A tattooed history of philosophy

Back in the mists of the sixth century BC, a shepherd boy called Epimenides wandered into a sacred cave, and fell asleep for fifty seven years. When he awoke, he not only had magical powers – he was also completely covered in tattoos. Epimenides is thus the first in a long and strange history of philosophical tattoos.

I thought about this when I read that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain recently got a tattoo of a Montaigne quote on his arm. I was also stupid enough to get a Stoic tattoo done – not as a sort of maxim, but as a way to ensure I finished writing Philosophy for Life. Sort of a bodily ‘to-do’ note. So I got to wondering what other philosophical tattoos are out there. Come with me now, on a journey into time, space, ink, flesh and morning-after regrets…

So we have to start with Heraclitus, known as ‘the obscure philosopher’. Obscure he may be, but he still managed to get his words tattooed onto the body of Dani, a transgender young philosopher from the South of the US. Hooray for Dani! Also this lady has Heraclitus on her stomach.

No one apparently has Pythagoras or any of the other Ionians tattooed on them, which I feel is an oversight. Then we come to Socrates, who is a big hit in the ink world. Lots of people have ‘know thyself’ tattooed on them – is this a note to self, or an order to others? ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ is also a hit, as in this arm tattoo:


But my favourite Socrates tattoo is this guy. He’ll give you a Socratic dialogue alright – the old one two!


There aren’t many Plato tattoos out there, sadly, but there is this. Not sure what to make of it. Yes, the allegory of the cave…And what of it? I think this may be some kind of exam cheat-note.


Aristotle’s learned treatises on metaphysics and rhetoric have yet to make it into flesh, but at least bits of the Nicomachean Ethics have:


The Stoics and the Epicureans were big rivals from the 3rd century BC on, but in the ink wars, the Stoics are winning hands down. Lots of Stoic tattoos out there, mainly showing the Logos symbol of ‘sacred fire’, but no tattoos of Epicurus or Lucretius. Come on Epicureans, put your body where your mouth is!

Actually, at least someone got this tattoo from Horace. Misquoted though. And misspelled. Oh well.

The end of the classical era is marked by this well-done tattoo of Marcus Aurelius. I can’t work out which body-part this is…is it his cranium? Perhaps we better not inquire.


After that, we enter the Dark Ages: not a single tattoo of Augustine, Boethius, Jerome, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham…not even Aquinas! WTF?? Then a few people have got Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum tattooed on them (But how can they prove they haven’t dreamt getting the tattoo, eh?)

Not many Renaissance philosopher tattoos out there. I googled ‘Francis Bacon tattoo’, but all I found was a lot of tattoos of bacon. Again, why??


Then things go quiet through the Enlightenment. Not a big hit in the ink community. No Kant, no Adam Smith, no David Hume, Diderot or Condorcet. Some people have quotes from Voltaire’s Candide on them, but nothing very interesting. Does the lack of Enlightenment tattoos symbolize the divorce from the body in 18th century philosophy? Maybe they were just less good at quotations. At least Rousseau makes an appearance:

Things start getting really weird in the 19th century. You’d expect Thoreau to be a big hit with libertarian tattoo-types. Sure enough:


Emerson was good at philosophical catchphrases, so you’d think his words would make it onto some bodies – and they do. More surprising is that his hairy mug would also make it onto someone’s arm:


Naturally, there are loads of tattoos of Karl Marx out there. But big props to this person for getting a tattoo of Proudhon – the perfect party ice-breaker!


Again, you’d expect Nietzsche to be popular with tattoo-types, and sure enough, his glum face graces many a rocker’s bod. Eg:

Then in the modern age, only a few philosophers make it into flesh. No Russell, no AJ Ayer, no Alfred North Whitehead, though I think this is somehow a tribute to Wittgenstein:


Then a few existentialists make an appearance – Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus. One bloke got a melancholy quote from Walter Benjamin permanently etched into his skin, as you do:

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You’d think postmodernist critical theory appeals to the sort of edgy bohos who get tattoos, and sure enough there are a few critical skin theory tatts out there, like this one from Derrida:

Alas there’s very little in the way of tattoos of contemporary philosophers out there – no Zizek, no Judith Butler, no Peter Singer, not even Alain de Botton. Only Chomsky makes an appearance, looking like a kindly gnome.

This may be because contemporary philosophers have stopped meaning so much to people – many look instead to scientists as moral authorities, like this atheist who got Richard Dawkins’ signature tattooed onto his arm, that way he never has to queue up for it at TAM:

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That’s the end of our philosophy tattoo tour. Send me in any other philosophy tattoos you find, or perhaps ones you have on your own body. The most obscure philosophy tattoo will win a prize. And remember – if you want to remind yourself or other people of a philosophical principle, the best way to do it is to get it written in massive letters across your back. For ever.

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