Tattoo and taboo: On the meaning of tattoos in the analytic process



Tattooing projects a visual image in transference to form a backdrop for the most salient unconscious inner conflicts arising during an ongoing analytic process. Like a snapshot, the tattoo is a dialectic record of the mother-father relationship, of desires for closeness and distance, commonality and difference, identification and individuation. As Walter Benjamin famously stated about the nature of visual images in his Arcades Project, the tattoo represents “dialectics at a standstill.” What seems paramount to the patient who participates in the act of tattooing is the need for stasis and immutability, as if bringing unconscious conflicts to “standstill” were to deliver a sense of stability. Unconsciously, the need is triggered by a threat to the inner stability resulting from fear of violating a taboo escalating to the point that fears of abandonment and fusion become unbearable.

On the one hand, the tattoo is a visual symbolization of a taboo transgression; on the other hand, it activates the same through an act of self-injury that resembles the magical ritual acts of indigenous peoples’ use of tattoos. The taboo thus serves as an ersatz for the actual violation of the taboo in real life, so that the tattoo may be ascribed a magical significance or totemic function. And yet the tattoo’s success as a vehicle for constructing a transitional object is always contingent on the tangible manipulation of the skin conjoined with the creation of a symbolizing visual image. The image then acts like a “patch” to repair holes blown into Winnicott’s “potential space” and to reconstruct it.