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Western Journal of Communication

Vol. 72, No. 3, July–September 2008, pp. 197–212

Home Sweet Home: Tattoo Parlors

as Postmodern Spaces of Agency
Sonja Modesti

Tattoo culture has pervaded mainstream culture in recent years, due in part to the
influence of the postmodern condition. Defined most significantly by a temporally frag-
mented and eclectic, relative existence, the spaces of postmodernism become essential
objects of study due to the relative nature of identity construction within those spaces.
Thus, this essay turns attention to the spaces of tattoo parlors, which serve as
worthy objects of postmodern spatial study. Themes of materiality, embodiment, and
performance are cited as critical elements that provide support for the claim that tattoo
parlors serve as postmodern spaces of agency. This agency is most prevalent when
examining the material, embodied, and performed elements of control and choice in a
tattoo studio. Three distinct tattoo studios serve as the contextual backdrop for this essay,
illuminating these elements of choice and control.

Keywords: Agency; Postmodern; Rhetoric; Spatial Studies; Tattoo

A Virgin Under the Needle

Flinging the door open assertively, I was overwhelmed by the papered walls as
I approached the counter. Greeted by the heavily pierced woman with streaked hair,
I tried to demonstrate external confidence, though I wretched with nervousness.
My 6-foot, 125-pound frame, all clad in Gap, was juvenile and circus-like against this
hardcore context of metal, needles, punk rock, and cigarette smoke. Yet an insatiable
urge deep within me had craved this moment for years; I was standing between two
worlds. Opening the doors to Addictions Tattoos in Fargo, North Dakota, signified
much more than a literal separation between the blustery winter winds of North
Dakota and the edgy tattoo subculture that was frowned upon in that conservative
town. This was the step that was going to take me closer to the realm of personal

Correspondence to: Sonja Modesti, Assistant Director of Public Speaking, Department of Speech Communi-
cation, 210 Eddy Building, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA. E-mail: smodesti@

ISSN 1057-0314 (print)/ISSN 1745-1027 (online) # 2008 Western States Communication Association
DOI: 10.1080/10570310802210106
198 S. Modesti
freedom, identity formation, and independence that I, like many other 18-year-olds,
desired; I was getting a tattoo.
Years later, I fondly remember this initiation into the tattoo culture. I recognize
that my entrance into the space of a tattoo parlor demonstrates that the places we
inhabit function as the rhetorical genesis for much of our personal composition.
Thus, every time I open the doors to another tattoo parlor, I literally open the doors
to understanding another facet of who I am.
The tattoo parlor, like many other spaces, is a place of invitation. It serves as a
rhetorical context, catering to the customer who is in search of relative identity
and agency as defined by a sense of self-direction and autonomy. In this establish-
ment, the consumer is invited to use the reflected appraisals of her surroundings
to further create and shape the identity of her choosing. Though tattoos themselves
have been the subject of study in multiple disciplines, as this medium situates itself
among the norms of our cultural fabric, it becomes imperative to start analyzing the
contexts from which influential texts such as tattoos arise. Since tattooing has become
a mainstream form of identification in our culture, the birthplace of this identity
serves as an imperative text for study as we begin to appreciate the influential nature
of space. In the case of tattooing, these foundations begin in the place where the nee-
dle first contacts the skin: the tattoo parlor.
I begin this examination by surveying scholarly works that provide theoretical
support for extending rhetorical study to the spaces of everyday life. Since everyday
life is influenced heavily by the postmodern condition, it also becomes important to
develop a template for the qualities necessary to label a space as ‘‘postmodern.’’ After
developing this template, I engage in a textual analysis of the postmodern space of
tattoo parlors by applying these characteristics to three distinct tattoo parlors located
in various regions of the United States. Through this analysis, I am able to contend
that tattoo parlors provide their customers with a sense of agency through the
material, embodied, and performed themes of choice and control in a tattoo
studio. Such an analysis assists in explaining how postmodern spaces intersect with
a characteristically rhetorical construction of agency in a manner unique to our time
and culture.

Significance of Spatial Studies

Careful observation of the spaces we inhabit can contribute to a reframing of our
study of rhetoric. Rhetorical scholarship has broadened to include examinations of
locations, places, and visual rhetoric. This extension is committed to unearthing a
broader understanding of the stimuli that constitute the complexity of human exis-
tence. Foss (2004) suggests that ‘‘as studies of visual rhetoric generate rhetorical
theory, then, they challenge and question the linguistic boundaries of our rhetorical
theories and provide a more holistic picture of symbol use’’ (p. 304). Thus, examina-
tions of visual rhetoric not only allow rhetorical scholarship to move beyond study
Western Journal of Communication 199

of artifacts that are purely linguistic, but these examinations and critiques begin to
press at material elements that permeate our culture.
Blair illuminates the urgency of this shifting rhetorical trend. Her work inves-
tigates the experiences of studying 20th-century public commemorative art in the
US and its relationship to the body, posing questions regarding how unusual tar-
gets for rhetorical criticism can speak to rhetorical criticism at large. Questioning
aspects such as the critic’s relationship with her object of study, confidence in the
rhetorical features of a text, balances between rhetorical efficacy and ethical
consequence, and creating rhetorical thirst for critical readings all guide Blair’s
decisions to undertake a nontraditional critical reading of public art. In doing
so, Blair underscores the notion that critics must ‘‘grapple’’ with the pressing
issues of materialism (2001, p. 289).
Perhaps it is Dickinson who unveils issues of everyday materiality most signifi-
cantly. In numerous essays that examine the rhetorical significance of everyday spaces
such as coffee shops, grocery stores, museums, and town centers, Dickinson (2002)
underscores the influential nature of the everyday surrounding when he notes that
‘‘it is in the interstices of the everyday, it is in the littlest actions of our daily lives,
that we most thoroughly materialize our selves and our bodies’’ (p. 6). This reminder
invites a sensitivity for the material substance of the spaces and activities of our every-
day lives. These spaces are not without significant consequentiality. ‘‘Everyday’’
spaces such as tattoo parlors have implications. Dickinson furthers this discussion
claiming that ‘‘rhetorical critics and theorists determined to get after the consequen-
tial materiality of rhetoric can turn to the places of the practices of the everyday’’
(p. 6). Accordingly, an examination of the tattoo parlor can be an inaugural point
of scholarship for understanding the significance of everyday life and the spaces it
Lorraine Code offers an additional perspective providing incentive for the
study of everyday spaces. Asserting that ‘‘everyday life contrasts with the abstrac-
tions of dislocated theory that would aim to develop a grid, before the fact, which
evaluators could superimpose upon any putative claim to knowledge,’’ she illu-
mines that there is a difference between what is known through theory and what
is known through actual performance or doing (1995, xi). It is in the places of
everyday that these performances occur, so in order to accurately theorize about
everyday life, we must turn to the spaces where authentic knowledge about daily
living can be derived.
A final rationale for the study of space materializes from the simple notion that
spatial study allows for the emergence of provocative new definitions that increase
the breadth and depth of rhetorical theory. Michel de Certeau acknowledges this defi-
nitional process, theorizing about the nature of places and spaces in The Practices of
Everyday Life. He determines that
a space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by
the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced
by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a
polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. (1984, p. 117)
200 S. Modesti
Through this definition, de Certeau challenges the equivalent nature of place and
space by suggesting that places are transformed into spaces because of the tactics of
power that unfold within them. These foundations of power are critical elements
that influence the everyday life. In understanding the transformational process in
which a place becomes a space, it is apparent that many of the spaces we inhabit
are really oases that provide opportunity for utilizing tactics. This understanding
and definition of space and place is only possible when viewing space as rhetorical
In short, though some may view studies of such spaces as mundanely observable,
we must assertively refrain from dismissing what may be critiqued as ‘‘obvious.’’ Cul-
tural studies scholar Meghan Morris argues, ‘‘I think there is a problem with dismiss-
ing ‘obvious things’ if we take them to be . . . inessential’’ (1998, p. 102). Though her
references to securing the study of the obvious are not directly related to rhetorical
studies, we can glean from this argument that observing these ‘‘obvious’’ places of
everyday life can reveal massive inscriptions. Dickinson (2002) again concedes when
he challenges scholars to ‘‘turn to the daily spaces in which embodied subjects enact
themselves to investigate how the space interacts with the problems of both bodies
and subjectivities’’ (p. 9). It is in doing so that we gain a broader consciousness of
our discipline and ourselves.

What is Postmodern Space?

What, then, defines a ‘‘space’’ such as a tattoo parlor? In answering this question, a
logical point of departure is to examine the interaction between postmodern culture
and the kinds of spaces that may be created by the culture. Through this examination
we can identify those dimensions of tattoo parlors that resonate with the character-
istics of postmodern space in general.
Eagleton (1996a) describes the postmodern culture as one that has extreme
distaste for fixed boundaries and categories that revolve around traditional
distinctions between ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘popular’’ art. This distaste is best defined as
Willis (1993) describes: ‘‘The institutions and practices, genres and terms of high
art are currently categories of exclusion more than inclusion’’ (p. 1). Because of
the postmodern aversion to this exclusive nature, spaces of postmodernism must
cater to a variety of people, styles, and tastes. These spaces must allow for
the creative expression of artistic variations and not enforce rigid expectations,
standards of behavior, or be predicated upon ultimate truths that limit or prevent
reflexivity and self-referent.
Other influences of space in the postmodern condition pivot around the fulcrums
of playfulness, fragmentation, and eclecticism (Eagleton, 1996a). Perhaps this eclec-
ticism and fragmentation is best explained in the melding that occurs between the
distinctions of art and the distinctions of everyday life. Eagleton (1996b) explains this
when claiming that ‘‘postmodernism is a style of culture . . . which blurs the bound-
aries between art and everyday experience’’ (p. vii). Sarup (1993) agrees when
Western Journal of Communication 201

describing the ‘‘deletion of the boundary between art and everyday life’’ (p. 131). This
infers that spaces of postmodernism are purposefully designed to blur boundaries
such that everyday life becomes transformed into a series of artistic expressions,
images, and places. Through this paradigm we are invited to saturate our lives with
these artistic fragments through the simple task of changing our paradigm to that of
an observer. This allows our daily lives and daily spaces to be filled with borderless
visionary opportunity as we seek to understand the materiality of the fragments that
surround us.
As reality becomes transformed into images, space also recognizes the frag-
mented nature of time and events. What is seen and experienced in place becomes
the realness and meaning of existence in that moment—the series of perpetual
‘‘presents’’ that constitutes postmodern temporality. This sensation of temporal
relativity heightens the impact that postmodern places have. Because of this influ-
ence of temporality, places of the postmodern condition are able to transform into
spaces reflecting the postmodern condition.
When examining postmodern spaces such as tattoo parlors, materiality also
becomes an issue of tremendous consequence. The material components of a
rhetorical space are significant indicators of the influence a space exerts.
Stewart (2005) agrees, noting that ‘‘material spaces such as monuments or build-
ings are worthy of study because they function rhetorically’’ (p. 12). Many scholars
have examined the significance of spaces because of this rhetorical function. Under-
standing that we are influenced by our surroundings, particularly in the postmo-
dern condition, it is important to observe surroundings closely. Rhetorical
criticism has generated the notion that material space can stimulate visceral
responses (Stewart, 2005). Lefebvre (1991) noted that material space has significant
cultural influence as well.
One of the most prominent material effects of postmodern spaces is the
notion that everyday spaces are themselves often times a material realization
of postmodernity. Postmodern spaces not only reflect postmodernism; they are
postmodernity in many cases. Encounters with postmodern spaces materialize
the influence of polysemic views because they allow for and often create juxta-
posed fragmentations (Stewart, 2005). Evidenced in spaces such as tattoo parlors,
postmodern spaces invite multiple understandings of the space and those who
inhabit the space because they are predicated upon fractured images, symbols,
and signs. These predications materialize postmodernity in a profound and
essential way.
Additionally, an encounter with a materially consequential space is an encounter
with many discourses. Occupants of postmodern spaces are literally inundated
by a barrage of symbols, both verbal and nonverbal, that create these discourses.
Flower (2003) describes this process as the rhetoric of ‘‘real places that guide inquiry
and intervention’’ (pp. xi–xii). These qualities of ‘‘real places’’ beg inquiry as the
senses must be acutely attuned to the materiality of the space.
Recognizing that postmodern spaces contain many material components, the
nature of our natural bodies shifts, becoming a series of performance or enactments
202 S. Modesti
that interact with this materiality. These performances and enactments are designed
to aid in the process of identity construction. Dickinson and Maugh (2004) assert
that postmodern individuals seek to ‘‘create coherent and comfortable identities’’
(p. 262). This creation is part of the process of embodiment. Embodiment is a rad-
ically material condition of humanity that necessarily entails both the ‘‘body and the
conscious, objectivity and subjectivity, in an irreducible ensemble’’ (Sobchack, 2004,
p. 4). Thus, Sobchack explains, ‘‘we matter and we mean’’ through processes and
sense-making that we owe as much to our experiences and existence as to our con-
scious thoughts (p. 4).
Advocating that ‘‘the body is an active and reactive entity which is not just part of
us but is who we are,’’ Butler also asserts that our physical body and its interplay with
space cannot be taken for granted (1999, p. 238). The body is not a passive container
(Aitken, 2001). It gives to and takes meaning from its narrative settings. Spaces
become animated by embodiment and embodiment becomes possible in certain
spaces (Punday, 2003).
As bodies are performed or enacted, rhetoric then becomes embodied
(G. Dickinson, personal communication, April 27, 2006). This allows rhetorical
processes to become more than intellectual as they shift and act out through
other parts of the body as well. Spaces such as tattoo parlors allow for this
performance, literally. The physical body actually undergoes change, which by
nature helps to further embody the notions of agency present in a tattoo studio.
As this sensation of materiality is explored, we must rely on de Certeau’s
discussion of tactics. By employing these tactics, or artistic maneuvers, we create
meaningful spaces as we make choices regarding how we will enact our identity.
Consequently, spaces such as tattoo parlors respond to the exigency of heavily
fragmented conditions in order to provide agency for the rhetors located in those
spaces. Perhaps this explains why tattooing has moved from a position of stigma
to a position of status in our society (Atkinson, 2004; Cheng, 2003; DeMello,
1995, 2000). As an alternate construction of identity in a postmodern period,
tattooing lends an understanding of surroundings by providing a sense of
empowerment. An undeniably strong statement for people to make, tattoos can
be a disconcerting performance of ferocity, can signify conscientious radical
self-definition, may signify sexual independence for women, and ultimately help
people reclaim their physical bodies (DeMello, 1995; Talvi, 1998). Therefore,
individuals living in the postmodern condition are inevitably drawn to spaces
such as tattoo parlors that allow for the performance of agency.
Thus, this essay necessarily turns to examine the spaces of tattoo parlors.
These parlors emerge as a poignant reminder that postmodern spaces
both existed before postmodernism gained momentum and have transformed
themselves into spaces in which fundamental changes have occurred that create
connections with the postmodern condition as we now label it. By applying
theoretical determinants of a postmodern space—materiality, material conse-
quence, and embodiment—we can uncover elements of the tattoo parlor that
encourage agency.
Western Journal of Communication 203

The Rhetoric of Tattoo Parlors

Fragmentation is certainly a term that could describe the physical characteristics of a
tattoo parlor in the sense that no two tattoo parlors are aesthetically identical. Despite
these variations, however, Margaret DeMello, long-time tattoo scholar and enthusi-
ast, notes that
in many ways, though, all tattoo shops are alike: the colorful walls, the smell of A &
D ointment, the drill-like sound of the machines, the preponderance of young
people hanging out, the nervous laughs of first-time tattoo customers, and the tat-
tooist’s emphasis on cash only, no drunks, no minors, and no facial tattoos.
Additionally, the process of tattooing is fairly consistent, regardless of the type of
shop in which it is performed. (2000, p. 20)
These material similarities are also matched by an intangible aura that most tattoo
parlors elicit as well. DeMello again portrays this through a description provided
by one of her interviewees:
I would work at my at my studio in the trendy East Village in New York City
during the week. The short trip of twenty minutes traversed much more than just
a spatial journey. I would have to prepare myself for the real journey into a new
world of values every time. It was very interesting for me to shift gears back and
forth between value systems, aesthetics, and different motivations. I enjoyed this
passage a lot, it kept me honest.
—Mike T., tattooist. (p. 136)
These general similarities provide the foundations for a dialogue regarding tattoo
parlors and the agency created in these spaces. In order to more concretely associate
tattoo parlors with agency, I will examine three specific tattoo parlors that materialize
some of the aforementioned themes of postmodern space, thus allowing for the pro-
duction of space and agency. These parlors include: Enchanted Ink, Mike’s Tattoo
Tyme, and Freakshow! tattoo studio.
Initially, a description of each studio will provide contextual information regard-
ing the general nature of the studio. Then, the themes of materiality, material conse-
quence, embodiment, and performance will be addressed within each specific context
to demonstrate how control and choice emerge as dominant features in tattoo parlors
that produce agency.

Granola Meets Ink: Enchanted Ink—Boulder, Colorado

Home to Enchanted Ink Tattoos, the eclectic community of Boulder, Colorado, is
nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Sprawling close to the outskirts of the
nearby metropolis of Denver, Boulder is a unique community with an artistic flair.
An example of its commitment to remaining true to its roots of an organic and natu-
ral lifestyle, one of Boulder’s largest attractions is the famous outdoor Pearl Street
Mall where visitors can peruse several locally owned specialty stores and restaurants
juxtaposed with the most well-known national chains. Street performers and vendors
draw large crowds on warm, sunny afternoons, and beautiful tulip gardens and water
features provide a calming oasis for all ages.
204 S. Modesti
In the center of Pearl Street Mall lies the unassuming Enchanted Ink tattoo studio.
After descending a flight of stairs, the tattooee can spot Enchanted Ink situated
comfortably next to a Subway restaurant. Enchanted Ink is inconspicuous, unpreten-
tious, and humble, a particularly inviting venue for the tattoo virgin. Owned by two
warm and friendly women who previously worked as registered nurses, Enchanted
Ink is a visual tribute to the associations these women are most proud of: Native
American culture, Wiccan culture, and lesbianism. Painted in soft hues and filled
with newspaper clippings of the women’s success stories as nurses-turned-artists,
one feels like she has stepped into a living room and is reading through scrapbooks
instead of preparing to obtain a tattoo.
The tattooee will be warmly greeted, personally escorted and conversed with
through the tattooing process by one of the two lovely women who prefer to be refer-
enced by their Native American surnames like ‘‘Wolf,’’ short for Gwen Wolfstar. The
recipient will recline in the covered tattoo chair as candies are offered and soft New
Age music plays in the background, all designed to complement the theme of the
establishment: enchantment.

Postmodern Men of the Cloth: Mike’s Tattoo Tyme—Hatboro, Pennsylvania

On the other side of the country lies a tattooing establishment with a distinctly dif-
ferent flair than that of Enchanted Ink. Situated plainly in the midst of the Philadel-
phia suburb of Hatboro, Mike’s Tattoo Tyme lies in direct contrast to the simple and
charming colonial nature of its hometown. This quiet suburb shares in the common
architecture and magnetism of other East Coast communities that take pride in their
colonial heritage. However, Mike’s Tattoo Tyme disturbs the colonial architecture by
transforming a once grand and majestic two-story brick house into a shoddy
hodgepodge combination home=stock car lot=tattoo parlor.
Parking the car in a gravel lot that appears to be the remnants of a torn-down
property, the tattooee will momentarily wonder if she is entering into a tattoo studio
or a back alley drug deal. Walking up to the front porch it becomes clear that the first
floor of this old house has been transformed into a makeshift tattoo parlor—similar
to what one may envision as the stereotypical biker bar of past decades. Smells of
incense mixing with stale cigarette smoke assault the nostrils as deafening metal
music crushes the eardrums. It is difficult to know what to look at—wall art, the
aquarium home to a large python, the collection of famous horror movie dolls lined
up on a nearby shelf—the visual stimuli are endless.
Moreover, there’s the Reverend Mike himself. Owner, artist, and resident tattooist,
Mike prides himself on being known as ‘‘The Reverend.’’ This title, albeit granted
from an Internet ministerial ‘‘certificate’’ program, is certainly fitting as Mike spends
the entirety of the tattooing experience imparting his worldly knowledge and prolific
opinions on the current state of everything in existence. Alternating between holding
the tattoo needle and holding a cigarette, the Reverend laughs heartily and garishly as
he playfully jokes, blurting the occasional ‘‘Ooops’’ coupled with a snort and another
Western Journal of Communication 205

drag off the cigarette. In the end, the tattooee leaves with a tattoo of sorts and the
conviction that she has truly had an unforgettable ‘‘tyme.’’

Redefining ‘‘Freak’’: Freakshow! Tattoos—Fort Collins, Colorado

As the myriad of tattooing contexts are explored, Freakshow! also offers a distinctive
tattoo experience. Playfully housed in a small strip mall in what is affectionately
dubbed the ‘‘campus west’’ area of Fort Collins, Colorado, Freakshow! caters to
the younger crowd of Fort Collins. Located adjacent to the Colorado State University
campus, Freakshow! occupies a small, practical space in a shopping area designed to
entice college students in this suburban middle-class community.
Priding itself as a studio dedicated to ‘‘real’’ art, Freakshow! showcases artistic flair
as the tattooee is immediately mesmerized by the massive graffiti-inspired tagging on
the west wall of the shop. Screaming ‘‘Freakshow’’ in large scrawling letters, this con-
temporary representation of traditional gang graffiti becomes a point of inspiration
when admiring the carefully and painstakingly constructed detail of the design.
In seeming contrast with its bold and brash wall art, a warm and welcoming
environment encourages the tattooee to get comfortable and acquaint herself with
the owners are who are often seated on the leather couches with feet kicked up on
a coffee table. Video games, a big-screen TV, and pop machines offer all the comfort
and semblance of a college dormitory lounge, while eclectic and miscellaneous décor
such as a wheelchair and old-fashioned bicycle complete the fragmented motif.
In this environment, everyone is invited into the realm of voyeurism, as the tattoo-
ing area is set on a platform stage at the front of the shop. Those who walk by outside
can freely stare in the extra large glass windows at the tattooee. People inside of the
shop are separated from the tattooing area only by a small railing surrounding the
tattoo platform. Creating an open, airy feel, this studio is filled with natural light
as the Colorado sun streams through the windows.
All of the artists are young, trendy men who create original designs by hand,
encouraging innovative and authentic tattoos. There are no flip books or stacks of
tattoo magazines to inspire the designs in this studio. Rather, tattooees and artists
engage in conversations and the trial-and-error process of creating the imagined
design on paper. Though the name implies something of a negative connotation,
the patron of Freakshow! will appreciate the attention to artistic expression in a
friendly and relational environment.

Creating Spaces of Agency

These three tattoo parlors share cultural characteristics while also revealing specific
traits that are unique to each studio. However, discussion of the general features
of these studios is not sufficient to explain why tattoo parlors could universally be
considered spaces of agency. By illuminating specific features of the studios that serve
to define them as postmodern spaces, we can begin to understand how tattooees
206 S. Modesti
function as materialized rhetors, who are negotiating issues of materiality, material
consequence, and embodiment as demonstrated, and contribute to the sense of
agency experienced in the space of tattoo parlors. Though all tattoo studios contain
elements that invoke agency, it is most helpful to dissect particular elements of these
individual contexts to connect the theory to its application. Let us return to our
initial critical text: Enchanted Ink.
One of the most distinguishing physical features of Enchanted Ink tattoo studio is
the intimately small space it encompasses. Because of its size, the senses are immedi-
ately alert to one distinctly unique sound and smell. It is within these material sounds
and smells that our initial discussion of agency and control can be framed.
Perhaps most notable is the sound; it permeates every corner of the small studio.
That sound is the constant low buzz of the tattoo gun. A tattoo gun is a hand-held
machine activated by electromagnetic coils that work in alternation to move the nee-
dle bar up and down, which drives the pigment into the skin. Modern tattoo guns use
electric motors that create a low buzzing sound like that of a hair clipper.
As the tattooee immerses herself in the tattoo parlor’s environment, it is
impossible to escape the whirring reminder of the tattoo gun’s presence. This audible
presence signifies attempts at controlling an environment. Because guns have to be
fired consciously, and because their usual purpose is that of permanently altering
the composition of the affected target, guns are ultimately strong material reminders
of control. Tattoo guns can be categorized as such. However, a unique rhetorical
relationship is formed between the tattooist, the tattooee, and the gun. This relation-
ship instills a sense of agency for the tattooee, rather than a sense of lost control.
As the process begins, the tattooee realizes that she ultimately has control over this
gun, as it is within her power and discretion to control when, where, and how this
gun interacts with her body. Her command will allow for acknowledged and invited
reception of the gun’s impact. Instead of being used for threatening purposes, the gun
becomes an instrument of artistic expression. Rather than being the weapon of an
enforcer, the tattoo gun becomes an agent for articulation in the hands of a
gentle and artistic woman. This creates a role reversal for the tattooee that turns a
potentially frightening and encumbering situation into one of control and agency.
After overcoming minutes or even hours of painfully welcomed interaction with
the gun, the tattooee emerges as a product of survival with ‘‘battle wounds’’ that serve
as a permanent reminder of the suffering undergone.
Thus, the symbol of control that typically signifies negative connotations becomes
a symbol that can be claimed for the self, a necessary step to overcome in the quest
for identity. A sense of domination is created as the gun becomes a material reminder
that control of the self’s body and ultimately, the self’s identity, is a process set
in motion through a transformation allowed only by the one who seeks that
transformation. A sense of agency emerges because of the material consequentiality
of the tattoo gun.
Senses are additionally awakened in this unique space by a keenly distinct odor—
that of topical antibiotic ointments. This smell is one of many tools used to create
an atmosphere of hygiene. As the brainchild of two retired registered nurses,
Western Journal of Communication 207

Enchanted Ink prides itself on producing an atmosphere of cleanliness. Sanitation

of the tattooing equipment and the tattooing area are of utmost importance to
these artists. Unmistakably, the tattooing space itself is guarded by a protective
sense of hyper sanitation, the ultimate response to exerting control over the
Control is alluded to in this environment by the attention to sanitation. Enchanted
Ink’s tattoo chairs are covered with surgical fabrics and shrink wraps: casings that
provide a barrier to the outer world. As the tattooee prepares for the procedure,
she is treated to a visual demonstration of the sanitation process undergone to pre-
pare the needles and the tattoo gun. Needles are removed from sterile packaging as a
sign of proper preparation. The gun is cleaned with sterile solutions and rewrapped
in plastic packaging to prevent interaction with dirty air. The tattooist cleanses her
hands, wears surgical gloves, and prepares the skin in ways that mimic that of surgical
preparations by cleansing it, shaving it, and treating it with sterile solutions.
Throughout the tattooing process, the skin is additionally covered multiple times
with Vaseline, alcohol, or other topical antibiotic creams to keep it fresh and supple.
As the tattoo is completed, strict instructions are given regarding aftercare, and the
tattoo is covered to prevent exposure to germs.
The actual reception of a tattoo and the immediate environment in which it is
received are tributes to hyper-sterility. Immense amounts of attention are paid to cre-
ating an environment that is controlled and monitored at all times. All of this has
been done to ensure the comfort and safety of the tattooee. Once again she feels a
sense of agency as the sanitized atmosphere represents the power of one’s ability
to exert control over her environment. Barriers are created and others are removed
as the tattoo artist and the tattooee manipulate the environment according to the
parameters of each tattooing experience. Thus, the production of a hyper-sanitized
space allows the tattooee to feel an additional sense of control that contributes to
the theme of agency found within the studio.
Enchanted Ink’s studio provides agency for the tattooee because of the materiality
of the space. Objects and even sensory experiences such as smell create material
reminders of control. Yet within this context, the reminders of control are all
significant attempts at creating a positive and healthy experience for the tattooee.
Thus, these reminders become important aspects of developing the agency that
many tattooees experience within the intimately small and personalized space of
Enchanted Ink.
However, the material elements of this tattoo studio suggest only one of several
postmodern space determinants that contribute to a sense of agency. Another post-
modern theme that suggests agency is choice. As noted, having the opportunity to
make conscious decisions about identity is a liberating experience that defines the
blurred boundaries of postmodernism. Conscious choice-making is one way through
which postmodernists practice their tactics. Therefore, it is appropriate to examine
elements of tattoo parlors where choice is materialized. This is specifically notable
in Mike’s Tattoo Tyme due to the material references to selection, variety, and
expression that permeate this tattoo parlor’s space.
208 S. Modesti
The Reverend first entices his tattooees by presenting an abundance of artistic
expressions available to an individual. This is most obviously noted in the design flip
books present in his studio. Mike’s Tattoo Tyme aggressively accosts its patrons by
exhibiting wall-to-wall flip books cased in heavy black metal with designs ranging
from the most simplistic of roses to the hard-core biker tats worn only by the brave.
Regardless of style or content, these flip books provide the tattooee with the material
reminder that she has options, choices to make in regard to the identity she is con-
structing. Fittingly, the fragmented physical placement of these flipbooks alludes to
the fractured nature of postmodern spaces—demonstrating the often patternless
ways in which postmodernism juxtaposes dissimilar objects and ideas.
A similar promotion of choice is discovered in the presence of Mike’s personal
portfolio. Found lying on an end table near a reception area, Mike’s portfolio offers
a more personal invitation into the world of choice. Supporting the notion that visual
rhetoric communicates compelling messages, the portfolio is a vehicle of communi-
cation between the artist and the tattooee. This is an opportunity for the Reverend to
showcase his talents or areas of interest while allowing the tattooee to acknowledge
and confirm the many spheres in which he can work. Portfolios, photo albums, or
scrapbooks act as visual rhetoric to entice the tattooee into the realm of cataloging
Options are again reinforced when observing the presence of display cases in tat-
too parlors. Mike’s display case stands in an obtrusive manner blocking the exit of the
shop. Allowing a voyeuristic experience for the patron, the display case exhibits body
jewelry, piercing tools, bumper stickers announcing political affiliations, and X-rated
photographs of recent piercing procedures. Capitalizing on the notion that one must
pause, hover, and scrutinize, the display case is the most tangible material represen-
tation of choice in Mike’s studio. Perhaps this is why display cases serve as the
decorative, physical, and rhetorical axis for most tattoo parlors.
However, visual rhetoric is not the only allusion to choice in his tattoo parlor. The
action of the decision-making involved in the tattoo process is a highly material
experience that also allows for agency. This material consequence of rhetoric involves
decisions such as what tattoo to obtain, where to place it, what size to make it, and
how to color it. These are very real decisions that invade the psychical space of our
consciousness and result in material consequences. The material consequences of this
decision-making allows for literal change in people. It allows for the creation of new
Fittingly, it is also in the examination of the visual rhetoric of this tattoo studio
(and others like it), that another important facet of choice-making must be discussed.
The allusions to choice that swathe Mike’s Tattoo Tyme also remind us of the illu-
sions of choice present within postmodern consumerism. In this sense, the exercise
of agency is rather illusory or pseudoindividualistic due to the ambivalent nature
of decision-making in a postmodern consumer culture. On one hand, choices present
within a postmodern consumer space such as a tattoo parlor can be very empower-
ing; on the other, highly scripted. A tattooee at Mike’s Tattoo Tyme recognizes
that she may choose a tattoo that is highly unoriginal because she is choosing from
Western Journal of Communication 209

a flipbook. Regardless, the type of agency stimulated and enabled by a tattoo parlor,
though arguably ‘‘consumeristic’’ in nature, is an important aspect of postmodern
identity performance.
The shifting of our natural bodies into a series of performances or enactments also
interacts with the materiality and material consequence of tattoo parlors. These per-
formances and enactments aid in the process of identity construction and are part of
the process of embodiment. Embodiment—the radically material condition of
humanity that necessarily entails both the body and consciousness, objectivity, and
subjectivity—works in conjunction with the notion of performativity to allow for
the formation of identity. As the tattooee reckons with the material consequentiality
of identification, the embodied and performed process of identification begins in
this space that supports such feats. This determinant of postmodern space also
contributes to the theme of agency.
Due to its welcoming environment and proximity, Freakshow! attracts a younger
clientele of college-age tattooees. Because of this, the most striking and noticeable
features of this studio are the people who patronize it on a daily basis. Nervous Asian
students gather around a single female friend who anxiously awaits the acquisition of
a small flower on her hip. Confident fraternity members line up for the immortaliz-
ing tribal arm band, destined to represent their eternal brotherhood. Sluggish
employees saunter back and forth around the studio, gripping cups of coffee as
the lifeblood that will sustain their late hours tattooing until two or three in the
morning. An unassuming young woman waits on the couches for an addition to
her modest collection. The bodies that encompass this space vary in age, gender, eth-
nic background, and personality to the extent that it seems the studio is Fort Collins’s
own unofficial ‘‘melting pot.’’
However, the common denominator among all of these stunningly different
bodies is that each person receiving a tattoo at Freakshow! is engaged in a perfor-
mance, both literally and rhetorically. Though this is not unlike many tattoo studios
across the country, Freakshow! is strategically located, structured, and even priced to
interact with the unique dynamics of teenagers and young adults, who are deeply
embedded in the process of identification as they progress through their formative
college years. As is common for young people of this age, tattooing becomes a social
activity, a rite of passage. Tattoos are used as a source of performative narrative,
inviting the recipient to literally embody his or her ‘‘story.’’
Through the narratives that tattooed people produce, we can see how meaning is
provided and enacted (DeMello, 2000). The performance of tattooing can indicate an
abundance of characteristics in an individual: spirituality, personal growth, com-
memoration, individualism, sacredness of the body, feminist motivations—the pos-
sibilities are innumerable. This increasingly close connection between the body and
self-identity is evidenced by the growing trend of relating to the body as a ‘‘project’’
(Giddens, 1991).
If the body is considered a project, then being tattooed is an act of symbolic
creativity, a performance of the self. For many, symbolic creativity is a critical tool
in forming identity. However, the literal presence of the actual tattoo itself is only
210 S. Modesti
one portion of this process of performance. Ultimately, the act of tattooing is the sig-
nificant experience—the significant performance.
This is why hordes of young people flock to Freakshow!. In an attempt to perform
their identity and to have this process completed in an environment designed for
large-scale voyeurism, Freakshow! offers its young clientele the chance to experience
agency through embodiment and performance. As described previously, the tattooing
area is a literal stage—capable of being viewed by those within and outside of the tat-
too studio. This staging provides an ironic, yet defined message about one of the pri-
mary goals of tattooing: that is, performing one’s identity. Though this parlor in
many ways could be considered a spectacle of postmodernity, its hyper-voyeuristic
nature further caters to the disjointed and eclectic trends of the postmodern con-
dition. For many, this bold statement of identity provides one rhetorical response
to the exigencies found in society. This performance embodies, literally, the agency
that many postmodernists seek.

Constructing identity is a difficult task in the postmodern condition. The perfor-
mances of identity we enact are designed to be authentic representations of who
we know ourselves to be. But, because our society is filled with a conglomeration
of images, symbols, and messages, it can be nearly impossible to develop a concrete
idea of what ‘‘authentic’’ really is. Because of this, people in the postmodern
condition relate to and depend on their surroundings in a way that is different from
other cultural periods.
Postmodernism rejects the notion of ultimate truth, and so people in the post-
modern condition are left to create their own truth from the temporal shifts of a
highly relative existence. This existence lends itself to the responsibility of considering
the rituals, habits, and practices of the everyday life. It is in examining these practices
that we begin to understand ourselves in the everyday and the everyday in ourselves.
For many, the practice of wearing tattoos has become one aspect of understanding
the self within the dynamics of the everyday postmodern existence. Even those who
are not tattooed encounter this phenomenon on a daily basis, thus creating an irre-
futable relationship with the tattoo culture for everyone in society. Because of this,
attraction to the tattoo culture is slowly becoming less synonymous with bewilder-
ment, less akin to ignorance, and more receptive to the prominent signification of
tattooing. Cultural shifts are taking place that allow tattooing to be recognized as a
meaningful and consequential presentation of the self.
In recognizing this consequentiality, tattoo parlors become essential conjectural
points from which to theorize about the rhetorical implications of how spaces con-
tribute to the process of performing identity in a postmodern culture. By illuminat-
ing the rhetorical themes of materiality, material consequence, embodiment, and
performance present within the spaces of tattoo parlors, the theme of agency emerges.
This helps to further define and describe the condition in which we live. These
themes form the very fabric from which our postmodern identities are sewn.
Western Journal of Communication 211

It is through the material objects of the tattoo parlor, the material consequence of
decision-making in a tattoo studio, and the performances of identity expressed
through obtaining a tattoo that embodied themes of control and choice surface to
enhance agency in a tattoo studio. Tattoo parlors offer patrons the chance to experi-
ence an atmosphere where identity can be discovered, understood, and performed in
one undertaking.
Material objects such as the tattoo gun reverse traditional roles of power and
control, providing the tattooee with a sense of empowerment necessary to experi-
ence the journey of identification. The materiality of excessively hygienic environ-
ments also provides allusion to the ability for a person to control his or her
Themes of choice work to complement these references as the visual rhetoric of
tattoo parlors insinuates that options are the prevailing dynamic of the tattoo experi-
ence. The literal spatiality of the tattoo studio thus resembles many of the defining
characteristics of postmodernism. Additionally, by engaging in the decision-making
process, the tattooee experiences the material consequentiality of rhetoric. These sen-
sations of control and choice allow the tattooee to experience a sense of agency.
Meanwhile, tattooees are immersed in performativity as they literally ‘‘do’’ their
identity—often in front of spectating crowds.
As tattooing studios situate themselves among many other everyday spaces of
postmodern culture, it will be helpful to continue considering how identity is directly
related to the spaces we inhabit and produce. These spaces that promote and encour-
age individual agency will become the most meaningful subjects of future rhetorical
analysis. Soon the histories of our nation’s people will be inscribed in much more
than books: the histories will be inscribed on the physical bodies of those who sought
to ‘‘do’’ their identity. Perhaps then, home is not particularly where the heart is, but
rather literally, where the body is.

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