[Since I already dealt with Lily Cole’s tattoo in a post on the Student Council Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena (=World Student Council) you could perhaps accept this as a long footnote to that section of the post, and thus relate it to anime somehow. If you don’t accept the excuse, then this won’t really have anything to do with anything. Call it a random thoughts post triggered by the coupling of simultaneous experiences: reading Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and consuming large doses of combative shojo media. By the way, some of the images might be considered NSFW in an overly prudish environment.]
I think a fashion model is faced with clashing demands. On the one hand, she (or he; please assume from now on I refer to all genders with each pronoun) is supposed to keep her eyes fixed on an ideal of invisibility: the model models clothes, the clothes are what must be displayed, the model must efface herself. The less she has and the less she is, the better (because more pliable) a model she will make. On the other hand, if the model is to rise through the ranks she has to sell clothes and not just model them: she must become a salesperson, build up an image, even if only to feed it into the product’s own image and increase revenue. In short, the model must endeavor to be visible.
This clash between demands for visibility and invisibility is evident elsewhere. Traditionally, a good translation has been held to be one that doesn’t read like a translation. Therefore the goal of the translator is to render herself invisible. And yet as more and more translators enter the field, there is a need to establish one’s own style in order to succeed. I don’t think translation has caught up with modeling in this development (invisibility is still prized far above visibility), but it’s headed in the same direction.
Joan of Arc is also another example (perhaps THE example). Her mission required visibility and depended on it for success. At the same time, she was expected to efface herself before the French King and become invisible at key moments. Her failure to do so led to a lack of support from the monarchy, and when she was captured she was all alone. And note the English judged it necessary to impose the ultimate invisibility (death) by way of highest visibility (burning at the stake).
Fashion agencies don’t want models tattooing themselves because it’s a lose-lose situation. Invisibility is impaired. And while visibility is increased, people’s notion of tattooing in most places around the world is still rather negative and this affects the model’s image. Freja Beha Erichsen, for example was allowed to get as many tattoos as she wanted as long as she didn’t cut her hair. That was the deal (which she broke once she had the leverage of fame).
The question is, why would a model get tattoos? A ready answer is: to promote their individuality. Clothes change after clothes change, hairstyle upon hairstyle, the tattoos stay the same in the same fixed pattern on the body. A signature. Of course, the tattoos can and are often covered over, but gradually as the model’s image establishes itself, clients will be more and more willing to allow these signs of individuality to show, and may even end up creating specific pictorial arrangements to highlight the tattoos! The markings will have been appropriated. At this point, then, the tattoo becomes just another commodity in display and the self-asserting and/or rebellious model might seek new tattoos, starting the process all over again…and now Freja has somewhere between 13 and 16 [Tattoologist has pics and discussion of all of these models BTW]
But this answer is not at all satisfying. For one thing, many of the tattoos models get are more or less generic: circle, star, cross, lightning bolt and revolver (Freja), heart, owl and peace sign (Abbey Lee Kershaw), heart (Lily Cole). The text tattoos go from the common to the less common, but they are quotes picked elsewhere and not individually conceived: Serendipity is Life, Redemption and This World Tonight is Mine (Freja), Ut Apes Geometriam (Lily). These markings tell us that Freja is a PJ Harvey fan and that Lily likely likes Les Misérables, but is this all there is to it?
Abbey Lee, who has many more piercings than tattoos, said in an interview: “Let’s just say, if I weren’t a model, I’d be a walking collage. I see my body as a blank canvas that’s aching to be decorated; I find it all very fascinating.” This doesn’t sound like someone trying desperately to assert their identity in a whirlwind of dress changing. As Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s Soji Mikage recommends, let’s go deeper. Or in this case, let’s look to the surface.
Freja’s lightning bolt may be the same in every shot and yet I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it looks the same in every shot:
Come to think of it, an expectation of (visual) identity between all of these lightning bolts is ridiculous. You have color photos and black and white, sharper images and softer images, not to mention different angles throughout. This bolt changes, and if it changes then it doesn’t make sense to talk of it as a constant anchor across the various images. But if the tattoo isn’t working as an anchor, then it can’t really pin down and point us toward an individuality behind it. If Freja’s lightning bolt changes in every shot, then it’s not doing a good job of portraying a stable, unique Freja. To argue that it does somehow is tantamount to arguing that all clothes that Freja models express her individuality, and I guess it’d be a nice argument but it would render moot the usefulness of the tattoos to assert individuality and identity.
So you have all of these fabrics, angles, colors (and tattoos, piercings) flowing through the model’s body. They change all the time, even within the same editorial. Each shot is unique. Asking about origins, we can guess the fabrics could have been picked by the designers, the poses by the photographers, the colors and shades by a mixture of both, and the markings by the model herself. I think our answer lies in activity. Yes, the lightning bolts down Freja’s side anew in every shot, but every time it is Freja that hurled it. Yes, Abbey Lee’s body is a blank canvas, and at any single moment there might be a dozen of painters at work on it, but through the tattoos and piercings she becomes one of the painters herself.
The identity demon rears its head again, full of hope: “So the point is that Freja and Abbey caused their tattoos to be made, and this points to their creative ability, and asserts their individuality!”
No, that’s not the point. Strictly speaking, there is no point, no singularity, no reduction to a One of any sort. There are all of these flows running about, and whether Abbey wants to see them as totally alien to her or as completely her own (or 50/50 or whatever) is up to her. However, these markings are ideal places with which to connect to those flows. Freja is ready every time to throw that heavenly bolt down, and this doesn’t mean her earthly dress is not hers, just as it doesn’t mean the bolt itself is specially hers for some reason. But she can experience the event more fully beginning with the bolt and striking at that designer’s dress (precisely because she is closely linked with it, because she recreates it every time), whatever the dress might be on that particular day.
Freja also has a tattoo on her neck that reads “Float”. At first glance this might seem like an ironic gesture: Freja is an extremely sought after model these days and literally everything is hovering around her face (clothes, colors, hair) except for that “Float” tattoo which is in theory well-grounded, even stuck. Just as with the lightning bolt, though, the Float floats. And Freja floats on that Float down and about her entire body. It must be a hell of a storm.