Tattoos as “Symbolic Marks”

Dra. Hilda Catz Ph.D.
Full Member with training function,
Argentine Psychoanalytic Association
Plastic Artist


The word tattoo is derived from the Polynesian words ‘tatau’, meaning the feeling of being beaten, and ‘Tohu’, father of the night and creator of all the drawings in the world (Salamone, 1994). 
Since prehistoric times, tattoos have been used as a way to implore the gods for protection against evil spirits; as identification; as a fashion shared by certain groups in order to belong; as a spell or talisman; and in medicine, among many other purposes. They acquire relevance in adolescence, an extremely vulnerable stage of life, characterised by depression and the vicissitudes of transformation of original objects of love. 
This paper is the product of clinical investigation into these procedures effected on the body of adolescents and young adults, although they are not limited to these age groups. I consider them revealing scars that in my opinion relate to problems concerning the singularity of parental inscriptions in our culture.

As “Symbolic Marks” (Catz 2011), and parental inscription and/or deciphering of mourning in a potentially creative space, what is worn, whether clothing, accessories or tattoos, carries a signifying and meaningful mark. It is in this perspective that I highlight the following sentence: “Father, paint the world on my body” (Galeano).

With respect to what I discussed above in relation to parental inscriptions, I believe it is particularly interesting to include the investigations of Garma (1961) who observes that ornamentation on the human body in both forms, clothing and tattoos, was characteristic of the most primitive art.

Ornamentation on the human body was created and inaugurated by prehistoric mothers with the aim of continuing to give their children, magically, after birth, all the support they were able to give them during their intrauterine life. They drew on their infant’s body with vegetable dyes to protect them from wild animals, at the same time dressing and covering them according to the parameters of the social context in which they lived.

This must have assumed different aspects at different stages of the growing individual who no longer needed maternal protection but rather independence. The latter led to the origin of the puberty rites found in all peoples, where “the marks” of this process may be found in a broad range of creative possibilities.

A finding of psychoanalytic studies of puberty is that one of its deepest meanings is to indicate a passing; more precisely, it carries the mark of the passage from the mother to the father. We also need to consider that in this way, creatively, the tattoo became a language beyond words.

There are different types of tattoos, which in my opinion exhibit a mute existence that is transmuted on the skin; in a context of discovery, they possess true ontological eloquence expressed from their position between socio-cultural determinism and the singular history involving at least three generations.

We could conjecture that because of parental deficits, the current chain of psychic transmission could in some cases be seriously disturbed, either due to the absence of symbolic inscriptions or the hyper-presence of forebears who expected to be cloned by their descendants.

I consider that these individuals express themselves through acts on their body, in constant interaction with their environment, which determines particular features in the constitution of subjectivity. The tattoo thereby acquires relevance as a testimony, a message to be deciphered, beyond but including fashion or ornamentation, where words yield their place to images, which are only worth a thousand words if we are willing to search for them.

This discussion includes particularly tattoos that are “Symbolic Marks” (Catz 2011) of parental mourning processes, scars of vital/necessary and/or accidental mourning. They appear throughout all the ages and all cultures, either as protective skins or talismans, or as a way to feel strong by bearing pain that minimises other pains suffered. As history engraved on the body in order to eliminate the need to remember it, as a tribute that seeks a piece of eternity, a place where a loss symbolically lies…

A difficult passage from repetition to creation that is made visible, since behind the photographic definition of the tattoo something may be written in indelible ink, something that asks us not only to discover and re-create it but, in some cases, to inscribe it for the first time.

Consequently, we propose the term “Symbolic Marks” to refer to tattoos as marks that open, by way of the skin and diverse interventions, the way to mental representations necessary to produce psychic conflicts and their possible transformations.

The tattoo is the presence of an absence that requires an act, which in turn, like all human productions, is one more expression of human creativity.

It could be said that in this space of subjectivity shared by psychoanalysis and  art, as well as the art of ornamentation, a space inhabited by love and cruelty, the vicissitudes of sexuality and death, forms and images interact to enable an endless construction of the ever-changing face of the unconscious.

Bion, W. (1966) Volviendo a Pensar, Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1977.
Catz, H. (2011) Trauma on the skin. Tattoos: from deadly scars to Symbolizing Marks, Journal-Book published by the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association, 2011, Nº 4.
Dejours, Ch. (1989) Investigaciones psicoanalíticas sobre el cuerpo-supresión y subversión en psicosomática. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI editores, 1992.
Freud, S. (1901) Childhood memories and screen memories, In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, S.E. 6.
Galeano, E. (2008) Espejos: Una Historia Casi Universal, Editorial Siglo XXI (2008). Lutenberg, J. (1993) Repetición, reedición-edición. Rev Asoc Psicoan Arg, Special Issue.
Salamone, L. (1994) El tatuaje, una mirada encarnada, In La Prensa, suplemento profesional, December 6, 1994, p. 14, quoted by Calderón Silva, L.G. (2014


Hilda Catz is Author of films like “Candela” and psycho-video-art, with clinical cases. She is Doctorate in Psychology, and Director of the Child and Adolescent Department of Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis, Argentine Psychoanalytic Association. Full Member with Training Function of (A.P.A.), member of the Psychoanalytic Federation of Latin America (FEPAL) and member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA). She won the FEPAL Prize (2015) on Psychoanalysis and Society, for the paper: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”: About the analyst’s daydreaming in “The Tempest” of the psychoanalytic process and its possible transformations.


You must login to leave a comment.

New Comment:


Edit Comment:

Attachment:      Delete

Subscribe to comments on the page:

Want to subscribe/unsubscribe on comments? Please click  here