Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Some symbols are too important to tamper with

I rather hoped this story was an urban myth, but then Harry helpfully directed everyone to the first-person original. To cut a long story short, it involves a young Be'er Sheva waiter whose grandmother had been through the Holocaust. Before she died, he asked her permission to tattoo her number onto his own arm -- and did so.
I was surprised to see that many of the comments on both blogs were supportive; some saw it as a fit memorial, others see the gesture as 'reclaiming' and changing the meaning of the tattoo into something positive, much as African-Americans 'reclaimed' the 'n-word.'
There are central questions here of taste, sensitivity to those who have not given their permission (including those who are dead), and whether, by casually tattooing yourself with a number, you are diminishing the experience of those for whom this was a trauma and an eternal symbol of a horror. In addition, I question whether the Nazi tattoo is really something we want to reclaim. First, the status the Nazis defined for us and the things they did to us should not be at the very heart of our identity, engraved on our body. Even if you reappropriate them you are still being defined by them. Second, and more importantly, it seems to me that the number tattoo is important as a painful, negative symbol and history lesson, and it should remain that way, with those associations. Some symbols are simply too important to tamper with.

(Via Jewlicious)

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