Getting tattoos wrong
September 25, 2014 6:23 PM   Subscribe

TedEd gets it wrong when they talk about the history of tattooing. Good thing the Tattoo Historian is here to set the record straight with a concise list of errors.

The Tattoo Historian, otherwise known as Dr Anna Friedman, is an internationally recognised scholar whose work includes tattoo history and culture. So it's no surprise she took the time to critique the TedEd talk (even if the organisers are standing by their own factcheckers).

But TED talks in general aren't without criticism for the 'dumbing down' (as seen previously) or simplification or outright inaccuracies in the name of entertainment. At the same they're getting recommended to teachers. Is their selection process broken? Or, obligatory Buzzfeed link, is it just about number since some of the talks are bound to be a bit shit?

But at least they didn't start with "once only seen on sailors/criminals/bikers" canard?
posted by geek anachronism (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I am constantly delighted by the fact that Ted talks can charge so much to attend what is essentially a digital replication of a 19th century obsession: the lecture by a celebrity of sorts (usually male) who will tell you important learnings they have done from a stage. They will also stride a fair bit to show sincerity.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:36 PM on September 25, 2014 [21 favorites]

The TED talks were originally conceived and enacted as teach-ins for the 1% so that they could congratulate themselves on being hip and up to date on important worldly matters. That they are now put on the internet for everyone to see has altered their focus a bit, but the in-person seats are still mostly reserved for the rich and connected.
posted by localroger at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The TED thing leaves me cold, though clearly they are connecting with a lot of people.

And let me register my pleasure that today appears to be tattoo day here on Mefi. (Speaking of which, surely after ten or so years of the site being around, there must be some Metafilter-related tattoos by now?)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:02 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Obligatory "Reggie Watts gives the ultimate TED talk" link.
posted by edheil at 7:32 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

i AGREE. rich people shouldn't be thinking. they should be doing all the drugs and sexes.
posted by blue t-shirt at 7:38 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The problem isn't rich people thinking. If we are talking about Ted talks, the problem is them watching an often fairly superficial and poorly sourced or informed lecture on a topic and then believing that not only are they now well-informed but making policy from said lecture. There's nothing wrong with Ted talks beyond the belief that they are this amazing new way of sharing knowledge and the fact they are not a substitute for actually delving into a subject, but are still presented as some amazing new revelation where if only we would embrace disruption, we'd be set.

For some reason whenever I think about Ted talks my closest mental comparison is the usually very similar in breezy, all-informed rhetoric of the 19th century chapbook versions of the sex manual Aristotle's Rhetoric. Except those were cheap. And full of interesting lunacies.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:02 PM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Aww you guys make me feel like such an asshole sometimes. I used to be soooo delighted by TED talks back when they first started putting them online.

Apparently I'm just a rube taken in by their fancy smart-style talkin'
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:07 PM on September 25, 2014 [10 favorites]

Look, I like some TED talks (Brene Brown's for example) but I don't think they are nearly as good at informing as they try to be. The fact they'd come at Dr Friedman the Tattoo Historian with 'nah, we totes fact checked it, it's fine but if you wanna do it for free, go ahead'. It's part an asinine devaluation of an academic consultant's time and part devaluation of her skillset and the topic at hand.

I'm curious as to the existence of a mefi related tattoo. I know askme has a range of 'help pls' questions, but are there any mefi-inspired tattoos? Maybe ask vs guess inked somewhere?
posted by geek anachronism at 8:50 PM on September 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

I remember reading once that the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary ("Sissi") had a big ol' anchor tattooed on one of her shoulders. Such a Wittelsbach thing to do! She was so metal.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:54 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I could swear I'd seen a photo of someone's [+] tattoo at some point, geek anachronism, but can't recall where. I'm on my phone so Google image search isn't really in the offing right now.
posted by axiom at 10:17 PM on September 25, 2014

iamkimiam references her [+] and [-] tattoos here.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:22 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

A family friend, father and husband transitioned and was joking about how to modify her quite large and bold "ANGIE" [former wife] tattoo. She is now perhaps the only person in the world with "TANGIERS" tattooed in 148 point bold Arial on her right calf.
posted by vapidave at 11:44 PM on September 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

I used to get asked a lot for Latin translations for tattoos. I ended up with a fine collection of photos of tattoos I'd contributed towards that people somehow felt they should send me. I had to stop doing it because a) some of them were a bit disturbing and b) I got obsessed that one day I would send off a translation in a hurry and someone would end up with a lovely typo from my email on their chest. And I would end up with a horrific visual reminder of my sloppiness inflicted on soomeone.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:49 AM on September 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I read the title of this FPP, I thought, for sure, that it was about my friend the biker, who, after years of thinking about it, had a huge tattoo done on his upper arm that said "Harley Davison"
posted by HuronBob at 3:24 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking of which, surely after ten or so years of the site being around, there must be some Metafilter-related tattoos by now?

I think the Metafilter tattoo is just the action of looking at tattoos and sniffing disdainfully while a small portion of your collective consciousness goes 'no, these are totally cool guys!'
posted by FatherDagon at 4:36 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Who cares if it's accurate as long as it looks good! Hooray for easy access to multimedia content creation tools!
posted by nerdler at 5:44 AM on September 26, 2014

I was a proud member of the anti-tattoo mob, as airily erudite and obnoxious as all those people in the world who either don't have a TV or who only really watch PBS, and it seemed like I'd be comfortable in that smug posture forever, snickering over the hapless victims of Chinese misappropriation, badly rendered cartoon characters, and drunken larks on a military night out, and how they'd arbitrarily mutilated themselves over…what?

Then, I fell in love, inexplicably, with a broken illustrated man ten years ago, and my erudition and judgment were knocked sideways by the experience of seeing his tattoos up close as we peeled our shirts off on a hillside in West Virginia, momentarily overcome by enough pent-up desire to get past his resolution to never, ever love again and my lifelong discipline to never, ever let anything come close enough to hurt. He'd lost the love of his life to an absurd heart attack, just a year prior, and turned those lost moments into ink, spreading his lost love's name in an arc across his shoulder blades, along with other signs and wonders of a nine year relationship that just stopped without warning or reason.

I'd known they were there, and thought, up to that instant, that they were foolish, empty gestures, as insufficiently sincere as weddings and funerals, and in the moment, seeing them in bright autumn sunlight filtered through a canopy of golden leaves, I had a hard time mustering my disdain. I rested my hand flat on the inked heart on his chest, marked with the name of another man who would always be there, a ghost haunting my chances, and it was warm and the air was brisk and perfumed by the fading leaves of another burning summer, and it made sense to me that something so rich and magical would leave a mark in passing. My quarry narrowed his eyes, just a bit, catching me exploring, pulled me in, and we did it just the same.

I researched the history of tattooing shortly afterward, digging into the tribal histories and modern traditions, and there is so much in issues of self-image and faith and art and artifice and play in what seems alarmingly what they say about suicide, that it's a permanent outcome to a temporary whim, and yet—

On the streets of Chicago, shortly after, while visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I passed a tattoo shop, backed up, stood in front of the window for a long, long time, then went in.

"I just want a capital T," I said, pointing out the spot on the inner side of my right ankle where it was to go. "In blue and in a sans serif font about this big."

"Just a T?"

"Yeah. It's the first letter of the name of a guy."

"Gotcha. He's gotta earn the rest, huh?"

No, it's not going to work out. He's going to frustrate and delight and confuse and complicate for the whole length of his contract while he's living in my state, and then he's going back to California, and it'll all be over, and that will eventually be okay.

I want it to leave a mark.

I knew it, you see, but I have been marked by my accidents and misadventures all my life. There's the little scar from cutting myself with a saw while building my treehouse, the strange patch of tan from some genetic misfire in the womb, the faint rim of a crater from chicken pox by my eye, and the divot from flying off my bicycle at speed, and I am already marked. Expanding the permanent record to document the realm of the felt is just…natural, somehow, and I am a lifelong ninja master of hiding my hurt, and rewriting my history to make things all okay and fine and just hunky fucking dory.

I want this one to leave a mark.

My brother caught sight of the bandage at dinner and raised an eyebrow.

"Jesus, did you—?"

"Yeah," I said, peeling back the bandage to show a blood-flecked blue T.

"You've gone off the deep end," he said, and that was true.


And yet, that rash action wiped out my airy erudition and snobbery, because it was a moment of full engagement in a world given to timidity, and I still don't regret it. When T's contract wound down, when he packed up his truck and returned to the angelic chaos of Southern California, I found another tattoo shop and had a little flame added to the T, like a torch burning for all sorts of reasons, and when enough time had passed that the acute part of loss and longing had faded to a slow, dull burn, I found another shop and completed the cycle with a quote from Ovid's Metamorphoses, starting with a star and ending with that flaming T.


Everything changes, nothing perishes, we live on and carry on and make the best of things, and we get what we want and never get what we want, and it's all just the way it goes, the world flowing around us like the impossible river of the tao, and eventually, even the most dogged among us has to let go of the rocks and branches where we're dug in and be carried along in the current. Everything returns to the endless sea, and some of us are just too ready to entertain the delusion of stasis when we'll only really be free when we let gravity win. All those tears fall, soak into the ground, make their slow, majestic way back to our salty source, and rise to fall again. Nothing perishes, but everything changes.

There's a ring of blue around my ankle, hidden most times in a sock, and it's not an allusion to sailors, rogues, Samoans, whimsical elites, bored proletarians, prisoners, gangsters, wild-eyed hippie optimists, or anything—it's the faultline at which one landscape ends and another begins, when I stopped wondering what I was meant to do with my life and when I realized I'd known all along, and just never noticed my ruby slippers, when something as simple as a broken illustrated man could come along and bring down a whole lifetime of carefully curated coldness with an inadvisable kiss in the back woods.

"This will hurt a bit," said the man with the buzzing gun in his hand.

You have no idea how much.

And yet, the world afterward is swimming in joy, so the distant and disconnected intellects of our age can argue the semiotics for lifetimes, but you really just have to be have been there.

"You know," my brother said, walking behind me, "When you look at your tattoo from here, it just looks like it says 'MUTANT', which is pretty accurate."

"Really?" I asked, craning my neck to see. "Well, that's a happy accident."


posted by sonascope at 5:44 AM on September 26, 2014 [66 favorites]

The fact they'd come at Dr Friedman the Tattoo Historian

That sounds like Appeal To Authority Of Blog Title. What if there are several tattoo historians, and they don't agree on some details? Does the snarkiest one win?
posted by effbot at 5:52 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The old, "you can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo" myth is a big one. I took it apart in an old blog of mine, but there's plenty of places to find the response to that argument. Also, Bad Hebrew is a great site for those of you that read Hebrew and want to see people with spectacularly poorly researched tattoos.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:08 AM on September 26, 2014

For anyone who likes the idea of TED talks but is put off by the woo, I find NPR's TED Radio Hour to be a pretty great curated selection of just the best bits.
posted by jbickers at 7:31 AM on September 26, 2014


A phenomenal story, and I have that same line wrapped around my forearm directly below the memento mori / monogram for my brother.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:38 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I got my first tattoo at age 61. At least I don't have to worry about what it's going to look like in fifty years!
posted by kozad at 7:52 AM on September 26, 2014 [14 favorites]

A family friend, father and husband transitioned and was joking about how to modify her quite large and bold "ANGIE" [former wife] tattoo. She is now perhaps the only person in the world with "TANGIERS" tattooed in 148 point bold Arial on her right calf.

Something almost exactly like this happened on 30 Rock, right down to changing the name "Angie" to "Tangiers", only there was also a lion.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:57 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Everything changes, nothing perishes, we live on and carry on and make the best of things, and we get what we want and never get what we want, and it's all just the way it goes [...]

I'm standing up and applauding. Great story, fantastic writing.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:33 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

[stands up, claps] Thank you, sonascope.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:10 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't been on metafilter for *too* long and I don't really have a good feel for too many of the posters here, but I got three paragraphs into Sonascope's excellent comment, and the first thought I had was, "This reads like a sonascope comment!"
posted by subversiveasset at 2:33 PM on September 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

effbot: It's more that she has a PhD in tattoo history hence the blog title. It's her, y'know, work and long-term research that TedEd is dismissing with 'oh well if you want to help go right ahead' as if she's just some random.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:57 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Stuff in Old Books   |   a ba ba ba ba, bababa ba bababa Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments