Friday, October 24, 2008

Are tattoos becoming cliché?

When I started this post, I had a vague notion of what I wanted to discuss. It turns out I had a heck of a lot more to say than I realized. In the interest of keeping this short and hopefully interesting, I'm going to break up the points of discussion over the next several weeks. However, there will be a Very Special Intermission (but unlike the Very Special Episode of Blossom, this will actually be cool) for an author interview.

On to the discussion!

Last week, I saw a video about the branding used on urban fantasy covers. For the link-averse, he displays a series of book covers to exemplify what he feels is overdone in cover art. Within this series is a long string of tattoos on portrayals of the heroines (including Marjorie Liu's The Iron Hunt, which is sorta kinda about tattoos, which makes the cover sorta kinda authentic to the story, kthanx).

This made me wonder about the significance of the tattoos in the urban fantasy stories themselves. Are tattoos a cliché? Becoming cliché? Or are they (becoming or already) a trope? Full disclosure time: I have a tattoo and plans for more. One of my stories (the urban fantasy, heh) features tattoos as part of the world.

Clearly, not all UF and paranormal romance heroines have ink (even some of those on the UF covers portrayed with a tattoo don't actually have one), and not all ink serves the same purpose within the story or world. But even if the tattoos were, across the board, there only for the purpose of art on the heroine's skin, would this really be as terrible as SciFiGuy seems to imply?

Ink might be trope-ish because it fits within the demographic range of urban fantasy heroines and often of paranormal romance heroines. Specifically, these women are urban or at least modern and steeped within their society and world. Given the number of women sporting tattoos these days (especially tramp stamps), is it any wonder UF and PR heroines also have tattoos?

Another reason the tats don't feel cliché to me is because of their symbolism. A trope of UF is the "kick-ass heroine." Heroines don't have to physically kick it, but they have to be strong in character. They have to be doers, motivated, good at their chosen work.

Tattoos in Western culture have been remarkably common (even in the Victorian period) yet not really mainstream until the last decade or two. Those for whom they have been most common have been warriors. Sailors. Soldiers. Marines. Tattoos in many societies are received during rites of passage. In some cultures, the act of getting painful, full-body tattoos over the course of days constitutes the entirety of the rite.

It could be said that tattoos are symbolic of warriors and of strength in endurance. These are appropriate phrases to attribute to UF heroines and many PR heroines. Even the heroines who don't tangle physically with the enemy are warriors at heart. And boy howdy do they endure.

I'll pose a few questions here to get the conversation rolling. Respond to any, all, or none. Maybe there's a giveaway involved. Who knows? ;)
  1. You know we all love to see each other's ink. Share the photographic evidence in the comments, and let us all be voyeurs.
  2. If you have an opinion about tats in UF and PR, regardless of the opinion, dish.
  3. What do you think the significance of tats is? Do you think there's a symbolism behind them that fuels their popularity in feminist fiction?

Next time, I'm going to pull back from this specific trope/cliché discussion and hopefully drum up some fun conversation about general genre tropes and clichés.


Ann said...

Hey KL...

I think one of the reasons the small of the back tattoo on the heroine has become popular is because the small of the back tattoo became popular. LOL. As you said. It fits into the world UF writers are writing about.

I don't know if it's cliche or not in UF (though not all the covers he showed in the video are UF) yet. Probably not since A) people still get tattoos and B) they've always had a kind of mystical feel to them.

Tropes can become cliche if overused, but you can still use a cliched trope if you do it well and it makes sense in the story.

One of the covers he showed was Michelle Sagara's "Cast in" series, and it always bothers me that the MC's "tattoos" (they're not really, they're magical runes that appeared on her skin when she was a child after a great deal of badness) are featured on the cover since the character goes through great lengths to cover them up. She hates them.

So, I think cover art exasperates the issue, a bit.

I have no ink to share. I keep thinking about getting a tattoo, but I've never decided on what or where.

Audra Harders said...

Testing the post. . .

Audra Harders said...

. . .because I wrote a really long post to share with you yesterday only to have it go poof in Bloggerland!!

Okay, loved your take on tats : ) Most times, symbolism is the essence of tattoes, be they fictional or real.

I've been researching the Russian mafia for a book series. Tattoes play a huge part in their rites of passage. In Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen sported such authentic tattoes, that he had to cover his hands when in public (during filming) because they were such a recognizable icon among those in the know.

How cool is that??

Anyway, I think the use of tattoes is timeless and knowing the fertile grounds of your gray matter [grin], KL, you will utilize them the max.

Sorry, no show and tell here. Bummer : )

Any tramp stamps out there??


Marni said...

I agree with you. I think ink is popular among feministas because for decades it has been decidedly male-oriented and not feminine. Most tatt-havers and ink-slingers have been male. Only within the past couple of decades have the amount of female ink-slingers exploded. Hell, female tatt-havers used to qualify for freak show peeps.

As an aside on the femme-ink front, my last bestower of ink told me I sat like a champ. :::grin::: So I started probing for wobbly-kneed, pass-out, whiner stories and he told me he'd only had problems with men. They typically don't handle the pain very well and in his experience, women are much better and the whole stoicism thing in the face of a vicious outline session or hours-long shading. Ha! But I digress...

Tatts are, in a way, cliche. Tramp stamps, arm bands, tribal ... it's all cliche because it has all been insanely popular at some point. So I imagine their use in UF, in particular in the cover art, will get cliche if it hasn't already. As far as I'm concerned, if it's not part of the story, it shouldn't be on the cover. Simple enough, right?

I don't really know what I'm talking about here. I probably don't have enough ink or read enough UF to be addressing this in a public forum, but the questions were so intriguing. I'm done now.