Guinea Pig

If you tattoo a pig, is it still just a pig?

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A pig sits in the middle of the hall. But is it just a pig? Millions like it are raised and slaughtered each year in countries around the world. And yet this pig is different. First of all, she has a name: Donata. Photos usually show her from behind, since this angle reveals the flames climbing up her spine. A snake slithers along her flank, winding its way past barbed wire, crucifixes, and red roses. And a “tramp stamp” composed of an eagle and an American flag spreads across her lower back. That’s right — Donata has tattoos. For a few weeks now, she has been on display at the MGK — Hamburg’s museum for fine and applied arts — as part of an exhibition on the cultural history of tattooing. Donata and other pigs like her are the work of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who achieved his initial breakthrough with Cloaca: an installation mimicking the human digestive process, down to a remarkably lifelike representation of the end product.

Humans developed the practice of tattooing early on. As a result, tattoos have a long history — with tangled roots reaching back to edenic South Pacific beaches, smoky taverns on ill-lit piers, and cold cells where prisoners skilled in the art of mixing colors from shoe cream, cigarette ashes or brick dust inked one another using paper clips, sharpened guitar strings, or whatever other tools they had on hand. One famous tattoo hunting ground is just a few kilometers away from the museum where the pig is now on display: the Reeperbahn in the heart of Hamburg’s red light district.

Do tattoos serve a purpose beyond their aesthetic function? One theory draws on related biological phenomena to suggest that tattoos offer a form of protection. Some life forms develop external markings that help keep potential predators at bay. Distracting patterns on the skin could mislead an enemy about the position of the underlying muscles and organs. Tattoos can also inspire respect or fear. Members of the Salvadoran mafia, for example, have teardrops tattooed on their faces: one for every murder committed.

In our culture, the practice of tattooing has spread over the last two decades to become a widespread phenomenon. Statistics suggest that one out of ten Germans has gotten inked, some quite extensively. I don’t know about statistics for Americans, but my guess are that numbers are similar. Tattoos provide a means of self-expression — and a way to stand out from the boring, uncool masses. For some people, tattoos are even something of an addiction. Pain can trigger endorphins that produce pleasure when the skin is penetrated with (hopefully sterilized) needles. In any case, a tattoo serves as a trophy of the pain its wearer has successfully endured. But the prize sometimes loses its shine: removing bad tattoos is a booming business.

Donata was inked with a standard hot needle machine — but unlike her human counterparts, she and other pigs were given narcotics and attended by a veterinarian. The gradual process took a year, with the animals spending about two hours under the needle each week. The pigs were only stuffed and prepared after they died a natural death. Unlike their relatives kept in factory farms, the tattooed pigs enjoy plenty of space and a comfortable environment. If they ever caught sight themselves in a mirror, they may have noticed the new patterns on their skin — researchers believe that pigs can recognize themselves, although the extent of their self-awareness is still up for debate.

Delvoye’s critics argued that treating the animals this way is tasteless, inhumane and perverse. Furious protests were raised against the exhibit organizers. Animal rights activists accused Delvoye of abusing animals for his artwork and causing them to suffer needlessly. Even if the pigs had been anesthetized, they argued, tattoos hurt while they heal. These claims are certainly true. At the same time, I find myself wondering whether Donata and her companions would cause such an outcry in other countries, such as the United States. Could the vehement response in Germany be due in part to the central role that pigs and pork — from bratwurst to schnitzel — play in German culture?

One of Delvoye’s favorite motifs for his pig tattoos are bearded men that clearly represent Christ figures. In comparison, the notorious animals in formaldehyde produced by his fellow artist Damien Hirst — also born in 1965 — seem almost tame. Beyond pushing aesthetic boundaries, Delvoye is clearly interested in provocation. The idea for the project came to him 15 years ago during a visit to Cuba. Apparently, the practice of keeping pigs there is bound up with a number of taboos, such as a prohibition on letting them into the house.

Aside from the content of the tattoos, is it ever acceptable to tattoo an animal for any reason? In Germany, the law forbids it: physical markings beyond those used for identification purposes are considered acts of animal cruelty. Brands, nose rings, and ear tags are allowed, but not decorations over large areas. Most European countries have similar laws. To circumvent these regulations, Delvoye chose China as the location for his “art farm” in 2004. However, he reports that he never had problems with animal rights groups or legal authorities when he tattooed his porcine charges in Europe or showed them in Moscow. By working in China, he is following in the footsteps of Gunther von Hagens, a physician and avowed atheist whose “plastinated” human bodies have generated controversy and crowds around the world. Seven tattooed pigs still live at Delvoye’s farm, waiting to be sold for prices that can reportedly reach 140,000 euros. Of course, the pigs had no say in the designs applied to their skin. The artist himself has moved on to other projects.

Dennis Conrad, the curator of the Hamburg exhibition, defends Wim Delvoye: “He wants to show how similar people and pigs really are. And to prompt us to think about the dignity of animals. …. Delvoye brings issues to the table that we wouldn’t consider otherwise.“

But let’s not pretend that the dignity of pigs is the real issue. How could it be in a country where nearly 60 million of them are killed slaughterhouses each year? (For comparison, “only” about 3 million cows suffer the same fate.) What really excites and upsets people is the taboo-breaking transgression of applying a practice developed for humans to non-human but disturbingly human-like creatures. The similarity of the pigs’ skin to our own — the familiar color and texture — is unsettling. The fine hairs spark a jolt of recognition. As we draw closer to the pig as an object, our field of vision narrows to exclude the head and curly tail — and the boundary between human and pig seems to evaporate. It’s a macabre experience. I never knew that tattoo artists sometimes refine their skills by practicing on dead pigs. It makes sense. But if you put a tattoo on a pig, is it still a pig? • 19 March 2015

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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