Monday, September 8, 2014

Theodore Dalrymple on Tattoos and Criminality

City Journal

The cause of criminality among the white population of England is perfectly obvious to any reasonably observant person, though criminologists have yet to notice it. This cause is the tattooing of the skin.
A slow-acting virus, like that of scrapie in sheep, is introduced into the human body via the tattooing needle and makes its way to the brain, where within a few years it causes the afflicted to steal cars, burgle houses, and assault people.
I first formulated my viral theory of criminality when I noticed that at least nine out of ten white English prisoners are tattooed, more than three or four times the proportion in the general population. The statistical association of crime with tattooing is stronger, I feel certain, than between crime and any other single factor, with the possible exception of smoking. Virtually all English criminals are smokers, a fact that sociologists have also unaccountably overlooked.
A surprisingly large number of auto-tattooists choose for the exercise of their dermatographical art the chief motto of British service industries, namely FUCK OFF. Why anyone should want these words indelibly imprinted in his skin is a mystery whose meaning I have not yet penetrated, though my researches continue, but I recall a patient who had the two words tattooed in mirror writing upon his forehead, no doubt that he might read them in the bathroom mirror every morning and be reminded of the vanity of earthly concerns.
Often a tattoo acts as a membership badge. For example, a little blue spot on one cheekbone indicates that the bearer has been to Borstal, a correctional institution for wayward youth named after a village in Kent, the garden of England, site of the first such institution. The blue badge of rebellion is worn in the manner of the old school tie, that Old Borstalians may recognize one another—and be recognized. For in the circles in which they move, the meaning of the blue spot is well known and understood: Noli me tangere.
But like those peculiar moths and butterflies about which naturalists delight to tell us, which imitate the colorful plumage of poisonous species without being poisonous themselves, that potential predators on lepidoptera might leave them alone, so do certain young people tattoo themselves with the blue spot without ever having been to Borstal. They wear the spot both as protection and as a means of gaining the admiration of their peers; but, to change the metaphor slightly, the coinage is soon debased, and what was once a sign of considerable value is now almost emptied of it.
And thus the study of a seemingly minor social phenomenon such as tattooing affords us a little glimpse into the Hobbesian moral world inhabited by a section of the population with whom we normally have little contact: they actually want to be considered psychopathic. Not their eyes but their tattoos are the windows of their souls.
Another popular pattern—though it makes one shudder to think of the process by which it is inscribed upon the skin, or the consequences if a mistake is made—is the spider's web on the side of the neck. Occasionally, this is spread over the whole of the face, even over the scalp. At first I assumed this design must have a symbolic meaning, but having inquired of many bearers of it, and having been assured by them that there is no such meaning, I am now satisfied that it is its intrinsic beauty, and a certain vaguely sinister connotation attached to spiders' webs, that attracts people to the design and induces them to adorn themselves with it. Moreover, I vividly recall the scene at a murder trial in which I testified. The judge and counsel were embroiled in a learned discussion of the finer points of mens rea, watched by the prisoner in the dock and his family in the public gallery—all of whom, down to the nth generation, had spiders' webs prominently tattooed on their necks. Never was the class basis (as the Marxists used to call it) of British justice more clearly visible: two classes separated by, among other things, a propensity on the part of one of them to self-disfigurement.
A considerable number of the auto-tattooed inject themselves with swastikas. At first I thought this was profoundly nasty, a reflection of their political beliefs, but in my alarm I had not taken into consideration the fathomless historical ignorance of those who do such things to themselves. People who believe (as one of my recent patients did) that the Second World War started in 1918 and ended in 1960—a better approximation to the true dates than some I have heard—are unlikely to know what exactly the Nazis and their emblem stood for, beyond the everyday brutality with which they are familiar, and which they admire and aspire to.
When asked why they inflict these marks of Cain upon themselves, the tattooed cite pressure from their peers and boredom. Perhaps the pain of it reassures them they are alive: it hurts, therefore I am.
"I was bored," said one man whose hands were covered in scores of such tattoos, and who claimed that they had kept him unemployed for many years. "It was either tattooing myself, or going out robbing."
No other possibility presented itself to his ill-furnished mind; but in any case, the distraction caused by the tattooing soon wore off, and he went out robbing just the same.

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