Tag: Tattoos

Philadelphia and Material Culture by Ben Barsh

After having our discussion in class about material culture and Barbie’s role in it, I found myself thinking about not so much what Barbie represents (maybe due to my lack of personal connection), but material culture as a whole and how it applies to me personally. A couple of my classmates and myself discussed some of the things we collect when talking about this. I shared that I collect records. While this is true, I failed to fully recognize that I collect something more obvious and apparent.

After our class discussion I happened upon an interview with former tattooer/artist/musician Dan Higgs. In this interview Higgs states “For one of the least material possessions, it seems like tattooing is getting more materialistic.” I thought about my own role in this. I started getting tattooed at the very young age of 14. By 16 I had a handful, and before I graduated high school I was well into the double digits.

Tattoos, and “collecting” them, is something that’s non-material, but in a sense, completely material. You cant hold them, store them, or preserve them. On the contrary, they actually only guaranteed to get worse with time. They also cost money to apply, but have no value in money or actual use, unlike almost any other collection in the world.

Material culture is something that’s driven by self definition and what the things you collect do and say about you. In that sense, tattoos are completely material. They’re something born out of vanity, in its basic form. They mark an experience, or say something about you. Whether it be that you fit in here, don’t fit in there, believe in this, or alteration for the sake of alteration. Unless they are forcibly applied against will, tattoos are something that define those who wear it.

The first time I ever got referred to as a collector of tattoos was by my friend Ronnie Dell’aquilla. After getting tattooed as a young teen for the reasons tattoos would appeal to a young teen (I’m cool, I’m different, I’m tough, Girls will like it, etc…) I started pursuing tattooing with more specific definitions and boundaries. I primarily sought old timers, people who have been tattooing since before it became more mainstream. Especially those from the east coast.

Ronnie is a straight forward old Italian guy from Brooklyn, his words aren’t minced and offending people doesn’t bother him. While he was tattooing me, he took a break to talk to his wife in Pennsylvania. I remember clearly him saying “Yeah hon, I’ll leave Queens in about an hour, I’m tattooing this kid from Philly, nice kid, collector of tattoos” I was confused about what he meant at first. I thought I was just some guy getting a tattoo. I then realized, in a sense, I wasn’t. I was somebody pursuing something specific, pursuing multiple variants of it, and pursuing it with some intention of status. And that’s what drive’s material culture.

Attached image is Ronnie. He usually wears his sunglasses indoors.