The Tattoo Without Meaning by Christopher J. Lee


“I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.”

French intellectual Roland Barthes wrote countless times on language—vividly, intimately—but not quite so directly on tattoos, instead arriving by coincidence at the site of marked skin, which, true to citation, both wounds and seduces. Tattoos convey this incitement toward meaning, which is to say that their seeming permanence and paradoxical presentation as sometimes publically exhibited and sometimes privately rendered gestures at a unique significance, and a unique desire to resolve this significance with speed and certitude.

While the medium of body art, if indeed existing within the realm of media, lends itself socially to interrogation of its implications, of what tattoos should or can do, this interrogation is not so innocuous in its own intentions. Those with tattoos, or even those with ideas for tattoos are expected to wield easily apprehensible responses against their would-be inquisitors, who presume to draw inked subjects into linear paths of signification and sensibility—even when such attention is actively opposed, or met with confusion or silence.

If one has ever heeded the vaguest warning about being-tattooed, the suspicion is not far from the probable reality of its signified danger. These anxieties are made manifest in the untraceable claims of authority figures—themselves signified as parents, superiors, past or future bosses, divinities, moral arbitrators, political officials, or any such character imagined to have some sway over personal ambition, stability, and security. Signs marking the body stoke fears of irrevocable decisions; its perceived impact on professionalization is sufficient to scare off some, and ill omens of its fiscal or physical consequences induce others to consider sealed fates of economic and social abjection.

This is not to suggest a political or countercultural nature to tattoos, which, save for the most exaggerated claims of their anathema status, are or can be normalized, as evidenced by copious documentation of tattoos on the young, old, and famous. The tattoo is not itself a threatening thing; it is the fear of the bad tattoo, or rather, the tattoo without meaning, which enforces compliance with aesthetic sensibilities. This discourse on tattoos suggests that in spending precious time or currency, by commissioning labor or enduring certain levels of pain to mark one’s body, there must be some manner of acceptable explanation as to desire or intention, some story to be mined, recorded, and repeated.

But the tattoo without meaning is a tattoo that speaks nothing, defying the underlying dependencies of reference and referent, betraying the organizing logic of sensibility, emptied of its signifying power. Because the tattoo without meaning is inherently not sensible, because it dares to exist without explanation, it has no place in systems defined resolutely in the symbolic frame.

In other words, the desire to make sense out of tattoos bears the mark of ideology, which excises any outliers from the empire of signs. Systems of capital and dominance are founded on the concretization and enforcement of signification—the cross, the mother goddess, the pipe (which is not a pipe); all are imbued with value—not necessarily for their inherent use, but because signs themselves can be useful to established institutions, which rely on symbolic effectiveness for their own existence.

The tattooed body, as a point of signification or oversignification, is not counted out of surveillance, but, as with physical abilities, gender presentations, and other embodiments, invested with explicit stakes—not extraordinary, necessarily, nor conspicuous in any special way, but rendered as the basest form of public spectacle, such that the medium of the tattoo is shouldered with the onus of making meaning, codifying intention, and conforming to expectation. Illegibility, nonsense, and lack of clarity are assured to be opportunities for stern social reproach. Thus recommended strategies for reasoning through tattoos refer to symbols of the most direct significance: recourse to important memories, spiritual or cultural values, or life events, predictably complying with social mores.

While the domain of aesthetic interpretation has long since opened itself to a critique of fixed meanings and coherent narratives, the discourse on tattoos has remained otherwise confined to the limits of the intentional fallacy, suggesting that there exists for embodied signification a peculiar tension not found in other media. As with fears of the cyborg revolution, as with fears of apparitions and monstrosity, of the Body Without Organs, the tattoo without meaning stokes suspicion of the insincere and inauthentic, the problem of its non-signification residing in its configuration of embodiment as medium, as canvas and not core. That the interventions of surrealism, irony, and postmodern methods have proliferated polyvalent or rhizomatic strategies of making meaning would appear to have dispelled these enduring myths about essential natures. But the ironic tattoo does not represent the absence of meaning, but a sly or perverse one, which perhaps attempts but does not bring to fruition an escape from signification.

The radical potential posed by the meaningless tattoo both exceeds and falls short of slanted or reversed expectation, either lack of meaning or an overabundance of it, and therefore none at all. Not cynical, nor parodic, nor metacritical, the tattoo without meaning contests the prohibition of unintentional or anti-intentional embodiment. Whereas language can be insincere, cloying, or dodgy, bodies cannot or are not supposed to lie, and are in fact expected rather to reveal physiologies, assigned sexes, racial markers, or genetic dispositions.

The tattoo without meaning, then, is not politically neutral; marking one’s body with minimal reasoning, for shifting or shifty reasons, constitutes a threat to systems of control founded on ‘making sense of things’—in essence, responding to the loaded question of ‘what it means’ with no response, or with many responses where only one was correct and appropriate. Marking oneself in this way will, perhaps, always concern public attention, even when unintended or actively avoided, yet the tattoo without meaning is uniquely disturbing, for the fact of its disrupting the scripted ways we handle bodies and signs, of how we organize ideas around their relationship, and how we suggest they do or do not matter.

In what reality can the tattoo without meaning exist? Or rather, if such enduring impediments exist to the freeing of our bodies from the trap of signification, what tactics of resistance can we adopt? Here we return to the engines of capital accumulation, political force and pragmatism. The economic machine demands value, the utilitarian mode demands application. The quest for unified theories is grounded in historical and philosophical stakes long since warred and contested—their effects themselves etched and inked into social record, privileging the coherent over the erratic and insensible, imposing reason and explanation over the arbitrary and affective.

If the tattoo without meaning is so resolutely asocial, so evidently forbidden, then it is perhaps also radical just by way of existing, spectrally, conditionally, or with no consequence. The unbearable yoloness of its being, its extravagant ambiguity posed awkwardly in this vast web of signification, exposes some glaring flaw in the way we crave meaning where there was none to begin, or, where we have placed meaning, only to feign surprise when we have discovered it later, as if by luck or chance.


Christopher J. Lee is a freeskool instructor in the Department of Whatever, where he’s taught classes on apathy, astrology, and queer theory. Based in Brooklyn, Chris enjoys riding his bike and reading theory; in his spare time he writes poems about cats and exes. You can reach him at