TEMPE, Ariz. – A group of students at Arizona State University are crusading against what they call “a degenerate tattoo culture of meaningless ink blots.”
The student group, called Meanink, was formed in 2009 in response to a State Press article on body art. It is comprised of those who are passionate about the history of inscribing symbols and images on one’s own body. Yet they are opposed to what they say is a growing culture of vapid tattoos.
“I mean, there used to be recognition of merit when someone got a tattoo,” said Jessie Wheeler, who founded the group. “From Samoa, where a tattooed midsection — called pe’a — signified that a man is brave, to contemporary motorcycle gangs whose tattoos show their rank. They all mean something.”
These days, Wheeler said, most tattoos are the result of passing fads.
“All over campus, it’s like a plague,” said Senior Jake Hoffman. “Tribal tattoos. Chinese letters that probably aren’t even authentic. Cartoon characters. Princesses with skulls for faces. Oh, and the worst are mottos in Latin like ‘vincit qui se vincit’ — ‘he who conquers himself, conquers’ — what the hell? Who can even read Latin, anyway? Why not get a tattoo in Urdu? It’d be the same thing.”
Wheeler and the four other members of Meanink say that tattooing needs to return to its roots. People should get tattoos only if the tattoo is symbolic of a deed done, or a rank within a group. A tattoo should not be a mere superficial design that the bearer will want to remove in a decade with expensive laser surgery. In order to join Meanink, each student has to have a tattoo — or plan to get one — that represents a difficult academic feat that the student has accomplished.
“I got this one when I got an A in a course about the contemporary British novel – senior level,” Wheeler said. “It’s the English author Kazuo Ishiguro. My final paper explored his novel The Remains of the Day — about the constrained, unrealized life of a butler named Stevens. It’s among the most important novels of the late twentieth century. I got a 92 percent on my paper, too.”
Freshman Wendy Yu showed off her tattoo: a quotation by the feminist writer Germaine Greer: “I think that testosterone is a rare poison.” Yu is near completion of an honor’s thesis about second-wave feminism in aboriginal tribes in Australia.
Other students in the group have tattoos that are of a more abstract nature.
“Mine is an homage to the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, “said Marcus Tomlin, a sophomore Film Studies major. He pulled up his pants leg to reveal a tattoo on his calf of dozens of bits of broken leaves. “His oft-cited but little understood film Mothlight was fundamental to my appreciation for film as art. The film is only a minute long, but I once watched it on a twenty-two-hour loop. Fascinating.”
So far, interest in the group has been limited to a small group of friends who met each other working as stagehands at a summer Shakespeare festival. They are optimistic that as their message spreads, so too will the numbers in their ranks grow. Already they have been invited by two local private high schools to lead workshops about individualism and accomplishment.
“Young people these days tend to follow the crowd, and get whatever tattoo is cool at the moment,” Wheeler said. “But we’re going to show them that tattoos should be a statement of academic merit, not fashion.”