TRANSCRIPT: KUNSTLERCAST #29: TATTOOS AND THE AMERICAN COSTUME
Violent Clowns, Oversized Babies and Other Nonconformists Just Like You
The following is a transcript of KunstlerCast #29, released Aug. 28, 2008. In this conversation, James Howard Kunstler addresses the proliferation of tattoos on the American main street. He thinks the fierce looking tattoos on young Americas are actually a sign of how deeply insecure we are as a nation. They’re also a form of “non-conformist-just-like-you” consumerism. Jim also takes on the hip hop costuming that has invaded the mainstream and has made young men look like oversized babies and violent clowns.
Note: This is a nearly verbatim transcript with only the slightest edits to remove verbal ticks and redundant utterances.
DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’re listening to the KunstlerCast, a weekly conversation about the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl, featuring James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand. I’m Duncan Crary, today’s topic: tattoos and the American costume.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well Jim I’m back and it is good to see you again.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Nice to be here, Duncan.
DUNCAN CRARY: The most popular thread so far in our discussion forum is titled “Kunstler’s hatred of tattoos.” So let’s get in this topic here. What is going on? You wrote a blog post where you mentioned tattoos.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: No actually I did one of my recent “eyesore of the month” features on my website about the tattoo parlor downtown.
DUNCAN CRARY: All right.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And I did it actually to illustrate an urban design issue and not necessarily to illustrate a tattoo issue but I made some disparaging remarks about tattoos. This is another activity that really belongs in the margins not on main street and that it was disappointing to see on main street. It’s historically been the domain of cannibals, whores and sailors. So it is disappointing to see it on main street.
I really started to develop an attitude, a bad attitude about tattoos since I have been going to a particular gym in town. Of the two venues in town where you can go do a workout in the middle of the winter this is the one that happens to be on my side of town so I go there rather than drive five miles to the YMCA which is diametrically as far away as in my town as you can go and still be in that same town.
Anyway, so I go to this gym and there are all these muscle heads there and weight trainer guys who are covered with tattoos and there are more and more of them every week including many females. And some of the tattoos I am seeing these days are just so alarming. There are like guys who have flames tattooed coming up their necks. You know?
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I saw this one kid on the street actually in front of the tattoo parlor on our main drag and he had a dotted line tattooed on his neck with a pair of scissors tattooed on one end and the words cut here tattooed on the other end. And it was just sickening to see that a young man had such a desperate and depraved view of his own value that he thought that he was advertising someone to cut his head off. It was appalling. So again, I think this is an attempt for the marginal to invade the center and I am all for keeping the marginal on the margins.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well, I want to explore this a little more. You did write a blog post after that “eyesore of the month” where you were talking about the people in Waterford, I think, and you mentioned tattoos again…
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, I was returning to the theme.
DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. But you did touch upon… Americans are scary looking as I think you were saying.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah.
DUNCAN CRARY: We look like fierce warriors…
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I think we are trying to make ourselves more and more scary looking and what it tells me is that we are a very insecure people right now. We’ve got to make ourselves look like characters out of a road warrior movie or make ourselves look like some kind of barbarian culture in order to feel secure and OK about ourselves.
DUNCAN CRARY: Why?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well I think that we have a lot of reasons to be insecure. It is very hard for young people especially more and more to imagine some kind of a plausible career for themselves. There are a lot of things that have been foreclosed to them. There is very little possibility of many of them ever finding blue collar work that will pay them a decent wage. There are a very few jobs that are appealing to a young man. You think a young man wants to be a Wal-Mart associate? No, young men really want to do things that challenge them and they have a lot of testosterone. They have a wish to achieve and to do mighty physical feats and things.
That is one of the reasons that the housing bubble boom was actually a great benefit to young men because there were so many construction jobs available and they were getting paid well and they were able to buy big impressive status-conferring toys like pick up trucks and motorcycles and tools. And so, that period of recent history was very beneficial for young men. Right now, young men are more and more being foreclosed out of any kind of meaningful role in their society. And I think this insecurity is being broadcast now in the way they are presenting themselves to the public.
It is not just the tattoos, another thing that fascinates me is the costuming. The costuming that has come out of hip-hop for example, which features oversized shirts and pants that make you look like your legs are very short, you know?
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: What this tells me is that American grown up men feel like babies and they want to portray themselves like babies. Babies have very large torsos and short legs. So, American young men are dressing up in costumes that make them look like babies and then you add a sideways hat and sneakers that aren’t tied and you really look like an infant.
DUNCAN CRARY: I have noticed fully grown men, I thought they were teenagers because they were dressed like that with a polo shirt that is oversized. And yeah, I thought it was a kid and it was like a 45 year old man.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: The infantilization of young men in our culture is becoming really striking.
DUNCAN CRARY: I have never heard anyone approach the topic that way. I have heard that the baggy jeans and stuff come from prison culture.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I think they did originally but then circulated through the ghetto for about 20 years. But in the ghetto you have a situation where you have children who are being raised in households where men are not present. Why are they not present? Partly because a lot of the fathers are in prison. So you have men who are in prison, you don’t have male role models and you have male children being raised by mothers.
Eventually it has lead to some very strange cultural manifestations. Especially as that programming moves more and more through the whole broad culture, not just the black community but out into the white former working class community where they are suffering terribly from lost incomes and not having any plausible idea of what to do with themselves, what activities to go into, what kind of vocations to go into.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well you have pointed out that hip-hop culture, which… I think you are actually referring to specifically to like the gangster rap music in particular. That kind of music is like a warrior culture behind the message of that music and of course it is being massively consumed by white suburban teenagers.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah, I have always maintained, at least for the last 10 to 15 years, that what became mainstream hip-hop was really a warrior culture. But notice that is being kind of masked and concealed behind a uniform of baby clothes…
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs].
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: …so that it looks like it’s harmless. But in fact it is, I think, a warrior culture.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well let me just clarify the new ones…
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Look, let me clarify something.
DUNCAN CRARY: OK.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Young men tend to gravitate to warrior cultures. I think we are hardwired for that as human beings who have only recently emerged from the hunter gatherer stage of development. That is only been about 50,000 years and really only accelerated to where we are at in the last 1000 years. So we are really hardwired to be warriors as males and yet you have a whole generation of warriors who are not being trained to be warriors. They are being trained to be babies, to be helpless, to not know how to do things, to be illiterate, to be not conversant with their own history. That has an affect in your destiny.
What interests me is the indignation that my attitude provokes from the tattooed people and the people wearing the hip-hop clothes, that whole cohort of young people. It’s as though they are saying, “We have a right to present ourselves this way. We like presenting ourselves this way and it makes sense to us to present ourselves this way. So, don’t get down on us for doing it because we have every right to do it and we feel good doing it this way.”
What I would have to say in response to that is, “Yeah, if you are facing a very uncertain destiny and you are very insecure and your society is not giving you much to feel hopeful about and your society is not preparing you for the kind of life that you are going to be facing in your later decades of life: then sure, present yourself as a violent clown.” Because that is what young men in America look like now: violent clowns.
DUNCAN CRARY: Also, to borrow your language, to me the tattoos — and I know a lot of tattooed people, it’s really common — are kind of an empty gesture to me, to borrow your expression. You know, these empty gestures in America. Because, they are just broadcasting their individuality externally but then in some ways people kind of lock-step with what is hip and cool today. Do you know what I mean? Like having a…
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Sure. It’s like saying, “I’m a nonconformist just like you.”
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] I do notice this with the “emo” culture and the “goth” people and even the Harley Davidson bikers all shop at the same store!
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. They are all basically just bullshit consumer cultures of one kind or another. Tattoos are just another kind of consumer item. It’s just a service that you pay for: it doesn’t make you a better person; it doesn’t make you someone with more knowledge; it doesn’t make you more heroic. It just makes you someone who went and spent $150.00 on a picture that is on your skin.
DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah. It’s very permanent and a lot of times those pictures get screwed up. I had a friend in high school who went to get an Irish flag tattooed on his arm and he just rattled off the colors on the flag. So, the guy put them backwards. He didn’t have an Irish flag, he had the Ivory Coast flag. [laughs]
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Whoops!
DUNCAN CRARY: It took us a while. We had to get an atlas out to figure out what was wrong with this thing. [laughs]
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. Well, he could have had like the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly report tattooed on his ass or something.
DUNCAN CRARY: There is some website dedicated to misspelled tattoos. It’s hilarious. You’re stuck with this thing forever. Jim, what else can we say about tattoos? I want to put this to bed, so let’s put it to bed.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: There’s an interesting element of it that we see in other areas of life. Having become such a televisionized culture and people what you see is an impulse to put a picture on everything. You use yourself as a television to broadcast stories about yourself saying, “I’m a lover. I’m a fighter. I’m a valiant warrior.”
DUNCAN CRARY: Or this “I’ma soja,” but they’ve never been in the Army before.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: “I’m a soldier.” Right. And, we’re so used to having information broadcast all around us in terms of visual images that it’s a way of turning yourself into another kind of TV set. I’m surprised that somebody hasn’t put a tattoo on their neck that says, “Advertise here. This space available.”
DUNCAN CRARY: Well, I think people have auctioned off their foreheads on eBay, right, for advertisements?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Now that you mention it, they have.
DUNCAN CRARY: I had a girlfriend in college who had what she said was a Chinese or Japanese symbol for woman. It was tattooed in an area where I don’t think you need to label yourself a woman there. The other joke is, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what the Chinese symbol is for.” You know, whoever put that on there, it probably means something else. Tramp or something, right? Or whatever. [laughs]
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: “Insert disc here.”
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] OK. Anyway, we started by talking about what are Kunstler readers and listeners and fans, what do they care about?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, I’m really impressed with how inflamed the tattooed readership and listenership is out there. It’s interesting. It’s as though they had never stopped to consider what it was that they were saying about this, rather than becoming just another nonconformist like everybody else wearing a tattoo.
To some extent, I can certainly accept the fact that a tattoo can under some circumstances can just be another kind of ornament and I think that within limits there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that when you turn yourself into kind of a grotesque billboard and you start projecting messages like “Kill me now” or “I hate you” or “I’m a vicious thug.” That ends up being a little bit socially unhelpful.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well, we have logos on all of our clothing and stuff, too. I try to avoid it because I don’t want to be a billboard. Pay me if you want me to advertise for Jack Daniels on my chest! [laughs]
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, this is what comes of living in a consumer culture that traffics in logos and pictures and images. You know, we shouldn’t be surprised.
DUNCAN CRARY: By the way, we’ll be unrolling our new Kunstler Cast listener T-shirt line.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Oh, really? Why don’t we have an official tattoo? And an official tattoo-er or tattoo-ist?
DUNCAN CRARY: Listeners, send in your Kuntsler Cast tattoo photographs. We’ll post them on the website.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: That’s a good idea.
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] We’re all on an intimate level with the things we despise. Anyway Jim, thanks for putting that to bed because it really was an important issue. You know, Kuntsler’s hatred of tattoos.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: I’m glad we got that out of the way.
DUNCAN CRARY: Now, we can talk about passenger rail and urban design again. All right, thanks a lot for talking, Jim.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Nice to be here.
[Recording from Listener Caller Line]
DANIELA: Hi, this is Daniela from Los Angeles. I’m calling about show number 25. The show about Frederick Law Olmsted and City Parks. Jim said that the public doesn’t have a vocabulary for understanding parks. I would like to suggest a book that deals exactly with that subject. It’s by Galen Cranz. He was a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkley. The title is The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America. I am working with a community group that is writing an alternative master plan to protect Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
Griffith Park is the big park in L.A. like Golden Gate Park, or Lincoln Park, or Central Park. We have found the concepts in the book very useful for understanding the park’s unique merits within the city system of parks that grew up subsequently. We can now argue with pro-development people about what the various types of parks that exist are for and what park functions can and should be distributed throughout the city.
DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’ve been listening to the Kunstler Cast featuring James Howard Kunstler. To leave a listener comment, call toll free at (866) 924-9499. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can download episodes of this program, read transcripts, learn about our theme music, join our mailing list and talk about the show on our online discussion forum at kuntslercast.com. I’m your host Duncan Crary, thanks for listening.