For Marks and Tracks, the 2021 L.C. Bates Summer Exhibition, Natasha Mayers contributed three paintings, close-ups of faceless masculine torsos inscribed with tattoos and displaying military insignia. Tattoos, White Vest, shows a figure with an assortment of black tattoos: on the left arm, three crowns; on the right, lines circle the upper arm with a star in the wider central band while the shoulder sports the classic and trite heart bearing a banderole with “Mom” written in old-fashioned calligraphy. The figure is posed against a blue background, the upper part patterned with missiles vertically lined, head down as if being dropped from a plane. On the left side of the painting, bluish lines alternating with a blend of white and yellow suggest chevrons, and on the right, green lines call to mind a body of water. On the area that corresponds to the figure’s heart, an orange circle with two horizontal lines makes the viewer wonder: is it on the vest, or is it underneath, on the figure’s skin? In fact, the garment and the exposed skin alike display a network of bluish lines, which evoke veins or bruises.
In Chest with Bullet Holes, another torso appears in full military regalia, a bright red sash across it (from which a golden medal is attached), orange and gold epaulettes, and a row of four medals that hang from colorful striped ribbons. Above an acidic yellow collar, there’s a hint of the figure’s neck. The chest is painted in a mixture of purple, bright and pale pink, and different shades of blue, which pattern the surface and suggest bruised skin. Five bullet holes puncture the torso and bleed in long carmine streaks. Remarkably, one such wound is right on the sash, and three are placed below the medals. One wonders: are these decorations pinned directly on the flesh?
Tattoos on Wounded Torso helps solve this puzzle. As the title tells us, this third War Chest bears tattoos: three medals placed diagonally across along with a heart with “Mom,” similar to the one in White Vest (although this one is in color). Here as well, bluish lines crisscross the surface of the skin: we now understand that the skin is both bruised and tattooed.
So here we have a remarkable combination of marks of military rank, usually worn externally, and of marks made on the skin: wounds, bruises, tattoos. Mayers’s bodies merge interior and exterior, and military decorations become tattoos. As a result, one can question the status of other details, for instance, the epaulettes in Chest with Bullet Holes, not an outlandish suggestion since they are a common motif in Russian criminal tattoos (see Sergei Vasiliev’s photos). These types of tattoos, by the way, are remarkably codified, each representing a specific crime, prison sentence, or rank in the criminal world. A scene in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises perfectly illustrates this. We see the character played by Viggo Mortensen, naked but for his briefs, facing a panel of men who are in effect “reading” the visual resume that his tattoos constitute (for the meanings of Russian criminal tattoos, see Lambert and Christ). In a way, this is true for tattoos in general: Mary Kosut has called them a form of “biographical documentation” (94). But of course, this applies as well to these other marks on the skin: wrinkles. When Oskar Kokoschka was painting the portrait of Swiss psychiatrist Auguste Forel, the sitter fell asleep, and the painter observed:
Then I could really study the way he sat in the chair, and see how the wrinkles in his face increased and deepened. Myriads of small wrinkles appeared, like the documents of a man’s life, and I felt that I must record them all, decipher them like old parchment and hand them on to prosperity. (Kokoschka qtd. in Huf and O’Neill)
Kokoschka saw Forel’s life written on his skin, the wrinkles like so many words in a biography.
Michel Foucault famously declared that “the body is the inscribed surface of events” (148). Just like Foucault, Mayers’ torsos affirm that society and its power structures imprint the body—whether in a physical or a metaphorical way. Wrinkles and scars are marks left by events—quotidian, traumatic, and/or momentous. The same goes for tattoos: in traditional societies, tattooing is often performed as part of rites of passage, facilitating—and later, bearing witness to—the accomplishment of this transformation (while also acting as a reminder of that decisive moment); likewise for military decorations, which attest to a remarkable behavior and of a resulting change in status, and which, given the military ethos, are inextricably linked to the wearer’s identity. This is why when Marsden Hartley painted the cryptic portrait of Karl von Freyburg, the Prussian lieutenant he loved, he prominently displayed the Iron Cross. Not only does the distinctive black “cross pattée,” edged in white and placed at the top of the canvas in a central position, dominate the composition, but two successive frames—a yellow triangle and a red circle—surround it and further affirm its significance. Karl von Freyburg received the decoration for his heroism at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, but he died the following month. Hartley painted his Portrait shortly after. In addition to the iron cross, he included many symbols that allude to the military and to von Freyburg, among which are his regiment number, his initials, and his age at the time of his death, 24.
A quarter of a century later, shortly after he returned to Maine and barely three years before he died, Hartley painted the enigmatic Sustained Comedy, a bust-length image of a muscular young blond sailor in a tank top, his arms, chest, and neck abundantly decorated with tattoos, all traditional: a rose, a butterfly, a naked woman, a star, a heart pierced by an arrow, and a sailboat with clouds. On the tee-shirt, what looks like a window opens up onto a background painted in the same color as the figure’s ruddy skin. In it stands what Jonathan Weinberg describes as “the curious image of a man holding a globe over the head of the crucified Christ” (185); although I find that the combined bodies recall Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man (and so does Bruce Robertson 154). The figure sports a round golden earring, and his eyes are made up and circled in red in a manner resembling Native American war paint or a face mask. Hartley’s dealer, Hudson Walker, revealed that this is, in fact, a self-portrait—the only one he ever painted. The artist is indeed masking his true identity, offering an idealized likeness instead: by then, Hartley was 62 years old, and this buff young man is distinctly different from the man who was described as “the gaunt eagle from the hills of Maine” (Rosenfeld). In Hartley’s imagined self-portrait, the tattoos come alive: perched on a shoulder is a nest with a mother and two chicks and on the other, flowers. Remarkably, the four roots that wiggle down his left shoulder are painted in red, suggesting trickling blood. Above the arrows, on each side, three butterflies fly up and a small one is perched on the man’s ear. These cheerful images are juxtaposed to the lightning that strikes a white triangle on his forehead and to the arrows that are lodged in his blue eyes, a reference, according to Weinberg, to Saint Sebastian, the unofficial patron saint of gay men, whose body was transfixed by arrows. Just like the torture that was inflicted upon Sebastian (he did not die from it) gave way to sensual images of a gorgeous ephebe, Hartley’s depiction presents a young, strong, and ideal figure assaulted by the bolt and the arrows.
Analogous to scars, involuntary marks etched into the skin, tattoos, although voluntary, are also the result of a certain violence. In Japanese, one of the words for tattoo is horimono, literally, “engraved thing” (Poysden and Bratt 106), while the etymological origin of our modern word, the Polynesian tatu or tatau, “to strike,” while referring to the actual process, nevertheless evokes an element of violence. The bearing of the pain represented by the wounding, bruising, and tattooing also becomes a badge of courage—just like military decorations. In Japan, during the Edo period (1603–1867), tattoos were sometimes called isamihada, or “courage skin” (Poysden and Bratt 125). What this name conveys as well is the transformative dimension of tattoos: these marks grant you courage (the word’s etymology, from Latin cor, makes this clear: they give you heart) and, as the ukiyo-e print reproduced here shows, also great strength.
The skin both protects and reveals, while mediating between our inside and the outside. Nobody expressed this better—nor more pithily—than anthropologist Alfred Gell in his seminal Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia:
what tattooing reveals [. . .] is an inside which comes from the outside, which has been applied externally prior to being absorbed into the interior. The basic schema of tattooing is thus definable as the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior. (38–39)
Gell was specifically referring to the Marquesan notion of being armored by tattoos (another remarkable instance of the courage-granting powers of tattooing), but the ubiquity of his quote shows that it captures the essence of the practice: hardly any scholar writing on tattooing seems to be able to avoid citing it! An important source for the development of Gell’s formulation is Didier Anzieu’s psychoanalytical study of the skin, Le Moi-peau (The Skin Ego). Gell recognized that
the key to Anzieu’s approach is contained in the insight into the double-sidedness of the skin, which both protects the “primal cavity” of the body from the external world, yet at the same time reveals and communicates the internal state of this primal cavity to the external world. (29)
The skin is both impermeable as it contains and protects, and yet permeable as it is porous and allows exchanges; it is also superficial—just think about the expression “skin-deep”—and yet has great depth (Anzieu 39). These are some of the many paradoxes that, according to Anzieu, characterize the skin. As the largest—and most external—of our organs, the skin reflects our health, while it is also the “mirror of our soul” (39). Anzieu inventories the range of functions the skin fulfills: a containing “bag”; an interface that marks a boundary acting as a barrier, and yet also functions as a means of communication and a surface for inscriptions (61–62). Anzieu concludes that, whatever the function, the skin possesses a transitional status of intermediary, of in-between (39). It is remarkable that the skin both feels and touches, is aware of external conditions, heat and cold, and of course breathes, sweats, and absorbs. What Anzieu proposes is that the skin is constitutive of the ego—it is the ego. Freud had already anticipated that when he declared, “[t]he Ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface” (Freud 19; Anzieu 107).
I have had the occasion to stress the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes the history of tattooing in the West and how, as a result, it is different from traditional societies where the meaning and function of the practice remains stable. In the Western world, in addition to being discontinuous (the popularity of the practice ebbing and flowing), we see a constant fluctuation between negative meanings—whether it’s forced tattoos marking prisoners and slaves or being associated with criminals, circus performers, sailors, bikers, and gang members—and positive ones, for instance in the 18th century when aristocrats sported ink. Today, we are back at a high point, with an unprecedented popularity, tattoos having become quite mainstream (see Plesch 22). Despite this increase in acceptance, tattoos still retain (and, to some extent, cultivate) a sense of the forbidden—just check the names of tattoo parlors and you’ll see what I’m talking about! (In the Portland area alone, you find for instance, Broken Crow Collective, Dark Harbor Tattoo, Death or Glory Tattoos, Hallowed Ground Body Art, and Scorpio Rising Tattoo.) This is very likely a legacy of their ambivalent history in the Western world. The visceral reactions tattoos can conjure up are also linked to their indelible character; and that, by the way, is one of their paradoxes: they are “forever”—until you die.
Tattoos can endow the wearer with a sense of courage and inner strength, and just like war medals attest to heroic behavior, they can bear witness to resilience. Tattoos and decorations also contribute to sustain such values in the wearer and perhaps also intimidate opponents. By displaying such masculine and martial signs of accomplishment, Natasha Mayers’s War Chests, fit into her ongoing series of Men in Suits, which is all about the power of the characters she calls “banksters”: we only need think of the “power suit” as an external sign of status and of might (and the ubiquitous red tie a symbol of political affiliation). But even though the figures in the War Chests affirm masculine force, they are also, fundamentally, vulnerable: they are wounded bodies (the root for “vulnerable” is the Latin for “wound,” vulnus).
Mayers chose to focus on the torso. The thoracic cage is like armor, enclosing and protecting vital organs, but it is also an extremely vulnerable part of the body—a chest wound can be lethal. We can return to the orange circle in Tattoos, White Vest: it now appears as a target signaling the heart. The duality of the chest is central to Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture at the Colby College Museum of Art. Torso #378 fools the viewer into believing it’s made out of metal. The red stoneware is shaped as to allude to plate armor; its surface possesses a metallic sheen, and its rough surface is reminiscent of rust. The five strips on the hips seem to have been soldered onto the surface, and one of the nipples, rendered as a hole, further convinces the viewer that the sculpture is made out of a flat sheet of material. Contradicting the resemblance to a mighty protective shield are the arms, reduced to piteous stomps. Noguchi created this work while he was living in Japan (1950–53), in 1952 to be precise, the very year he was asked to design a “Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima” (his project was not retained, see Winther). One cannot avoid thinking about the maimed survivors of the first atomic bombs. And indeed, the wavy marks on the chest suggest flames, which descend from the shoulders just like the mortiferous radiation that came from the sky. They also seem to have been produced by covering up the surface before firing the piece. One could see in these ghostly marks an allusion to the poignantly disquieting “Hiroshima shadows” left by the explosion’s heat and light, the most famous being that of a person who was seated on the stone steps of the Sumitomo Bank when the atomic bomb detonated on the morning of 6 August 1945 (the steps with the shadow are now in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum). What at first seemed like armor has become calcined skin, and the headless figure reaches up with what’s left of his right arm in a helpless gesture.
Anzieu, Didier. Le Moi-peau. 1985. Revised edition Paris: Dunod, 2006. English: The Skin Ego. Trans. Naomi Segal. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Caplan, Jane, ed. Written on the Body. The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
David Cronenberg, dir. Eastern Promises, 2007.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” 1971. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977. 139–64.
Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere, ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1960.
Gell, Alfred. Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Huf, Veronika and Desmond O’Neill. “Oska Kokoschka and Auguste Forel: Life Imitating Art or a Stroke of Genius?” Stroke 29 July 2005.
Kokoschka, Oskar. My Life. New York, NY: Macmillan; 1974.
Kosut, Mary. “Tattoo Narratives: The Intersection of the Body, Self-Identity and Society.” Visual Sociology 15 (2000): 79–100.
Lambert, Alix and Mary Christ. Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination, and Struggle. Atglen: Schiffer, 2003.
Plesch, Véronique, “On Appropriations.” In Crossing Borders: Appropriations and Collaborations. Special issue of Interfaces 38 (2016–17). 7–38.
Poysden Mark, and Marco Bratt. A History of Japanese Body Suit Tattooing. Amsterdam: KIT, 2006.
Robertson, Bruce. “Marsden Hartley and Self-Portraiture.” In Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, ed. Marsden Hartley. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 153–64.
Rosenfeld, Paul. “Marsden Harsden.” Nation 157 (18 September 1943): 326–27.
Weinberg, Jonathan, Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Winther, Bert. “The Rejection of Isamu Noguchi’s Hiroshima Cenotaph: A Japanese American Artist in Occupied Japan.” Art Journal 53.4 (1994): 23–27.
Image at top: Natasha Mayers, Tattoos, White Vest, acrylic, 24 x 18 in., 2020 (photo: Natasha Mayers).