Written on the body: Experiencing affect and identity in my fannish tattoos

Bethan Jones

Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—This autoethnographic account of fan tattoos emphasizes the importance of affect and identity in relation to fan tattooing.

[0.2] Keywords—Cultural capital; Fandom

Jones, Bethan. 2014. "Written on the Body: Experiencing Affect and Identity in My Fannish Tattoos." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

1. A short history of body modification and me

[1.1] I got my first tattoo when I was maybe 19 or 20. It is a Chinese dragon at the base of my spine—a piece of flash, the technical term for artwork picked off the wall, rather than the custom pieces I would later have, but it nevertheless has a meaning to me. Since getting that first tattoo I've collected (and I use the term deliberately) many more. They are all custom pieces, designed by my artist on the basis of photos, drawings, and notes I e-mail him. They all have specific meanings, and sometimes layers of meaning, depending on who I'm talking to and how much about myself I want to reveal. They are, as Victoria Pitts writes, "a message of self-control…through self-inscription" (2003, 8) (note 1). In my case, they act as reminders of times, feelings, identity, and things, and in the context of fan tattoos I want to focus on the latter two.

Upper arm tattoo consisting of a bare tree and runic characters encircling the arm.

Upper arm tattoo consisting of a tree and runic characters encircling the arm.

Figures 1–2. Lord of the Rings and Guerrilla Tapestry tattoos written in runic.[View larger image (figure 1).] [View larger image (figure 2).]

[1.2] I currently have four tattoos that are taken from texts I am a fan of, though I would only call one of them fannish. The first three of these, taken from Tolkien's Lord of The Rings, Patrick Jones's "The Guerrilla Tapestry," and VNV Nation's "Further" (, have a specific meaning to me, but the meaning is largely independent of the source of the tattoo. To use the latter as an example, I have been a fan of VNV Nation for the past ten years, have bought their albums and DVDs, have seen them live many times, and own official merchandise. I engage in fan practices, and like most fans, I find meaning in their songs. Of course, one could argue that this engagement is an essential element of being a fan, and I think that is fair to say, but VNV Nation was not the reason for the tattoo.

Tattoo across upper back reading 'In darkness I will find you giving up inside like me'.

Figure 3. Lyric from VNV Nation's "Further." [View larger image.]

[1.3] Although I love the whole song, it is the final line of the chorus which I derive a specific meaning from. It relates to my previous struggles with depression and self harm (note 2), but I also find it gives me hope. "Darkness" in the song refers to the lowest point of all: that pit you sink into when you feel like you're all alone, that no one else could ever feel the same as you. But I know that there are others there with me: some of my closest friends, some strangers who I'll never know. Knowledge that I'm not alone is what I draw from the song, and what makes it so important to me.

2. I want to believe in affect

[2.1] So I found the meaning of these three tattoos myself, through my experiences and the places and times I was in when I came across their sources. I didn't get the Lord of The Rings tattoo to demonstrate that I was a fan, just as I didn't get the Patrick Jones or VNV Nation tattoos to illustrate my fannish attachment. The meanings I derive from those texts are not influenced by my relationship to them. My X-Files tattoo, however, is different, and my reasons for getting it and my relationship to the text are what lead me to call it a specifically fannish tattoo. Lawrence Grossberg argues that "the fan's relation to cultural texts operates in the domain of affect or mood" (1992, 56) and suggests that different affective relations inflect meanings and pleasures in different ways. My relationship with The X-Files is an affective one, unlike my relationships with Tolkien, VNV Nation, and Patrick Jones.

[2.2] I first discovered The X-Files around the age of 12, shortly after it began airing on BBC 2 in the UK. I admit now to being skeptical about the series: I read Asimov and Bradbury, was interested in "proper" science fiction, and was determined to be a parapsychologist when I grew up. This series was bound to be inferior and paint us nerds in a poor way. But I watched it, and I was hooked. My 1994 diary is covered in quotes and taglines: I want to believe; the truth is out there; trust no one; and I scrawled the logo on the front of my school exercise books. I collected books and posters, and my grandmother bought me membership in the X-Files fan club. My early relationship with the series, then, was one that many fans will recognize, but as I have grown up so too has the way I view the show and what it means to me. My love of the series moved beyond a love of the characters and storylines into a deeper, and more affective, investment. I joined fandom and wrote fan fiction, and in doing so I connected with other fans who were involved in a similar relationship with the show. Grossberg suggests that

[2.3] affect is also organized; it operates within and, at the same time, produces maps which direct our investments in and into the world; these maps tell us where and how we can become absorbed—not into the self but into the world—as potential locations for our self-identifications, and with what intensities. (1992, 57)

[2.4] My affective investment in The X-Files certainly worked in a similar way: I began to view the show more academically, deconstructing themes and using academic theories to understand specific aspects of it. I wrote essays about the show as an undergraduate, wrote essays about my fan fiction for the show as an MA student, and turned the series and its fandom into my PhD research. My investment in the series thus, as Grossberg suggests, constructed the places and events that became significant to me, as well as constructing my own identity in relation to it. But, more importantly in relation to this essay, it was an investment that arose out of pleasure.

[2.5] The series, then, held and continues to hold a special place in my heart, and that was in large part the reason for my tattoo. Whereas I got my other text-based tattoos because the piece of text I was inking on myself had a very specific meaning, I got this one because the text from which the quote was taken had meaning. I got my X-Files tattoo to demonstrate my affective attachment to the series. Of course, choosing which specific quote I was going to use involved deciding what aspect of the series I most connected with and which piece of text I would be most happy to have permanently on my skin. This meant returning to the series on a much more personal, more reflective, more affective level. What do I love most about The X-Files? Mulder. He's the character I relate to the most. What is The X-Files about? For me it's belief—a belief in a specific truth and a search for it. It's about Mulder's sister and his search for her. Although my PhD research may look predominantly at Scully and Fowley, Mulder is the heart of the show for me. So the tattoo had to involve Mulder; it had to be a piece of text that resonated with me; and, for reasons I talk about below, it had to be not immediately obvious as a fannish X-Files tattoo. Taking each of these things into account, Mulder's opening monologue from the season 7 episode "Closure" was the obvious choice.

Foot tattoo beginning with 'I want to believe'.

Same tattoo as figure 4, of script circling lower leg, unreadable in photograph.

close up of tattoo in scripts 4 and 5, unreadable in photograph.

Figures 4–6. X-Files tattoos. [View larger image (figure 4).] [View larger image (figure 5).] [View larger image (figure 6).]

3. Tattooing and fan identity

[3.1] My affective investment in The X-Files played an important part in the getting of my tattoo, then, but it also positions me firmly within two specific subcultures, each of which has its own identity. The first of these—which I unfortunately do not have the space to discuss—is the body modification community, but the second, which is more important for my purposes in this article, is the fan community. I am not suggesting that the fannish experience requires communality—it is, of course, perfectly possible to be a fan without participating or being involved in fandom. For me, however, the fan community, and specifically The X-Files fan community, is an important part of my affective relationship to the text. It is this specific way of experiencing the fandom that is important, not just the fandom itself. Kim Hewitt writes that "the message of a public tattoo is not only its content but its existence as a display of public identity. Symbols of identity that are used to construct identity in the eyes of others carry meanings far beyond their physical existence" (1997, 83). In marking myself with a visible tattoo featuring text lifted from The X-Files, I construct a meaning within fandom: I am identified as a fan, someone with knowledge of the series, and—in choosing a tattoo that is not obviously related to the show—in possession of a certain amount of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984).

[3.2] Fans have often been discussed as members of an interpretive community (Jenkins 1992; Bacon-Smith 1992; Kaplan 2006; Parrish 2007), and the performance of fandom has been analyzed through fan cultural productions such as fan fiction and fan art, cosplaying and collecting merchandise (Jenkins 1992; Brooker 2002; Norris and Bainbridge, 2009). Each of these positions fans in certain ways, and I would suggest that fannish tattoos work in a similar way. Craig Norris and Jason Bainbridge note, in their study of cosplayers, that the wearing of "T-shirts or caps with logos such as the Autobot or Decepticon insignias from the Transformers…[is] connected to a more general otaku experience, marking out people as fans of a certain manga/anime property" (2009). The tattooing of logos or images, such as the X from The X-Files, the deathly hallows from Harry Potter, or the TARDIS from Doctor Who, similarly marks people as fans of those texts. Bainbridge and Norris also, however, note that the wearing of clothing featuring logos such as the team emblem from Gatchaman or the NERV symbol from Neon Genesis Evangelion marks the wearer out as a member of fandom through a play with identity: others have to be able to recognize the design in order to recognize the property and thus recognize the fan. In a similar way, the tattooing of less recognizable icons, or pieces of text, further plays with identity and, I would suggest, performativity. My tattoo is an obvious X-Files reference to someone who is a fan of the series and has seen the episode in question often enough to recognize the monologue. To someone who only watched up to the third season, or someone who is not a fan of the show at all, it is unrecognizable as an X-Files tattoo. This play with identity through the choice of tattoo further functions as an in-joke of sorts, or, perhaps more accurately, a form of gate-keeping: to the uninitiated it is a tattoo of a remark by Chris Carter, one of my favorite writers; to the fan it demonstrates my position within fandom.

[3.3] I would also suggest, however, that this particular notion of community is also at work in the construction of the "sacred" fan identity. Brendan Richardson, in his study of football fandom, notes that fans will utilize any available resource to maintain the sacredness of their fan experience:

[3.4] In the case of members of the "Real Reds" Liverpool fan community, co-production that relies excessively on consumption of official merchandise is regarded as far less meaningful than co-production that utilises alternative consumption objects, such as home made banners, as part of the process of production. (2011)

[3.5] This sacred experience is an experience imbued with meaning through the choices and distinctions that set it aside from the mundane. Fannish affect gains significance in the choices made during its expression—why this symbol on a banner; why this quote on a t-shirt? In the same way my tattoos gains affective significance by "walling off" a piece of canon important to me as "sacred" while simultaneously making it visible to viewers (of both my body and The X-Files) as being of import.

[3.6] The notion of the sacred is also prevalent in discussions of body modification, and I would argue that analyzing the sacred in relation to the fan community and in relation to tattoos provides us with a new way of understanding and engaging with the fannish tattoo. Of course, as part of the body rather than simply an accessory to it, tattoos cannot be considered in quite the same way as official and unofficial merchandise. Paul Sweetman, referring to tattoos as corporeal artifacts, argues that they escape the flow of commodification and cannot be interpreted simply as superficial accessories (2000, 66). Rather, tattoos can be considered as a form of "anti-fashion," sharing certain affinities with subcultural uniforms.

[3.7] Bryan S. Turner argues that traditional tattoos were embedded in social processes, but modern society erodes these traditional processes and allows tattoos to become optional and playful. He suggests that "tattoos and body piercings are no longer functional, but indicate the social construction of traditional patterns of sociability in the modern world" (2000, 41). Modern tattooing, then, is a form of postmodern neotribalism, in which membership is voluntary and marking optional. Hewitt draws on a similar understanding, arguing that a tattoo is a symbol of uniqueness. In relation to fandom, however, I would argue that a fannish tattoo is actually a symbol of community. Viewing fandom as a form of postmodern neotribalism disrupts Turner's dichotomy. Fannish tattoos are "part of a personal and interior biography" (2000, 42), but they are also a feature of a collective fannish memory.

4. Final thoughts: In fandom I will find you

[4.1] Matt Hills, criticizing Grossberg's constructivist notion of affect, contends that we must consider affect as "capable of 'creating culture' as well as being caught up in it" (2002, 93). That fans have created a culture around the texts they love is, I would suggest, irrefutable. But I would also argue for viewing fannish tattoos as a specific culture within fandom. Of course, not all fans get tattoos, and positioning fans with fannish tattoos as superior to those without (something I hope I have not done in this essay) misses the point of the argument.

[4.2] Fannish tattoos occupy positions similar to those of other forms of material fan culture, but they also exist outside of it. Fannish tattoos are not commodities in the same way as merchandise is, and fans with tattoos also complicate the idea of neotribal affiliations proposed by Turner and Sweetman.

[4.3] Sweetman suggests that tattoos that serve as connections to specific periods "might be argued to commit the tattooee to a particular narrative…tattoos could tell a story [but] the extent to which others would be able to read this text would depend on their ability to 'piece it all together'" (2000, 68). Returning to my X-Files tattoo, my decision to ink the opening monologue from "Closure" onto my body irrevocably commits me to a particular narrative: the narrative of myself as an X-Files fan, and the narrative of The X-Files itself. Fannish tattoos, then, illustrate the affective nature of fandom, as well as fannish identity and community, while perhaps disrupting more traditional understandings of consumption and performance.

5. Notes

1. Pitts also notes that body modification (broadly encompassing tattooing, piercing, scarring, and other techniques) sparked much controversy among feminists. Given the way in which fandom has often been framed as a female space (Bury 2005; Coppa 2006; Lothian, Busse, and Reid 2007), I am interested in the role that women's fannish tattoos might play in fandom, and in broader debates about affect, feminism, and postfeminism. Unfortunately I do not have the time to discuss all of these in this essay, but I hope that this could be the start of a dialogue.

2. I have written about depression and fandom elsewhere (

6. Works cited

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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brooker, Will. 2002. Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans. New York: Continuum.

Bury, Rhiannon. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang.

Coppa, Francesca. 2006. "A Brief History of Media Fandom." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 41–59. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland.

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1992. "Is There a Fan in the House? The Affective Sensibility of Fandom." In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 50–65. London: Routledge.

Hewitt, Kim. 1997. Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink. Popular Press.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge.

Kaplan, Deborah. 2006, "Construction of Fan Fiction Character through Narrative." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 139–52. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, and Robin Anne Reid. 2007. "'Yearning Void and Infinite Potential': Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space." English Language Notes 45 (2): 103–11.

Norris, Craig, and Bainbridge, Jason. 2009. "Selling Otaku? Mapping the Relationship between Industry and Fandom in the Australian Cosplay Scene." Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, no. 20.

Parrish, Juli J. 2007. "Inventing a Universe: Reading and Writing Internet Fan Fiction." PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh.

Pitts, Victoria. 2003. In The Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York: Palgrave.

Richardson, Brendan. 2011. "Football Fan Loyalty and the Fan Conversion Experience." Paper presented as part of the Norwich Business School Seminar Series, University of East Anglia.

Sweetman, Paul. 2000. "Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity." In Body Modification, edited by Mike Featherstone, 51–76. London: Sage.

Turner, Bryan S. 2000. "The Possibility of Primitiveness: Towards a Sociology of Body Marks in Cool Societies." In Body Modification, edited by Mike Featherstone, 39–50. London: Sage.

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