hinges (one of my favorite tattoos!) are for luck with your joints, etc.)

Of course, any symbol can get imbued with conventional meaning, but tattoos are an extreme case where your intentions cross the public meaning. If you get teardrops and you haven’t murdered someone, people have every right to get upset at you – and, given the context, that’s a very bad thing! Likewise, I was close to having done a very bad thing in getting the tattoo that resembled a biker symbol, even though I had no intention to front and no knowledge I was perilously close to doing so!

So there’s another interesting thing here about the ontology of tattoos. What a tattoo is, I believe, is partially constituted in some cases by the public recognition of them as symbols, regardless of what the person getting the tattoo intended. If you have FTW tattooed on you, even if you meant “For the Win”, you’ve got a “Fuck the World” tattoo, at least in the eyes of most people who used to be typically tattooed.

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


JW: As we’ve seen above, there are a lot of ontological questions that one can raise about tattoos, questions to me that seem to point to a social, dispositional, and intentional picture of the ontology of tattoos. There’s questions remaining even after this: Roald Dahl raises an especially gruesome one in his story ”Skin” where someone’s tattoo seems to be forcibly removed and stuck in a gold frame. Does it remain a tattoo at this point? Very hard to say. Of course, we can raise similar questions all over the place, but in the context of tattoos they seem to have an especial oomph and difficulty.

Though, again, for me, the meaningfulness of tattoos in the personal case isn’t especially interesting – I grimace a bit whenever someone asks what mine mean or talks about their reluctance to get a tattoo because they can’t figure out the perfect one to capture such and so. When I was getting actively inked, I had a habit of making the tattoo appointment far before I decided what I wanted… which is probably why I’ve got so many skulls on me. They’re kind of the black outfit of the tattoo world.

But the meaningfulness of tattoos in a more conventional sense is more interesting, especially when the older expressive value of being tattooed at all has mostly faded. But you can still express something by means of the content of our tattoos by picking up on conventionalized meanings, whether for good or for bad. And this, I reckon, is a good thing. You can also recapture a bit of the older expressive meaning of being tattooed at all by location of your tattoos: it’s still aggressive to get your neck or your hands tattooed. But I should stop here. Thanks for the chance to talk about all this!

P.S. Neck tattoos are going to be my post-tenure gift to myself.