Down With the Sickness
Hello again Los Angeles, it is Astor, reporting live from Speakeasy Tattoo where today we are going to get a little serious. So, for the past 20+ months or so we have… let’s be charitable and say, going through it. The vibes have been rancid. The energy… somewhat off, and as we round on the approaching second year anniversary of the pandemic, we are going to take some time and reflect on how the art of tattooing has evolved with the shifts brought on by the increase in death, illness, and near universal isolation. Before we continue, I wanted to give a quick shout out to the Order of the Good Death, who recently published their own piece on tattoos and the grieving process, which helped serve as the inspiration for this week’s topic.
Epidemics have always influenced art. That influence may be subtle or hard to detect at first, but it always happens. As communities grapple with the invisible threat of illness, so too do the artists within those communities. Historically, art has been used to transform the amorphous and unseen terror of illness into the visual, and in so doing, help make it conceptually manageable. The most well-known example of this is, of course, the art made during and directly following the Ur Plague, the Black Death, which ravaged its way across Asia and Europe capping off at a staggering 25 million dead by the 14th century. During this time visual depictions of plague in Europe were usually framed through a strictly Christian lens, with the plague being symbolically linked to divine punishment that, not unlike the Biblical flood, was ultimately for the betterment of humanity. Those figures represented in art, suffering from the plague, were meant not to be pitied, but despised as they wore the marks of God’s displeasure on their skin. The tell-tale bubo which gave the plague its name, reminiscent of the Biblical mark of Cain, signified the supposed transgressions of the infirmed against the Almighty. Figures were not distinguishable as individuals, but more like icons—non-specific representations of the hypothetical dead and damned.
This attitude in European art toward the sick changed as outbreaks of plague continued into the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time, there began an overall change in the Church’s relationship to public health and civic management, resulting in the creation of the first church-run hospitals and healthcare facilities, with greater pressure put on clergy members to interact directly with the populace. Artists too followed suit, as they were largely employed by the Church and its affiliates during this period, visually linking the suffering of the sick to the suffering endured by Christ. There was, as always, a practical side to this shift in the visual framework of illness as well. Plague art historian Dr. Sheila Barker argues that this new depiction was meant to persuade the fearful and repulsed friars who would now be tasked in caring for the sick and dying to see the infirmed as martyrs, and thereby to see themselves, men of God who eased the torment of the afflicted, as Christlike. ‘Did not Jesus heal the lepers?’, the art would silently ask. Plague art of this period, while somewhat rare, would often focus not upon contemporary plague outbreaks, but historical or legendary ones. This gave artists the necessary distance to urge mercy for the sick, without directly chastising any clergy who might be squeamish about tending to the stricken. Several artists used the Plague of Ashdod, which appears in the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, as their symbolic reference for these purposes. The most influential of these was painted by Nicholas Poussin, from which, a number of other artists derived their own works (See, for example, the woman and child pair in Gaetano Zumbo’s striking waxwork). Poussin’s painting of circa 1630 was completed during the 1629-1631 outbreak of the plague in Italy, and while it refers to the contemporary belief that covering one’s nose protected one from the ‘miasma’ emanating from the dead, it avoids any physical marks of disease upon their corpses. An old woman in the middle ground greys with decay, but gone are the marks of Cain, replaced by the limp, lifeless bodies of a young woman and an infant, glowing white as with holy light. Around them are grieving mourners, similar in composition to paintings of The Lamentation.
All this of course leads us to ask the question: how have the arts help shape our communal relationship to the current plague that has, as of this writing, claimed the lives of over 5 million people worldwide? What works of art will stand out as influential, four hundred years from now, and will visually define our attitudes toward our sick and dying? It’s hard to say. The nice thing about history is that distance helps us see patterns and through-lines that are not always possible to detect when living through an event. Even still, there are a few ways we can see the arts responding to Covid, and so, at long last it’s time to talk about tattoos.
According to a poll taken in 2015, nearly 3 in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, and of that 30%, roughly 80% are for some sort of commemoration. Commemorations include symbols of mourning, and unfortunately, the last two years have given us ample reasons to mourn. Yet like all mourning traditions, memorial tattoos honoring those lost to this most recent plague can serve a vital purpose in the individual’s process of grief, both physically and ritualistically, they anchor us to our grief and help us heal. Grief is not an easy subject to talk about for a lot of people— especially in this country, where public displays of grief are somewhat taboo. If anything, it’s frequently uncomfortable and awkward for a lot of people to experience that level of vulnerability in front of others, and memorial tattoos give those dealing with grief a dialogue by which they can openly express it. York University professor and tattoo scholar Deborah Davidson claims that by being part of living flesh, the memorial tattoo may “serve as a translator of experience into a language more readable by others – a language comforting to the griever, and less disturbing to others.”
Immortalizing the deceased is only one way people mark this period in our history on their skin; there are other reasons why people have been feeling the itch to get inked. Perhaps it is a way of showing solidarity with others. Last year so many people were cut off from their communities, lonely and isolated, it is no wonder people find comfort in physical markers of our shared trauma. We can point to these tattoos and reminisce on what it was like, talk about our experiences and facilitate connections we couldn’t while in quarantine. In effect these tattoos are allowing us to rebuild a feeling of mutual solidarity. They even are in a way helping connect us to traumas of the past. While searching the “Covidtattoos” hashtag on Instagram, I was delighted to see oodles of plague doctor tattoos, referencing the second pandemic of the Black Death discussed above. Not only are they helping us reconnect to each other in the present but assisting in forging a link to the past.