Apart from personal branding – the ultimate form of postmodern reification in which an empty Ego is in permanent need of the props of exterior gimmicks like clothes, special bikes and the like – cultural icons themselves have also become branded in this process of hyper-commodification.
Images and words that once had a thorough and deep-rooted cultural meaning, thus binding groups to certain values and aims, have been emptied out. An excellent example is Ernesto Guevara, an Argentinean doctor who became a Marxist revolutionary. During his stay in Guatemala he was nicknamed Che, the beginning of his iconography.
For many young leftists, ranging from Marxists to Socialists of all kinds, he became an idol of principled choice and political activism. Very much like the case of John Kennedy, Che’s has become sanctified, a process in which the fans forget the real politician and are only repeating the mantra of his good sides, inflated by fantasy.
With Che this went a crucial step further. Whereas an image of Kennedy will still be associated with his political career – Assassination, Bay of Pigs et cetera – the image of Guevara has become autonomous, free floating and loosened from the man who was originally portrayed. Anybody may wear a T-Shirt with on it the abstracted face of El Che.
Ask an owner of such a T-shirt today what the image on his chemise stands for, in most cases he does not have the slightest clue. The wearer shrouds his weak feeling of identity under the veil of another man’s anonymous image, as the one time owner of that face has become a quantity unknown to the one who dresses himself in the shirt. ‘I am someone – at least, so it seems.’
There is a resemblance here with the person wearing a T-shirt with the word Coke printed on. Both are cases of what may be coined as branded schizophrenia: ‘I am who I am not; I am not what I am’. For the growing masses who never heard about the revolutionary Guevara, this black-on-read ‘face’ has become a mythem, an empty, thus self-referential sign signifying nothing and, loop-wise, the nothingness of their own empty self.
There is a huge difference between the German Fraternity student in the Interbellum as described by Joseph Roth in his Hotel Years. That man wore a scar on his face, purposely acquired during a saber duel in order to prove his maleness. He was also wearing a special sort of cap as well as a ‘gaudy sash of two or three colours in which may be picked out a ringing phrase, as for example: With God for King and country!’
Roth described these studied louts as ‘a slogan on two legs’. Which is precisely what they were: they stood for something, there aggressive maleness was directed against the left, against women, against artists et cetera. The wearer of a shirt with a Che abstract on it stands for nothing, the image refers to nothing – except for the old folks who are still living in History…
In Haarlem, The Netherlands, I found another crucial example of cultural icon branding, once again another step up in the process of commodification, perhaps its final step. Because of its contradictory quality it is an example which is analytically attractive, a contradiction which probably escapes those who put it up there.
The ‘bike’ in front of this tattoo shop is an icon of power, in use by a certain kind of motor cyclist, often a member of a ‘bikers’ club. Its blackness speaks for itself. It is either owned by a client or by the shop owner. By now, the male tattoo has exploded into one of the major versions of Panzer Ego, the external husk in which an empty Ego hides itself – an exterior identity mask.
Watch soccer matches on your TV; seven out of ten players are covered in bluish/black designs which veil most of their skin, a nakedness which they obviously feel frightened to show to the public. Even dressed in their sports gear, they feel weak, bare, vulnerable – and thus ashamed. The trendy overgrown tattoo is the territory of aggression, whereas smaller ones on a female buttock, breast or shoulder belong to what is considered as postmodern ‘eroticism’.
Shops like this you now find all over the western world. Not all that long ago people had to go East to be covered in tattoos, over there applied in a professional manner. This is the ratio of that image in the shop window, a plaster copy of a Buddha sculpture – actually two of them. The Tao yin and yang could also have figured as an icon, an image on their skin preferred by many. However, sculptures are more impressive… The Buddha’s are a reference to tattoo’s exotic past, making of the shop something esoteric, thus appealing to an ever-growing portion of the public that has exited ‘organized religion’ and defected to vaguer notions of some Higher Being or The Path.
However, not to appeal only to this softer origin of the tattoo, the name of the shop is done in the well-known graffiti style, in an aggressive, oversized and skewed lettering, using the well-known fascist tricolor of black/white/hot-red, yet incorporating another charming allusion by abusing the word heaven. Shallow as veneer.
The tattooist is not branding the poor animal’s flesh, scourging it with a red-hot iron as was done on the ranches in the Wild West; in these shops they use the gentle version of the tattoo knife. It cannot be a coincidence that the black spatter of ink – as if even the writing on the shop window has been tattooed – reminds one of a black tear.
There is a magnificent movie by Takabayashi, called Irezumi; in English: The Art, or the Spirit of Tattoo . Some months before the old tattoo-master feels his death nearing, he decides to begin his final master piece, the depiction of a fearful devil on a most beautiful back of an even more beautiful girl.
For whatever reasons, probably aesthetic ones, this man is using the most painful technique in the business. O so slowly he is cutting up her skin, to gradually reveal that evil looking creature, first as a line ‘drawing’, then in gorgeous soft reds, greens and blues. Once it will be finished, being taken by her lover a tergo, the image will move with her body in heat, either exciting him in his approach, or perhaps even paralyzing his erotic vigour. An element of sado-masochism is there.
To soften the girl’s suffering, the Tattoo Master asks her to lie on top of his young apprentice, to make quiet love with him while the Master is torturing her skin.
Just before his death he sends the woman away, telling her that once he will be gone she should return to the atelier in which the apprentice, by then the new Master, will give the image its finishing touch. This, then, is a rite de passage between Pupil and Master, the woman serving as their trait d’union.
However, the observer watching the movie has become convinced that the magnificent image on her back is already finished. So, a cliff-hanger it is. What could it be, that the apprentice still might add to the masterpiece of his now deceased teacher?
When the moment has arrived, we witness one of the great scenes in cinematography. Close, o so close up, aggravatingly slow the camera follows the tattoo knife approaching the skin with its image, till finally once again it zooms in on the demon’s eye. Lo and behold! That is what we have missed – this one eye’s pupil is missing. At the very instant we are enlightened, the knife cuts the skin, blinding the devil’s eye by making it see.
Thus, the threesome of Tattoo, Violence and Sex were always already in unison. These images, chiseled in the skin by knife: simultaneously so shallow and so deep. In that Eastern past, however, the unity of these three was still an art, sublimated as it were. The postmodern tattoo, on the other hand, is only skin-deep and highly superficial, more a macho thing than the delicate element in an erotic game that in the old days, perhaps, not merely aimed at aggression, but also at transgression. By now, it has become a vulgar branding, the tattoo business trying hard to evoke a past that it is in fact violating.
Over this shop in my pphoto hovers a sad kind of realism. It is situated on the Gedempte Oude Gracht in the Dutch city of Haarlem, a space too wide for the height of its houses, overtaken by bus and automobile traffic, treeless, once a street with a canal in its middle, then filled in to allow Modernity’s engines to take over.
This shop in such a street is a symbol of the transit from these Modern Times to present-day Postmodern triviality. The shop seems to be its finishing touch. It exemplifies the sprawl of postmodern disconnected urbanism, throwing together all and everything, exploding the notion of context into a fragmented and scattered nothingness.
Sierksma, November 2017