Check Out My Sweet Archaeopteryx

thinking of inking in a time of cultural polarity

by by Katie Okamoto

"The tat is of a sea urchin egg, two cell embryo, blastula, gastrula, prism stage and pluteus larval stage. Or, as my friends say, an orange developing into an alien face-grabber."

<!--more-->This is one of a growing number of scientific tattoos featured in Carl Zimmer's Science Tattoo Emporium, a blog gallery mediated by the science author and regular contributor to The New York Times.

Many people on Zimmer's blog were inspired by dissertations and other academic obsessions: the entomologist with the bejeweled insect tapestry across her back, the biology student who inscribed a biohazard symbol onto her arm. These tattoos are the visible rendering of identity onto the skin, an act that speaks of permanence and preoccupation. They have a don't-look-back, forget-me-not quality that paradoxically brings to mind the iron-jawed religious tattoos of the young Christian right. As just one of the varied wings of the American tattooing crowd, the quirkiness of the scientifically inclined highlights anew the polarity of current political and cultural identities, providing a fresh lens through which to examine the language of non-discourse.

What have we here
There is no lack of variety in the submissions to Zimmer's blog, and they reveal a community of tattooed scientists that some will find surprisingly large. As with all tattoo designs, there are the repetitive (trilobites are so cliché) and trite (E=mc2). But there are also the practical (the periodic table) and the symbolic (a nautilus shell, a "constant reminder that mathematics is the language of nature" to one PhD candidate at the University of Washington).

These tattoos can be breathtaking, conjuring images of imprints left on rock bodies, and the fossil record is a favorite theme. Besides the trilobite, there are a slew of all-stars from the Cambrian, Precambrian and Triassic: cephalopods like pebbles resting on skin, prehistoric crabs, dreamy siphonophores (deep-sea relatives of the Portuguese Man-o-War), a classic stegosaurus.

The explanations for the body art are often goofily impassioned. A geology student at the University of Alaska, whose birdlike dinosaurs canter across his bicep in the style of natural history plates, writes, "This is my favorite Deinonychus!" Another person's description: "Here is a picture of my serotonin tattoo. I don't know that it needs much more explanation than it's my favorite neurotransmitter." One physics PhD with a solar system emblazoned on his belly "jokes that the tattoo is really accurate because, as is the case with his waistline, the universe is always expanding."
Such specialist insider chuckles frame the contributors and their tattoos first as cultural curiosities. Then another question arises: what is it that compels a scientist to permanently paint a neuron on his calf? What does the act of bearing a science tattoo have in common with bearing a tattoo on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, that of the extreme religious right? At a time when people of differing ideologies too seldom cross conversationally, the deeper political symbolism of tattoos deserves critique.

Body language
Science and art have been one since the macabre renditions of sea monsters on mariners' maps in the Age of Exploration. But the rendering of scientific subjects on skin is a new cultural mixture of art, science and rhetoric. Tattoo art, permanent and visceral, comes to represent conviction held literally against the body.

Scientific tattoos are as much an expression of philosophy and ideology as any Celtic cross or crown of thorns. One particularly abstract design on the Science Tattoo Emporium is an unwinding coil, which begins as electromagnetic radiation, spirals into a polymer chain and forms an S signifying entropy--the natural tendency toward chaos in the universe--before unraveling. The artist-scientist explains, "It exhibits my love of science, chemistry and my general beliefs on life, the universe and so on." An evolutionary biologist at Middlebury College had a similar explanation for his dark snowflake (geometrically described by the Koch fractal): "This tattoo is my attempt to show both the beauty and my love of chaos in nature."

By far the most popular subject of science tattoos is evolution. The Darwin fish, which riffs off the Jesus fish by giving it legs, is the most iconic example, but there are other, subtler symbols. A student at Hunter College, for instance, sports the ape-like skull of Paranthropus boisei, thought to be a forerunner of Homo sapiens. An anthropologist sports the famous 19th-century cartoon of Darwin's head on a chimp's body. They are all a form of visual rhetoric, billboards of a philosophy that rejects creationism and intelligent design as irrational and dangerous.

There is a telling quote on the Emporium from a science student whose tattoo is of Archaeopteryx, a fossil whose discovery provided evolutionary evidence for a link between birds and reptiles. "It comes in handy as a visual tool during debates with creationists who like to visit campus sometimes!" he boasts. Suddenly, the image of Archaeopteryx joins the ranks of condensed talking points, as much cartoon as paleontological art; it is an I-told-you-so.

There is another example of the Christian tattoo "Tell Them," sometimes scrawled across the wrist, whose purpose is to pique a viewer's curiosity about what the message means. But the intent of such a message is to open an opportunity to deliver arguments for religious conversion. Unlike the body art equivalents of coffee table books, which invite discussion, such a tattoo reduces interactive thought to the level of the campaign flyer.
Tattoos of the ideological genre thus become campaigning and argumentation tools, symbols of defiance and ideology, manifestations of us versus them. Getting a tattoo that is scientific rather than religious (or vice versa) is an act of philosophical branding. Furthermore, if tattoos are physical symbols of ideas and convictions, their permanence embodies the belief that these ideas will be everlasting. The decision to be tattooed closes the mind against philosophical upheaval; it inhibits identity shifts.

Remember the brontosaurus
Even the ages, embodied in the dusty bones of the dinosaurs, are subject to change. Paleontologists can be totally wrong in their reconstructions of extinct animals. The beloved Apatoaurus that graced the entrance hall of Manhattan's Museum of Natural History for years was actually two species that had been forced onto the same frame. It was only recently that this iconic skeleton was given another head. Imagine the loss to our knowledge of former worlds if the museum had made a permanent commitment to the Apatosaurus.

Similarly, it is the permanence of the tattoo's message that stifles intellectual exchange, by prohibiting the morphing of points of view on two fronts.

First, it commits the bearer to a set of ideas and discourages the possibility that those thoughts might change. This might be explained as the Emerson effect, according to his assertion that "a foolish consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds."

Second, it preempts the fluidity of thought by discouraging those who might disagree from starting a conversation. This is because tattoo language yields bodies that are literally readable. If books gave away their theses on the cover, we could rightly judge them thus, and never need to crack them open.

Last presidential election cycle, the cultural polarity of the US was a hot media topic. Across issues like gay rights, abortion, stem cell research and public science education, the perceived divide between rational and religious was well established. One was Christian or Darwinian. One believed in the sanctity of marriage or in the human right to love. Campaign issues were framed around extremist bases and presented in ideological packages.

There persists in 2008 a climate of define-divide-convert that will continue to be detrimental to American politics if allowed to persist. The criticism is not against personal conviction--the impetus behind the culturally oriented tattoo. But the act of tattooing, the bodily institutionalization of identity, seems to symbolize an unwillingness to be swayed, a closed-mindedness that can be advertised like a fleshy billboard. Of course, that is why people get tattoos: because their ink is indelible. All well and good, but those who believe their notions to be permanent, whether they are worn on the sleeve or under, should remember the Apatosaurus.