by: Sarah McFarland-Taylor /
“Wear your heart on your skin in this life.” – Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
As an environmentalist committed to endangered species conservation, what does it mean to “wear your heart” – that which you love most dearly – “on your skin”? For a growing number of tattooed animal advocates, it means representationally wearing on their own skin the “skin” (and fur, fins, or wings) of an endangered animal species, symbolically merging in a corporeal partnership for survival with that species.
As a project for a graduate seminar on “Animals as Media” at The New School, I researched a West-Coast-based activist non-profit organization named “Tatzoo,” which runs an activist training program for those who want to engage in species conservation.
Tatzoo fellows go through a 10-week “bootcamp” program in which they learn action strategies, activist organizing, DIY guerilla mediamaking, marketing skills, and gain other valuable tools that will enable them to advocate for endangered species.
As described on the Tatzoo web site: “Tatzoo trains biodiversity conservation leaders who use creative advocacy to protect local endangered species. They believe our generation has an unprecedented ability and responsibility to pass on a world rich in biodiversity. Their tattoos represent a commitment to confront and solve the extinction crisis” [http://tatzoo.org/program/ ].
After a period of study and thoughtful discernment, each fellow also chooses a species to commit to as an advocate, and with which to align their activist energies. At the end of the program, as a marker of their life-long commitment, they receive a tattoo of the species.
This marker is multivalent and, by the fellows’ own accounts, functions as a talisman of their life commitment and alliance with the species, as well as a publicly visible representation of the species with which to begin conversations to educate others about the species and its plight.
After engaging in a 14-week study and analysis of media on Tatzoo’s Facebook, Instagram and Vimeo sites, testimonials from Tatzoo fellows on the Tatzoo main web site, posted videos of fellows’ projects, conversations about Tatzoo and Tatzoo events on publicly accessed social media sites, press coverage of Tatzoo, and interviews with the organization’s founder, I would like to suggest that the “Tatzoo” endangered species tattoo serves both as a “witnessing tool” to evangelize about the need for conservation and as a marker of suffering and devotion.
That is, the Tatzoo fellow’s body itself becomes both powerful medium and model for suffering on behalf of, and devotion to, non-human animals in peril.
In analyzing tattoos and communication, the work of media theorist John Durham Peters, among other media theorists, provides insight into the reading of bodies themselves as a kind of “media.” In his book on elemental media, The Marvelous Clouds, Peters argues that “The body, a mix of sea, fire, earth, and sky, is our most fundamental infrastructural media” (2015:266). As living, organic “media” then, Tatzoo fellows’ animal-inscribed bodies effectively function as politically activist “media interventions” in a world where species habitat destruction and species extinction are barely noticed. Kevin Howley, in his edited volume, Media Interventions, defines such interventions as: “activities and projects that secure, exercise, challenge, or acquire media power for tactical and strategic action” (2013: 5).
In his afterword to the Howley volume, media theorist Nick Couldry reminds us that “media” are not things so much as “Media are something we do” (Howley 2013: 397). “Understanding ‘media’ as action, as part of the wide set of practices in which each of us is open-endedly engaged (rather than something confined within boxes of ‘text,’ ‘production,’ and ‘audience’) helps expand what we pay attention to in media” (397).
Thus the devotional and witnessing practices of Tatzoo-inscribed activists engender the reality of humans themselves as “media animals” in action; in this case, intervening in the endangerment of species. As felllows enact these corporeal media interventions, they simultaneously reflect a kind of asserted “interspecies kinship” through textually fusing human-animal skin to endangered-species-animal representative media.
To understand the context of the Tatzoo program and the endangered species tattoo itself, it is useful to situate endangered species tattoos within the larger category and practice of environmental tattooing.
For the purposes of my research, I define environmental tattoos as those that, via content, messaging, public display, and digital circulation, function as intentional media advocacy tools for humans who have dedicated their body to promoting environmental activism.
A number of tattoos of animals or earth images might be read as being environmentally themed tattoos, but for the purposes of this study, I have defined “environmental tattoos” based upon the tattooees’ conscious intent to raise environmental awareness, support an environmental cause, and to use their bodies to make an environmental statement. Environmental tattoos serve many functions as media markers, but on a very practical level, they also serve as strategic “witnessing” tools (verbal and non-verbal) for the transmission of environmental education, values, and greater activist consciousness.
These are some tattoo “types” that emerged from reviewing digital representations, media coverage, and in-shop observations of the environmental tattoo genre.
- The “Lorax” Tattoo (“I speak for the trees.”)
- Ecosystem Tattoo
- Nature Spirituality (or “Inspirited Nature” tattoo)
- The Recycling Tattoo
- Earth Symbol Tattoo
- Eco-Activist Organization Member Tattoo
- Alternative Energy Promotion Tattoo
- Eco-practice or Eco-observance Tattoo (promoting bicycling, veganism, etc.)
- The Endangered Species Witnessing Tattoo
This last sub-category is the focus of my study.
When I speak about the use of endangered species tattoos as “witnessing tools,” what do I mean? “Witnessing tools” are material objects, visual culture, media tools, and so forth that are deployed in evangelism as “openers” to spark conversation about the evangelist’s religious life and convictions to the uninitiated. “Witnessing” is when an evangelist draws upon and shares personal experiences of faith and their personal connection to such things as a higher power, scriptures, mystical experiences, and so forth, for the purposes of persuasion.
These can include “media” such as tattoos, clothing, pamphlets, inscribed golf balls, scripture-inscribed candies, video games, mobile applications, etc.
The religious tattoo historically has served as a powerful tool for witnessing. Notice how similar the Jesus tattoo below is to the Tatzoo of the whale. In one we see the “Passion” of Jesus, and the other invokes the “passion” (from the Greek word πασχω “to suffer”) of the hunted-to-the-brink of extinction blue whale.
The function of endangered species tattoos ideally works in a similar fashion.
Much as zoos do, the human host for the endangered animal tattoo or tattoos, invites the public to come and have a “good look.” German philosopher Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy) referred to this element as the “fascinosum,” and it elicits comment and question, perhaps even a
sense of awe, and thus provides the endangered species activist an opportunity to educate, elicit compassion for the species, and gain more supporters for the cause – salvation of the animal from extinction through the medium and messaging of the body.
Endangered species tattooing is also arguably a representational collapsing of the human/animal divide, where human skin symbolically fuses with endangered species.
“Interestingly, the divide between humans and all other animal species is neither universally found nor universally agreed upon,” argues Margo DeMello in Animals and Society. “It is neither an exclusively behavioral nor biologically determined distinction but has, at times, included biology, behavior, religious status, and kinship.
Ultimately, we will see that this divide is a social construction. It is culturally and historically contingent; that is, depending on time and place this border not only moves but the reasons for assigning animals and humans to each side of the border change as well” (34: 2012).
John Berger writes: “The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond” (Why Look at Animals, 2009: 37).
But the tatzoo is a stationary captive and often does indeed look its “public” in the eye, holding the voyeuristic gaze. In this way, the viewing of the tatzoo becomes a seductive invitation into conversation on the audience’s terms. It does not look away. This may account for the efficacy and growing popularity of the endangered species tattoo as a witnessing tool.
Anthropologist Clinton Sanders, in Customizing the Body, argues that the tattooing process itself is a “highly social act.” He observes that “The tattoo becomes an item in the tattooee’s personal identity-kit (Goffman, 1961: 14-21)” (2008: 41). Similarly, the endangered species tatzoo becomes a focal point for the self-curation of one’s identity as an animal conservation activist, and a statement about the centrality of that particular “item” to one’s identity.
One of the things that emerged from a review of Tatzoo media was just how social a process this is and how “storying the body” proves to be a profound activist tool for species advocates. A number of Tatzoo videos feature fellows who describe their activist projects dedicated to advocating for a particular species, and this is what I suspected to find in my research.
What I did not expect is that there would be several videos displayed of Tatzoo fellows getting their tattoos inscribed “live” in a public setting, while they have a mic in hand, talking to and teaching the audience about how and why the species they have dedicated themselves to is endangered and what human supporters can do to help. On their web site, Tatzoo refers to such an event as a “live tattooing” and the sensationalism of the public tattoo performance is designed specifically as an effective media strategy to raise greater public awareness, drawing more spectators to hear and receive the Tatzoo fellow’s advocacy message of conservation.
In one video, a fellow named “Lauren” is draped over a portable tattooing chair – sort of like a massage chair – at the center of a crowded nightclub. Club-goers pass by her to check out what is going on, or they stand and watch her being stuck with the tattoo needle in the midst of an active tattooing. As the artist is working on her, Lauren talks to the surrounding crowd about the plight of the sea turtle. She remarks that “the big thing with tattoos is that they are forever” and suggests her own constancy as an advocate. She says: “This tattoo to me represents my commitment to this species – that I will forever act as a storyteller, as an advocate for the sea turtle . . . I will give this animal a voice . . .” She then directs club-goers to pick up reusable cloth bags she has handmade herself from recycled materials and is giving out that night at the club for free.
Her tattoo is of a sea turtle with a plastic bag in its mouth. She explains how plastic bags look like jellyfish to turtles, who then consume and choke on them. But this point about “giving the sea turtle a voice” through her is suggestive on a number of levels.
Mediating the Tatzoo experience – making the tattoo process itself a “witnessing tool” through video and Facebook postings
Especially since the principals of these posted videos are all women Tatzoo fellows, they brought to mind the history of the nineteenth-century “Spiritualist” movement and the overwhelmingly female composition of “mediums” who conducted séances to contact spirits on “the other side.”
Women were considered to have an ideal constitution for acting as communication “go-betweens” (media) at the threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead. The medium herself was often referred to as the “spiritual telegraph,” because she was the living, embodied media tool for communicating with the dead (Braude 2001). In the case of Tatzoo, these women who have gone through the Tatzoo activist program, become the (self-appointed) media tools through which endangered animals communicate with potential human allies.
This “speaking for” is represented in popular culture most iconically in Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, The Lorax. Not coincidentally, there is a whole subcategory of environmental tattoos that depict the Lorax with his signature phrase, “I speak for the trees.” In this case, both the Tatzoo fellow’s voice and body are “speaking for” the sea turtle and doing the vocal and corporeal storying work of an activist “medium.”
The other context this dynamic of “speaking for” brings to mind is the proceedings of the Bioregional Congress, which began back in the 1980s to include “animal representatives” at each of its annual national meeting councils. Through a discernment process, certain members of the Bioregional Congress were selected to make an intensive study of particular threatened species and then to dress up as the species and represent them in Congress deliberations.
So, for instance, as the Congress participants were discussing actions to protect watersheds in the Pacific Northwest, “Salmon” (a member dressed as salmon and speaking for salmon, representing the concerns of salmon) would participate in the discussion and could stop action in the meeting to interject his/her observations and concerns about how proposed policies or initiative would affect the salmon and their bioregion.
Similarly, deep ecologists John Seed and Joanna Macy began holding “Councils of All Beings” back in the 1980s. This was a workshop/ritual process, in which participants would go through a meditative, milling, “tuning in” process, in which they would discern a calling from a species. They were encouraged not to pick a species but to allow the species to “pick them.”
What followed was a meditative mask-making portion of the ritual, in which participants would create masks to represent their species. Then, donning the masks, the “Council of All Beings” would be called to order, and the group would gather in a circle to discuss the state of the planet, voice their concerns, express their sadness or anger at what humans are doing to the planet, and then to articulate what kind of practical help they and their species need from humans in order to survive and thrive in their habitats. (See http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/coab.htm and there is also a co-written book on this by John Seed and Joanna Macy: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Like-Mountain-Towards-Council/dp/1897408005 )
The discernment process for the Tatzoo program (fellows go through a 10-week summer training program) sounds somewhat similar, in that they go through a discernment process for an animal to choose an animal but also to have the animal “choose them,” and then they effectively train to become “an advocacy voice” for the animal. In contrast to the (now largely defunct) Bush Warriors and ExtInked endangered species tattoo programs, in which participants were known as “ambassadors” on behalf of the endangered species, Tatzoo fellows repeatedly refer to themselves as “storytellers” and “advocates” for the species, and sometimes “a voice” for the species. This may factor into Tatzoo’s successful survival and longevity over these other programs.
Another posted Tatzoo online video shows a fellow receiving her tattoo, again, “live,” in public, while lying on a gurney in the middle of a bustling nature center located in the Adirondack Mountains.
As the tattoo artist zaps away at the fellow’s arm, a wildlife handler stands by handling a live owl. As the fellow tries not to look at the needle work going on, she answers in a determinedly steady voice questions posed to her from families with children who have stopped to watch this spectacle. She explains to them, “Each person has a story behind why they are putting that piece of art [a tattoo] on their body. This is mine.” She then proceeds to discuss her commitment to the species of owl who is standing by her, seemingly bearing witness to her devotional suffering. As she lies prostrate on the gurney, arms outstretched, receiving the tattoo, it is hard not to wonder at this sort of offering of the body.
“Live Tattooing” – strategic use of spectacle, show, performance and social media. These are the tools that fellows have been taught and so this is an opportunity to put them into practice. https://www.facebook.com/tatzoo/videos/1345863845441642/ ; https://www.facebook.com/tatzoo/videos/1345863845441642/
Perhaps it is because I am a Religious Studies professor, but the phrase “tattoo martyrs” did spring to mind as I watched these videos. What is key to these media productions is the very public nature of the devotional act, performed in front of a live audience, recorded on video, and then posted to the Internet for more to view. This was not a private act of piety but a very conscious public act of devotional suffering and “witnessing” to the sins of humans who have precipitated this endangerment, even as a model of redemption was offered.
Tatzoo runs a number of these “live tattooing” nights at a local nightclub in the Bay Area of San Francisco, in which fellows come up to the front of the club and get their tattoos inscribed while people watch, educating the audience about that species’ endangerment. As they get up one by one for their “live tattooing,” it has the feeling of an “altar call.” When sea turtle fellow (“Lauren”) testifies as to the endangerment of sea turtles from plastic bags, she points to our direct moral culpability as humans for causing the suffering and deaths of these creatures: “That’s our fault,” she says into the mic, the needle buzzing in the background. “That’s our responsibility. No one put plastic in the environment but us,” she chastises.
The Tatzoo site itself has a very Evangelical feel to it, and it specifically dedicates a section to “Testimonials,” in which fellows speak to the salvific dimensions of their tattoo inscription – that of saving species. But there is a redemptive message as well of humans, who through acts of piety, devotion, and suffering, may work to redeem the error of their ways. “Offering testimony” is a regular practice in Evangelical churches, by which those who have been saved get up in front of the congregation and speak of God’s grace in their lives and how they have been saved from their own sinfulness by giving their lives over to God.
In the case of posted Tatzoo videos, though, the sinfulness evoked is our environmental sinfulness as humans, and the redemption comes from mending our ways and working to save the animals whose lives our actions and lifestyles have threatened.
Is the Tatzoo tattoo then some form of human penance? And are Tatzoo fellows in some sense symbolically doing penance not only for themselves but on behalf of the human species? Some of the “testimonial” photos show raw-looking red tattoos in process that have not yet healed.
A photo, for instance, of fellow Ray Dearborn’s inflamed back, covered with tattoos of a school of “Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks” – red and weepy from the needle and in still process – bears the caption: “They’re amazing creatures, and I will do whatever it takes to save them” (http://tatzoo.org/program/).
“Whatever it takes” is clearly displayed on her red, swollen skin.
These are images of sacrifice but, significantly, those of the joyful sacrifice of committed devotees.
Medieval self-flagellants joyfully whipped themselves and mortified their flesh in public parades, in public squares, and in other public demonstrations as a testimony to their piety and willingness to suffer. Their suffering bodies became “witnessing tools” to inspire suffering, commitment, piety, and devotion in others.
This practice continues today in a number of Roman Catholic countries. In his study of self-flagellation McCabe writes of how the pain of the devout self-flagellant is often expressed as ecstasy (McCabe 2007).
The body of the Tatzoo fellow thus becomes a media platform for an enduring story of suffering, loss, conservation, life-long commitment, piety, and redemption.
Victoria Pitts, In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification, speaks of tattoos and tattooing in terms of “subversive bodies and invented selves.”
Tatzoo fellows evoke the subversive potential of their endangered-species inscriptions for bringing about a different future, one of mutually enhancing human/non-human species relations.
This is what “geologian” Thomas Berry speaks of as the “Ecozoic Era” ( https://ecozoictimes.com/what-is-the-ecozoic/what-does-ecozoic-mean/.
What is key to Tatzoo media productions, whether in a skin-based medium or digitally transmediated across multiple platforms, is the very public nature of these devotional acts of media intervention.
In Nick Couldry’s terms, they are media as practice, performed in front of a “live audience,” recorded on video, and posted to the Internet for more to view and circulate.
These are not private acts of piety but very conscious and deliberate public acts of devotional suffering and “witnessing” to the sins of humans who have precipitated species endangerment and extinction. In the suffering, martyrdom, and ecstatic sacrifices of the tattooees, a model of redemption is offered.
In this model, humans and non-human animals become representationally one, symbolically calling forth a deconstruction and rapprochement of the illusory division of human and animal Margo DeMello addresses in her work.
This model of human/non-human animal symbolic fusion through the media of the “storied body” strategically capitalizes on the power of the human gaze as a means to mobilize affect (empathy and protective feelings) in service of a more just future for all species.
- Atkinson, Michael. Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art (2003, University of Toronto)
- Berger, John. Why Look at Animals? (2009, Penguin Publishing)
- Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (2000, Broadway Books)
- Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century (1989, Beacon Press).
- Couldry, Nick. Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice (2012, Polity Press).
- DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (2012, Columbia University Press)
- DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community (2000, Duke University)
- Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2016, University of Chicago Press)
- Kevin Howley, ed., Media Interventions (2013, Peter Lang Publishing)
- Joseph McCabe, The History of Flagellation (2007, Kessinger Publishing)
- Victoria Pitts, In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification (2003, Palgrave)
- Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1958, Oxford University Press)
- Clinton Sanders, Customizing The Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing (2008, Temple University)