Meaghan Li, Rachel Gifford, Kasie Eckman, and Katie Cheramie 2014-02-12 14:26:25
Four Louisiana State University graduate students share insights gathered from interviews and surveys on the archival worth of tattoos. A cross in remembrance of a lost friend. A motto honoring one’s military service. A depiction of Tweety Bird highlighting a wild night out. Whatever the inscription, a tattoo is an extension of its owner and conveys a story. In 2009, archivist Kirsten Wright recognized a problem faced by archival collections documenting nineteenth-century Polynesian tribal tattooing. The collections provided a record of the cultural practice of tattooing, but did not give the context of the physical tattoo. Wright explained that tattoos are inherently physical objects that do not outlive their owners. The explanations of the tribal tattoos were recorded as secondary sources and were archived to preserve cultural practices.1 Wright suggested folksonomy as a way to include a narrative about the tattoo as a physical object. Folksonomy, the tagging of websites and photography with usergenerated words, first appeared in 2004 as a means to include user descriptions with records.2 Wright argued that this type of inclusive archiving practice could “connect the records back to the tattoos themselves and bring into focus the notion that the tattoos are records themselves.”3 The November/December 2012 issue of Archival Outlook featured Randall Jimerson’s review of the 2012 SAA Annual Meeting session “Coloring Outside the Lines: Tattoos as Personal Archives.” The review discussed the prevalence of tattoos among Americans and their significant archival value. The article, once again, highlighted the problem of archivists’ narrow definition of an archival record and the struggle to preserve this undocumented trend. We accepted the challenge issued by the session to brainstorm ways to incorporate tattoos into the archival setting. Through interviews and surveys, we strove to understand tattoo owners’ perspectives regarding the archival value of their inscriptions and the archival profession’s thoughts concerning the development of archival practices for preserving bodily markings. The results yielded various insights on the archival worth of tattoos along with some interesting suggestions on how to accommodate tattoos into archival holdings (think The Silence of the Lambs).4 We presented our findings at the Graduate Student Poster Presentation at the CoSA/ SAA 2013 Joint Annual Meeting last August in New Orleans. Research Methodology Our initial study involved informal interviews of nineteen females and six males between the ages of twenty and forty in Southern Louisiana, Southwest Mississippi, and Missouri from May through July 2013. We chose these individuals because they possessed one or more tattoos. We conducted the second survey, which was voluntary, online, and anonymous, using SurveyMonkey. We distributed the survey via email to several SAA roundtables. It was also posted on the SAA Louisiana State University (LSU) Chapter Facebook page and distributed via the LSU School of Library and Information Science listserv. The survey, created and opened after the Annual Meeting on September 24, 2013, remained open for six weeks (forty-three days). During that time, 250 participants completed the survey. The survey consisted of a series of six questions. Five called for a yes or no answer, and one required a text answer. Of the five questions in yes or no format, two allowed for comments. Participants were allowed to skip all questions except for the question that required a text answer. We analyzed the responses using the “Question Summaries” feature on the SurveyMonkey website. Analysis Our initial study yielded suggestive results. It revealed the following “types” of tattoos: When respondents were asked if they considered their body an archive for their history, 17 replied “yes,” 4 replied “no,” and 4 replied “I do now.” Question One The questionnaire for the second survey began with the crux of the current tattoo dilemma, and each question built on the previous one. We started with appraisal. Question one asked if the individual believed that a tattoo should be considered archival material, causing the body to be an archive. Sixty-five percent of the respondents (164 individuals) agreed that tattoos can be considered archival materials, and the individual’s body an archive. Though we allowed no comments in this section, some respondents referred to it in other sections. One note, in particular, mentioned that the respondent felt the need to respond in the negative to this question, because, though she believed tattoos could be considered archival material, she did not consider the individual’s body an archival repository.5 Question Two The second question sought to understand the correlation between the tattoo’s image and its value. This question is undeniably subjective but necessary. Archival appraisal requires placing a value on the item to be preserved, therefore, one must understand how that value would be decided. Seventy-two percent of respondents (178 individuals) responded that a correlation could be made between the tattoo’s image and the probability that the tattoo would be considered archival material. Yet the subjective nature of this question means that the answers provided are not very clear. Negative responses could indicate that a respondent doesn’t believe that tattoos should be considered archival material, or that all tattoos should be given the same value regardless of the image. Question Three Question three sought to clarify the subjectivity issues raised in the previous question. It bluntly questioned the value of one tattoo over another by asking if a Muppet Baby tattoo was less archival than a memorial tattoo. Interestingly enough, 13 percent of the participants (33 individuals) chose to skip this question. Of the remaining responses, 82 percent (180 individuals) answered in the negative; in other words, they indicated that one tattoo would not be considered less archival based on the tattoo’s image. Therefore, though the respondents indicated a correlation between image and value, it appears that value cannot be based solely on image. This question allowed comments, and 25 percent of the respondents supplemented their answer. The most common theme among these comments observed the need for more information to effectively appraise the value of a Muppet Baby tattoo through context. Appraisal is a process of contextual evaluation, and an archivist would need more than a single image to complete the process. Other comments mentioned the need to consult the archive’s collecting policy. A Muppet Baby tattoo might have archival value, yet the collecting policy of an institution defines what will be included in its particular archives. It should also be noted that a few of the comments indicated the individual believed neither the Muppet Baby nor the memorial tattoo could be considered archival material. Question Four Question four bridged the gap between deciding archival value and determining archival action by asking if tattoos should receive long-term preservation. Seventythree percent of the respondents (165 individuals) answered affirmatively, 26 percent (58 individuals) responded negatively, and 10 percent (27 individuals) chose not to respond to this question. The respondents made a clear distinction between preserving the image or facsimile of the tattoo and not the tattoo itself. The comments focused on the intent of the individual who had the tattoo. Many respondents commented on the fact that not all tattoos are intended to be preserved after the life of the individual, while others believed that all archival material is worth preserving, including tattoos. As one respondent succinctly stated, “Why would we designate something as having archival value if we did not think it was worth long-term preservation?”6 If we believe tattoos to be archival material, long-term preservation would be the logical goal. This leads us directly to the most difficult topic of the survey: the practical application of preservation. Question Five Since tattoos are a part of a person, it would be very expensive to preserve the tattoo wearer’s body. Preserving human remains is not a task for archivists, even though quite a few respondents gave some very thoughtful suggestions on how to accomplish it. Instead, archivists should focus on preserving images of the tattoo and the stories behind them. Therefore, of the 250 responses, the most common answer to question five was to take a photograph or video of the tattoo. Other common answers included using digital photography, the tattoo artist’s sketches, oral histories, and descriptive metadata to describe the context and value of the tattoos. Several participants commented on their enthusiasm on this new, emerging topic of collecting and preserving personal body art. Overall, most participants believe that if archivists consider tattoos archival material, the best mode of preservation is digital photography with oral histories. However, not all participants were enthusiastic about this new area of study. Many participants responded that they did not see the archival value of tattoos, and that archivists should not preserve tattoos or images of tattoos. These participants saw tattoos as ephemeral items that do not belong in an archival setting. They also argued that the human body is not a personal archive, and therefore a collection of tattoo images is not worthy of preservation. Question Six Question six asked if the participant was an archive or library and information science professional. Of the 249 respondents (one participant skipped this question), 214 individuals answered “yes” (85 percent), and 35 individuals answered “no” (14 percent). Conclusion After analyzing the results of both studies, we have come to several conclusions. The majority of participants with tattoos believe their body to be an archive and their markings deserving of preservation. The archival community’s thoughts are more conflicted. We understand that the idea of tattoos as archival material is new, uncharted territory for archivists who have a growing interest in this topic. However, whether or not we as a professional community consider tattoos archival material, we must acknowledge that as more people acquire tattoos more people will want to preserve the memories represented by their tattoos over time. Although it is not feasible to preserve human skin, capturing the image of a tattoo along with the story behind the ink is a possible way to preserve this trend in our culture. We can adopt a creative, proactive approach to preserve these works of art and provide a permanent place to share the tattoo’s story. By using photography and oral history, we are letting the tattoo and its owner tell the cultural context and history of the record.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.