Tattooscape: Twentieth-Century Constructions of Nature and Competing Environmentalisms

By Doctor Comrade

I am a cultural historian, and I was inspired by an essay written by preeminent environmental historian William Cronon. In "The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," Cronon laid out the "cultural turn" of environmental history. He declared that wilderness “is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary… without the contaminating taint of civilization"[1]. Wilderness, in this sense, is a social construct, the result of ideologies that imagine wilderness as a space separate from the spheres of humanity, mystical, spiritual, regenerative. Wilderness is the Other, the opposite of civilization, the untouched and untrammeled. Cronon's criticism illustrates that not only was wilderness never untouched, but it is also a fluid and dynamic intellectual concept.

In this spirit, I set out to explore the concept of wilderness and what it means to Americans today. During my search, I discovered an interesting book by Margo DeMello called Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. In part, she argues that,

"Perhaps the oldest of the social movements… that has influenced tattooing is the environmental or ecology movement. Although environmentalism relates most fundamentally to the earth and to people’s relationships with the earth, it has had a profound impact on more personal philosophies as well. Indeed, in some cases environmentalism has taken on the quality of a spiritual movement… a desire to achieve a more holistic and less destructive relationship with the planet…. Western society is viewed as morally bankrupt in its commitment to capitalist, technocratic, and individualistic values, and other cultural traditions are sought that might provide a more healthy attitude toward the earth and its inhabitants…. Western endangered species such as whales and spotted owls have all been co-opted as symbols of the environmental movement, and their use as tattoo designs within the tattoo community reflects the power of their symbolic associations. [...] The ecology movement… provides a symbolic and discursive model for the tattoo community to follow. Most of these movements emphasize personal narrative as a means of healing the self and, more primarily, defining the self… one that is somehow natural and connected to the earth. [...] Through these narratives, we can see how people provide meaning for their tattoos, meanings that are especially necessary within a middle-class context that traditionally has not viewed tattoos in a positive light." [2]

Consciousness movements have created a new discourse about tattooing. In this spirit, I began examining tattoos as a reflection of American environmentalist culture, part of the effort “to emphasize the role of images in environmental history [that] could be understood as part of a broader visual turn across the humanities and social sciences beginning in the 1990s" [3]. In Cronon's essay, I identified five intellectual-cultural themes that I will explore here: Sacralization of Nature, Experience of the Tamed Sublime, Rugged Individualism on the Frontier, Biological Diversity, and Urban Environmental Studies.

Sacred Nature

Cronon argued that "the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created and idealized it: it had to become sacred" [4]. In a similar sense, Barringer argued that American mythology treasured wilderness as part of its civil nature religion [5].

In the photo chosen for DeMello's book, this sacralization of nature and the Earth becomes clear. The tattoo's center is a map of the Earth, accompanied on the corners by Greek mythological figures. Religious mythology often seeks to explain natural phenomena, so the deployment of Greek mythology here is particularly explanatory for how nature embodies spiritual and religious values. Nature's supernatural forces bound the Earth in this piece.

In the photo chosen for DeMello's book, this sacralization of nature and the Earth becomes clear. The tattoo's center is a map of the Earth, accompanied on the corners by Greek mythological figures. Religious mythology often seeks to explain natural phenomena, so the deployment of Greek mythology here is particularly explanatory for how nature embodies spiritual and religious values. Nature's supernatural forces bound the Earth in this piece.

From this post, the person with this tattoo says, “Growing up, I’ve always had a connection and love for nature and wildlife. So, what better way to show that than with a Mother Nature tattoo. This tattoo is my interpretation of Mother Nature, the red lips, freckles, green eyes.” The sacred value of nature is feminized and racialized as the white mother, appropriating the symbolism of a feminine mysticism and white maternalism and ascribing them to a goddess that represents nature.  

From this post, the person with this tattoo says, “Growing up, I’ve always had a connection and love for nature and wildlife. So, what better way to show that than with a Mother Nature tattoo. This tattoo is my interpretation of Mother Nature, the red lips, freckles, green eyes.” The sacred value of nature is feminized and racialized as the white mother, appropriating the symbolism of a feminine mysticism and white maternalism and ascribing them to a goddess that represents nature.  

The Tamed Sublime

Cronon argued that "even as it came to embody the awesome power of the sublime, wilderness was also being tamed—not just by those who were building settlements in its midst but also by those who most celebrated its inhuman beauty…. The sublime in effect became domesticated” [6]. For preservationists like John Muir, nature represented the antithesis of the damaging and enervating Western civilization. Cronon observed that “The emotions Muir describes in Yosemite could hardly be more different from Thoreau,” but they both were “participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth: the mountain as cathedral.... No less important was the powerful romantic attraction of primitivism… the belief that the best antidote to the ills of an overly refined and civilized modern world was a return to simpler, more primitive living” [7]. These beliefs reinforced the "therapeutic ethos [that] would provide historians with a more analytical framework to understand such topics as the back-to-nature movement” [8]. In his intellectual-cultural biography, John Herron argued that the late-nineteenth-century naturalist Clarence King embodied these beliefs, adding "In the second half of the nineteenth century—a time of intense cultural nationalism—Americans increasingly linked their identity to the bounty of the natural world that surrounded them" [9].

These tattoos are on my friend, Stephen. Of these tattoos he said, “I have a deep love of the desert for the most part because I enjoy the feeling of solitude. This [tattoo] is specifically referencing Death Valley in California because you can really feel like you’re not surrounded by civilization when you’re there. It puts me at ease.” “It’s my middle name, after John Muir. My parents are big environmentalists and when I began to get really into camping and traveling through national parks when I graduated college… I decided to get a tattoo because it meant something to me at that point.” Tattoos are central to Stephen’s identity; they are an outward expression of values that he holds about the place of nature in relation to his urban environment. For him, nature is something separate from human life; it is a constructed place where there are no human inhabitants or development. It lies beyond human degradation, somewhere that he can become rejuvenated.

These tattoos are on my friend, Stephen. Of these tattoos he said, “I have a deep love of the desert for the most part because I enjoy the feeling of solitude. This [tattoo] is specifically referencing Death Valley in California because you can really feel like you’re not surrounded by civilization when you’re there. It puts me at ease.” “It’s my middle name, after John Muir. My parents are big environmentalists and when I began to get really into camping and traveling through national parks when I graduated college… I decided to get a tattoo because it meant something to me at that point.”

Tattoos are central to Stephen’s identity; they are an outward expression of values that he holds about the place of nature in relation to his urban environment. For him, nature is something separate from human life; it is a constructed place where there are no human inhabitants or development. It lies beyond human degradation, somewhere that he can become rejuvenated.

Rugged Individualism and the Frontier

Nature has also represented the expression of rugged individualism, especially out on the so-called Western Frontier. Especially in the early-twentieth century, nature embodied "last bastion of rugged individualism…. By fleeing to the outer margins of settled land and society… an individual could escape the confining strictures of civilized life. The mood among writers who celebrated frontier individualism was almost always nostalgic" [10]. Naturalist Robert Marshall, a tireless advocate for wilderness exploration in the early 1900s, linked "natural exploits and his body, Marshall cloaked his personal understanding of the natural world in the idealized trappings of the manly adventurer and the popular desire to reinvigorate masculinity through nature…. Performing manly activities in nature was, in Marshall’s view, a public service. The physical world was a counter to the nation’s degraded cities or even to the home, where changing gender roles elevated the domestic authority of women" [11].

Maud Stevens Wagner, one of America’s first female tattooists, performed in circus sideshows as a “freak.” In this photo from 1907, you can see that wildlife plays a significant part in her self-attribution as a “freak,” or someone who stands apart from bourgeois society. Her right arm has images of butterflies, birds, and lizards or dragons. On her chest, a woman is riding a lion next to trees, monkeys, and a snake. Her left arm has several images of plants and fish. This expression of her individuality clearly invokes the natural frontier, where nature marks the fringes of civilization. As someone who is apart from the mainstream, Wagner's appropriation of nature helps define this dimension of her personality. It is also worth noting that her expressions of individuality usefully invert the masculine privilege championed by explorers like Robert Marshall by re-appropriating nature as a feminine, yet individualistic, entity.

Maud Stevens Wagner, one of America’s first female tattooists, performed in circus sideshows as a “freak.” In this photo from 1907, you can see that wildlife plays a significant part in her self-attribution as a “freak,” or someone who stands apart from bourgeois society. Her right arm has images of butterflies, birds, and lizards or dragons. On her chest, a woman is riding a lion next to trees, monkeys, and a snake. Her left arm has several images of plants and fish. This expression of her individuality clearly invokes the natural frontier, where nature marks the fringes of civilization. As someone who is apart from the mainstream, Wagner's appropriation of nature helps define this dimension of her personality.

It is also worth noting that her expressions of individuality usefully invert the masculine privilege championed by explorers like Robert Marshall by re-appropriating nature as a feminine, yet individualistic, entity.

Biological Diversity

Environmentalisms by mid-century had also asserted the importance of biological diversity and the value of wildlife. Environmentalists could easily deploy this discourse under the patina of scientific legitimacy, in which "The most striking instances of this have revolved around ‘endangered species,’ which serve as vulnerable symbols of biological diversity while at the same time standing as surrogates for wilderness itself…. Those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of sacred land inhere to a single numinous organism" [12]. Biologists like Rachel Carson are often credited with helping found the modern environmental movement [13].

Fallen Owl Tattoo studio in Lakewood, California, “has been running various fundraisers and benefits out of [the] studio for the last several years,” including “Nature’s Educators to help preserve and protect the raptors and various other creatures in the area…. When clients weren’t under the needle they had a chance to check out some of the beautiful owls of the area that inspired the ink they now wear on their skin.” The owl, and other species as well, has been appropriated by this visual culture as a symbol of the tenuous relationship between humans and nature.

Fallen Owl Tattoo studio in Lakewood, California, “has been running various fundraisers and benefits out of [the] studio for the last several years,” including “Nature’s Educators to help preserve and protect the raptors and various other creatures in the area…. When clients weren’t under the needle they had a chance to check out some of the beautiful owls of the area that inspired the ink they now wear on their skin.”

The owl, and other species as well, has been appropriated by this visual culture as a symbol of the tenuous relationship between humans and nature.

Urban Nature

More recent environmental history has incorporated elements of nature that are usually not perceived as natural. The urban environment, like all environments, is constructed, and it has complex interactions with what is usually perceived as the "natural" environment: “Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home… we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it… a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship" [14].

I originally got this tattoo is 2011 to signify the cyclical nature of life, that when I die my body will return to the Earth. Now, the tattoo has taken on the additional meanings of interconnections between what has been constructed as the "environment" and "humanity." We can't escape nature. But I think the most interesting part of tattoos is their mutability. None of my tattoos mean to me now what they did when I got them. In some ways, they are like journal entries, revealing my identity and thoughts when I designed them and had them put on my body. I'm not the same person today as I was then, and subsequently none of them mean what they used to mean. They are palimpsestic, accreting meaning and memories over time. This tattoo does strike a balance between humans and nature, relying on specific idealizations of my post-conscious existence and my physical body.  My body is something I imagine as the environment--the landscape--in which I live.

I originally got this tattoo is 2011 to signify the cyclical nature of life, that when I die my body will return to the Earth. Now, the tattoo has taken on the additional meanings of interconnections between what has been constructed as the "environment" and "humanity." We can't escape nature. But I think the most interesting part of tattoos is their mutability. None of my tattoos mean to me now what they did when I got them. In some ways, they are like journal entries, revealing my identity and thoughts when I designed them and had them put on my body. I'm not the same person today as I was then, and subsequently none of them mean what they used to mean. They are palimpsestic, accreting meaning and memories over time. This tattoo does strike a balance between humans and nature, relying on specific idealizations of my post-conscious existence and my physical body. 

My body is something I imagine as the environment--the landscape--in which I live.


Notes

[1] Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69.
[2] Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, 149-151.
[3] Finis Dunaway, "Cultures of Nature: Twentieth Century," in A Companion to American Environmental History, 273.
[4] Uncommon Ground, 73.

[5] Mark Barringer, Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature, 17, 4.
[6] Uncommon Ground, 75.
[7] Uncommon Ground, 76.
[8] 
Dunaway, "Cultures of Nature: Twentieth Century," 271.
[9] 
John P. Herron, Science and the Social Good: Nature, Culture, and Community, 1865-1965, 45.
[10] Uncommon Ground, 77.
[11] Science and the Social Good, 85.
[12] Uncommon Ground, 82.
[13] Science and the Social Good, 159, 193, 198.
[14] Uncommon Ground, 85. Cf. 
Ted Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, xviii, xix, 42; Richard Walker and Sarah Thomas, “Blinded by History: Geographic Dimensions of Environment and Society,” in A Companion to American Environmental History, ed. Douglas Cazaux Sackman, 553; Matthew W. Klingle, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, 6.