COINTELPRO Tactics and the Elimination of the Tattoo Menace [The Publisher’s Ring]

COINTELPRO Tactics and the
Elimination of the Tattoo Menace

“When truth is discovered by someone else, it loses something of its attractiveness.”

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Some people tell me that the problem with BME is that it’s very “us and them”. It’s true. There’s a strong separatist movement on BME, and when it comes down to it I don’t trust people without body modifications. I’ll even go one step further — I don’t believe that people without body modifications are really even fully birthed and evolved humans, because I believe that communication, expression, and self-improvement are core to what a human is, and I believe that body modification (in one form or another, including everything from body building to transhumanism) is the purest form of these traits.

There’s an old saying that the difference between people with tattoos and those without is that those with tattoos don’t care if you have tattoos or not. I’d like to expand on that by adding that the difference between people with tattoos and those with fake tattoos is that those with the fake tattoos are losers that are not only making themselves look like idiots, but make real tattooed people look bad as well.

A lot of people have been sending me links to the site above (, a new business venture by the folks at Tinsley Transfers, a temporary tattoo company. Basically they’re flesh-tone shirt/stockings with high quality prints of large tattoos on them. Unlike fashions that simply co-opt tattoo designs (which I have no fundamental problem with, and think is flattering), the goal of these is to actually make it look like you have large-scale tattoos — it’s a costume. I’m certainly not doubting the quality of their product technically — it looks quite well made. However, when you’re talking about an “I’m an idiot” sign, quality really isn’t your core problem.

At it’s most basic, shirts like these show a fundamental lack of respect for people with tattoos. It’s basically stealing tattoo culture in a way that would be no better than stealing the religious icons of another faith and turning them into some sort of disposable pop culture reference (an ironic analogy given that this is one of the sins of the tattoo community in many people’s eyes).

To me the issue is in the conversion of a permanent message into a transient message (to say nothing of the elimination of the “message of the message” altogether) — the exchange of commitment and loyalty for transience and whoring. Most people with tattoo sleeves take them quite seriously. After all, they’re there for life! Sleeves shirts on the other hand can be taken off, discarded, and swapped for another one as easily as any t-shirt, and because of their “it’s better than a real tattoo” stance it’s a slap in the face of anyone with genuine tattoos. Not only are they being crass and ignorant, but people wearing these shirts are making the public statement that their definition of self is a deception (ie. “I am a lie; I am not what you see.”) — and that tattoos are a part of that lie.

The fact is, the type of expression you get from fashion is fundamentally different than the type of expression you get from tattoos. Tattoos say “not only do I believe in this message, but I AM become this message,” whereas images on a piece of clothing (or makeup) simply say “here’s the lie of the day” — at best they are decorations without meaning or value, part of an elaborate social bluffing game. Now, maybe you’re asking why I have to take this all so seriously, why does it matter if someone likes the way tattoos look but doesn’t want to actually have them? The reason it matters is because they are stealing and then damaging — the only reason they “look cool” is because of the hip cachet that we (the tattooed people) have created by the way we collectively lead our lives. They want to be us, but they don’t have the commitment to be us. It’s not so much that they don’t have a right to share that look, it’s more that they don’t have a right to destroy it through devaluation (as they take a permanent fashion and turn it into the look lie of the month).

In any case, these shirts are incredibly lame, and even if the fashion world loves them briefly, they’ll be spit out as the remnants of a now uncool trend a few months later… tagging all tattooed people with that brush as they fall — after all, if fake tattoos are passé, how lame are real tattoos?

Now, I promised you this was going to be about COINTELPRO tactics and the elimination of the tattoo menace. COINTELPRO was an FBI program between the 1950s and early 70s that sought to “neutralize political dissidents”. This included everyone from communists, socialists, and union activists to influential anti-war and pro-civil rights celebrities like Jane Fonda and John Lennon, the Black Panthers, the KKK, the Yippies, and so on. One of their most effective strategies, far more effective than assassination and more brutal suppression, was simply to discredit. Instead of killing the speaker, or logically debating their politics, they simply used media actions to paint them as buffoons (watch Steal This Movie for a decent fictionalized account how COINTELPRO eventually pushed Abbie Hoffman to “suicide”).

Being painted as buffoons is what these “Sleeves” shirts do, and it’s a growing media trend when it comes to the coverage of tattoos. Take a look through the BME newsfeed and you’ll regularly see articles on people regretting their tattoos (or other mods) and having to get them removed in shame. Here’s a sampling of headlines:

  • Tattoos: Decoration or tacky?
  • Tattoos that are not for life...
  • Geri Halliwell removes old tattoo
  • Americans Likelier Than Italians to Regret Decision to be Tattooed
  • Doctor Removes Obsolete Tattoos
  • Think before you ink: Tattoo removal on the rise
  • Christina Aguilera removes most of her piercings

The casual mainstream reader gets the impression not that tattoos are dangerous or “underground” in some way, but instead that they’re simply a stupid mistake, and that people getting them regret it because tattoos are lame and become dated fast. Basically, the current media premise is that tattoos are for buffoons — prompting a friend of mine to make a sign for the door of his new tattoo studio reading “if you’re not a criminal or a drug addict, you’ve come to the wrong place.” In the past, tattooed people were frightening, but these days they’re simply pathetic and laughable… or so the media would have you believe.

In my last column I pointed out that the best way to get young people covered in tattoos is to tell them they’re dangerous, edgy, and underground. Conversely, the best way to get them away from tattoos is to try and trick them into thinking they’re lame and less meaningful than they actually are — and that’s why we need to worry when we start seeing these COINTELPRO-type tactics being used. Now, I’m not proposing that this is some grand conspiracy where some secret anti-tattoo illuminati is meeting to orchestrate this whole thing. The media is doing their normal coverage cycle where something goes from scary to cool to mainstream to lame to forgotten, and the fashion world is simply latching onto that to try and make a quick buck. But when it comes down to it, it’s the attack’s end result that we need to worry about as much as the motivation or lack thereof.

So how do we make this a non-issue?

I suppose the simple answer is that we need to put outlaw culture back into tattooing. So if you’ve got a tattoo, make sure you kick someone’s ass at least once a week — preferably while you’re rip-roarin’ drunk — and do at least a little prison time.

Seriously though, some people have suggested that it’s quite wonderful that the mainstream has gotten into tattooing with such gusto. In some ways I agree, and it’s been wonderful to watch so many human flowers bloom. Additionally, the mainstream attention has resulted in a lot of money flowing in this community and great things are happening because of it. But the mainstream is fickle and looking at even just the last forty years of Western history, it’s obvious that the mainstream’s sensibilities shift radically every decade or so… and we’re starting to approach the end of the “tattoo decade” in terms of mainstream acceptance. It’s possible that we’ve hit a threshold where there’s no going back (15% of Americans are tattooed), but we’re still a tiny minority when you look at it objectively, especially when you only consider those that are heavily or publicly tattooed.

Tattooing as expressed by Western culture is nearly unique historically in its level of variation. No other culture in history that we know of has allowed for this depth of personal expression (indigenous cultures usually used tattoos to emphasize social structures and offered little in the way of personal variance). Not only for our own good, but for the good of the human race, we must embrace this individuality and fight anything that tries to commodify it and make it mundane. Tattooing should be an expression of self; a carnal message rather than some banal false-individuality of a temporary mask. Maybe the truth of the matter is that most people simply don’t have anything to say (but desperately want to), so they are drawn to this “prepackaged mass-produced individuality” that mainstream tattooing (and fake tattooing) gravitates to. Maybe the mainstream drones can’t appreciate the meaning of tattooing, because they don’t have a meaning themselves?

Keep your tattoos real and believe in them. Get your tattoo, not someone else’s. Like the ancient gods, tattoos gain their power from faith, sacrifice, and belief. Tattoos are power sigils, personal magic that can help rocket a person to their full potential. They’re not buffoonery, and they’re most certainly not something you can take on and off like makeup or clothing.

The mainstream never got it, and they never will.

Shannon Larratt

Next column: Applications of body modification in modern magick.

Photos of “Sleeves” clothing (including cover image) property of Tinsley Transfers Inc. (, reproduced under fair use doctrine.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

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