Youth Gang Members and Tattoos: Stigma, Identity and Art
Young people everywhere are using tattoos as a sign of identity.
What specific meanings do youth gangs attach to the ones they choose?
The following reflection on the modern-day identity, stigma and art expressed in this ancient cultural expression
is based on the most common tattoos used in one gang-dominated section of Managua.
José Luis Rocha
Now more than ever, our appearance, our “look,” signals what kind of person we are. Young Nicaraguans labeled as “hippies” use their wardrobe as a form of activism. They proclaim their ideology through their everyday appearance, with each item of clothing stressing their options, turning their ensemble into an extension of their body. It is a phenotypic extension, a manifestation of memes, to use the expression coined by British scientist Richard Dawkins to refer to cultural genes.
Each group somatizes its idiosyncrasy and incarnates its visions. This can take various directions. Thus, while some social sectors go to the gym as part of an almost Hellenic cultivation of the body, the nouveau riche, such as the pro-Alemán Liberal elite, proudly display their growing and shameless prosperity through their bloated bodies.
Historian of private life Prost stresses that the body has become the place of personal identity. For Prost, being ashamed of one’s own body would be like being ashamed of oneself. The body is one’s reality more than personal identities, masks or borrowed personas, and certainly more than fragile or manipulated ideas or convictions.
Mexican sociologist Rossana Reguillo sees clothing, music and access to certain emblematic objects as some of today’s most important mediators between being and appearing through which young people construct their identity. Tattoos occupy a predominant place among that constellation of meaning in which the body displays what the person wants to be. Those indelible images etched onto the body have become much used and very effective producers of identity. The presence or absence of tattoos and their placement and motifs express people’s genuineness or falseness, their secretiveness or exhibitionism.
Slavery, sensuality, war and magicThe Latin word for tattoo is “stigma,” the definitions of which include “a mark made with a sharp instrument,” “a mark of recognition made in the skin of a slave or criminal” and “a mark of guilt.” Each era and culture has attributed a different meaning to tattoos. Roman tattoos used to be applied to slaves, while Egyptian tattoos were related to the erotic, emotional and sensual side of life. Inca tattoos, meanwhile, were characterized by thick, abstract designs resembling the kind currently categorized as “tribal.”
In many cultures, tattoos have most often depicted animals, due to their traditional association with magic, totems and people’s desire to identify with the animal’s spirit. In ancient times, warriors also used tattoos to impress and scare their enemies on the battlefield. Such was the case with the ancient populations of the British Isles, who prepared for war by tattooing their faces and bodies. Later, certain warriors would take their names from the tattoos displayed on their bodies. For a long time, warriors believed that tattoos could make their bearers invincible.
Tattoos have no magical association for the youth gang members in Managua’s poor subdivision known as Reparto Schick. Rather, they have a persuasive effect mediated by the meaning of the symbols involved or the mere fact of being displayed on the body. The tattoos produce their bearers’ identity. They can also be related to the erotic and sensual side of life, as well as its more tragic, dark and painful side. Like all symbols, their tattoos are also a mechanism that produces social relations, or, as was true for the Roman slaves, they can express existing social relations that prove negative for their bearers.
In former times, the tattooing process was much more elaborate than it is today. In many cultures, it was a ritual. In ancient Egypt, where the art of tattooing was almost exclusively reserved for women, it was a painful process mainly used to demonstrate courage or confirm maturity. These particular functions can still be seen both in Maori tribal rituals in New Zealand and in Reparto Schick.
Tattooing in Reparto SchickTattooing is very rudimentary in the neighborhoods that make up the Reparto Schick subdivision, a limitation that has not stopped many tattoos from attaining a notable level of artistic quality. The tattoo artists are exceptional drawers whose skills make up for the deficiency of their tools. The most famous of all is El Topo (the Mole), who was recently forced to retire due to hallucinations caused by smoking crack. Even players on the national baseball team have sought out his expertise and constantly expanding catalogue. He charged around five córdobas (approximately $0.30) for a two-inch heart run through with a dagger. A similar piece of work but of lesser quality would set you back around 60 ($4) córdobas in the Roberto Huembes market.
The most rudimentary tattooists use an upholstery needle with a point so fine it is almost invisible. Tattooists that are somewhat more professional use a machine driven by a small electric motor from a toy car, tape recorder or other small domestic appliance. Attached to the motor is a sewing needle, a fine wire (like those braided together in bicycle brake cables) or a guitar string (the G string being preferred as it is the thinnest). This apparatus, connected to a 12-volt transformer, moves the needle or wire rhythmically, making multiple perforations in the skin. As the incisions have to be miniscule to produce a good tattoo, the perforating device has to be sharpened to a very fine point. This point is continually dipped in Chinese ink or a mixture of alcohol and “candle ink,” made from the carbon residue of wicks.
The risk of contracting AIDS is very high. Most tattooists don’t charge enough to allow them to use a different needle with every client. And even if a client gets a new needle, many tattoos take several days to complete. You would have to ask for a new needle each session to be sure of avoiding contamination, a demand not all tattooists can or are willing to meet.
In a culture in which touching among men is severely censured, fights and tattooing are two of the few socially permissible forms of physical contact. Very few Nicaraguan women get tattoos and there are even fewer women tattoo artists.
A mark that activates the social radarTattoos are attributes that produce stigmas. This statement sounds obvious, uncontroversial, with strong consensus. The inference is clear: tattoos are drawings on the body, many people dislike drawings on the body because they suggest their bearers’ bad intentions, ergo people tend to view the bearers of tattoos with suspicion and/or to outright shun them.
In reality, the problem is not the attribute in itself. The stigma is only possible when the attribute is cross tabulated with the variable of a social category. A whole world of relations is involved in determining whether a tattoo is a stigma or just an adolescent whim. The tattoo of a youth gang member and that of a “Miami Boy” (a term used to refer to well-off young Nicaraguans who returned from their family’s self-elected exile in the United States following the FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat with a lot of new cultural baggage) trigger different categorizations. In the words of Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, it all depends on the audience’s decoding.
Tattoos are currently fashionable among different Nicaraguan social strata. Young members of the middle and upper classes also get tattooed, but in their environment tattoos acquire a different value. As a result, girls also can and do get tattooed. In comparison, it is very unusual to find girls with tattoos in the capital’s marginalized neighborhoods, where tattooing immediately identifies them as ruffians, drug addicts and promiscuous, infinitely more censurable attributes among women than among men.
The feature that most activates the social radar is the tattoo’s positioning on the body. Middle- and upper-class tattoos are done in hidden places (abdomen, buttocks, groin, chest) or at least in places that are covered in formal situations (arms and legs). In contrast, lower-class tattoos are very visible (on the hands, neck and face), and when they are on the legs, chest or back they are on permanent display, as their bearers tend to go around shirtless or in shorts. In the case of youth gang members, the position of the tattoo can also indicate their participation level: only the most daring tattoo their faces. The location of tattoos can thus help distinguish the mere hangers-on from those who pull out all stops and are in the front line during battles. This helps explain why face tattoos are more common among those who have been in prison.
Anthropologist Margo Demello argues that if the body is where gender, ethnicity and class are marked, then tattoos and their inscription process create a cultural body and maintain very specific social limits. They express the social position occupied by the body. The world of social relations and hierarchies is where the tattoo is institutionalized and elevated to the rank of identifier of a group, of social category, of prestige or bad reputation, which are always associated with a given behavior and other features.
Proclaiming the stigmaTattoos can tell of the bearer’s stigma because they transmit social information. As Goffman says, information, like the sign transmitting it, is reflexive and embodied. The segregating social construction acquires a somatic expression (tattoos, scars, an unkempt body, coarse facial features) or a cosmetic one (flashy clothing, cheap hair styles and dye jobs). Why is that? Does the use of tattoos indicate acceptance of the stigma by the stigmatized? Is it a way to fling an extreme version of society’s creation back in its face? Is it a projection of one’s condition to attract birds of a feather?
Is it an effect of the socially conditioned palate? It could be all of these things at the same time. Unlike physical stigma, both the stigmatized subject and society intervene right from the start in the construction of the purely social stigma, although it also contains physical expressions through somatization and adornment. The subject adopts a style and accompanies it with certain accoutrements that accentuate and proclaim the stigma, and society provides the niche of meaning for that stigma and applies the sanctions.
Showing off and self-denunciationThrough their tattoos, the stigmatized subjects adopt a feature and a way of displaying it within their class that society does not accept. In this way, those with tattoos appear to stigmatize themselves at the same time that society stigmatizes them. In fact, they know that society is assessing, classifying and judging them based on their corporal and cosmetic presentation. Through tattoos, youth gang members encourage, provoke and challenge social prejudice. As this introjected social rejection has no physical stigma, it finds a somatization that enables the subjects to denounce themselves.
Since tattoos are associated with a theoretical construction that rationalizes animosity based on other differences—such as social class—and explains both the inferiority and the lethal nature of their bearers, tattoos bring all the latent or underdeveloped social prejudices to a head. Tattoos thus control the perception of others. They are effective inductors of interpretation; hermeneutical manipulators.
The stigma is materialized in the tattoo and becomes as permanent as skin color. Without being congenital signs, tattoos are a permanent mark, exposing a stigma that could otherwise remain relatively hidden, or at least not be so physically visible. Tattoos, like a way of dressing, create a physical deformation that did not previously exist. They alert passers-by to their bearers. While common criminals want to operate stealthily and try not to give themselves away, tattooed youth gang members show off, exhibiting themselves to their potential victims. Totally unlike the calculating professional thief, youth gang members display spontaneity in the selection of their victims, irrationality in their courage, improvisation in their resources and features that denounce their purpose. The latter include tattoos, slang and even the way they walk.
The tattoo has a relegating, marginalizing property. Like all symbols, it sparks a dialogue and creates—or recreates—relations, reproducing and exacerbating marginalization. The previously existing stigma of marginalization is crystallized in the youth gang members’ distinctive signs and the gang members in turn become active promoters of their own stigma. Tattoos and ways of dressing, talking and walking are signs, warnings even, that they belong to the group of discredited people. These elements discredit the gang members and raise suspicions. They secure the perceptibility of their condition as stigmatized, rebellious people, divorced from the established order, and ensure that others define them in terms of their stigma.
Transforming the stigma into an emblem and prestigeMany of Managua’s gang names try to corroborate the marginal stigma with a scruffy and dangerous-sounding image: The Bloody Ones, Scumbags, The Possessed, Wet Dogs, The Nazis, Red Devils, Pumas, Hellions, Scorpions, The Uncombed and The Evil Ones. Some of the gang members’ nicknames strive for the same unkempt and dangerous reputation: Rattlesnake, Tiger Shit, Baldy, Seven Shits, Skull, Black Hand, Bat Crap, Big Phantom, Crow, Three Eyes. While these nicknames evoke marginalization and low self-esteem in others, they constitute a kind of password received from the group. They are a source of prestige and respect, a way of inverting the slander into a positive sign.
Like the nicknames, the tattoos convert stigma into emblem. They are an existential and social investment etched into the skin. Like Californian prisoners, Managua gang members use them as a subversive act to reassert ownership of and authority over their bodies and identities and challenge the system that is trying to control them. In short, tattoos are a way to control their definition of themselves and their experiences; an antidote to the chaos surrounding them.
Reguillo maintains that if one thing characterizes the youth collectives that are part of the exclusion and marginalization processes, it is their capacity to transform the negative views of them into something positive. Among the examples she cites is the extreme dramatization of certain identity constituents, such as body language, the transgressing use of discourse or the transformation of drug use into a test of “virility” and a challenge to “good consciences.” Another example is the prestige attained in some gangs by the length of one’s prison record.
Because of the fear they inspire and their intrinsic artistic value, nicknames and tattoos thus become signs of prestige, worn with pride like military decorations, executive ties and suits, expensive necklaces or gold teeth in certain social sectors. After all, youth gang members are trying to pump up the good name of their particular group, despite or precisely based on its negative connotation.
The power of nicknames: ”Don’t call me Danilo” When I repeatedly called a young gang member by his name, he corrected me: “Don’t call me Danilo, call me ChayanneChayanne. He had built up a reputation around that nickname and didn’t want his effort to go unrecognized. His criminal record is associated with the name Chayanne. He was so associated with the nickname that the police even picked him up for a crime committed by a different Chayanne from another neighborhood, without bothering to ask what the perpetrator looked like.
Nicknames and tattoos help dramatize a gang member’s persona, zooming in on the characteristics they seek to represent, revealing the persona they are interpreting. Reguillo terms this extreme recognition-seeking process the “dramatization of identity,” while Goffman calls it “personification.” As one gang member expressed it, “I was just a fatty before, but now I’m Fat Nacho, famous all over Reparto Schick. That name has enemies and cops quaking in their boots, gets the girls interested and earns respect among the brothers.”
As these signs exacerbate what they are, they lead to a fundamentalism of symbols, because of the emotional weight invested in them and the exercise of self-identity as opposed to identity imposed by others. This explains why gang members have a particular hatred for people from other groups who use the same nickname.
While the use of these pseudonyms by gang members is aimed at enhancing and highlighting the stigma rather than wiping the slate clean, the new identity registered in the nickname doesn’t always produce social acceptance or avoid personal identification. The members of their community aren’t even the only ones who use it. Nicknames are so commonly used that they are the simplest clue for the police to identify or locate a gang member, like leaving a calling card.
Nor can adopting a nickname be seen as a rite of passage, because it involves no radical break with the gang member’s past life style. The gang members from Reparto Schick have nicknames from a very young age and their subsequent exploits help build it up. In other words, their gang nickname doesn’t coincide with transfiguration into a gang member, as happened in the Brazilian film City of God, when Dadito was renamed Ze Pequeño on moving up the criminal scale, taking over the drug-pushing market and becoming the neighborhood gang’s indisputable leader.
Dragons, monks, crowns of thornsTattoos express meaning in the life of Reparto Schick gang members the same way they do among Californian inmates. They exercise the symbolic function of language, which for French semiologist Roland Barthes not only allows people to construct ideas, images and works but also to exceed the strictly rational uses of language. Tattoos are the result of their bearers’ production of meaning.
and barbed-wire bracelets
Although some are done on a whim, many refer to milestones in the life of the gang members: splitting up with a girlfriend, murders committed, the death of a friend, the grief they caused their mother, membership in the gang, etc. The gang members thus carry their history inscribed on their skin, making their body an autobiography.
But that same body can also demonstrate their contradictions, as it can display virgins and devils, angels and demons, tears and clowns, love and rejection, the latter expressed by hearts run through with daggers or thorns. A tattoo can combine suffering and beauty.
That’s why tattoo artists play such an important role. They have to be interpreters, because in that domestication of the body at the hands of culture, the tattoo is a mediator between the external and internal worlds. For Rossana Reguillo, the tattoo—achieved through dialogue between artist and subject—externalizes certain relations that already exist within the subject. She thus recognizes the tattooist as “an artist involved in an ongoing search: a hunter of ideas projected on the skin’s chiaroscuro labyrinths, a traveler of the dreams that emerge through the pores to be engraved on the skin.” Reguillo speaks of “death, Christ and the devil contrasted with affection objectivized through the image of tears, hearts and women’s faces, [telling] of a world of fears and aspirations, of hope and pain.”
The members of the Reparto Schick gangs display a preference for tribal signs or tattoos. Hermógenes Pinzón, a member of the Prairie gang, describes tribal tattoos as a sign that “you feel possessed by drugs, that you’re inside the drug.” That may not have been their original meaning, but drugs have become omnipresent not only in daily life but also in all explanations. Categorizing a tattoo as tribal appears to be enough to make a gang member want to display it.
Some tattoos resemble dragons or Gothic figures, like the almost omnipresent gargoyles or frequently used satanic monks. Wilson Arce told us that his monk tattoo, with a dagger through his body and flames within, has its face hidden in memory of the black costume he used to cover his face. The flames and dagger symbolize the hell that threatens the gang members. Sometimes the monk appears reading a book among flames. “That’s for the plans we made to attack our enemies’ neighborhoods,” explained Arce, “but the book can also be about evil things.” And he added, “We like to have tattoos of monks because, like us, they live in darkness, don’t sleep, dress in black and use hoods that cover their faces. Just like us.”
Many of these figures are used as stencils for the graffiti reproduced on walls, because the gang members can insert their names, those of their neighborhood or girlfriends and friends into the design, in a kind of coded language that only the initiated can interpret. The more cryptic the message, the greater its creator’s pride.
Claiming you had your tattoo done when drunk or high on coke or grass is one of the lamest excuses. It was even used by Eminen, the internationally and lucratively controversial US rapper from a marginalized neighborhood when asked about his first tattoos. He admitted it was a tribal tattoo, but said he didn’t remember what it meant because he was so drunk at the time.
The crown of thorns in its different guises symbolizes being tied, subjected to a lifestyle that implies pain and suffering. Some gang members point out that it has nothing to do with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ. Although probably none of them knows that Christianity prohibited tattoos, so common during the Roman Empire, they are all aware that the current Christian denominations frown on them. And although tattoos with pious motifs are not uncommon, those of a satanic nature, as their bearers proudly define them, are in greater proliferation.
Bracelets are the most commonly used symbol. If tattoos in general act as an identifying mark, distinguishing their bearer from those who don’t have them, they also operate on different levels of identity: individual, a specific neighborhood gang or a marginalized generational group, for example. While specific tribal tattoos identify their bearers with a gang, the bracelets, sometimes flecked with wire barbs, appear to be generational and social symbols. The fact that they are the most common form of tattoo turns them into insignias of a particular age group and lifestyle of poor neighborhoods, making the step from the construction of a group identity to that of generational identity within this marginalized population. All those with such bracelets agree that they represent the rebelliousness for which they have opted.
The satanic clown: A key tattooMost youth gang members have a tattoo of a clown “who is laughing at the others, at the enemies.” It’s no ordinary clown; its smile has to be diabolic and sometimes its hair has infernal flames sprouting from it. It often appears smoking a joint, thus mocking drugs and shamelessly flaunting the pleasure derived from their consumption. This tattoo is a very convenient way to heighten its bearer’s diabolic stature, which in gang imagery is associated with “being conspicuous and inspiring respect.” The tattoos must inspire respect within a violent world, the equivalent of a permanently intimidating look, a fossilized frown that inspires fear. This is a key element. According to Wilson Arce, the difference between a youth gang member and an individual societal dropout is that the former “dresses well, dresses cholo-style, sometimes in black; his face is serious, like a monster, and he generates fear.”
The clown’s laugh is its most essential feature. Is it mocking, hysterical or flirtatious? It can symbolize the mocking of one’s enemies, like the tattoo of a winged dragon, which, according to Norwin Peña, “means that I’m laughing because I get away with it and don’t get punished.” Then again, the laughter could be inspired by marijuana, a drug also associated with sexual excitement. In the social vision of medieval times, drugs, eroticism and diabolism were strongly linked with witchcraft and the Inquisition. The clown combines all three elements.
Laughter and tears; life and death
The clown image is the opposite of the equally customary tear motif. Tattooed tears tend to be located on visible parts of the body, generally the face, while the clown is located on areas often hidden by clothing, although also used in graffiti on walls and other public spaces. And it is always drawn large, whether on the body or on a wall at home—to a certain extent representing the materialization of the family body.
Tears, in contrast, are never drawn on objects and never exceed their natural size when tattooed on the face. They refer to human reality and their representation is restricted by immediate experience and its rules, by the demands of the sense of reality. These tears represent what Reguillo defines as the worldly dimension, elements surrounding the actors’ relatively established everyday life. The clown, on the other hand, evokes the fantastical, aspirations, the flight of the imagination—given even greater impetus by drugs—and that exceptional state of the fiesta. Both the laughter he displays and that which he is destined to cause is provocative, defying the community of the strict, the orthodox, those subject to the most rigid rules.
The recalcitrant monk in Humberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose considered laughter illicit, and rejected the dragons, tigers and other fantastic animals that adorned medieval religious architecture and now reappear as tattoo-inspiring images. He saw laughter as a sign of folly. It shakes the body, deforms the features of the face, makes a man look like a monkey. People who laugh neither believe in nor hate what they are laughing about. Truth and good do not move one to laughter, which is why Christ didn’t laugh. Laughter encourages doubt. In short, the venerable monk thought that laughter ends up dragging us into a festival of fools, and fools, like youth gang members, tend to challenge the established order.
Vladimir Propp studied the meaning—or meanings—of laughter in the popular tradition of folk tales from Russia, Europe and other cultures. In his analysis of the tale of Princess Nemesyana—which literally means “who doesn’t laugh” in Russian—he analyzes the uses and disuses of laughter, its role and the meaning of its prohibition. According to Propp, living people who enter the kingdom of the dead must hide the fact that they are alive to avoid provoking the wrath of that kingdom’s inhabitants, like heathen beings who have crossed the threshold of the prohibited. Laughing reveals that they are alive.
Propp found that ritually prohibited laughter was not limited to stories, but was present in ritual life, particularly in those rites representing the descent into and return from the region of death, such as rites of initiation for young people when they reach sexual maturity. Laughter not only accompanies the entry into life, it also provokes it. Prohibited in the region of death, laughter accompanies the passage from death to life.
Among youth gangs, the laughing clown reflects a desire to take that step from death to life, to transform tears into laughter. Anthropologist Desmond Morris maintains that smiles and laughter are unique and quite specialized signals, whereas we share crying with thousands of species. Crying is more spontaneous and is manifested earlier, from the moment of birth. Smiling comes approximately five weeks later and laughter does not appear until the third or fourth month. Both laughter and crying are emotional reactions, muscular contractions accompanied by the opening of the mouth, exaggerated breathing and, sometimes, both even bring tears. Although we refer to laughing so much that we cry, the evolutional timetable suggests that we cry so much that we end up laughing. The laughing clown evokes this evolution and thus represents an ideal for the gang member who tattoos it on his body.
A text open to multiple meaningsTattoos are not just a text open to multiple interpretations; they also segregate various meanings at the same time. Their text, a hyperlink that leads to many different routes of meaning, rejects the theorem of the excluded third possibility growing out of a cognitive manicheism. Through tattoos, gang members put many things together in a new intuitive relation to produce their own world of things, in the words of British anthropologist Dennis Rodgers, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin. Tattoos introduce us to a dimension with no place for the rigor of the univocal thanks to the imposition of whims and the creativity of polysemy. According to Roland Barthes, symbols have rights and go beyond the few residual freedoms that words grant them. The following statement by one gang member demonstrates this: “We’re ruled by death.” These words demonstrate their willingness to assume risks, the possibility of a sudden death, the willingness to kill someone at any time or even their disdain for death.
Tattooed tears, one of the most ambiguous symbols, whether in Reparto Schick, El Salvador or the state penitentiary in Folsom, California, have many meanings: having served time, friends who were killed by rival gangs, people that the bearer of the tattoo bearer killed. Language is not susceptible to a univocal translation and only literary positivism banks on express and conscious relations. In fact, all symbols bear significance and multiple meanings. Because of both this and the ambiguity characterizing symbols, the clown’s laughter can have many and even conflicting meanings.
Reguillo sustains that while the palimpsest has been key to interpreting the appropriation and resistance processes of grassroots cultures, the hypertext provides the best way to approach and understand the processes involved in the symbolic and social configuration of today’s youth cultures. More than a rewriting (as implied by the palimpsest), the hypertext assumes infinite combinations and constant “links” that permanently reintroduce a change of meaning in both the import of its direction and its significance.
Globalized tattoos and localized meaningTattoos have been globalized. They are the same in Berne, in Guadalajara and in Reparto Schick. Their universal nature can be seen by visiting the websites of tattoo virtuosos. Dozens of Nicaraguan and Californian gang members share three dots placed like the vertices of a triangle. In Managua, those three points identify the youth gangs of the south of the city, in opposition to those of the north.
The miniscule cross that many Reparto Schick gang members have tattooed between their thumb and index finger is very popular among gang members in California, where it is known as the “pachuco cross.” Pachucos proliferated following the Second World War. According to Octavio Paz, they were bands of young people, generally of Mexican origin, in the cities of the American South, distinguished by their clothing, behavior and language. They were instinctive rebels against whom US racism has been vented on numerous occasions.
Sometimes tattoos reproduce transnational commercial symbols, such as the Nike logo. And although they tend to have a universal meaning, they are re-christened in each neighborhood with a local meaning. They are a hybrid of what former UCA rector Xabier Gorostiaga called the “glocal,” the fusion of a global aspiration and local grounding. Very few tattoos are original and exclusive to an individual or group. The most popular ones appear to be chosen from a very limited range, although variants can be produced to transmit their bearer’s specificity or the tattoo artist’s specific seal. That is why the tattooist must be a scholar in his or her field, a kind of priest of a tradition transmitted from body to body.
History permanently marked on the skin
Whether these symbols fulfill the function assigned by their bearers is open to speculation. In Erving Goffman’s view, as demands for prestige they can be designated points, but when they discredit those tacit demands, they can be called errors.
In that they are signs of inclusion in a determined group and of exclusion from the wider social world, tattoos have an ambiguous quality. Gang members feel tied to and committed to their identity, which opens doors to certain environments and closes them to others. Tattoos thus earn them respect in jail and from other members of the gang, but make them a favorite target of the police and reduce their chances of finding work. By sharing the same stigma, all those with tattoos await a similar “moral career.”
Tattoos very effectively broadcast the stigma, so that youth gang members—even retired ones—are the first to be picked up and their houses the first to be searched. They are viewed with suspicion and fear in the streets. All of this reinforces and prolongs the validity of the stigma. Much like the prisoners that US anthropologist Susan Phillips studied, gang members can come to feel their bodies have condemned them. They are imprisoned in a cultural jail whose very bars they helped forge, because of the limited categories of persona—or social identity—available to them. Having tattoos narrowed those categories down to just one, albeit with various synonyms: ruffian, gang member, criminal, antisocial. And this operates both externally and internally, because tattoos shape not only the body by also the psyche.
The bearers of tattoos initially want the stage in which they were tattooed to have its own value. But because they are indelible, the tattoos become an unsheddable burden. While adults conceptualize youth as a transition stage whose value is determined by what will be or will cease to be, these youngsters leave irremovable memories etched on their bodies, through which their youth will accompany them forever. Even if the bearers of tattoos are stripped of everything else or if they themselves shed all other signs of a past that may have stopped being attractive to them, they are condemned to wearing their history and its identity on their skin. As a result, a struggle can develop between their internal identity and their physical appearance.
Also a political protest and a desire for significanceThe attitude toward tattoos changes markedly according to the interlocutor, provoking glaring contradictions. Reparto Schick’s Nelson Carballo, a.k.a. “the Locust,” says of all his tattoos, “I did that when I was crazy, when I was high. I wouldn’t do that straight and healthy; I’d more likely want to erase them.” But while explaining this to me, he was dressed in an open vest that displayed them all. In fact, many gang members continue adding more tattoos, even when they have stopped being aggressively active in the gang, fully conscious that they are helping perpetuate their stigma, the segregation to which they are subjected, and attracting police suspicion.
What, then, are the other functions of tattoos that remain attractive? Most continue to get tattooed because they view tattoos as an artistic manifestation and, perhaps, an unusual form of political protest. This fits in with Reguillo’s findings, that anarchy, urban graffiti, tribal rhythms, cultural consumption, the search for alternatives and itinerant commitments should all be read as non-institutionalized forms of political action rather than the more or less offensive practices of a load of maladjusted kids.
Half a century ago, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm spoke of violence as a compensatory substitute for productive activity in an impotent person. He said that human beings feel impelled to leave their mark on the world, to transform it within certain limits. This human need, according to Fromm, is expressed in primitive cave paintings, in all the more contemporary arts, in work and in sexuality. People’s capacity to use their faculties in this way is “potency,” but if for reasons of weakness, anxiety or incompetence, the individuals are impotent, cannot “act,” then they suffer. If such individuals have a gun, a knife or a strong arm, they can transcend life by destroying it in others or in themselves. They thus avenge life for denying itself to them. Individuals who cannot create compensate by destroying and in so doing transcend their role as mere creatures.
Sport and work; why not art? Through rap, tattoos and graffiti, gang members are sending messages that they want to be heard and interpreted. They are manifestations of unsatisfied artistic anxieties and a desire for transcendence. When there are no conditions in which to create, these anxieties are easily manifested—or compensated for—through violence, destruction. Within the avalanche of programs aimed at “comprehensive youth development,” sports and jobs are seen as the panaceas against all youth violence. But this ignores the fact that most youth gang members practice sports and many are employed. What these policies and programs do not offer are concrete opportunities for artistic expression or interpretation of the artistic and political manifestations contained in tattoos.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.