At Tattoo Concierge we believe that just as in any form of art, there is no limit to sources of inspiration. Equally there is an eclectic range of topics that may help guide an educated decision around your own compositions. The following articles have been compiled for those wishing to explore some broader fields of study


collection of papers

Architecture as Drawing, Perception and Cognition

Abstract. This work is about realizing that human perception is inherent to architecture. It is an asset and a trait subject to training and development in an empirical way, involving physical and manual action. It cannot be taught literally through convention and logic reasoning. It is a human achievement of great significance built on intellectual and scientific knowledge. It is something, being physical and empirical, that is supported on instrumental procedure. The computer, as a machine and an instrument, does not shorten the empirical experience of manipulation; on the contrary, it enhances J.J. Gibson’s findings about the perception of space in relation to eye and body movement. Being a cybernetic machine the computer may, and shall, evolve, and become perceptive. In order for that to happen, it is important to keep in mind the mechanism of human perception. Through producing a computerized model of a major architectural work, we develop natural knowledge about its physical features and the thought that lies underneath. To be able to use the computer as an instrument provides a user with explicit knowledge about its ways and mechanism that has to be made available. It involves training, which is to a great extent self-explanatory, and also explicit knowledge about the conventions that are being used, such as programming, reasoning and trigonometry.

Norm Images

The active role played by perception on cognition, as conceived by Arnheim (1969), does connect to Guilford’s (1967) theory on the Structure of the Intellect. As much as Norberg-Schulz’s (1967) writings about a Theory of Architecture, his ideas were also drawing on Piaget’s (1947) findings about the way sensory-motor activity develops to build one’s mental schemes, which in turn articulate into more complex mental constructs that we call cognition. Guilford develops his theory based on the scientific possibility of measuring in a precise and objective manner from standard tests, a set of intellectual faculties called factors and represented on his Structure of Intellect Model. While dealing with the necessity of having scientific rigor, as stated in his Psychometric Methods (Guilford, 1936), he also acknowledged the phenomenological reduction with his writing on Qualitative Descriptions (Guilford, 1967), where the phenomenological could be dealt with. Being concerned with the necessity for objectiveness that should assist any scientific proceeding, he was aware of the difference between a mathematical representation and the need for indicators from the actual world that we live in, the observable world. Calling upon the mythic dimension of a mathematical infrastructure over which events take place in the world, Guilford was addressing what had been the basis for a theoretical representation of architecture (Guilford, 1936). His statement is that mathematics is a human invention and not a real discovery, and its adjustment to events, making possible their prediction, is, first of all, a convenient coincidence.
Just as much as Arnheim would do, Guilford underscores that associated with intellectual development, the capacity to find visual constancy over the changing shape determined by changes in context of what was initially considered a single unitary object, and the capacity to associate in homogeneous classes, similar unitary objects become existent. The basis for that discovery is both visual and analogical. Not on some a priori symbolic way, but as if there was visual reasoning where prediction could be made, comparable to mathematical modeling. Objects have surfaces, contour, dimensions, and distance These become variables in vision correlated to the reality (figs. 1 and 2). Arnheim (1969) associates perception (the images of thought) with the building of cognition stating that there is a link between thought and perception. Good perception means that we can read from the object perceived the pertinent generic features, the ones that assemble the skeletal structure of an image, and this ability is not without active thought. Being able to perceive a visual structure from visible images is being able to build abstractions, and that is the basis for perception and the start of cognition. Susanne Langer (1942) refers that this kind of abstraction comes through a disposition of imagination to isolate the significant examples from a general context, and to reapply them, through interpretation, to other conditions found in reality. Unlike Susanne Langer, Arnheim does not think that this work being done by thought from visible material (which Langer calls representative abstraction, as opposed to science’s generalizing abstraction) is a sole feature of artistic performance. He thinks that the ability that scientists have to sample a set of cases prior to reaching conclusions is also representative abstraction. There is also in science an insight about what is going to be concluded, a formulation originated in Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel (1934) work. This idea is then illustrated with the visual imagination involved in Copernico’s astronomical model. Images of thought thus have a quality that distinguishes them from an exact reproduction of all physical features of the object being perceived, and this is some degree of incompleteness. The fragmented images with which the mind operates, are such because this fragmented character is a positive quality produced by the object’s mental apprehension, allowing for one’s ability to mentally process visual input, which is different from exactly determining an object’s tangible and material dimensions.
Gestalt psychology had already stated this idea with the temporal Gestalt (Kofka, 1935). One conclusion to be drawn from this observation is that the fragmented pieces withdrawn from visual representation convey a bone like structure of dynamic traits that plays an essential role on mental operations such as abstracting, producing generalizations, and classifications. It is important to emphasize that, although fragmented, these images are visual constructs and not just the result of conventions, i.e. a difference addressed in Gibson’s (1950) distinction between schematic perception and literal perception. The condition that assists the images of thought is that they are structurally similar to the actual images (fig. 3). Seeing as science Psychology has told us that the capacity to respond to problems aroused by our environment, or to develop knowledge about that environment, is built upon the existence of ‘norm images’ (Arnheim 1969). The problem with this statement is that, at first, it seems too simple, as if not rational or not proceeding from an intellectually valid discourse. From the start, the term ‘norm images’ gives this notion a connotation with the ability to see, as painters, sculptors or architects see, and at the same time it engages some distance with activities that we normally do not associate with a predominance of ‘seeing’, as the scientific, engaged from mathematical and statistical manipulations, or the writing of a novel or an essay. What it actually means is that every act of perception callsupon the possibility to associate the event being perceived with a visual concept which is the stock of previous perceptions treated as structured images being recalled as apt to being applied to that event, i.e. a process calling upon memory, classified as recognition.
Architects are normally considered the scientific artists, a role that while addressing the type of synthesis which is tackled by architecture, involving technical ability, physical knowledge, social and cultural awareness, and artistic sensibility, does not quite contribute to giving the activity the clearness of instrumental procedure that is expected in the knowledge specialist world that we live in. While at the same time being ambiguous between the artistic irresponsibility and the strictness of scientific method, we should ask ourselves whether artists are irresponsible or scientists strict. Presently, one of the reasons why architects are considered so, derives from the fact that architects draw (as in sketching), but they also draw scientifically (as in Gaspard Monge’s descriptive geometry). Of course we could also say that what architects draw depends on facts and data with scientific validation, but then, the people who produced such data would be better suited to use it, knowing about it with greater ease, naturally knowing it. Which as we know is not quite true. From the ‘norm images’ point of view, we are taken to ask ourselves: what kind of image are we thinking of? The retinal impression that is engraved at random, some acquired notion derived from geometry, something completely different, or is it a mix of the above? Rudolph Arnheim (1969) gives us a correct notion of what is to be expected from sensorial input, in order to form valid concepts that may be used as knowledge (fig. 4). Assessing the importance of sight, he distinguishes the retinal projection of an image, from the human perception acquired through this projection. Perception becomes analogous to an intellectual concept, and in some circumstances they end up as the same. A relevant fact in this process is the formation of a constant visual concept that one associates with a particular object, identified in order to deal with practical necessities of everyday life: for instance, a lettuce that needs to be put well under the attention, displaying its expected green color. Visual concepts thus need some sort of constancy in order to be easily manipulated in our mind; at the same time, there is a changing degree of intelligence that creates a variation on how this constancy is formed. The way the constant image is created, taking or not into consideration the context where that object is perceived, creates this variation.
The conclusion (Arnheim, 1969) is that the possibility of observing an object in a changing context is bound to give us new information on what is constant about that object, and that is why scientists should always be in quest for new situations, capable of giving him new information. This is what should be associated with productive thought. On the other hand, if our constant image is frozen as a stereotype, we will never have its satisfactory sensorial verification taken from tangible experience; we will be blind to significant changes that may have occurred on the original concept, or.revelation granted by new contexts.
The type of order which connects a perception subject to changes in context is described as an ordered sequence of a progressive change, where different points of view appear as a melting of different states of one single persistent object. Another type of constance happens when different views appear as deviations or distortions of one simpler shape. Arnheim (1969) concludes by observing that these distortions not only allow but actively imply the discovery of the prototype, and, consequently, they are not perceived as a negative feature hiding the true shape of the invariant object, but positively, caused by a condition which exists over the true shape of the object, as logic consequence. As such, a tilted tree may be seen as a normal tree changed by the effect of winds. Drawing as seeing as science Gibson (1950), states that visual perception can be either schematic, i.e. originated from learning and prior convention about meaning, or literal. Realizing the convenience of sight for what he calls “getting about and doing things” he points out that there is something special taking place between what we perceive from seeing, and the flat physiological retinal picture: what he calls “the puzzle of the third dimension”. He says that this is a problem about perceiving space, which means identifying shapes, distinguishing them from a background and realizing their relative location and position at which they lie. Objective and literal vision is what concerns the architect when dealing with sight. This depends upon the mechanisms of perception, where literal visual input is dealt with from a flat light-dependant impression – the visual field – and at the same time realizing a three dimensional space where objects stand with constant shapes, the visual world.
The theory about it is that we operate on correlates of objective properties, that become variables of perception, worked through the retinal projection, saccadic eye-movement (Gibson, 1950) (fig. 5), and movement of the observer in space. There is thus a capacity in visual perception, to compose overlapping retinal projections into panoramic vision, where successive focus of sight are combined through primary memory-vision (fig. 6). One of the utmost importance operations that take place is that we are able to create distinctions upon the impressions of the visual field. From all the changes that take place when we look at something, both staring or rapidly changing focus and shifting stands, we are able to perceive constancy from the changing impressions that concern one single object, and we are also able of discriminating between objects, detecting an entity that at some point is not an object but a background. This kind of operation allows us to identify objects, naming them and associating meaning to their names and to their visual impressions (fig. 7). Taking the architect’s stand about how we look, the objective is to seize the features of the literal visual world, to be able to look objectively and detect reality. There is meaning to be attached to his work, but at some point, he must be able not to let himself as a subject, interfere with this objective stand. It is not enough to take measures and descriptively draw, because he must be able to discriminate and identify, creating the objective correlates of those visual impressions.
A Spanish architect and teacher of architecture at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, named Ignacio Araujo (Araujo, 1976), made a synthesis on his academic writings, where he points out that an architect learns how to look when drawing. His drawing means to objectively take note of volumetric shapes and material textures, under the effect of light and color, by appropriate strokes of pen and pencil; strokes that must carry intent and correlate to reality. Modeling with the computer, one must carry this capacity of looking at, through drawing. There is increased distance from reality (fig 8), but it should be none greater than being at a painter’s studio looking at reality through another artist’s work. Reality is then conceptualized with greater capacity to identify and discriminate.

Knowledge from drawing

There are factors in perception that should be taken into account, in connection to Guilford’s (1967) distinction between the concrete and the abstract. These factors distinguish two kinds of mental images. One is associated with sensory stimulus and operating from a retinal projection, while the other is symbolic and builds upon the former existence of conventions that have to be previously learned (fig. 9). We can easily associate the latter with symbols such as letter types being connected into words or mathematical expressions, but these conventions could also be other types of symbols, compared with Guilford’s (1967) classification of “figural factor”. They are symbols where space manipulation is associated with semantic content conveyed in written form, and Arnheim (1969) mentions them when talking about representation, symbols and signs. As such, these kinds of constructs, are different in nature from Guilford’s concrete intelligence which is built upon perception. Although visual, they are different from the classification operated through perception that Arnheim associates with the images of thought, because these correspond to the “bone like structure of traits withdrawn from exterior visual stimulus, maintaining some degree of isomorphism with that stimulus”.
Concreteness is a quality that should be emphasized. It is a term used by Piaget (1937) to explain what goes on at the early stages of a child’s development, when he mentions the need to exercise sensory-motor manipulation, in order to acquire knowledge and adequate schemes of behavior, a process which is also determined by interacting with others or socializing. Arnheim (1969) calls upon the traditional distinction between the person who tends to work through symbolic manipulation and the one who operates manually on the concrete world. And he concludes that this is not an appropriate distinction, because the development and exercise of mental capacities is also associated with operations dealing with the physical manipulation of objects from the concrete world. He uses the expression: “oriented towards ideas or towards objects”. Physical behavior is determined by perceptual ability, and every sort of manipulation involves an assessment about how appropriate one solution might be, how does it work, which is typical of a productive thought. Such manipulations take the form of physical behavior. Thus we can say that sensory-motor behavior implies manipulating abstract ideas.
The conclusion to be made (Arnheim, 1969) is that any object that looks articulate is going to give away perceptual clues that in turn build up the elaboration of thought. There is then a cause-effect relationship between the way a child’s environment looks and how physically manipulative he can be over that environment, and the build up of his cognitive abilities. The reason why this happens is because we operate with both analytic and synthetic judgment, and consequently, whenever we are actively thinking, even if using words, we are recalling previous perceptive experience. Visual media becomes an advantage because it keeps structural equivalents with features taken from objects, events and relationships. Thinking of cognition as perception, it is both the fruit of intuition about the whole, where one becomes aware of the general organization of shapes, colors, place and function in relation to each other, and the intellectual analysis of the elements, operating through the listing of each and every one, and its particular properties.
We know that the world perceived through vision has depth, extends itself in distance, and that it is filled with meaningful objects. We have the conviction that these qualities can be observed through sight, and we tend to think that sight is the same as one image. Actually it is not. Through sight we acquire correlates of the world, which are perceived as an organized complex of variations. There are properties, both light dependent and of phenomenal type, that are correlated with patterns of variation, allowing us to establish constant and literal perception over reality. This variation and correlation integrates figural qualities (thenorm image), patterns of change, projection, and discrepancies. Objects are discriminated and differentiated, identified, and detached from a background when constancy is perceived as a quality. This background in turn is made up of more objects. They establish a more complex perception organized through proximity, similarity, symmetry and good continuity, building on inclusive space (figs. 10 and 11).
Araujo, Ignacio: 1976, La Forma Arquitectónica, Universidade de Navarra (EUNSA), Pamplona.
Arnheim, Rudolf: 1969, Visual Thinking, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Broadbent, Geoffrey: 1973, Design in Architecture, Architecture and the Human Sciences, David Fulton Publishers Ltd., London.
Cohen, Morris & Nagel, Ernest: 1934, An introduction to logic and scientific method, Harcourt Brace, New York
Gibson, James J.: 1950, The Perception of the Visual World, The Riverside Press, Cambridge Massachusetts
Guilford, Joy Paul: 1936, Psychometric methods, McGraw-Hill Series in Psychology.
Guilford, Joy Paul: 1967, The Nature of Human Intelligence, McGraw-Hill Series in Psychology
Koffka, Kurt: 1935, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Harcourt-Brace, New York.
Langer, Susanne: 1942, Philosophy in a new key, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.
Morris, Charles: 1946, Signs, Language and Behavior, Prentice-Hall, New York
Norberg-Schulz, Christian: 1967 (Oslo, Universitetsforlaget), Intenciones en Arquitectura, Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A., Barcelona 1979.
Piaget, Jean: 1947, La Psychologie de l’intelligence, Armand Collin, Paris.
Piaget, Jean: 1937, La construction du réel chez l’enfant, Delachaux & Niestlé, Paris.
Wertheimer, Max: 1959, On discrimination experiments, Psychology Review, 66, pp. 265-273.



patterns of optical stimulation
A fundamental problem for the visual perception of 3D shape is that patterns of optical stimulation are inherently ambiguous. Recent mathematical analyses have shown, however, that these ambiguities can be highly constrained, so that many aspects of 3D structure are uniquely specified even though others might be underdetermined. Empirical results with human observers reveal a similar pattern of performance. Judgments about 3D shape are often systematically distorted relative to the actual structure of an observed scene, but these distortions are typically constrained to a limited class of transformations. These findings suggest that the perceptual representation of 3D shape involves a relatively abstract data structure that is based primarily on qualitative properties that can be reliably determined from visual information.
One of the most remarkable phenomena in the study of human vision is the ability of observers to perceive the 3D shapes of objects from patterns of light that project onto the retina. Indeed, were it not for our own perceptual experiences, it would be tempting to conclude that the visual perception of 3D shape is a mathematical impossibility, because the properties of optical stimulation appear to have so little in common with the properties of real objects encountered in nature. Whereas real objects exist in 3-dimensional space and are composed of tangible substances such as earth, metal or flesh, an optical image of an object is confined to a 2-dimensional projection surface and consists of nothing more than patterns of light. Nevertheless, for many animals, including humans, these seemingly uninterpretable patterns of light are the primary source of sensory information about the arrangement of objects and surfaces in the surrounding environment.
Scientists and philosophers have speculated about the nature of 3D shape perception for over two millennia, yet it remains an active area of research involving many different disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, computer science, physics and mathematics. The present article reviews the current state of the field from the perspective of human vision: it will first summarize how patterns of light at a point of observation are mathematically related to the structure of the physical environment; it will then consider some recent psychophysical findings on the nature of 3D shape perception; it will evaluate some possible data structures by which 3D shapes might be perceptually represented; and it will summarize recent research on the neural processing of 3D shape. Sources of information about 3D shape There are many different aspects of optical stimulation that are known to provide perceptually salient information about 3D shape.
Several of these properties are exemplified in Figure 1. They include variations of image intensity or shading, gradients of optical texture from patterns of polka dots or surface contours, and line drawings that depict the edges and vertices of objects. Other sources of visual information are defined by systematic transformations among multiple images, including the disparity between each eye’s view in binocular vision, and the optical deformations that occur when objects are observed in motion. How is it that the human visual system is able to make use of these different types of image structure to obtain perceptual knowledge about 3D shape? The first formal attempts to address this issue were proposed by James Gibson and his students in the 1950 s [1]. Gibson argued that to perceive a property of the physical environment, Figure 1.
Some possible sources of visual information for the depiction of 3D shape. The 3D shapes in the four different panels are perceptually specified by: (a) a pattern of image shading, (b) a pattern of lines that mark an object’s occlusion contours and edges with high curvature, (c) gradients of optical texture from a pattern of random polka dots, and (d) gradients of texture from a pattern of parallel surface contours. q Supplementary data associatedwith this article can be found at doi: 10.1016/j.tics. 2004.01.006 Corresponding author: James T. Todd ([email protected]). It must have a one-to-one correspondence with some measurable property of optical stimulation. According to this view, the problem of 3D shape perception is to invert (or partially invert) a function of the following form: L ¼ f(f), where f is the space of environmental properties that can be perceived, and L is the space of measurable image properties that provide the relevant optical information.
The primary difficulty for this approach is that in most natural contexts the relation between f and L is almost always a many-to-one mapping: that is to say, for any give pattern of optical stimulation, there is usually an infinity of possible 3D structures that could potentially have produced it. The traditional way of dealing with this problem is to assume the existence of environmental constraints to restrict the set of possible interpretations. For example, to analyze the pattern of texture in panel c of Figure 1, it would typically be assumed that the actual surface markings are all circular, and that the shape variations within the 2D image are due entirely to the effects of foreshortening from variations of surface orientation [2]. Similarly, an analysis of the contour texture in panel d of Figure 1 would most likely assume that the actual contours carve up the surface into a series of parallel planar cuts [3]. Although some of the constraints that have been invoked to resolve ambiguities in the visual mapping are intuitively quite plausible, there are others that have been adopted more for their mathematical convenience than for their ecological validity.
The problem with this approach is that the resulting analyses of 3D shape might only function effectively within narrowly defined contexts, which have a small probability of occurrence in the natural environments of real biological organisms. The inherent ambiguity of visual information is not always as serious a problem as it might appear at first. Although a given pattern of optical stimulation can have an infinity of possible 3D interpretations, it is often the case that those interpretations are highly constrained, such that they are all related by a limited class of transformations.
Recent theoretical analyses have shown, for example, that the optical flow of 2-frame motion sequences or the pattern of shadows in an image are ambiguous up to a set of stretching or shearing transformations in depth (see Figure 2) [4,5]. It is important to note that these are linear transformations – sometimes called ‘affine’ – that preserve a variety of structural properties, such as the relative signs of curvature on a surface, the parallelism of lines or planes, and relative distance intervals in parallel directions. Thus, 2-frame motion sequences or patterns of shadows can accurately specify all aspects of 3D shape that are invariant over affine transformations, but they cannot specify other aspects of 3D structure involving metrical relations among distance intervals in different directions.
It is important to point out in this context that there are some potential sources of visual information by which it is theoretically possible to determine the 3D shape of an object unambiguously. These include apparent motion sequences with three or more distinct views [6] and binocular displays with both horizontal and vertical disparities [7]. Because motion and stereo are such powerful sources of information, especially when presented in combination [8], it should not be surprising that they are of primary importance for the perception of 3D shape in natural vision. However, there is a large body of empirical evidence to indicate that human observers are generally incapable of making full use of that information. When required to make judgments about 3D metric structure from moving or stereoscopic displays, observers almost always produce large systematic errors (see [9] for a recent review).

Psychophysical investigations of 3D shape perception

The earliest psychophysical experiments on perceived 3D shape were performed in the 19th century to investigate stereoscopic vision, although the stimuli used were generally restricted to small points of light presented in otherwise total darkness. These studies revealed that observers’ perceptions can be systematically distorted, such that physically straight lines in the environment can appear perceptually to be curved, and apparent intervals in depth become systematically compressed with increased viewing distance. Given the impoverished nature of the available information in these experiments, it is reasonable to be skeptical about the generality of their results, but more recent research has shown that these same patterns of distortion also occur for judgments of real objects in fully illuminated natural environments [9–14]. A particularly compelling example can be experienced while driving in an automobile along a multi-lane highway.
In the United States, the hash marks that separate passing lanes all have a length of 10 ft (3.05 m), but that is Figure 2. The inherent ambiguity of image shading. Belumeur, Kriegman and Yuille [4] have shown that the pattern of shadows in an image is inherently ambiguous up to a stretching or shearing transformation in depth. (a) and (b) show the front and side views of a normal human head. (c) and (d), by contrast, show front and side views of this same head after it and the light source were subjected to an affine shearing transformation. Note that the two front views are virtually indistinguishable, even though the depicted 3D shapes are quite different.
Not how they appear perceptually to human observers. Those in the distance appear much shorter than those closer to the observer. Until quite recently, most experiments on the perception of 3D shape have used relatively crude psycho-physical measures, such as judging the magnitude of an object’s extension in depth, or estimating the ratio of its depth and width. It is important to recognize that this type of procedure is obviously inadequate for revealing the richness of human perception. After all, a sphere, a cube or a pyramid can have identical depths and widths, yet all observers would agree that their shapes are quite different. During the past decade our empirical understanding about 3D shape perception has been significantly enhanced by the development of more sophisticated psychophysical methods [15–19], several of which are described in Figure 3. What they all share in common is that observers are required to estimate some aspect of local 3D structure at many different probe points on an object’s surface, and these responses are then analyzed to compute a surface that is maximally consistent in a leastsquares sense with the overall pattern of an observer’s judgments. Consider, for example, a recent experiment by Todd and co-workers [20]. Observers in this study made profile adjustments (Figure 3c) for images of randomly shaped surfaces similar to the one in the lower left panel of Figure 1 that were depicted with different types of texture. An analysis of these judgments revealed that they were almost perfectly correlated with the simulated 3D structures of the depicted surfaces. The correlation between different observers was also high, as was the test-retest reliability for individual observers across multiple experimental sessions. These findings indicate that observers’ judgments about the general pattern of concavities and convexities were quite accurate, but there was one aspect of the apparent 3D structure that was systematically distorted. The judged magnitude of relief was underestimated by all observers, and there were large individual differences in the extent of this underestimation that ranged from 38% to 75%.
These results suggest that the available information from texture gradients can only specify the 3D shape of a surface up to an indeterminate depth scaling. Thus, when observers are required by experimental task demands to estimate a specific magnitude of relief, they are forced to guess or to adopt some ad hoc heuristic. Although this general pattern of results is quite common in experiments on 3D shape perception, it is by no means universal [19,21,22]. Sometimes the variations among observers’ judgments are more complex and cannot be accounted for by a simple depth scaling transformation. A particularly clear example of this phenomenon has recently been reported by Koenderink et al. [18]. The stimuli in their study consisted of four shaded photographs of abstract sculptures by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi. Over a series of experimental sessions, the depicted shape in each photograph was judged by observers using all of the different methods described in Figure 3. These judgments were then analyzed to compute a best-fitting response surface for each observer in each condition, and these response surfaces were compared using regression analyses.
A particularly surprising result from this study is that in some instances the correlations between the judged 3D structures obtained by a given observer using different response tasks were close to zero! Subsequent analyses revealed, however, that almost all of the variance between these conditions could be accounted for by an affine shearing transformation in depth like the one depicted in Figure 2. It is important to recognize that this pattern of results is perfectly consistent with the inherent ambiguity of shading information described by Belumeur et al. [4]. These findings indicate that when observers make judgments about objects depicted in shaded images, they are quite accurate at estimating those aspects of structure that are uniquely specified by the available information – in other words, those that are invariant over affine stretching or shearing transformations in depth (Figure 2). Because all remaining aspects of structure are inherently ambiguous, observers must subconsciously adopt some type strategy to constrain their responses, and it appears that these strategies do not necessarily remain constant Figure 3. Alternative methods for the psychophysical measurement of perceived 3D shape. (a) depicts a possible stimulus for a relative depth probe task. On each trial, observers must indicate by pressing an appropriate response key whether the red dot or the green dot appears closer in depth. (b) shows a common procedure for making judgments about local surface orientation.
On each trial, observers are required to adjust the orientation of a circular disk until it appears to fit within the tangent plane of the depicted surface. Note that the probe on the upper right of the object appears to satisfy this criterion, but that the one on the lower left does not. (c) shows a possible stimulus for a depth-profile adjustment task. On each trial, an image of an object is presented with a linear configuration of equally spaced red dots superimposed on its surface. An identical row of dots is also presented against a blank background on a separate monitor, each of which can be moved in a perpendicular direction with a hand held mouse. Observers are required to adjust the dots on the second monitor to match the apparent surface profile in depth along the designated cross-section.
By obtaining multiple judgments at many different locations on the same object, it is possible with all of these procedures to compute a specific surface that is maximally consistent in a least-squares sense with the overall pattern of an observer’s judgments [18]. Across different response tasks. A similar result has also been reported by Cornelis et al. [21], who found affine shearing distortions between the judged 3D shapes of objects depicted in images viewed at different orientations.

The perceptual representation of 3D shape

Almost all existing theoretical models for computing the 3D structures of arbitrary surfaces from visual information are designed to generate a particular form of data structure that can be referred to generically as a ‘local property map’. The basic idea is quite simple and powerful. A visual scene is broken up into a matrix of small local neighborhoods, each of which is characterized by a number (or a set of numbers) to represent some particular local aspect of 3D structure, such as depth or orientation. This idea was first proposed over 50 years ago by James Gibson [23], although he eventually rejected it as one of his biggest mistakes [24].
One major shortcoming of local property maps as a possible data structure for the perceptual representation of 3D shape is that they are highly unstable. Consider what occurs, for example, when an object is viewed from multiple vantage points. In general, when an object moves relative to the observer (or vice versa), the depths and orientations of each visible surface point will change, so that any local property map that is based on those attributes will not exhibit the phenomenon of shape constancy. In principle, one could perform a rigid transformation of the perceived structure at different vantage points to see if they match. This would only work, however, if the perceived metric structure were veridical, and the empirical evidence shows quite clearly that is not the case. What type of data structure could potentially capture the qualitative aspects of 3D surface shape without also requiring an accurate or stable representation of local metric properties? It has long been recognized that a convincing pictorial representation of an object can sometimes be achieved by drawing just a few salient features (see Figure 4). For example, one such feature that is especially important is the occlusion contour that separates an object from its background [25].
Indeed, an occlusion contour presented in isolation (e.g. a silhouette) can often provide sufficient information to recognize an object, and to reliably segment it into distinct parts [26–28]. Another class of features that is perceptually important for segmentation and recognition includes the edges and vertices of polyhedral surfaces [29,30], and there is some evidence to suggest that the topological arrangement of these features provides a relatively stable data structure that can facilitate the phenomenal experience of shape constancy (see Box 1).
Within the literature on both human andmachine vision, therehave beennumerous attempts to analyze line drawings of 3D scenes. This research was initially focused on the interpretation of line drawings of simple plane-faced polyhedra [31,32]. Researcherswere able to exhaustively catalog the different types of vertices that can arise in line drawings of these objects, and then use that catalog to labelwhich lines in a drawing correspond to convex, concave, or occluding edges. Similar procedures were later developed to deal with other types of lines corresponding to shadows or cracks, and the occlusion contours of smoothly curved surfaces [30]. A closely related approach has also been used to segment objects into parts, which can be distinguished from one another by different types of features of which they are composed. The arrangement of these parts provides sufficient information to successfully recognize a wide variety of common 3D objects [33].Moreover, because the classification of verticesandedges is generally unaffected by small changes in 3D orientation, this method of recognition has a high degree of viewpoint-invariance relative to other approaches that have been proposed in the literature.
There is an abundance of evidence from pictorial art and human psychophysics that occlusion contours and edges of high curvature play an important role in the perception of 3D shape, but the mechanisms by which these features are identified within 2D images remain poorly understood. One important reason why edge labeling is so difficult is that the pattern of 2D image structure can be influenced by a wide variety of environmental factors. Occlusion contours and edges of high curvature are most often specified by abrupt changes of image intensity, but similar abrupt changes can also be produced by cast shadows, specular highlights, or changes in surface reflectance (see Figures 1 and 4).
Human observers generally have little difficulty identifying these features, but there are no formal algorithms that are capable of achieving comparable performance, despite over three decades of active research on this problem. The identification of image features is also of crucial importance for traditional computational analyses of 3D structure from motion or binocular disparity. These analyses are all based on a fundamental assumption that Figure 4. Some important features of local surface structure that can provide perceptually useful information about 3D shape even within schematic line drawings. (a) and (b) show shaded images of a smoothly curved surface and a plane-faced polyhedron. (c) and (d) show schematic line drawings of these scenes in which the lines denote occlusion contours or edges of high curvature. Several different types of singular points (identified with arrows) are particularly informative for specifying the qualitative 3D structure of an observed scene. A more complete analysis of these different types of image features is described in a classic paper by Malik [30].
visual features must projectively correspond to fixed locations on an object’s surface. Although this assumption is satisfied for the motions or binocular disparities of textured surfaces, it is often strongly violated for other types of visual features, such as smooth occlusion boundaries, specular highlights or patterns of smooth shading. There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest, however, that the optical deformations of these features do not pose an impediment to perception, but rather, provide powerful sources of information for the perceptual analysis of 3D shape [34]. Some example videos that demonstrate the perceptual effects of these deformations are provided in the supplementary materials to this article.1

The neural processing of 3D shape

Although most of our current knowledge about the perception of 3D shape has come from computational analyses and psychophysical investigations, there has been a growing effort in recent years to identify the neural mechanisms that are involved in the processing of 3D shape. The first sources of evidence relating to this topic were obtained from lesion studies in monkeys [35,36]. The results revealed that animals with bilateral ablations of the inferior temporal cortex are severely impaired in their ability to discriminate complex 2D patterns or shapes. Animals with lesions in the parietal cortex, by contrast, exhibit normal shape discrimination, but are impaired in their ability to localize objects in space. These findings led to a widely accepted conclusion that the primate visual system contains two functionally distinct visual pathways: a ventral ‘what’ pathway directed towards the temporal lobe that is involved in object recognition, and a dorsal ‘where’ pathway directed towards the parietal lobe that is involved in spatial localization and the visual control of action.
The best available method for studying the neural processing of 3D shape in humans involves functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures local variations in blood flow in different regions of the cortex, thus providing an indirect measure of neural activation. This technique is most often used to compare patterns of brain activation in different experimental conditions. For example, to identify the neural mechanisms involved in the processing of 3D structure from motion, several investigators have compared the activation patterns produced when observers view 3D objects defined by motion relative to those that are produced by moving 2D patterns [37–40]. One limitation of this approach, however, is that it can be difficult to distinguish which specific stimulus attributes are responsible for any observed differences in neural activation. Increased activation in the 3D motion condition could be due to the processing of 3D shape, or it could be due to the processing of 3D motion trajectories. The best way of overcoming this difficulty is to compare the activation patterns for different response tasks applied to identical sets of stimuli [41,42].
Areas involved in the processing of 3D shape would be expected to become more active when making judgments about 3D shape than would otherwise be the case for other possible response tasks, such as judgments of surface texture or motion trajectories. Recent research using both of these procedures for the perception of 3D shape from motion, shading and texture has produced a growing body of evidence that judgments of 3D shape involve both the dorsal and ventral pathways [37–40,43,44], which is somewhat surprising given the Box 1.

Sources of perceptual constancy

An important topic in the theoretical analysis of visual information is to identify informative properties of optical structure that remain stable over changing viewing directions. For example, researchers have shown that the terminations of edges and occlusion contours in an image have a highly stable topological structure. Although these features can sometimes appear or disappear suddenly, these transitions are highly constrained and only occur in a few possible ways, which have been exhaustively enumerated [57]. Tarr and Kriegman [58] have recently demonstrated that the occurrence of these abrupt events can dramatically improve the ability of observers to detect small changes in object orientation.
Stability over change can also be important for the perceptual representation of 3D shape. Unlike other aspects of local surface structure (e.g. depth or orientation), curvature is an intrinsically defined attribute that does not require an external frame of reference. Thus, because it provides a high degree of viewpoint-invariance, a curvature based representation of 3D shape could be especially useful for achieving perceptual constancy. Several sources of evidence suggest that local maxima or minima of curvature provide important landmarks in the perceptual organization of 3D surface structure. For example, when observers are asked to segment an object’s occlusion boundary into perceptually distinct parts, they most often localize the part boundaries at local extrema of negative curvature [26–28]. A similar pattern of results is obtained when observers are asked to place markers along the ridges and valleys of a surface [59]. These judgments remain remarkably stable over changes in surface orientation, and the marked points generally coincide with local maxima of curvature for ridges and localminima of curvature for valleys. There is other anecdotal evidence to suggest, moreover, that the depiction of smooth surfaces in line drawings can be perceptually enhanced by the inclusion of curvature ridge lines (see Figure I).
Figure I. Two methods of pictorial depiction of smoothly curved surfaces. (a) a shaded image of a randomly shaped object; (b) the same object depicted as a line drawing. The lines on the figure denote two different types of surface features: smooth occlusion contours, where the surface orientation at each point is perpendicular to the line of sight, and curvature ridge lines, where the surface curvature perpendicular to the contour is a local maximum or minimum. The configuration of contours provides compelling information about the overall pattern of 3D shape.
Functional roles that have traditionally been attributed to these pathways. As would be expected from the results of earlier lesion studies, judgments of 3D shape produce significant activations in ventral regions of the cortex, although it is interesting to note that these do not overlap perfectly with regions involved in the analysis of 2D shape [45,46]. The analysis of 3D shape also occurs at numerous locations within the dorsal pathway, including the medial temporal cortex, and at several sites along the intraparietal sulcus. Someof these findings are also consistent with the results obtained using electrophysiological recordings of single neurons within the dorsal and ventral pathways of monkeys [47–50]. For example, Janssen, Vogels and Orban [51–54] have shownthatneuronswithinthe inferior temporal cortex that are selective to 3D surface curvature from binocular disparity are concentrated in a small area of the superior temporal sulcus, but that neurons selective to 2D shape are more broadly distributed.
It has generally been assumed within the field of neurophysiology that the monkey visual system provides an adequate model of human brain function, but, until quite recently, there has been no way to test the validity of that generalization. That situation has changed, however, owing to recent methodological innovations [55,56], which now make it possible to perform fMRI on alert behaving monkeys using exactly the same experimental protocols as are used with humans. In one of the first studies to exploit this approach, Vanduffel et al. [56] compared the patterns of activation produced by 2D and 3D motion displays in humans and monkeys. Although the activations of ventral cortex were quite similar in both species, the results obtained in parietal cortex were remarkably different.
Whereas the perception of 3D structure from motion produces numerous activations in humans along the intraparietal sulcus, those activations are completely absent in monkeys. These findings suggest that there may be substantial differences between the human and monkey visual systems in how visual information is analyzed for the determination of 3D shape. Because this is such a new area of research, there is much too little data at present to draw any firm conclusions. However, this is likely to be a particularly active topic of investigation over the next several years (see also Box 2).


Psychophysical investigations have revealed that observers’ judgments about 3D shape are often systematically distorted, but that these distortions are constrained to a limited set of transformations in a manner that is consistent with current computational analyses. These findings suggest that the perceptual representation of 3D shape is likely to be primarily based on qualitative aspects of 3D structure that can be determined reliably from visual information. One possible form of data structure for representing these qualitative properties involves arrangements of salient image features, such as occlusion contours or edges of high curvature, whose topological structures remain relatively stable over viewing directions. Other recent empirical studies have shown that the neural processing of 3D shape is broadly distributed throughout the ventral and dorsal visual pathways, suggesting that processes in both of these pathways are of fundamental importance to human perception and cognition.
The preparation of this manuscript was supported by grants from NIH (R01-Ey12432) and NSF (BCS-0079277).
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† Why are observers insensitive to potential information from motion and/or binocular disparity, by which it would be theoretically possible to perceive very accurately metrical relations among distance intervals in different direction? One speculative answer is that these relations might not be important for tasks that are crucial for survival.
† How do observers achieve stable perceptions of 3D structure from visual information that is inherently ambiguous? One possibility is that they exploit regularities of the natural environment to select an interpretation that is statistically most likely, although there is little hard evidence to support that hypothesis.
† How is the phenomenal experience of perceptual constancy achieved, even though observers are unable to make accurate judgments of 3D metric structure? That constancy is possible could indicate that the perceptual representation of 3D shape involves a relatively abstract data structure based on qualitative surface properties that can be reliably determined from visual information.
† How do observers identify different types of image features, such as occlusion contours, cast shadows, specular highlights or variations in surface reflectance? This is one of the oldest problems in computational vision, but researchers have made surprisingly little headway.
† How do observers obtain useful information about 3D shape from optical deformations of image features, such as smooth occlusion contours, diffuse shading, specular highlights or cast shadows, which do not remain projectively attached to fixed locations on an object’s surface, as is required by current computational models of 3D structure from motion?
† What are the neural mechanisms by which 3D shapes are perceptually analyzed? Current research has identified several anatomical locations of 3D shape processing, but the precise computational functions performed in those regions have yet to be determined.
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figurative language and static depictions


Do we view the world differently if it is described to us in figurative rather than literal terms? An answer to this question would reveal something about both the conceptual representation of figurative language and the scope of top down influences on scene perception. Previous work has shown that participants will look longer at a path region of a picture when it is described with a type of figurative language called fictive motion (The road goes through the desert) rather than without (The road is in the desert). The current experiment provided evidence that such fictive motion descriptions affect eye movements by evoking mental representations of motion. If participants heard contextual information that would hinder actual motion, it influenced how they viewed a picture when it was described with fictive motion. Inspection times and eye movements scanning along the path increased during fictive motion descriptions when the terrain was first described as difficult (The desert is hilly) as compared to easy (The desert is flat); there were no such effects for descriptions without fictive motion. It is argued that fictive motion evokes a mental simulation of motion that is immediately integrated with visual processing, and hence figurative language can have a distinct effect on perception.


Our comprehension of a picture is more than the sum of its pixels; our comprehension of a sentence is more than the sum of its words. Both words and pictures need interpretation. When spoken words describe what we see in front of us, we must integrate these interpretations on the fly. How do these visual and verbal processes interact? Since Cooper (1974) demonstrated that eye movements are often directed towards objects referred to in speech, research has revealed a close integration of visual and linguistic processing (see Henderson & Ferreira, 2004; Trueswell & Tanenhaus, 2005). For example, visual processes are engaged during processing syntactic structure (Tanenhaus, Spivey Knowlton, Eberhard, & Sedivy, 1995), differentiating semantic roles (Altmann & Kamide, 1999) and resolving anaphoric reference (Runner, Sussman, & Tanenhaus, 2003), and the degree to which listeners’ eye movements are coupled to speakers’ reflects levels of comprehension (Richardson & Dale, 2005). Yet studies of verbal and visual integration have focused on literal language. Even though figurative expressions are pervasive in everyday language and exist in all cultures (Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff, 1987), research has not addressed how figurative language affects the process through which we perceive the world. In the current experiment, we investigated how a scene would be perceived when it was described by forms of literal and figurative language that are reported to have equivalent meaning. If the mental representation of a figurative expression is identical to that of a literal expression, then there would be no difference between eye movement patterns. Similarly, if the mental representation of a figurative expression does not interact with visual processes, then there would be no difference between eye movement patterns. Therefore, any differences that are present in eye movement patterns can tell us about both the distinct mental representations that are evoked by figurative language, and the scope of the integration between visual and verbal processing.

Fictive motion

We chose to study a class of figurative spatial descriptions known as fictive motion (FM) sentences. Two examples are shown in (1a) and (1b). (1a) The road goes through the desert (1b) The fence follows the coastline Pervasive in English and many other languages, including Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese, the descriptions are figurative because they contain a motion verb but describe no motion (Huumo, 2005; Matlock, 2004a; Matsumoto, 1996) They highlight the spatial relation between a path or linear entity and a landmark (Talmy, 2000), for instance, the road and the desert in (1a) and the fence and the coastline in (1b). In this way, these fictive motion descriptions are equivalent to literal spatial descriptions, or non-fictive motion sentences (non-FM) such as those in (2a) and (2b). (2a) The road is in the desert (2b) The fence is next to the coastline
Experimental evidence supports the idea that simulated motion is evoked by fictive motion sentences such as (1a) and (1b). In a study by Matlock, Ramscar, and Boroditsky (2005) it was shown that thinking about the meaning of fictive motion sentences affected how people would conceptualize time spatially. Participants in the study were primed with FM sentences (e.g., The tattoo runs along his spine) or non-FM sentences (e.g., The tattoo is next to his spine) before answering this ambiguous question about time: “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now that it has been re-scheduled?” The expression “move forward” is ambiguous because both Monday and Friday are possible answers. When primed with descriptions with fictive motion, participants in Matlock et al. (2005) were encouraged to take an ego-moving perspective and more likely to say Friday (versus Monday), but when primed with non-FM descriptions they were split between Monday and Friday.
Similarly, fictive motion direction (either away or toward, as in The road goes all the way to New York or The road comes all the way from New York) affected how participants conceptualized of time, namely, more Fridays with going away and more Mondays with coming toward. Together, the results of Matlock et al. (2005) parallel those of other studies on time, space, and motion (Boroditsky, 2000; Boroditsky & Ramscar, 2002; Ramscar, Matlock, & Boroditsky, 2005), suggesting that thinking about motion (fictive or actual) induces an ego-moving perspective when thinking about time.
We have found suggestive evidence that fictive motion descriptions can have an immediate and distinct effect on visual processing. Matlock and Richardson (2004) presented participants with simple drawings of paths such as roads, rivers and pipelines. They heard either FM or non-FM descriptions of these paths while their gaze was tracked. The FM descriptions caused participants to spend more time inspecting the region of the path. These gaze differences did not merely result from minor differences in sentence length. Nor did they result from different semantic content, for FM and non-FM sentences were judged as having similar meanings, to be equally semantic sensible, and to be equally good descriptions of the pictures..
Why might fictive motion descriptions have influenced eye movements in this way? One possibility is that participants simply found the FM descriptions to be more interesting, and so viewers paid more attention to the paths. Another possibility is that comprehending fictive motion descriptions evokes mental representations of motion (Matlock, 2004a, 2004b; Matlock et al., 2005; Talmy, 2000), and that these motion representations result in more visual attention being directed to the path. The first goal of the current experiment was to distinguish between these two possibilities. The second goal was to learn more about the eye movements produced by fictive motion descriptions.
Is it simply that the whole path attracts more visual attention, or do fictive motion descriptions also evoke a pattern of eye movements that is related to motion along a path? We addressed these goals by introducing an additional experimental factor and an additional dependent variable. In Matlock’s (2004b) reading time studies, participants read stories about protagonists travelling through spatial domains (e.g., valley), followed by target sentences with fictive motion (e.g., The road goes through the valley). In general, participants were quicker to process fictive motion target sentences after reading about terrains that were easy to traverse (e.g., The valley was flat and smooth) versus terrains that were difficult to traverse (e.g., The valley was bumpy and uneven). Critically, there was no difference for comparable literal target sentences without fictive motion (e.g., The road is in the valley). These results suggest that the comprehension of descriptions of fictive motion across a domain is influenced by factors that would affect actual motion across the domain. Following that logic, in the current experiment we presented participants with descriptions of easy and difficult terrains and then FM sentences or non- FM sentences. If terrain information modulated looking behavior with FM sentences, it would show that it was not merely something generally eye catching about the combination of non-literal motion verb and path preposition (e.g., runs along, goes through) that influenced the looking times in Matlock and Richardson (2004), but rather, the engagement of contextually appropriate simulated motion.
We hypothesized that fictive motion descriptions would activate representations of motion. If so, then perhaps we would see not only longer looking times to the path, but also sequences of eye movements that correspond to motion. Spivey and colleagues found that as participants listened to a narrative and looked at blank screen (Spivey & Geng, 2001) or closed their eyes (Spivey, Tyler, Richardson, & Young, 2000), they tended to make eye movements that corresponded to spatial content in the stories. For example, more vertical eye movements were made when hearing about someone repelling down a canyon wall, and more horizontal eye movements were made when hearing about a train pull out of a station. Eye movements were increased along a specific axis of motion, rather than sequentially in a particular direction. We adapted this idea to our experiment, and counted the number of occasions that participants made path scanning eye movements, in which one region of the path was fixated immediately after any other path region. In addition to looking time differences, we predicted that participants would make more path scanning looks along the path during a fictive motion description when they had previous heard a description of a difficult rather than easy terrain, but there would be no such difference for non-fictive motion descriptions.


Participants. Sixty-three Stanford University psychology students with normal or corrected vision participated. Data from six participants were discarded because a successful calibration was not achieved. Stimuli. The visual stimuli consisted of 32 pictures of spatial scenes. All of these pictures were matched on luminance, and all were created with a Microsoft drawing program. Of the 32 pictures,16 were experimental and 16 were fillers. All experimental pictures contained two paths, one represented vertically in the picture plane, and the other horizontally (see Figure 1). These paths were traversable objects, such as roads or trails, or linearly extended objects, such fences or rows of trees.
The verbal stimuli consisted of 64 sentences recorded in 16 blocks of four sentences. Each block contained two pairs of descriptions. One pair described the vertical path, and the other described the horizontal path. Each pair contained two experiment sentences: a fictive motion (FM) sentence and a comparable non fictive motion (non-FM) sentence, such as The road runs through the valley and The road is in the valley. The experiment was designed such that each participant would hear one sentence from each of the 16 blocks in addition to 16 sentences for the filler pictures. Norming studies reported in Matlock and Richardson (2004) showed that these FM and non-FM sentences were judged to be equal in semantic content and semantic sensibility, and to be equally good descriptions of the scenes.
We recorded two terrain descriptions to precede each experimental sentence. Each terrain description referred to a region in which movement could be conceptualized as easy or difficult, for example, The valley was flat and smooth (easy), and The valley was full of potholes described (difficult). We did a norming study to ensure that all sentences would in fact be equally compatible with the scenes they described. The participants were told to judge how well the sentences go with the scenes in the pictures. Using a scale that ranged from 1 for “not at all” to 7 for “very well“, 10 Stanford undergraduates judged all pairs to be well-matched. The means were FM + slow-terrain 5.72, FM + fast-terrain 5.62, non-FM + slow-terrain 5.74, non-FM + fast-terrain 5.73. No combination of terrain description and experimental sentence was any better than the other, F(3, 124) = .4, p > .1, suggesting that all sentence-picture combinations were plausible pairings. In addition to the primary stimuli, we created filler descriptions for all filler sentences.


An ASL 504 remote eye tracking camera was positioned at the base of a 17” LCD stimulus display that was set to 800×600 resolution. Participants were unrestrained and sat about 30” from the screen. The stimuli were 560 pixels square, which subtended approximately 18º square of visual angle. The camera detected pupil and corneal reflection position from the right eye, and the eye-tracking PC calculated point-of-gaze in terms of coordinates on the stimulus display. This information was passed to a PowerMac G4, which controlled the stimulus presentation and collected gaze duration data. Prior to the experiment proper, participants went through a 9 point calibration routine that took one to three minutes.


After establishing a successful eye track, participants were told: “Look at the pictures and listen to the sentences.” Participants were first presented with 4 practice trials and then a random sequence of 16 filler trials and 16 experimental trials. At the beginning of every trial, they first saw a gray square that was the same size and luminance as the pictures. Next they heard a terrain sentence or a filler sentence. After 500ms, they saw a new picture and after a further 1000ms, they heard a FM sentence, a non-FM sentence, or a filler sentence. The picture remained on screen for a total of 6000ms. The trial ended with a 2000ms inter-stimulus interval.


Eye movements were recorded for the 6000ms that the picture was on the screen. The eye movement data consisted of which regions-of-interest were fixated at 1/30th of a second intervals. The path region-of-interest was a strip 80 pixels wide that extended vertically or horizontally across the image. This path was further divided into seven equally sized, square regions-of-interest.


Participants’ eye movement data were parsed into two dependent variables: the total looking time in the region of the path, and the frequency of path scanning fixations, in which participants fixated one path region followed immediately by another. Analyses were performed by participants (F1) and items (F2). Though we intended for all paths in the visual images to have symmetrical arrangements, the path in one image was erroneously asymmetric; it contained an anomaly on one end (water coming out of a garden hose). As additional evidence of this image being inappropriate for our purposes, it elicited unusually long looking times to the bottom region of the vertical path, regardless of fictive or terrain condition. For this reason, that item was removed from all analyses. The listeners’ eye movements were influenced by a combination of terrain descriptions and fictive motion language, as shown in Figure 2. As predicted, looking times to the path were affected by an interaction of sentence type and terrain description, (F1(1,56) = 11.78, p <. 001; F2(1,14) = 15.25, p <. 001). Critically, with FM sentences, participants spent more time inspecting paths after difficult terrain descriptions (M = 2014ms) than after easy terrain descriptions (1621ms) (Tukey’s LSD, p < .05), but for non-FM, there was no reliable difference (1681ms and 1847ms, respectively). There were no main effects of terrain (F1 (1,56)=2.30; F2(1,14) = 0.10) or sentence type (F1 (1,56)=0.45; F2(1,14) = 1.21) for looking times.
This pattern of results was echoed by analysis of the path scanning data. There was a significant interaction between sentence type and terrain description (F1(1,56) = 6.87, p <. 02; F2(1,14) = 4.77, p <. 05). Participants made more path scanning fixations after hearing a FM sentence preceded by a difficult (M = 3.6) rather than an easy terrain description (M = 2.8) (Tukey’s LSD, p < .05), but there was no reliable difference for non-FM sentences (2.86 and 3.16, respectively). There were no main effects of terrain (F1 (1,56)=1.57; F2(1,14) = 0.16) or sentence type (F1 (1,56)=1.02; F2(1,14) = 0.98).


Figurative language can have an immediate effect on how we look at the world. Our results suggest that this is because of the distinct spatial representations that figurative descriptions can evoke that their literal counterparts do not. The way participants inspected paths was affected by information about the terrain and the figurative language that described the path. Critically, eye movements were not influenced by descriptions of difficult or easy terrain by themselves. They were influenced only when the terrain descriptions were paired with fictive motion sentences. A plausible explanation for the interaction between fictive motion language and terrain information, we argue, is that comprehending a fictive motion sentence involves a mental representation of motion along a path (Langacker, 1987; Matlock, 2004b; Talmy, 2000), and that the representation incorporates information about terrain. Consequently, difficult terrain would result in slow motion, for example, and the resulting representation is shown by the longer amount of time participants looked at a path and the increased number of fixations scanning along its length. Our interpretation of these results is congruent with perceptual simulation theories (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997; Zwaan, 2004), which hold that language comprehension is a process of generating perceptual-motor representations. Comprehension of fictive motion descriptions led to eye movements along the depicted path that mirrored an internal simulation of movement. More generally, simulated motion is known to figure into a broad range of cognitive processes, such as inferring motion from static images (Freyd, 1983; Kourtzi & Kanwisher, 2000), comprehending descriptions of actual motion (Zwaan, Madden, Yaxley, & Aveyard, 2004), and solving everyday physics problems (Schwartz & Black, 1999).
Our fictive motion experiments are an interesting test case for perceptual simulation theories for two reasons. First, previous experiments compared different scenes, such as the nail was hammered into the floor versus into the wall (Stanfield & Zwaan, 2001), or concepts, such as a watermelon versus half a watermelon (Solomon & Barsalou, 2001), and found evidence for differing perceptual-motor activation. In contrast, we are comparing literal and figurative spatial descriptions of the same scene. Though the descriptions are equivalent in objective terms, they have different interactions with perceptual mechanisms. Therefore, we can distinguish between the identical semantic commitments of the sentences and their differing perceptual simulations. Second, previous experiments have been forced to infer the involvement of perceptualmotor representations in language comprehension from reaction time differences in concurrent tasks, such as sensibility judgements, picture matching or visual discriminations (Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002; Richardson, Spivey, McRae, & Barsalou, 2003; Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). In contrast to these studies, our eye movement paradigm allows us to directly measure the effect of figurative language on perceptual mechanisms that are unconstrained by any task other than looking and listening. In this experiment all we manipulated was the presence of figurative language, a change that did not alter the literal meaning or truth conditions of the sentence. Nevertheless this change appeared to alter visual processing. We argue that eye movements were affected because fictive motion language evokes a dynamic mental simulation which interacts with the ways in which the visual system interprets and inspects the world. Our findings, which have consequences for both the linguistic accounts of figurative language and the scope of top-down influences in visual perception, help illuminate the ways in which verbal and visual processes are intertwined.
The authors are indebted to Herbert Clark, Natasha Kirkham, Paul Maglio, Michael Ramscar, Michael Spivey, and our anonymous reviewers for helpful discussions and comments.

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Psychology Department, University of California, Santa Cruz Teenie Matlock, Social and Cognitive Sciences, University of California, Merced
Contact information: Daniel Richardson, Psychology Department, 273 Social Sciences 2, Santa Cruz, CA 95064



Christian view and justification of tattooing

I. A Brief Historical Timeline of Tattoos

In October 1991, a five thousand year old corpse was found frozen in a glacier between Italy and Austria. The body of this man (later called Otzi) is considered the best preserved corpse of the Bronze Age every found, and dates to around 3300 B.C. The skin of Otzi has become of great interest because it bears several tattoos: a cross, six straight lines fifteen centimeters long, and numerous parallel lines.1 Tattooed mummies have also been discovered. One of the best preserved is Amunet, a former priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes during the XI or 21st Dynasty of Egypt (2160-1994 B.C.). In approximately 1400 B.C., Levitical law (Leviticus 19:28) reveals that tattooing was a known practice in ancient Israel and amongst their Mesopotamian neighbors. Tattooing is also mentioned by a remarkable number of ancient Greek and Roman writers including Herodotus, Plutarch, Plato, Aristophanes, and Pliny the Elder. In the first century, the Roman historian Herodian described animal body markings of the Celts, and then described the people of northern Britain as “Picts” after the display of such images. Tattoos are also mentioned by Julius Caesar in his description of the Gallic wars. Throughout church history, tattoos are referred to in edicts, councils, and personal correspondence amongst clergy.
In 1769, James Cook coined the word tattoo after observing the “rapid rhythmic rapping” as needles where hit with a stick into the skin of Tahitians and New Zealanders. By the late nineteenth century, Charles Darwin observed in his book The Descent of Man, that aboriginal people within every country were tattooed. On December 8, 1891, the first electric tattoo machine was registered by its inventor, Samuel O’Reilly, at the United States Patent Office. This invention was based on an embroidering machine patented by Thomas Edison in 1875. Tattoos began to draw the attention of the public media and in 1936, Life magazine created a stir with an article that claimed one in ten Americans are tattooed. Differing numbers indicate the extent of tattoos within our society today. National Geographic News stated that 15% of all Americans are tattooed7 and the Alliance of Professional Tattooists estimates over 39 million Americans have tattoos. Details magazine published a poll that stated 22% of 18-25 year olds have at least one tattoo. It is also estimated that that 60% of those tattooed are women. Another study estimates that over half of all adolescents are planning on getting tattooed. Tattoos have invaded popular culture, and can be seen on celebrities, lawyers, accountants, Madison Avenue executives, and professional athletes.8 According to US News and World Report, tattooing is the country’s sixth fastest growing retail business and growing at the rate of one new tattoo parlor opening its doors every day. One estimate cites 30,000 tattoo artists working in the United States today. There are also at least eight major tattoo magazines published regularly in the United States, and articles about tattooing appear in magazines, journals, and small town newspapers on a regular basis.

II. The Primary Positions Regarding Tattoos

Within the first chapter of the Bible, humankind is described in an incredibly unique way. Genesis 1:26-28 states that humankind is created in the “image” of God and according to His “likeness.” The Hebrew word used for “image” is tselem. It occurs 17 times in the Old Testament, and comes from the root word which means “to cut or carve.”11 Tselem is also used to describe the physical resemblance or concrete similarity of people, two dimensional objects (coins), and three dimensional objects such as idols, statues, gods, animals, and tumors. The Hebrew word used for “likeness” is demuth which occurs 25 times in the Old Testament, and comes from the root word meaning “to be like.” Demuth is used to indicate abstract similarity. Therefore tselem and demuth are mutually defining, synonymous concepts which portray humankind’s likeness to God. From these passages, various aspects of the IOG may be implied. 1. Structurally, humans are endowed with certain traits which make them distinct including the capacity to obtain knowledge, reason, and make moral decisions. 2. Functionally, humans are able to operate as God’s representatives on earth, namely through ruling over nature (Genesis 1:26, 2:5; Psalm 8:5- 6). 3. Relationally, humans are able to mirror the unity within the trinity through relationships with God and other humans. Teleologically, humans are created to glorify God through making visible His character. These aspects of the IOG within humankind encompass the entire person: spiritual and physical.
I agree with Herman Bavinck’s affirmation of the body being included in the IOG: “Man’s body also belongs to the image of God… The body is not a tomb, but a wondrous masterpiece of God, constituting the essence of man as fully as the soul.”16 In his 1979 Audiences, Pope John Paul II began laying foundations for a theology of the body, repeatedly emphasizing the urgency of the task.17 In her book, Toward a Theology of the Body, Mary Prokes defines the theology of the body as, “that discipline which reflects upon a faith understanding of the lived body and the material universe.”18 Therefore, the IOG and body theology are the crucial elements which need to be considered in deciphering a Christian ethic of tattooing.

A. Tattoos Are Immoral

One primary position concerning tattoos is that they are immoral because they desecrate the IOG. Proponents of this view would say: 1. Structurally, tattoos are immoral for they violate our conscience (Romans 2:15) because they violate the Law (Leviticus 19:28). In reference to his tattoo, one Christian writes, “With my depraved and back-slidden mind, I justified an abomination to God Himself, who instructs us through His divine law not to print any marks on our bodies (Leviticus 19:28).” 2. Functionally, tattoos are immoral. As God’s representatives, we are to care for creation (including our bodies) through exercising responsible dominion. Tattoos mutilate the body which is supposed to be nurtured and sustained, and make it vulnerable to infection. Tracy records the negative perception of tattooing in her book, In the Flesh: “Practices such as piercing, scarification, and branding are linked to anorexia, bulimia, and what has been called ‘delicate self-harm syndrome,’ which is an addictive, repetitive, non-decorative form of skin cutting, usually on the arm or legs. This is considered an expression of absolute hatred or anger.” 3. Relationally, tattoos are immoral because they hinder unity within the body of Christ. Tattoos could be seen as immoral by a fellow believer, and may violate their conscience (1 Corinthians 8:9-12). Steve Gilbert states: “many people – especially those belonging to nonconformist groups – get tattoos to demonstrate their defiance of traditional authority… Many studies link multiple tattoos with antisocial personality, an increased incidence of assaultive behavior, impulsivity, and difficulties in heterosexual adjustment.” 4. Teleologically, tattoos are immoral because they glorify the ungodly and vulgar, instead of God’s righteous character. Tattoos may also convey vanity and arrogance; vices inappropriate for believers (1 Peter 3:3). Jean-Chris Miller verifies this point by stating that, “Death and darkness have always been a classic tattoo theme – skulls, snakes, demons, spiders, and spider webs are all conventional tattoo imagery.”

B. Tattoos Are Moral

The other primary position concerning tattooing is that it is moral because it is simply an expression of the IOG. Proponents of this view would say: 1. Structurally, tattooing is moral because humankind is created with the ability to appreciate beauty and art, and decorate themselves accordingly. The Body Art Book identifies “aesthetics” as one of the many reasons why people get tattoos 2. Functionally, tattooing is moral since humankind has free will and believers are free in Christ to do what they want with their own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:12). Jean-Chris Miller bluntly states, “It’s your body and you can do what you like with it.” 3. Relationally, tattooing is moral for it accounts for diversity amongst believers. Just as God created humans with different colored skin, so people who are tattooed with different colored skin shouldn’t be prejudiced against. Unity should not be based on outward appearance, but on spiritual matters (Philippians 2:2). Amy Krakow begs for unity amongst humankind when she exclaims that tattoos are, “Just ink; body art. Not some scarlet letter telling the world we’re wanton criminals, sexual perverts, biker scum, sailors, soldiers or just plain weird.” 4. Teleologically, tattoos are moral for they are a medium by which a believer can communicate God’s character to the external world, as well as to their own internal world. A. Gell expresses the external as well as internal communicatory nature of tattoos by saying, “The inside-facing and the outside-facing skins are… one indivisible structure, and hence the skin continually communicates the external world to the internal one, and the internal world to the external one.”

III. Key Biblical Texts

The Hebrew word translated tattoo in the NASB, qaaqa, is only used once in the Old Testament. Qaaqa is defined as a “cut, incision” or “gross cutting of the skin.” While the Anchor Bible Commentary suggests that its etymology is unknown27, Strong’s believes it comes from the word koa which has the sense of cutting off. Yet in context, it could possibly refer to painting or scarring of the skin – both which were non-verbal signs of mourning. I believe that this is the proper understanding of qaaqa. I do not think it refers to cutting or gashing oneself, for that concept is referred to earlier in the verse by using the word sehret which refers to an “incision.” Strong’s suggest that its primitive root is sarat which can be translated “to cut in pieces.” Self-mutilation of the body is clearly outlawed in numerous other passages which speak of Israelites gashing their bodies as part of their mourning rites (Deuteronomy 14:1, Jer 16:6, 41:5, 47:5, 48:37). Lacerations may have been inflicted to increase mourning, offer blood to the departed spirit, and may have been included in the rites of Baalistic fertility worship, especially when Baal appeared to be deaf to the pleas of his followers (1 Kings 18:28). In Babylonia, it was customary to brand a slave with his owner’s name. In Egypt, captives were branded with the name of a god or Pharaoh; the former captives belonged to the priesthood, and the latter to the state. The Anchor Bible suggests that rabbis believed the owner who marks his slave so that he does not run away, is exempt from the prohibition in Leviticus 19:28.32 The Tosepta records a tradition that the rabbinic prohibition is restricted to tattooing the name of another god. Liberal bible scholars believe that Moses either instituted tattooing or 27 Milgrom, Jacob, The Anchor Bible. Vol. 3A. Leviticus 17-22. (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 1694, 28Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible : Showing every word of the test of the common English version of the canonical books, and every occurence of each word in regular order appropriated one already existing to a religious purpose. According to Thomson, the prohibition in Leviticus referred only to heathen tattooing related to idolatry and superstition, and not the Moses-approved tattoo designs.33 Tattooing and self-mutilation in mourning for the dead, was a religious practice which Israelites participated in up to the exile (Jeremiah 16:6, 41:5), though it was originally pagan (Jeremiah 47:5, 48:37) and connected with the Canaanite fertility god. This idolatry explains the prohibition of tattooing: Yahweh’s exclusive claim is incompatible with the practices of a cult of the dead or a fertility cult. I believe the key principle in Leviticus 19:28 is: God does not want His people to be idolatrous. The emphatic theme of Leviticus is God calling His people to holiness. This particular portion of Leviticus explains standards which Israelites were to uphold in maintaining their relationship with the one true God. Kittel portrays the idolatrous nature of tattooing in the Israelite culture by stating, “When a person was tattooed he became dedicated to the god and became its servant, as well as came under its protection, so that he should not be harmed.” Since tattooing was done by the pagans as a sign of ownership and devotion to their gods, God did not want the Israelites to be identified with this idolatry.

B. New Testament

In the NASB, the word tattoo is not found. Galatians 6:17 contains the Greek word stigma which the NASB translates as “brand-marks”. The primary root of stigma is stizo, which means to “stick” or “prick” and leave a mark. In the Graeco-Roman world, brand marks were carried especially by domestic animals, slaves, criminals, and later soldiers. Later, in the imperial period, it seems the eastern practice of branding each slave in the mark of ownership was adopted. A stigma denoting an offence was marked on an offender, either for running away, stealing, or some other transgression. Recruits to the Roman army were marked by tattooed signs, most likely the abbreviated name of the emperor. Whereas the slave was marked on the forehead, the soldier was usually marked on the hand. The meaning of Paul’s stigma cannot be answered with complete certainty, yet I believe it refers to the abuse which he received for his devotion to Christ. Historically, tattoos were a source of imagery and exaggeration within literature. In the fifth century B.C., a slave in Aristophanes’ Wasps effectively complains, ‘I’m being tattooed to death with a stick.’ The humor seems to lie within the similarity of a tattoo to the black and blue marks left by a beating. I believe this explains the conceptual context of Paul’s metaphor. Perhaps referring to marks such as bruises and welts, the visible signs of the ill-treatment which he has received as a ‘slave of Christ,’ he compares them to tattoos, using the same comparison as the bruised slave in Aristophanes’ Wasps. Furthermore, in reference to the Old Testament, Paul may see in his stigma the signs of ownership showing that he, the slave of Jesus, is the property of the Lord. Therefore no one can harm him and go unpunished. It is also interesting to note that the stigma which Paul bears on his body is the antithesis to the circumcision of the flesh, which his Judaising opponents boasted. Therefore, the most convincing explanation of Paul’s stigma refers to his wounds and scars which he received for his faith in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:23-29; Acts 14:19). This was palpable proof that Paul suffered with his Lord (Rom. 8:17), bore in his body the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:10), and endured what is still lacking of the affliction of Christ (Col. 1:24). Therefore Paul’s stigma serves as a sign of his devotion to and ownership by Christ. C. Symbolism throughout the Old Testament and New Testament There are numerous other Biblical passages which do not specify qaaqa or stigma per se, but they may symbolically represent marks and writings on the body which represent ownership or devotion to a master. Kittel suggests, “There can be little doubt but that the mark of Cain was a tattooed sign (Genesis 4:5).” In Genesis 17:11, God institutes circumcision as a sign of the covenant between Him and Abraham. The Feast of the Passover, Redemption of the Firstborn, and the Shema (Exodus 13:9,16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) are to be taken seriously as if they were permanently marked on the hands and between the eyes as a symbol of remembrance. When a slave was pierced in the ear, it was a symbol on the body which marked the slave as permanently belonging to the master (Exodus 21:6). Another possible example of a marking which denoted a close relationship with God, may have been borne by the man who in the battle of Aphek showed King Ahab that he was a prophet by taking away the bandage over his forehead (1 Kings 20:41). In Isaiah 44:5, the prophet proclaims that one day people will say, ‘I am the LORD’S’ and another will write on his hand, ‘Belonging to the LORD.’ Also in Isaiah 49:16, God makes a confession about Jerusalem in a similar way when He says that, “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.” The prophet Ezekiel describes a mark which an angel sets on the foreheads of the faithful in his vision of judgment. This mark has the protective power to deliver them from the sword of the avenging angel (Ezekiel 9:4,6).The scars which the prophet had between the hands (possibly on the chest) in Zechariah 13:6 may possibly be understood to be a stigma. In Acts 18:18, Paul cut his hair in the fulfillment of a vow. Revelation 13:16,17, 14:9,11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4 all refer to the mark of the beast which the ungodly will receive on their forehead or hand as a symbol of their devotion to him. Yet those who are faithful to God will also receive a mark, the name of God or Christ (Revelation 3:12, 14:1, 19:6, 22:4). Lastly, at the return of Christ, he has a name written on His robe and thigh, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS (Revelation 19:16).” In conclusion, the OT, NT, and symbolic biblical references all indicate that tattoos are a symbol of ownership and devotion. These symbols further denote protection by the deity to which they refer, and the retribution punishment towards any one who harms them.

IV. A Response to Tattoos Being Immoral or Moral

1. I believe that tattoos do not inherently desecrate the structural aspect of the IOG, nor do I believe that tattoos inherently violate the conscience of a believer, since they are not bound by the Old Covenant. Leviticus 19:28 is part of the OT Law which Christ superceded (Ephesians 2:5). We are free from the Law, and are now under the Law of Christ which does not reiterate the prohibition against tattoos. I further believe that the timeless principle of Leviticus 19:28 remains clear: God’s people are not to be idolatrous. Another function of the structural aspect of the IOG is that humankind is created with the ability to appreciate beauty and art. I acknowledge that the appreciation of art is very subjective, and beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder. Whatever one’s personal opinion of beauty, tattoos are legally considered art. The government of California Governor, Jerry Brown officially If Christian’s still need to obey the law, then the previous verse suggests that it is immoral for men to shave (Leviticus 19:27). 13 proclaimed that tattoos are art on November 12, 1982.45 Also relevant, the U.S. Department of Labor classifies tattooists in the tax bracket A194 – Artists, Performers, and Related Workers. While tattooing is considered a legal art form in almost all of the United States, beauty and art can still be misplaced. Constantine, the first Christian emperor seems to acknowledge that some tattoos are ill-placed and violate the IOG more than others. He issued a decree saying that hardened criminals should not be inscribed on the face but rather on the hands or calves, for “This will ensure that the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, will be defiled as little as possible.” 2. In general, I believe that tattoos do not inherently desecrate the functional aspect of the IOG. While tattooing permanently marks the skin of the body, I do not think it can be classified with body modification and mutilation which alters the functional structure of the body. For this exact reason, the Catholic Catechism does not prohibit tattoos. With this said, I do believe that the psychological pain which motivates people to be mutilated may also motivate them to be tattooed. In this situation tattooing would be equivalent to mutilation and ‘delicate self-harm syndrome’ which is a desecration of the functional aspect of the IOG.
Also, tattoos do not desecrate the functional aspect of the IOG because they are not proven to cause disease. During the OT period, tattoo and scarification instruments were not sterile and were presumably a source of disease and infection. A common theme within the holiness code is that many of the laws were given to prevent the Israelites from experiencing illness. Therefore God’s prohibition against tattoos and mutilation in Leviticus 19:28 could have been His gracious prevention against disease. Current tattooing techniques which include one-time-use needles, individual ink pots, latex gloves and autoclave equipment have all but eliminated the spread of disease. The Center of Disease reports that no data exists in the U.S. which indicates that persons exposed to tattooing alone are at increased risk for Hepatitis C or HIV. 3. I believe that tattoos do hinder unity within the body of Christ by causing fellow believers with weak consciences to stumble. Christians are exhorted to take great pains to prevent violating a weaker brother’s conscience in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In reference to this passage, Bible scholar David Lowery suggests that, “Paul did not say that a knowledgeable Christian must abandon his freedom to the ignorant prejudice of a “spiritual” bigot. The “weak brother” was one who followed the example of another Christian, not one who carped and coerced that knowledgeable Christian into a particular behavioral pattern…The “weak brother” …was to be taught so that he too could enjoy his freedom.”50 With this in mind, I do not believe that the stigma of Paul mentioned in Galatians 6:17 would have caused division amongst believers, since they were involuntarily inflicted. Yet someone would only know the source of the stigma if Paul explained it. Therefore, I believe that tattoos within the Christian community need to be openly discussed and their meanings explained. People who believe that tattoos are immoral may have their conscience strengthened if they realized the meanings behind them, and people who believe tattoos are moral may have their conscience refocused if they realized the perception they portray. 4. I believe that tattoos may or may not communicate God’s character to the external world. If a person were to be tattooed simply to look macho or vain, this would be immoral and would not communicate the character of God (1 Peter 3:3).
Also, if tattoos portray something offensive or glorify sin, this obviously would not communicate the character of God. Yet I believe that tattoos do have the ability to communicate the character and truths of God to an external world, as well as remind the bearer of the truth which the tattoo symbolizes. This seems to be how the Bible describes the meaning of tattoos. Throughout the OT and NT period, tattooing symbolized ownership and devotion to the god which they portrayed. It also provides a reminder to the tattooed person as to whom they belong. Christians throughout history have been tattooed with Christian symbols as a sign of ownership and devotion to Christ. Victor of Vita writes in 480 A.D. of a Manichaenan monk in North Africa named Clementianus, who was found having written on his thigh, “Mani, the disciple of Jesus Christ.” Procopius of Gaza, writing at the end of the fifth century, says that many Christians chose to be marked on their wrists or arms with the sign of the cross or the name of Christ. “Thus it is apparent that religious tattoos – as decoration, identification, indication of baptism, sign of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a mark of membership – were in use at the same time that institutions of political authority were using tattoos in a punitive sense.” In Steve Gilbert’s source book, Tattoo History, he quotes numerous findings by German scholar Franz Joseph Dolger who has made a diligent search of early Christian documents in an effort to discover records of religious tattooing. He writes, “An edict issued by the Council of Calcuth (Northumberland) seems to indicate a distinction between a profane tattoo, and a Christian tattoo. They wrote, ‘When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is to be greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit therefrom.’”
In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, penal tattooing was used as frequently as the classical Greeks and Romans, yet orthodox Christians had themselves tattooed with the emblems or name of Jesus. A radical shift had occurred. Tattooing went from a penal retribution against one’s will, to a voluntary, countercultural expression of devotion. In conclusion, I believe that tattoos are morally neutral. Dependant on motivation, effect, culture, and devotion to which the tattoo symbolizes, it may either be immoral or moral.

V. Personal and Pastoral Implications

To prevent getting an immoral tattoo which would desecrate one of the aspects of the IOG, a person should be asked these key questions: 1. What is your motivation for getting a tattoo? If you got a tattoo, would it violate your conscience or the conscience of your family members, friends, and fellow believers in Christ? Would this tattoo be considered by others as aesthetically pleasing? Is it legal in your state and at your age to be tattooed? 2. Could this tattoo permanently harm your body? Is the tattoo parlor you go too certified? Is it clean? Have you seen other tattoos which your artist has done? How long have you thought about getting this particular symbol? Are you prepared to have this symbol marked on your body permanently? Are you addicted to tattoos? Are you able to not get the tattoo? 3. What will your parents think of your tattoo? If you are married, what would your spouse think? What would your fellow church members think? Is your tattoo auspicious? Are you able to cover it up? How will you feel about your tattoo in 10 years? 50 years? Will this tattoo hinder future relationships? Will this tattoo prevent you from getting a job in the future? Will this tattoo prevent you from accomplishing God’s will for your life? 4. What is the meaning of your tattoo? Does it symbolize a Biblical truth? Would God be honored by this tattoo? Does this tattoo symbolize something which is relevant to your relationship with Christ? Would this tattoo benefit or hinder your relationship with Christ? If the tattoo will not violate your conscience or others, if it will not cause permanent harm or disease, if it will not harm relationships which you have and if it is symbolic of a Biblical truth which will benefit your relationship with Christ – then I believe that Christians do not desecrate the IOG and are free to get tattoos.

The (Im)Morality of Tattoos was originally an assignment for a Contemporary Moral Issues class offered at Phoenix Seminary. After the original writing, it was modified to also address the ethicality of body piercings. The modified version was published as “Under the Needle: An Ethical Evaluation of Tattoos and Body Piercings” in The Christian Research Journal (Vol. 28/ No. 06/ 2005) available at The author (Lorne Zelyck) reserves all editorial rights and privileges of this paper




self-reference of phenomenal experience
In this paper I argue that when we try to describe the specifically self-aware part of the mind, as opposed to the host of unconscious psychic activities, we face a potentially fatal difficulty—one I have termed ‘the inconceivability problem’. Because of the entanglement of the subject and the object in observations of subjectivity, and certain conceptual circularities, it seems we might never be able to represent the self-conscious mind with anything other than itself. This could leave consciousness studies in a very awkward position. In an attempt to address this I propose that the concept of infinite regression, which is normally associated with the ‘homuncular fallacy’, be reinterpreted productively, in a way that puts self-reference at the heart of our conception of phenomenal experience. Looking at several examples of self-referential systems and theories of mind, including Zen, it seems one system in particular—video feedback—offers a rich source of analogies that might help us to visualise, if not explain, the operation of ‘world-embedded’ self-consciousness. I explain that this inquiry is an attempt to build a theoretical foundation for the construction of a ‘conscious art’, by which I mean a type of art that is, to some extent, aware of itself and its surroundings.


This aim of this paper is to suggest a viable theoretical foundation from which it might be possible to construct a work of conscious art, by which I mean a work of art that is, to some extent, aware of itself and its surroundings1. Some might regard this project as overly ambitious, or even foolhardy, and I have to admit at this time I have little concrete idea of what a piece of conscious art would look like or do. Nevertheless, in what follows I hope to establish sufficient theoretical grounds to justify further practical consideration of what is at the moment not much more than a strongly held intuition: that a conscious work of art would have a potential depth and richness of semantic significance as great as, or even greater than an ‘inert’ work of art, but would also radically alter the conventional relationship between (unconscious) art object and (conscious) human viewer. This paper does not directly address a theory of conscious art as such, nor the detailed mechanisms through which it might be constructed, but rather the general philosophical foundations on which it might be based.
The working hypothesis explored here is that the existence of consciousness, and self-consciousness in particular, owes something to irreducible self-referential processes. Moreover, such processes might be infinitely regressive, where infinite regression is understood as a productive trope as distinct from the way it is sometimes regarded in philosophy of mind, as a logical fallacy. Like many of us, I’ve often found myself struggling with the idea of consciousness and reeling under the effects of questions like “How is it that I can think?” and “How do I know I exist?” The traditional philosophical approach to such questions has produced an incalculable number of types of response. I could start the list of ’isms I have personally sought to understand—dualism, materialism, cognitivism, eliminativism, panpsychism, functionalism, behaviourism, idealism—and continue for some time. Yet it seems odd, not to say paradoxical, that philosophy, which is ostensibly the enquiry into objective truth and one of the oldest intellectual pursuits, has so far produced very little on which we can all agree. In fact, we’d be hard pressed to point to anything that every philosopher can agree on (particularly in the field of consciousness studies).
There is one phrase, however, that seems to invite frequent suspicion and occasional abhorrence in philosophical circles, particularly when used in the context of philosophy of mind—namely ‘infinite regression’. I’d like to look again at the notion of infinite regression in the context of consciousness studies to see if it can offer any insights into our understanding of self-conscious experience, and whether it can contribute to the theoretical foundations of a conscious art.

1. Unconsciousness and self-consciousness

Even since before Freud’s and Helmholtz’s researches it has been recognised that much, if not most psychic activity is either unconscious or sub-conscious, which is to say it functions without the direct awareness of the subject. Considerable evidence has recently accumulated to support this idea, particularly of the widely discussed implications of intra-operative memory (Bonebakker et al 1996), blindsight (Weiskrantz 1986), readiness-potential (Libet et al 1983), and size deception (Goodale et al 1995), not to mention the various kinds of hypnosis, suggestion and auto-suggestion which are standard subjects of psychological research. One could also cite those levels of psychic activity more directly implicated in the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems where the mind and the body imperceptibly merge, the actions of various chemical messengers like dopamine and serotonin on our emotional states and behaviour, as well as the structure of long term memory, habituation, involuntary reflex, and so on (Thompson 1993). What these and many other processes seem to confirm is the depth of those dark pools of desire, impulse and belief to which we as conscious subjects are largely oblivious but which collectively have a direct bearing on, perhaps even a determining influence on our mental being and actions. To distinguish ‘consciousness studies’ from more general studies of psychic activity one might be tempted to put these unconscious processes to one side and focus on the relatively confined case of the self-conscious, reflexive part of sentience we associate with immediate awareness, active memory, alertness and verbal communication.
In other words, the experience in which we know we exist and in which we are able to evaluate and describe how we feel. The puzzle of consciousness studies, as many people have described it, is how to account for this “phenomenal concept of mind” which is “characterised by the way it feels” (Chalmers 1996). It presumably includes our ‘knowing’ what we feel and our ‘knowing’ our own presence—the sort of awareness, in fact, that gives rise to questions like those in the introduction to this paper as well as all those qualities of lived experience like ‘greenness’, ‘bitterness’ or ‘tunefulness’ we all believe we share. It is these very vivid experiences that seem so remarkably absent within the greyish neurological strata of our brains when we look for them. The problem is not just to place the riot and colour of human mental experience within our silent and monochrome bio-fabric, but to show how they are experienced as being there—as we know them to be.

The inconceivability problem

Part of the difficulty of the problem of self-consciousness is as much to do with conceptual circularity as scientific methods. In attempting to objectively study the most self-aware part of our own experience we find strict objectivity becomes immediately impractical. Objectivity requires a distance from the subject, yet in the case of the study of my own self-awareness the object is identical to the subject, and vice versa. To avoid this paradox one might attempt the extrinsic study of other subjects using something like fMRI scanning, analysis of introspective reports, or even psychoanalysis. But here it becomes clear that the subject of study is also the object whose unique experience can only be indirectly and partially examined. By definition an observer cannot remotely share the unique experience of another subject (even with some fantasy mind ‘transplanter’) if only because the observer could not hold the subject’s experience both separately from and identically with their own.4 In short: There does not seem to be any way to describe, represent or think about the very faculties with which we describe, represent and think, other than with those faculties themselves.5 This is what one might call the ‘inconceivability problem’: like trying to use a hammer to bang itself into a nail, or a camera to photograph the emulsion on its own film; in either case there is a circular self-reference that renders the operation absurd or inconceivable. Should we conclude that any attempt to produce an objective description, representation or explanation of our subjectivity would also lead to absurdity, as it would suffer the same paradoxical circularity? I suspect this is something many in the field of consciousness studies would want to resist, if only on the grounds that it would endanger the whole enterprise.

3. Is infinite regression part of the problem or the solution?

Perhaps the fact that we hit the buffers of circularity so frequently when conceptualising the nature of experience should tell us something? So many of the exotic creatures of recent theoretical writing seem to be haunted by inconceivability: Turing’s universal machine, Nagel’s bat, Searle’s Chinese room operator, Jackson’s red rose, zombies, and all the various numbskulls and homunculi of philosophical literature in one way or another highlight the problem of the displacement of the phenomenal observer to an ever-receding position— the so-called homuncular fallacy—leading to a dissatisfying infinite regress. The question has been posed many times: who (what) is it that finally looks at our sensory representations of the world and experiences their meaning? It is a problem that was characterised (although not necessarily resolved) by Daniel Dennett when he referred to “the illusion of the Central Meaner”, the executive mind or “internal Boss” who directs and co-ordinates diverse psychic operations in order to maintain a singular sense of self (Dennett 1991).
Speaking of why the mind seems to be ordered in this way, he says “we persist in the habit of positing a separate process of observation (now of inner observation) intervening between the circumstances about which we can report and the report we issue—overlooking the fact that at some point this regress of interior observers must be stopped by a process that unites contents with their verbal expression without any intermediary content-appreciator.” (Dennett ibid. p 320). No doubt it is the commonly held expectation of a unifying agent, or conclusive ‘meta-mind’, which leads to philosophical frustration precisely because it remains so elusive. But despite the many theories of experience so far constructed there is no obvious sign of release from the centripetal forces of the regressive homunculi.
As an alternative, therefore, could we not harness this irresistible force productively within our concept of mind such that, in a suitably circular way, it actually resolved its own problem? In the following sections I’ll tentatively examine this possibility, first by looking at some examples of regressive and paradoxical self-reference in different contexts.

4. The self-reflecting mirror

Can a plane mirror reflect itself? The obvious answer is no, but the situation becomes more complex if we introduce one mirror to another where, in effect, a mirror can reflect a reflection of itself. We know from basic physics that two perfect plane mirrors held in parallel (at 0°) reflect each other into ‘infinity’ so the photons travelling at a right angle to the planes will bounce back and forth ‘forever’. In practice, mirroring infinity isn’t quite as mind-blowing as it sounds since real mirrors are less than perfect and light is eventually dispersed through deflection or absorption. Nevertheless, we know from our own experiments with mirrors that although the recursive image quickly becomes green and murky, and the head of the viewer inserted between the two planes trying to see eternity itself becomes an inevitable obstruction to the view, there remains a fascination with the image tunnelling into the mist of infinity. And even despite the slightly disappointing behaviour of imperfect reality in comparison to the dazzling promise of ideal conditions, we have to recognise that the two mirror planes offer us an everyday physical example of that which, in conceptual terms, is often associated with fallacy: with two mirrors we create a tangible instance of ‘infinite regression’ without sending logical shock waves through the universe.

5. Zen and Tao

Although something of the paradoxical character of our conception of self-consciousness, and its inconceivability, has been noted by recent thinkers (Bermúdez 1998, Nagel 1998), there exist much older practical theories of mind which also address the absurdly self-referential and the logically incomprehensible, notably Zen and Tao. According to many of those who have tried to make Japanese Zen thought, and its intimate cousin the Chinese philosophy of the Tao, accessible to those outside the traditions there are aspects of conscious experience that remain forever unutterable. Speaking of what is perhaps one of the most famous expressions in east Asian literature, Alan Watts points to some of the many possible interpretations of the opening line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” This translation, Watts continues, “conceals the fact that the ideogram rendered as ‘to be spoken of’ is also Tao, because the word is also used with the meaning of ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’ . . . Literally, the passage says, ‘Tao can be Tao not eternal [or regular] Tao.’” (Watts 1976). Just as the self-reflecting mirror is a recurring image in Zen teaching, so the seemingly contradictory self-referential statement is foundational to the Tao, not just as a pedagogical tool but as an act of mental resistance to binary logic and final cause.

6. Nen and reflection

In his excellent book Zen Training, Katsuki Sekida (1985) outlines a theory of immediate consciousness using the behaviour of mental actions called ‘nen’, approximately translated from Japanese as ‘thought impulses’. Despite its relative simplicity I couldn’t fully represent his theory here and would urge the reader to consult his book directly where the ideas are set out with admirable clarity. For the purposes of this paper I want simply to sketch the basic principle of nen-action, introduced by a passage from the book itself: Man thinks unconsciously. Man thinks and acts without noticing. When he thinks. “It is fine today,” he is aware of the weather but not of his own thought. It is the reflecting action of consciousness that comes immediately after the thought that makes him aware of his own thinking . . . By this reflecting action of consciousness, man comes to know what is going on in his mind, and that he has a mind; and he recognises his own being. (Sekida 1985)
According to Sekida, thought impulses rise up all the time in our subconscious mind, swarming about behind the scenes, jostling for their moment of attention on the ‘stage’. Of these ‘first nen’, as Sekida calls them, most go unnoticed and sink back into the obscurity of the subconscious, perhaps to return later in some harmful form. But those that are noticed, just momentarily, by the reflecting action of consciousness (the ‘second nen’) form part of a reflexive sequence that supports our sense of self-awareness. The second nen follows the first so quickly they seem to occur simultaneously—they seem to be one thought. The obvious problem of how we know anything of this second nen is resolved by the action of a third nen which “illuminates and reflects upon the immediately preceding nen” but “also does not know anything about itself. What will become aware of it is another reflecting action of consciousness that immediately follows in turn”, and so on. Meanwhile, new first nen are constantly appearing and demanding the attention of the second nen.
For the sake of simplicity this sequence is initially presented as a linear progression, but Sekida goes on to elaborate the schema with a more subtle, matrix-like organisation while the basic principle remains. What follows from this is that, as Sekida states, “Man thinks unconsciously”; there is no localisation of conscious thought, no conscious object as such, other than an ongoing loop of self-reflections.7 Nevertheless, because of the rapid sequencing of the internal reflections, one has the impression of a sensible self much in the way that one has the impression of moving objects in the cinematic apparatus.8 There is an obvious analogy with the self-reflecting mirrors in which the regressive image can exist in neither mirror alone, just as no nen is conscious in its own right. This theory would suggest that the notion of the ‘self’ does not exist outside a process of continuous self-reflection, nor in any part of that process.

7. Video feedback

The model of self-consciousness based on recurring internal self-reference has strong parallels not only with the self-reflecting mirrors above, but also with another phenomenon familiar to ex-VJs like myself. It has been known for some time that a video camera pointing at a TV screen can, under certain conditions, produce startling visual effects of great complexity and beauty, a technique known as ‘video feedback’ (Crutchfield 1984). To achieve the full effect the most important condition to satisfy is that the camera views its own output signal being displayed on the screen. Within this there are a number of variable parameters that alter the behaviour of the image:
For extreme parameter settings, such as small rotation, low contrast, large demagnification, and so on, equilibrium images are typically observed. For example, when the zoom is much less than unity then one observes an infinite regression of successively smaller images of the monitor within the monitor within . . . The image is similar to that seen when two mirrors face each other. With a bit of rotation the infinitely regressing image takes on an overall “logarithmic spiral” shape that winds into the origin. (Crutchfield 1984)
Although there are many galleries of video feedback images on the Web, what is not so clear from video captures is the magnificent motion of the images, on one hand stable and fluid and on the other jittery and chaotic. Let’s briefly list some of the attributes of video feedback, many of which are discussed in Crutchfield’s original paper, in the context of the study of qualitative dynamics:
• Video feedback is an exemplary instance of emergent complexity being a product of both local and global conditions.
• It requires the co-operation of a number of sub-systems, none of which can produce the effect alone.
• The image is self-referential as it feeds off its own signal (output and input merge).
• It displays both irregular and periodic behaviour simultaneously.
• It spontaneously generates regions of similarity and difference.
• Overall behaviour is non-linear and subject to a number of variable internal system parameters.
• Any attempt to intervene in the system, or observe it ‘from within’, will disturb it. In many ways these attributes of the video feedback image are also necessary general conditions, or analogous properties, of human consciousness:
• Certain cognitive functions, such as memories, seem to be distributed both locally and globally in the brain (Draaisma 2000).
• Human consciousness requires the co-presence of a number of functional systems, and not just a brain, or part of a brain.
• The sensory system and the environment give rise to feedback loops upon which the development of the conscious system is dependent (Edelman 1992).
• Thoughts can occur unpredictably but the mind normally also displays levels of overall stability.
• We are able to perceive similarity and difference at the same time.
• The brain is a non-linear system, highly sensitive to neurochemical and other local and global parameter changes.
• It doesn’t seem possible to objectively observe or intervene in the self-conscious mind without necessitating re-interpretation or creating disturbance (see section on ‘the inconceivability problem’ above). These latter statements are highly general and are offered here by way of analogy only. But taken together with the theory of nen-action proposed by Sekida, perhaps the illustrative case of video feedback offers some useful clues about how human self-awareness might be visualised, if not explained. If Sekida is correct, and that what appears to be the ‘stream of consciousness’ is in fact the internal reflection of unconscious thought impulses that are rereflected ad infinitum, then one physical system which can display this self reference with a certain visual grace is video feedback. Along with the parallel mirrors, video feedback is another example of how a relatively simple physical system with regressive properties does not spin off into conceptual oblivion but, on the contrary, can produce behaviour of great variety, intricacy, and beauty.
This variety, intricacy, and beauty is in part generated by the complex, non-linear properties of the feedback system—the chromatic aberrations and distortions of the screen, the varying voltage gains of the red, green and blue channels, the Moiré patterns generated by the discretization of the monitor’s phosphors and the cameras charge-coupled device, and so on. Minor local instances of distortion and interference multiply to produce global effects that cannot be attributed to any particular component or aberration. Hence, video feedback demonstrates how self-referential regression in a complex, non-linear system can generate novelty and pattern. If such behavioural richness can be generated in a system as relatively simple as video feedback, then there is even greater potential for it to be generated in the vastly more complex nervous system, which we know is profoundly non-linear.

8. Reflexive theories of consciousness

Reflexive, self-reflecting or feedback-based models of self-consciousness, of course, are nothing especially novel in recent Occidental theories of mind. For Lacanian psychoanalysis the ‘mirror stage’ in childhood development is formative of the self-referential I; a theory based on observation of the pleasurable reactions of small children and certain apes when presented with their own mirror image (Lacan 1977). In Gödel, Escher, Bach Douglas Hofstadter (1980) discusses the application of what he terms ‘Strange Loops’ or ‘Tangled Hierarchies’ in modelling human thought and consciousness. Speaking from a position deeply rooted in AI research, Hofstadter draws analogies between the modes of recursion, self-reference and emergent complexity found in the works of Gödel, Escher and Bach and the symbolic interaction of ‘subsystems’ or ‘subbrains’ in the production of mind. He concludes: My belief is that the explanations of “emergent” phenomena in our brains —for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will —are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing “resonance” between different levels—quite like the Henkin sentence which, by merely asserting its own provability, actually becomes provable. The self comes into being the moment it has the power to reflect itself. (Hofstadter 1980 p. 709)
More recently Gerald Edelman (1992) has been developing theories of “neural Darwinism” or “Neuronal Group Selection” based on principles of competitive selection between groups of neurones, or “maps”, that learn by becoming predisposed to communicate with other maps depending on feedback between the organism and its environment. Central to Edelman’s theory is the parallel bidirectional interaction between maps that allows “re-entrant” signalling and gives rise to a massive system of internal looping which generates huge complexity. Re-entrancy not only enables constant modification and adaptation to new conditions but leads, ultimately to self-representation and “higher order consciousness”, or “consciousness of consciousness”.
More recently still, Francis Crick and Christof Koch have proposed the ‘Unconscious Homunculus’ as a possible model for internal representations of conscious states (Crick and Koch 2000). As noted above, the homunculus has often been equated with the fallacy of infinite regression because it implies that responsibility for phenomenal experience is deferred to agents beyond the observed system and thus leads to the sort of frustrating regression that theorists try to avoid. Taking their lead from Karl Lashley’s 1956 declaration that “No activity of mind is ever conscious” and Fred Attneave’s 1961 commentary entitled “In Defense of Homunculi”, Crick and Koch speculate that the homunculi needn’t themselves be ‘regressive’. By this I presume they mean that the presence of a homunculus doesn’t have to imply the existence of an infinite number of further homunculi observing each other in some indefinite Russian Doll-like arrangement. They conclude in a way that bears similarity to the theory of mind proposed by Sekida above, albeit using a completely different technical language:
As has often been assumed, we are not directly aware of the outer world of sensory events. Instead, we are conscious of the results of some of the computations performed by the nervous system on the various neural representations of this sensory world . . . Nor are we aware of our inner world of thoughts, intentions and planning (that is of our unconscious homunculus) but . . . only of the sensory representations associated with these mental activities. (Crick and Koch 2000) While Crick and Koch are keen (mistakenly, in my view) to attribute “the subjective world of qualia” to specific brain states, they also recognise the same essentially unconscious self-referencing of one part of the mind by another that Sekida describes in the theory of nen-action. So, a model of consciousness predicated on self-reflection, selfrepresentation, internal looping or re-entrant signalling would seem to be respectable—perhaps even orthodox—and what’s more, generally consistentwith both current science and older theories of mind.

9. Infinite regression and conscious experience

What then can we say of ‘infinite regression’ and the spiralling homunculi of phenomenal consciousness? Is the brain, with its many billions of potential interconnections and internal feedback loops, so inherently complex as to be in effect infinitely self-referential—and hence regressive? Could a regressive, nonlinear biochemical process produce experiential novelty and self-awareness, as was suggested by analogy with video feedback above? Before extending the analogy between a self-referential system and self-consciousness, perhaps we need to look more closely at what we mean by the phrase ‘infinite regression’ given its often troubled history in the field of consciousness studies. We should recognise that cases of infinite regression can occur in both the conceptual and physical domains, where one is a mental construct and the other a material process (which is not to say that mental constructs are not also material processes). For example, the homuncular fallacy is a conceptual instance of infinite regression and video feedback is a physical instance. While conceptual and physical cases are not necessarily identical in character, they are nevertheless inherently similar in being self-referential or recursive. The extent to which one can justifiably transfer the concept of infinite regression between these two domains will be addressed in the section dealing with objections below, but we are now perhaps in a position to recognise the essential ambiguity of its meaning:
The word ‘infinite’ is sometimes used in an absolute mathematical sense and sometimes in a relative sense to refer merely to what is impractical, inconceivable or lacking a clear beginning or end. (For example, it would be impractical to count the number of references to ‘sex’ on the Internet, although strictly speaking the total number would not be infinite.) Either way, this ambiguity often inheres when the phrase ‘infinite regression’ is used in different contexts, particularly when it is transferred between the conceptual and physical domains: is there really an infinite number of mirror images in the self-reflecting mirror, or is the number merely indeterminate? To add to the confusion, the concept of ‘regress’ can either be regarded as an indefinite series which gradually recedes from an origin (like the explanation needed to explain the explanation) or as a self-referential loop—this interpretation being closer to its Latin derivation of ‘going back’ or ‘returning’. The former, serial interpretation is usually associated with conceptual viciousness, philosophical redundancy or fallacy while the latter, as in the physical case of video feedback considered here, may be richly productive when trying to visualise the mind, if only by analogy.

10. Further analogies

I’d like to briefly suggest some further possible implications of the analogy drawn here between video feedback and consciousness. It was Sigmund Freud who, as far back as 1900 in The Interpretation of Dreams, suggested consciousness acted as a “sense organ for the perception of psychical qualities” (Freud 1976)— in other words as a ‘sixth’ sense. It does seem that self-consciousness has the strange attribute of allowing us to see what we see, hear what we hear, taste what we taste, smell what we smell and feel what we feel, as well as think about what we think. Bearing this in mind (and referring back to the larger project of constructing a ‘conscious art’ object) I’d like to propose an extended video feedback system that includes a video mixer that merges four distinct sources. Imagine the monitor in the video feedback set-up not only displays the image from a camera—A—but also a ‘mix’ of three other sources, or sub-signals—B, C, and D—such that all four sources merge in the monitor display and are observed by the camera. In such a set-up the feedback image generated by the looped signal A also incorporates the information from the sub-signals B, C and D. Whichever is the strongest sub-signal tends to have a greater influence on the overall properties of the feedback image. Now imagine that the three sub-signals B, C and D represent sensory data from the world, internal impulses of the body, and states of the unconscious mind respectively, and that the camera represents this “sense organ for the perception of the senses”, or internal conscious observer posited by Freud.
From this quite simple set-up one can draw surprisingly rich analogies with the operation of human consciousness. Sensory self-awareness. As many have observed, consciousness is always consciousness of some content, and the only sources of content (as far as I can establish) are objects in the world (apprehended by the sense organs), sensations from inside the body (e.g. pains, tingles, hunger), and mental data (e.g. ideas, memories, thoughts), or combinations thereof. Activity in the world, body and brain can go on quite happily without us being in any way conscious of it, but something special or ‘phenomenal’ occurs when we do become aware of it. For the purposes of this analogy, think of the video camera as the agent of self reflection that not only sees the combined data-sources of world B, body C and unconscious mind D (the ‘content’ selected for prominence by signal strength, or level of excitation) but sees ‘itself’ seeing them, insofar as its own signal A is fedback into what it ‘sees’. As the signals flow an overall, unitary state is reached that obviates the necessity for any further unifying agent, or homunculi, as the system is self-generating whilst also being infinitely regressive, or self-referential.
The same principle might be applied to any reflexive sense, the smelling of smells for example, or the feeling of feelings. Multiplied over the whole sensory system, one might start to speculate how a system with a capacity for self awareness of some kind might emerge through having an integrated array of feedbacking self-sensors. The corporeality of phenomenal experience. In his lecture Conceiving the impossible and the mind-body problem Thomas Nagel (1998) rehearses a wellworn fantasy of philosophers of mind. In trying to understand what it would mean to see the inside of a subject tasting chocolate from the outside, as it were, he reaches for some future technology of representation that would lay open before us the “truth” about such phenomenal experiences. Like many philosophers, Nagel reinforces the assumption (for it is still an assumption) that this ‘chocolate experience’ is generated by the brain alone, for this is where he suggests we look to see chocolate being enjoyed. Elsewhere I have argued vigorously against this assumption on the grounds that the vital contribution of the body, and indeed the chocolate itself, can be easily overlooked. I want to stress that any model of human consciousness should be ‘world-embedded’; that is, it should take account of both the role of the body (with all its nerves, hormones, enzymes, feedback loops, and so on) and the effects of environmental events and stimuli. So when we talk about the ‘richness’ of human experience, the pleasures and pains, we should not forget that most of them would be unimaginable in a disembodied brain.
And this raises another vexed question: whether neural states (such as those in the brain) are identical with, or correlated to, phenomenal states of experience. One might respond by asking, first, are certain brain states necessary for certain consciousness experiences, such as enjoying chocolate? Given there is wellestablished knowledge about the effects of drugs and lesions on brain tissue and the corresponding effects on thought and behaviour, one can be fairly certain that there is a necessary relation between the organic condition of the brain and what we feel. But are specific brain states also sufficient for phenomenal states, i.e. can the brain produce rich sensual experiences alone? I believe we can be equally certain that it isn’t, and it can’t. For a start, no one has ever shown that a healthy brain can function in isolation, detached from the body, and we know from sensory deprivation studies that extended insulation from environmental stimuli leads to the breakdown of normal brain functioning. It is also clear from many developmental studies that environmental interaction is crucial to brain maturation and the framing of subsequent experience. On top of this the brain itself is famously devoid of sensation, and we know from personal experience how sensations are distributed across the body.
Hence the importance of including data from the ‘world’ and the ‘body’ as well as the ‘mind’ in the extended video feedback analogy described above, on the basis that ‘greenness’, ‘bitterness’ and ‘tunefulness’ are phenomenal experiences that depend on the co-action of environmental stimuli, corporeal sensations and mental contents. Perceiving continuity and discontinuity. Elsewhere I have argued that nature is either inherently unified nor fragmented, but that the human sensory apparatus gives rise to perceptions which make the world seem either unified or fragmented to differing degrees depending on what is sensed (Pepperell 2003). The process of infinite regression in video feedback demonstrates how a complex (non-linear) self-referential system can spontaneously give rise to patterns of similarity and difference. If consciousness is in any way analogous to video feedback it may help us to understand why, in a world that may be neither inherently continuous nor discrete, we are able to experience both qualities.
The binding problem. The feedback-state of the conscious process might have some bearing on the so-called ‘binding problem’ in which regional neural functions seem to cohere in a unitary experience for the subject. Some of the functional parts in the video feedback system are necessarily non-local (the camera lens must be a certain distance from the monitor) but are also connected by light or, like the brain, electrical conduits. In the case of video feedback, nonlocal components can give rise to coherent global behaviour that can’t be isolated to any part of the system. However, the feedback effect itself can only be observed locally; that is, on the monitor or in the camera eye-piece, despite the distributed nature of the overall set-up. Whatever the confusion or variation might be between the sources or sub-signals B, C and D in the analogy described above, the overall feedback image will retain a certain stability and unitary coherence as long as all the variables stay within certain parameters. This could be likened to the unitary coherence of first-person experience.

11. Possible objections

I recognise that the claims made in this paper might be seen by some as idiosyncratic, not say provocative, whilst at the same time open to a number of valid objections, some of which I shall try to address here, albeit briefly. With respect to the so-called ‘inconceivability problem’, one might argue that it makes little sense to say the self-conscious mind cannot be conceived of by anything other than itself, since it is only the self-conscious mind that conceives of anything in the first place. In short, we cannot conceive of what is in itself inconceivable. I think this cuts to the nature of explanation itself, and what we expect explanations to yield for us if they are effective. Without wanting to open the whole complex issue here, I suspect we may have to accept in certain cases (phenomenal conscious perhaps being one of them) that the appropriate use of analogy and metaphor will bring us as close as we’re going to get to a total understanding of the phenomenon in question, if only because it can’t be represented by anything other than itself. Explanation may be the decomposition of phenomena into comprehensible constituent parts and the establishing of causal chains, but there is no guarantee that all phenomena can be decomposed comprehensibly, nor indeed that there will always be a prior cause that fully accounts for subsequent effects. This is not to advocate a particular brand of mysterianism, but an attempt to recognise the depth of the problem of selfconsciousness as it is in all its emergent complexity, rather than as we might prefer it to be: reductively explicable. To answer the objection more directly: if explanations are a content of our mental experience, then mental experience cannot be a content of explanations.
It might be argued that the case of self-reflecting mirrors described above does not represent an example of ‘infinite regression’ so much as a rather straightforward physical property of mirrored surfaces acting in relatively closed system. Either there is no conceptual error to be resolved here, or in fact the real conceptual error is to confuse the metaphorical allusion to infinite regress with what is a perfectly explicable physical phenomenon. This objection is interesting in that it points to the distinction between regression in the conceptual and physical domains already touched upon earlier. In the conceptual domain we might consider all sorts of possible regressions, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, that have no physical constraints (other than the constraints placed on the physical substance of the mind), and which can therefore remain unresolved in our imaginations. On the other hand, examples of regression in the physical domain, of which the self-reflecting mirror may be one, must necessarily occur within the constraints of physical laws. These laws (such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics14) tend to constrain the actions of matter and energy so as to prohibit, for example, the kinds of perfect states of infinitely bouncing light particles described in the self-reflecting mirror example. In which case, such selfreflections are not truly infinitely regressive and irresolvable in the way their conceptual counterparts are often imagined—in effect, nature resolves them.
Therefore, one could justifiably argue that the transfer of the term ‘infinite regression’ from the conceptual to the physical domain would be by way of analogy or metaphor, rather than being a matter of strict equivalence. However, in considering this we are implicitly drawn into the question of the relation between mind and matter, and whether certain constraints apply in the physical domain and not in the mental, or whether indeed there is a valid distinction to be drawn between the two domains at all. Such questions are beyond the immediate scope of this paper. For the purposes of what is presented here, I accept that the regression in the self-reflecting mirrors could be regarded as a metaphorical allusion to conceptual regression. But since I do not classify mental activity as ‘non-physical’ I would argue there is ultimately no essential difference between regression in the conceptual or physical sense.15 Each case of regression is conceived by a mind (the recognition of regression is always a mental judgement), while physical laws (as far as we know) constrain each mind that conceives regression—an appropriately circular conclusion!
The inclusion of a Zen description of mind in support of the general thesis is obviously open to various criticisms. In the first place it might seem to be a case of using one theory as evidence for another—a potentially unproductive case of infinite regression. Furthermore, one could raise the objection that the ‘nen’ model proposed by Sekida is purely subjective, even religious opinion, which is unsupported by empirical data. On top of this, one has to recognise that in all the diverse forms of Zen and Buddhism there exists a huge range of opinions, and interpretations of doctrine, many of which are virtually inexplicable outside the very specific cultural and historical contexts in which they evolved. Why then should one form be any more instructive in terms of the study of consciousness than another? All these points are valid, and I would certainly not wish to suggest that the brief discussion of ‘nen’ here provides substantial evidence for any particular theory of mind. I would, however, reject the notion that subjective experience, even opinion, cannot make a contribution to our overall understanding of what is, in any case, an entirely subjective experience. In addition, the often-made assumption that Zen, and indeed Buddhism in general, is a religious doctrine should not pass unchallenged. Many commentators on Zen in particular, state explicitly that the practice of Zen requires no leap of faith in the theological sense employed by Christians or Muslims (or at least no faith greater than that we exhibit when we flick a light-switch, or ignite a Bunsen Burner). Rather, it is often described as a rigorous code of conduct developed with the aim of beneficially transforming one’s relationship to the world, as well as offering a highly sophisticated theory of mind. (For an accessible and authoritative account of Zen philosophy see Humphreys 1992). Hence I have included it the reference to ‘nen’ here, not only because I believe it is fascinating and relevant to the overall theme of the paper, but also because I take the view that a greater appreciation of this profound philosophical tradition can only enrich our knowledge in this especially difficult area. Finally, the analogy between video feedback and consciousness has some severe limitations, some of which might be quite misleading.
.For instance, video feedback is an electromechanical system whereas human consciousness is (at least in part) neurobiological. In addition, the video feedback system is many orders of magnitude simpler than the human nervous system, and this is even taking into account that we know relatively little about the true complexity of conscious processes, or whether they function in any way that is analogous to video feedback. Also, the same objections can be raised against the application of the term ‘infinite regress’ in the context of video feedback as were raised in the context of self-reflecting mirrors. Again, all these objections are valid to an extent, but in my view do not necessarily undermine the overall analogy. I would briefly point to another case where analogies have been drawn productively between electronic and biological phenomena—cellular automata. By plotting simple recursive algorithms in a computer-generated virtual space, it is possible to generate relatively complex ‘behaviour’ in which ‘creatures’ live, move, die, breed and evolve in an astonishingly ‘life-like’ way (see Levy 1992). Cellular automata are used productively by biologists and researchers in artificial life to model organic processes, despite suffering the same deficiencies, in terms of being electromechanical and relatively simplistic, as the video feedback analogy suffers wit respect to consciousness. I would deal with the objection that video feedback is not a true example of infinite regression in the same way as I dealt with it in the case of the mirror example.

12. First steps towards a self-conscious work of art

Having considered the relationship between phenomenal consciousness and infinite regression in some detail, and having looked at some possible areas of dispute, I would like to end by sketching out, in very general terms, how these ideas might inform a practical investigation into the production of a self-conscious work of art. It might be interesting for the reader to know that the ideas presented here originated less from the relevant philosophical literature than from a combination of introspection, personal experience, and artistic enquiry. In particular, the practice of meditation, and examination of its related philosophies, has helped to clarify a number of issues to do with the behaviour of mind and its relation to the body and the world. In addition, whilst using LSD some years ago I experienced vivid recursive patterns of luminous colour, very similar to those seen in video feedback, which triggered an intuition about the self-referential operation of the visual system and, by extension, the mind. It is these experiences, together with the various pieces of interactive art I have produced and exhibited over the years, that have circuitously led me consider how it might be possible to construct an object of art that displays some self-awareness.
Using the principles discussed above, a system is now being designed which combines three sources of data from 1. the external world (with sensors for light, sound, and pressure) 2. the internal state of the system (such as levels of energy, and rates of information flow) and 3. repositories of images, sounds and texts to be activated by rules of association (what one might describe, crudely, as ‘memories’). Much as in the extended video feedback analogy described above, these three data sources will be synthesised into an overall system-state, which is then ‘observed’ by separate sub-system of sensors. This observed state is then fed-back into the overall system-state and re-observed, indefinitely. In this way the system will generate a condition of infinite regress (the phrase is used here with caution) not dissimilar to that found in video feedback, which it is hoped will achieve some overall coherence. At the same time, because conditions will constantly vary in the exhibition space (in terms of audience actions, internal system data states, and associative links with stored data), the global behaviour of the system will be non-linear and unpredictable. This, in a nutshell, is how the system will be designed to work.
However, I should stress that I am not claiming any such system, even if it performed well, would actually be conscious in the same way that we are. Nor am I even claiming it would be quasi-conscious, or yet further, that it would be an accurate model of how conscious processes occur in humans. To claim any of these would not only pre-empt the results of the investigation before it even left the virtual drawing board, but would suggest a far grander purpose than the thesis I have presented here could justify. At best the system might have a rudimentary functional self-awareness. But even given the obvious limitations, I do expect many more artists to become interested in the creative possibilities of self-aware systems. This is on the basis that such systems will have unique and compelling qualities, including a capacity for producing semantic richness in response to audience behaviour, at the same time as generating a frisson of expectation amongst audiences as they apprehend an object that displays, albeit in the mildest of forms, some of the same responsive behaviour they recognise in themselves.
Finally, it is clear that what is being considered here touches on what may well be the most difficult question humans have ever tried to resolve about their own condition. I hope these speculations, and others implied but not included, might help to stimulate avenues of enquiry that might otherwise remain unexplored while provoking new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. In particular I hope the artistic sensibilities I’ve brought to the consideration of these deeply complex questions might encourage greater dialogue between disciplines such as art and philosophy that share intellectual concerns, but sadly lack a common intellectual heritage.


I have argued that when we try to describe the specifically self-aware part of the mind, as opposed to the host of unconscious psychic activities, we face a potentially fatal difficulty, one that I have termed ‘the inconceivability problem’. Because of the entanglement of the subject and the object in observations of subjectivity, and certain conceptual circularities, it seems we might never be able to represent the self-conscious mind with anything other than itself. This could leave consciousness studies in a very awkward position. In an attempt to overcome this, I have proposed that the kind of infinite regression often associated with the homuncular fallacy be reinterpreted more productively, in a way that puts self-reference at the heart of our conception of phenomenal experience. Looking at several examples of self-referential systems and theories of mind, including the Zen concept of ‘nen’, it seems one in particular—video feedback—offers a rich source of analogies which might help us to visualise, if not understand, the operation of ‘world-embedded’ self-consciousness. Infinite regression then, understood in relation to phenomenal experience, may be nothing other than a process of perpetual self-reference, however this might occur within the physical substrate of the human system, the non-linear nature of which can give rise to intricate and novel behaviour. By exploiting the mechanical and analogical properties of video feedback systems, including their inherent complexity and creativity, one can envisage a functional model of a self-referential system that might inform a wider theory of a conscious, or self-aware art.
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For video feedback pictures, texts and clips see:
1 I make the assumption that ‘self-awareness’ and ‘consciousness’, while not being necessarily identical, are somehow implicit in each other.
2 It’s worth pointing out that ‘infinite regression’ is a term applied in a number of different conceptual and physical contexts, with varying meanings in each. Certain conceptual cases, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover who is the final cause of all other causes, or the indefinite chain of axioms needed to support mathematical propositions, are not of immediate concern here. The distinction between conceptual and physical cases of infinite regression will be addressed later in the paper.
3 The suggestion that one sets aside the unconscious in order to focus on the self-conscious doesn’t imply, of course, any essential rupture between them.
4 This is not to rule out the existence of shared or consensual subjective experiences, of which the cinema is a classic example. But however absorbing they might be they do not completely efface the differences between individual’s experiences.
5 There are echoes here of Heisenberg’s indeterminacy, or uncertainty principle which, according to most interpretations, states the impossibility of measuring both the co-ordinate and the momentum of a particle at the same time (Bohm 1983).
6 For a readable and fascinating account of the strange behaviour of light and mirrors see Feynman (1985).
7 I am aware as I write this how sentences and ideas seem to emerge from somewhere already formed, and subsequently presented to my conscious mind for selection and editing.
8 The widespread belief that the impression of motion in cinema results from ‘persistence of vision’ has often been challenged, not least by Anderson (1980). What is important here is to note that the experience of movement results from viewing a rapid procession of still images, each slightly different. The parallel with the effect of self-consciousness should be clear: each nen, or thought impulse, is in itself unconscious (or still) but when rapidly concatenated with others can create an overall impression of awareness (or motion). There is also evidence to suggest consciousness events are discrete, being parsed into “perceptual frames” of about 70 to 100ms average duration (Efron 1970).
9 A “VJ” is a “video-jockey”, the visual equivalent of a disc jockey, usually responsible for the visual entertainment in night-clubs and at raves.
10 Some short video clips of video feedback are also available on the Web sites mentioned in the bibliography. ‘Non-linear’ systems can’t be modelled with linear or first-order equations, but are governed by many complex, reciprocal relationships, or feedback loops. They are sometimes referred to as ‘turbulent’ or ‘dynamical’. I’m grateful to Dr Tom Holroyd of the Yanagida Brain Dynamism Group, Japan and the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, Florida Atlantic University, Florida, for his advice on some of the ideas raised in this paper and for his excellent video feedback site (see bibliography).
12 In this respect it is also interesting to note a proposition made by the Maharishi Yogi when explaining the Vedic conception of consciousness: “Consciousness is that which is conscious of itself. Being conscious of itself, consciousness is the knower of itself. Being the knower of itself, consciousness is both the knower and the known. Being both the knower and the known, consciousness is also the process of knowing.” It is the “self-referential singularity” of these three qualities which “together are the indications of the existence of consciousness.” (Bonshek 2001).
13 In fact the more one thinks about it, it seems that nearly all examples of infinite regress are strangely linear and circular, or serial and self-referential, at the same time!
14 The physical law which states that in any closed system the total amount of energy, or order, gradually decreases.
15 One might even say that all conceptual activity is physical, but not all physical activity is conceptual.
Robert Pepperell is an artist and writer. He studied at the Slade School of Art and went on work with a number of influential multimedia collaborations including Hex, Coldcut and Hexstatic. As well as producing experimental computer art and computer games he has published several interactive CD-Roms and exhibited numerous interactive installations including at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, the ICA, London, the Barbican Gallery, London and the Millennium Dome, London. His book The Posthuman Condition was first published in 1995 and is shortly to be published in a new edition, with the subtitle Consciousness beyond the brain. His second book The Postdigital Membrane was a collaboration with Dr Michael Punt published in 2000. He has spoken and lectured widely on art, philosophy and new technology and is currently a senior lecturer in Contemporary Art Theory at University of Wales College, Newport, a regular reviewer for the Leonardo journal, and Director of the newly founded Posthuman Laboratory for Arts Research (PoLAR). A new book, Extended Being, is in preparation.”




broadly considered as post-modern flattening
In the tattoo world there is a common phrase, “tattoos are addictive”. Once received the freshly inked are said to start envisaging other potential designs, placements and projects. Perhaps this propensity could be simplified into economic terms and, considering the highly detrimental lasting effects of bad tattoos, rightly be classified as an addiction.
Outside of genuine cultural practices popularized tattooing trends can broadly be considered as a post-modern, flattening of heritage. It is now perfectly common to see those of clear Caucasian descent with full traditional Japanese sleeves. Non-Buddhists covered in Thai temple writing they couldn’t read or translate if their life depended on it and Polynesian armbands on Americans that haven’t left the country. The intent is not to restrict or judge their choice simply to state that the markings themselves have now frequently been reclassified as stylistic preferences.
There is no way to objectively classify taste. As history is often overlooked or mashed together, skill in application and design is everything. ‘Authenticity’ now rests with the tattooist. Irrespective of the subject matter there are two differentiating principles: talent and uniqueness. In the same way that Picasso would not have painted a great Jackson Pollack – talent arises from the selection of and dedication to a specific set of techniques. This does not imply that the content need remain uniform. Every artist has a particular skill set best suited to their own formula of creativity. Talent connotes a representative skill set whereas uniqueness means the artist does not rely on works already completed. Without their skill set work is reduced to duplication. In tattooing, technique is an additional consideration. Using skin as their canvas an artist might be gifted at recreating classic paintings or portraits. The uniqueness here is not derived from the designs per-se but from the artists’ ‘proprietary’ application technique.
The classifiers of talent and uniqueness set a reasonable benchmark of quality. The difference between good and bad body art being potentially harmful duplication without proprietary or noteworthy technique. A bad tattoo is then a culturally void, inferior replication. On top of which tattoos, except for painful and costly removal, are permanent. A bad tattoo might not only be artistically substandard but could damage the skin and remain an indelible public scar (damage here referring both to the possible physical and aesthetic detriment). Changing personal or cultural significance of these markings are, by their locked temporal nature, unforeseeable. The full extent of the harm able to be caused by a bad tattoo is then too primarily realizable well after the procedure.
When judging bad tattoos quantity becomes a contributory concern. A single bad tattoo might stand out as such when viewed in isolation. Whereas a person that has dedicated significant portions of skin to bad tattoos may transform these pieces into a ‘collection’. The dedication itself lending authenticity or credibility to the substandard work which is then able to be viewed as a whole. In a ‘strength in numbers’ kind of mentality, a bad tattoo collection might often be held as an a-posteriori, justifiable choice.
In pre-internet years ignorance to the various levels of quality possible in body art might have been a plausible rationale for the selection of substandard work. This coupled with much higher barriers to entry for international travel and the likely geographical proximity of average studios meant options may have appeared to be limited. Today the average cost of tattooing classifies it as more of a luxury pursuit. If one could afford a large tattoo from a typical studio one would also most likely have sufficient means to acquire adequate disposable income for others. Meaning the average tattoo-seeker would be able to research multiple studios as well as travel further away from home for the appointment.
In an open economy the fact that artists who produce exceptional work and artists who produce substandard work still exist affirms two points. Firstly, there is wide spread recognition of the differentiation between the two. Secondly, there remains a demand for both. Here we can explore the choosing of good or bad tattoos in economic terms. The most influential psychological factors of selection being immediate gratification and addiction.

Immediate Gratification:

Actions can be simplified into perceived costs and rewards. Costs actions are those that require resources for completion. To file your taxes, pay your bills, go to school or finish the housework could all be considered costs. Actions with anticipated benefits are rewards. Usually rewards make you feel good or add value. The question of gratification, immediate or delayed, then comes down to the perceived costs and rewards of an action within a timeline.
A person can be said to be ‘sophisticated’ or ‘naïve’ when it comes to understanding the perceived costs and rewards of their choices. The more in line one’s own understanding of the actual costs or rewards of a given situation is with their choices the higher the level of sophistication. A naïve is someone unable to properly reason or consider the effects of their actions. Immediate gratification has negative connotations because costs are avoided and only perceived instant rewards sought, potentially leading to greater albeit delayed costs. A sophisticate could be distinguished by their capacity for delayed gratification.
Self-awareness should not be overly celebrated just quite yet though. It has been concluded in numerous studies that recognition of a problem with self-control might conversely worsen the situation. Sophisticates may reason that since they know they might have a problem with something down the line they might as well get it out of the way and do it now. Here we venture into the idea of addiction. In consideration of delayed or immediate gratification the addicted mindset can reason that the worse the potential future indulgence might be, the less damage current indulgence poses. The predilection for indulgence or immediate gratification then becomes a justifiable pursuit based on self-predicted behavior. In either sophisticates or naives the timeline over which actions will properly be judged is often skirted for a variety of reasons.


Although traditionally linked with chemical dependencies such as drug and alcohol consumption, addiction encompasses a range of behaviors. To be addicted is to be psychologically hooked to a certain action or set of actions despite the consequences. Just as smokers inhale regardless of the cancer warnings on the packets, sex addicts continue promiscuous behavior despite knowledge of possible self harm. Once classified as an addict choices can become physiologically affected too. There have been descriptions of the addicted brain being hardwired to pre-accept an opportunity for indulgence in said addiction. Meaning if you were to ask the decision for the drug addict to have another hit may have been affirmatively made before they were able to consciously process or even reply to the question.
An argument for tattooing to be exempt from an addiction classification could be made. Certainly there is no evidence that tattooing poses long term health risks in the same way that nicotine or alcohol abuse does. And in most countries it is a legal activity usually restricted to consenting adults and generally poses no risk of incarceration. However, proceeding with permanent bodily alterations with knowledge of one’s’ inferior selection can be considered a form of self harm.
As classified in the Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV-IV-TR), self harm is listed as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. Often used as a coping mechanism for deep seeded feelings usually of stress, inadequacy, anger, anxiety or depression. Bad tattoos, if viewed as self harm, are able to meet both the attention getting and anger dissociative behavior symptoms (two commonly attributed motivations of self harm). Far from splurging with an unhealthy meal, having a big night out or treating yourself to any indulgence – tattooing is a permanent marking with little to no chance of alteration. People can lose weight, take medication and even scars can heal. However, the placement of ink on the dermis remaining visible for a lifetime is a single, largely unalterable action. The deliberate selection of a bad tattoo and possible subsequent conscious or unconscious repetition is more akin to a type of body dysmorphia.
To reiterate the previous differentiation bad body art is the potentially harmful, culturally void duplication performed without proprietary or noteworthy technique. The repercussions of selection commonly overlooked due to an often non-temporal misalignment of the actual associated costs and rewards. In other words, the timeline for the tattoos presence is generally inconceivable. Therefore the rewards of immediate gratification are inflated. A reality that is later masked through commitment to the ‘collection’. In a world of options the conscious choice of an inferior tattoo, whether credited to any range of emotions from subculture participation to ease of application, is a form of self harm.
This conclusion might beg the question, why choose to be tattooed? The sophisticated course of action would be the initial selection of a unique piece from a talented artist. Despite the higher initial costs, gratification is delayed for the sake of expertise and distinction. Therefore irrespective of personal preference or changing viewpoints, a good tattoo in and of itself remains artistically valuable. Yet only when consciously deliberated in light of the facts does this choice become yours.
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published December 7th, 2011




many have dedicated decades
The latest TLC show titled ‘Tattoo School’ has caused global uproar throughout the tattoo community. Students who seem to lack any foundation in art or design are given two weeks to learn how to tattoo. Without question, righteous indignation from genuine tattoo artists ensued. Tattooing is an art form to which many have dedicated decades and still not achieved the levels to which they aspire. This art form is now being sold off like a work-from-home pyramid scheme with all the grace, subtlety and intelligence of a brick to the face. Yet in reviewing the abysmal tattoos completed by students of this ‘school’ one can’t help but draw numerous similarities to the portfolios of many tattooists currently practicing in studios around the world. If an inferior product is widely accepted, why would education of its recreation be so strongly criticized? It is a hard fact that true ­talent may not be taught or fostered within the aforementioned timeframe. And the primary negative repercussion would be the propagation of bad tattoos and ‘scratchers’ who work out of home or from equally un-hygienic venues. Acceptance that similar works can be produced by untalented hacks would more offend those who operate under delusions of grandeur in regards to the quality of their work or those who have settled for similar works under the delusion of it being art. The TLC ‘Tattoo School’ is truly an appalling creation yet, its very existence raises deep seeded questions of acceptability and standards in tattooing as a practice.


First we face the question of why the TLC ‘Tattoo School’ was even green-lighted. Standard Western mass entertainment can be neatly summarized in two words: ‘reality television’. Highly staged shows with star-struck participants claim to offer viewers some unique stance that is magically one step closer to real life than other productions. From the Jerry Springer Show, to Cops, American Idol and Big Brother demand for reality T.V. has only been on the rise. Speaking from a South East Asian viewpoint the television productions of “Miami” and “LA Ink” did wonders for broad public acceptance of tattooing. Tattoos moved from an underground practice reserved for criminals to, if not a type of collectable, then at least a much more acceptable lifestyle choice. Reality television in this case had a positive influence in challenging outdated perceptions. Yet the two aforementioned tattooing programs featured established artists in studios of some repute. Therefore the quality of tattoo work produced had already been voted as acceptable through basic economics of the studios continued presence. ‘Tattoo School’ is the litmus test of how far the public’s acceptance of any kind of tattoo can be pushed. In a kind of Hegelian dialectic tattoo acceptance was initiated (‘LA Ink’), tattoo standards are now in question (‘Tattoo School’), and the result should be a synthesis of quality and acceptability. In the same insultingly hypocritical vein as Jerry Springer’s closing remarks of “… Take care of yourself and each other”, TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ is a reflection of the standards we hold each other accountable to. Here the synthesis being initiated with the acknowledgment of the difference between ‘markings classified as tattoos’ on the one side and ‘tattoo art’ on the other.


Could the negative reaction to the ‘Tattoo School’ be considered a form of artistic elitism? Perhaps there were no other possible avenues that the ‘Tattoo School’ participants could have explored? An extremely well known television personality by the name of Bob Ross popularized landscape painting. His half hour program opened with him standing in front of a blank canvas, brush and palette in hand. After some helpful hints and gentle commentary one ended the program faced with a beautiful, albeit sometimes clichéd, nature scene. Art and design do not need to be taken in concentrated doses. In most branches of art there is room for those who dabble in drawing, paint for recreation and take up sculpture in their garage. And the grandest of educations does not guarantee aptitude. Yet tattoo art is the personalized culmination of design, physiology and artistic vision that is evidently not accessible to all. Options of amateur participation should extend only to activities that pose no physical danger to participants. In the same way that one must sit for a drivers’ license – control must be placed on activities that pose serious risks to health and safety if carried out by unqualified individuals. The ‘Tattoo School’ program has fundamentally failed in this respect.


If the ‘Tattoo School’ was produced by a single studio on a shoestring budget then the concept of the school itself as well as the supposed training offered would be dismissed as a joke. Reality shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice or The Dragons Den can create an illusion of proximity and therefore ability. The incongruence of perceived versus actual ability coming from long term indoctrination. Simply, value is attributed to that which people deem worthy to record. The camera’s presence helps substantiate most any action recorded, an effect that much of MTV’s Jackass popularity relies on. Therefore participants of these shows have a kind of automatic authority. With viewers, possibly connecting to or empathizing with the participants’ course of logic, then being validated for congruent capabilities. Mr. X is someone worth watching. Mr. X did something I could have done! I am as capable as Mr. X. Psychologically, the chain of logic is massively powerful considering the perceived potential audience of these ‘reality’ shows. If ‘monkey see – monkey do’ works anywhere, it certainly does not pertain to tattooing. The core foundation of TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ seems based around the convoluted logic that the cameras will somehow provide the authority of action so desperately lacking.

The production of the ‘Tattoo School’ was fundamentally pre-approved through long term public acceptance of sub-standard tattooing. TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ is simply a culmination of complacency. If the differentiation between inferior work and tattoo art is made clear, then the school itself will be publically rejected as fast as a Nigerian phising scam. Quality standards of tattoo art are appropriately being called into question. Yet instead of berating the symptom, stop the cause. If bad tattoos are truly not acceptable – TLC’s ‘Tattoo School’ won’t be either.

As always special thanks to ULA and Tattoo Concierge for their art, clarity and guidance.

Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published July 21st, 2011




50% later regretting their choice
Across Asia the popularity of tattooing is growing. In line with the staggered uptake of Western trends, increasingly affluent portions of society have begun participating in a variety of previously exclusive pursuits. According to some survey’s it is estimated that approximately 18% of all Americans now sport some kind of ink with as high as 50% later regretting their choice. China and Hong Kong have a long way to go before matching these statistics – although it may be years not decades before they catch up.

Perhaps tattooing in Asia can take the best from the West without reproducing such high rates of regret? In what is currently a largely ungoverned industry we sought the extreme examples of bad advice and worrying statements being floated. We then asked the experts for their take. Tattoo Concierge is the foremost tattoo art and design studio as well as the recognized global leader in multiple tattooing techniques. We were able to sit down with a few of their artists and management to get some of the worst statements they’ve had conveyed to them by clients who had visited other studios. They then followed these with genuine advice for those thinking of getting tattooed. In quotations are the sentences you never want to hear from a tattooist:

“Don’t worry about it not looking good when you’re old because you won’t look good when you’re old anyway!”

By this logic you should eat junk food because you going to put on weight anyway. The anticipation of your body looking bad is the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. If you plan on it happening then you will most likely make that vision a reality through a low standard of self care. If you hear a tattooist guiding your decision based on this rationale then you’re dealing with a junk food mentality. Get something quick, cheap and don’t worry about the quality. If you want to be proud of your body art then avoid people who propose this thinking like the plague.


“Japanese or Chinese – it doesn’t make a difference. No one will notice.”

No one will notice; apart from those that know what they’re talking about. Your choice of tattoo art should be a decision that is given the same weight as the effect of the procedure itself. A tattoo is a permanent alteration. If someone doesn’t care about the details of the piece then how can they be expected to care about your skin?


“Portfolio? Why? Everyone knows I’m the best.”

With the exception of a mere handful – how many celebrity tattoos could be considered to be really great? Just because the person has tattooed celebrities or is well known it is no indication of the quality of their work. One must individually judge an artist on their portfolio, their willingness to answer questions about the procedure and their attitude. Mike Tyson is extremely famous but is not considered to be a leading art critic. Trust your own judgment. If you don’t see a portfolio that you’re impressed with – don’t bother.


“I worked a nine to five and got bored with my job so I started tattooing!”

Have people changed careers and become respected tattoo artists? Yes. Does this mean that every ex-office worker or ex-designer has the potential to be a tattoo artist? No. Some of the best artists in the world have worked in a range of fields and professions before tattooing. Eclectic experience can be a huge source of inspiration and expertise. However there is a big difference between someone who followed their passion to become a tattoo artist and someone who just learned to tattoo. Anyone can trace a picture but only a select few can create. The difference is most easily noted in the style of work produced. Tattooists that rely heavily on prefabricated designs or flash sheets are those that can trace. Generally, those producing works unique unto themselves are artists.


“Most of our customers are tourists.”

So you’re saying that locals feel the price isn’t justified, you do quick flash work and those people you do tattoo aren’t around long enough for the piece to even heal? Got it.

“We don’t need an autoclave for sterilization.”

You do. A professional grade autoclave is absolutely required. Unless every single part of the tattoo machine is disposable the artist will need to clean sections of the machine between clients. UV sterilization is so that additional bacteria does not grow. Ultrasonic cleaners are for removing relatively large bits of dirt, cleaning between colors and a few other procedures. But ultrasonic cleaners themselves cannot be said to sterilize the equipment. An autoclave is a very large and reasonably expensive piece of equipment. Not having one can contribute to many tattooists offering you a ‘great deal’.
Through popular culture tattooing has recently been brought into the limelight. Shows like ‘LA Ink’ in conjunction with local Asian celebrities getting tattooed afforded the art a new found respect. From a once underground practice reserved for societies’ fringe elements – tattooing in Asia has today become a much more celebrated pursuit. With a wide choice of fine artists from Mainland China and from studio’s like Tattoo Concierge in Hong Kong – let us hope that the Asian tattoo industry doesn’t need to repeat the Western learning curve of what’s considered to be genuine tattoo art.




Hong Kongs traditional infamy

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Martin Luther King Jr.


Hong Kong has somewhat of a ‘traditional infamy’ regarding triad tattoos. Due to the economic success and population density of this small fishing village turned metropolis, China’s Special Administrative Region is renowned for criminal tattoos and displays of organized crime affiliation. Public perception and purported fear of these markings is then reinforced by mainstream media, Hollywood included. Far from an insight into gang organization, this portrayal is a fantastic double bluff. The practice also sheds light on how the general public’s judgment of the tattooed is merely an economy of thought – allowing for broad generalizations without the need for subsequent artistic discrimination. Both of these conditions allow for illogical and outdated ‘inked-discrimination’.


The term ‘triad’ is said to have been coined by the British after assuming control of the colony. The name was derived from the traditional Chinese triangle iconography used by the gangs signifying the unity between heaven, earth and man. And even most Hong Kong triad groups still have their roots strongly in Mainland China. Throughout the 19th and 20th century the triads’ presence in Hong Kong grew alongside the territory’s reputation as an international business and shipping hub. Like any industry, the triad groups were separated by area of specialty and geographical location. There are still many active groups throughout both Mainland China and Hong Kong. It was just in 1993 that the notorious 6 acre ‘Walled City’, boasting a population of 33,000 under triad rule, was demolished. Today the number of active members in each of the top groups is estimated to range between 20,000 and 100,000+.


The two most recognizable forms in triad tattoos are the dragon and the phoenix. These generally aggressive images work in tandem within the mythology. The dragon image is held to signify the ‘yang’ or dark side of the ‘yin-yang’ balance. Far from a beast to be feared or hunted as in Western mythology, the Chinese dragon traditionally symbolized good luck, power and control over various elements. Of these traits power is the most common reason behind the acquisition of dragon tattoos. On the other side is the ‘light’ or ‘yin’ element represented by the phoenix. A fire bird consistently reborn from the ashes, the phoenix symbolizes regeneration. And to that extent the phoenix also stands for a kind of power over the mortal coil. Again, the dragon and phoenix are the most recognizable pairing in triad tattoos. The other combination is the dragon and tiger. The reason for this second grouping derives from a variety of cultural sources including particular etymology of local dialects, myths behind famous Chinese leaders as well as the perceived internal struggle between the inclination towards good or bad (with each animal representing a distinct proclivity).


The use of these images and mythology by triad members is not in question. Many triad members will have such tattoos. However, the mistaken belief is that these tattoos are used by the triad organizations themselves. Any broad categorizations of those who wear these tattoos automatically being a triad member of any repute are deeply inaccurate. The subtle differentiation being that those who publically display these tattoos are either a separate class of triad members or simply tattooed individuals.


Generally speaking there are two types of triads. The first is locally referred to as a ‘troublemaker’, the ‘young and dangerous’ type. These ‘troublemakers’ are generally concerned with street squabbles over territory, drugs, petty crime and intimidation. Due to their public profile and propensity for display, this type receives the most attention. The second type is colloquially referred to as the ‘black-band’ society. Much like any major crime organization their ranks are controlled with militarily precision and its members can be professionals from a variety of fields. Throughout the largest groups lawyers, bankers, business owners, politicians and policeman can be included in this second category. There are two rules governing the second type, to never cause trouble and to never be identified as a member. The gang’s income and business structures require the preservation of a status-quo. To upset this through any petty crime, unauthorized intimidation or showboating would be short sighted and absolutely detrimental to operations. The first type has allowed for the current negative stereotyping of the tattooed in Hong Kong. They have a propensity for very large tattoos yet, due to limited financial means, will usually only complete the outline of the piece. The second type, should they have any tattoos, would not display them in the same way. At an organizational level, leaders of various fractions will not allow followers to be tattooed. Such tattoos would draw too much attention whilst allowing for immediate identification. In a business where anonymity and discrete operations are of primary importance it would be wrong to assume that there is some displayed, physical method of membership categorization.


The idea of an economy of thought is simple, it is a mental shortcut. If one was passed by three people on the street and then asked to describe who passed, answers are most commonly economies of thought. A response could be “Two guys and a girl passed by”. Another could be “Two business men and a woman walked by”, and so on. From personal grooming, types of clothing and even their stride; a plethora of readily available information is frequently overlooked. Due to the sheer amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis it very rarely serves any purpose to go into further detail than this. And in the absence of any extenuating circumstance, for the everyday person much of this information would indeed be useless to retain. One’s more complete attention is devoted to the environmental aspects that are of immediate concern or use. Economies of thought serve multiple purposes and allow for speedy navigation of modern day life. Yet if these economies of thought are taken as inherent truths they form the foundation for most every type of discrimination.


To racially profile, judge, dismiss or otherwise unfairly discriminate is to uphold an ill-formed economy of thought. A striking example of this being the ‘Craniometry’ and ‘Eugenics’ movements most famously employed by the Nazi’s. These supposed ‘sciences’ consisted of taking physical measurements of various body parts. The subsequent ratios between the measured sections were then said to indicate the subjects’ value as a human being. So the length and shape of one’s nose could be used as evidence of intrinsic inferiority or cognitive capacity. Again, an ill-formed economy of thought enables discrimination as investigation or genuine understanding of the facts is rendered unnecessary. This mental process (or lack thereof) with varying levels of complexity and specific cultural pressure applies to all racial profiling, stereotyping and prejudice.


To move out of the somewhat morbidly extreme nature of the previous example, general economies of thought are applied to most every aspect of life. These are internal defense mechanisms that allow for rapid categorization of the information saturated world we are part of. And not to reduce this logic to the Socratic line of continual investigation ending in the admittance we actually know nothing with certainty, mental economies of thought are comparatively topical shortcuts. Much like the snap judgment of someone’s supposed indicated wealth through a subjective calculation of the price of their clothing, the shortcuts in question here are ones that can be reduced or removed entirely with minimal effort.


To see that public displays of dragon and phoenix tattoos do not necessarily indicate a true inclination or connection to organized crime is a novel concept to many. As with any behavior, extreme actions are of course rightfully questionable. Yet tattoo art, in and of itself, can be an art form collected by the most educated and trustworthy people across the globe. To know that there are tattoos and on the other end of the spectrum there is tattoo art will allow for new, slightly more accurate mental economies of thought to develop. To automatically fear, discriminate or dismiss the tattooed would be allowing ill-formed economies of thought to grow and negative stereotypes to propagate. In a world where the rate of tattoo adoption is growing exponentially, we must understand that when properly performed tattoo art can be as varied, complex, beautiful and as detailed as the people who wear it.


As always, huge thanks to Tattoo Concierge and the Unique Living Art Organization for their art, inspiration and clarity.


Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published July 18th, 2011




discontinuity of feigned acceptance and perception
Voluntarily receiving a tattoo, a permanent alteration to physical appearance, can technically be said to be borne from either rational logic or whim (here displays of group membership are also categorized as whim due to their extreme situational dependence). Tattoos can be a well thought out plan or a spur of the moment decision. Yet their subsequent display is not as easily divided. Heavily tattooed men frequently cover their ink with business suits, go into an office and refuse to hire an outwardly tattooed candidate on the grounds of unacceptable physical appearance. Where does this discontinuity of feigned tattoo acceptance, practice and public perception arise? And, why tattoos should not inherently be considered works of art.


Tattoos have just a long and illustrious history as any mainstream or classical type of art. Although this fact is not frequently considered today, far from appreciation, public perception in mainstream Western society often verges on an unenthusiastic civil acceptance of the tattooed. The nature of this dichotomy is characteristically American. The United States has some of the most stringent penalties in the Western world for marijuana use but also the highest consumption. The FCC guarantees that on American public daytime television you won’t be able to see a female nipple but the country’s consumption of hardcore pornography is second to none. Drunk driving is a huge safety issue on American highways. Yet, in a move almost designed to promote binging, the age when one is legally allowed to consume alcohol is still 21 (three years after a citizen can join the military). There exist staggering contradictions between perceived, ‘acceptable’ public opinion and practiced reality.


Tattoo appropriation has become a striking method of display for often deeply personal viewpoints. Yet unlike the easily derisible choice of fashion, body art is not a practical necessity and therefore rightly open to what is at times, severe criticism. When a practice is pushed to the periphery its practitioners necessarily create rifts away from mainstream society through subcultures. Recent years have seen an exponential growth in tattoo adoption. Slowly, tattooing is moving into the light of day. However, there is tattoo art and there are tattoos. The two are vastly different practices with the differentiation often overlooked. Tattoos current reluctant acceptance is the uneducated mass reaction to a practice once relegated to a traditionally infamous subculture (i.e. tattoos and not tattoo art). Broader public approval of tattoo art has been hampered by the inability to differentiate logic from whim. In other words, acceptance of tattooing as a genuine art form has been slowed by the inability to differentiate tattoo art from tattoos.


Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of body art. Traditionally these tribal markings held significant cultural value (tribal is used here in the most traditional sense of the term). Otzi, a recently discovered mummy preserved in ice, bore tattoos that date back some 5,300 years. Egyptian priests and priestesses arranged tattooed dots in what they believed to be mystical abstract geometric patterns across their bodies. Western Europeans have also long adopted the practice. The etymological derivation of ‘Briton’ was regarded by Bentham to be from the Celtic word meaning ‘land of the painted people’. And the art, used for both spiritual and aesthetic purposes, has also been prevalent across Asia for thousands of years. After a period in the West the practice fell into the shadows, not brought into popular consciousness until the Polynesian voyages of Captain Cook. Tattooing then returned to modern Europe as a carnivalesque display. Soon afterwards, in tandem with the invention of the electric tattoo machine, this negative perception of tattoos was strongly reinforced through the appropriation of ink by criminals, sailors and those of ‘low repute’. This subcultures’ tattooing methodology being a type of misappropriation to more strongly juxtapose the tattooed from their ‘clean skinned’ counterparts.

A large part of tattoos modern history consists of tattoo-tracers who use prefabricated flash-tattoos to simply copy designs onto clients’ skin often in rapid succession. Tattoo-tracers enable and propagate negative tattoo stereotypes. And unfortunately, tattoo-tracers have been unwittingly accepted to the point where they now constitute the vast majority of both studios and tattooists. The rate of cover-up tattoos and laser-removals of all tattoos received is estimated to range between 20% and 38% respectively. Although these surveys have been of varying depth and legitimacy still, irrespective of the potential error margins in calculations, the implication of accepted quality and impetuous enthusiasm remains abundantly clear. The best parallel being the right to free speech has no bearing on the veracity, impact or adequacy of words uttered. Opportunity is not reason itself.



Nowadays very few choices are permanent. A staggeringly large percentage of marriages quickly end in divorce. The number of different types of careers held over a lifetime can extend into the double digits. Friends, houses and social affiliations are too easily changed. In a heavily beauty-prejudiced society rational thought would dictate extensive consideration to any permanent alternations to physical appearance when said alterations are neither uniform nor universally accepted. Yet the past few decades has seen exponential growth in flash-tattoo adoption.

A person might have an evenhanded rationale for receiving a tattoo. Yet the public’s uninformed acceptance of flash-tattoos and tattooists necessarily limits the potential range of consideration. Just as there is a link between emotional stability and an eclectic, diverse vocabulary; a person thrives when granted the opportunity to freely express themselves. The first discontinuity of perception and practice regarding tattooing can be seen to arise from the need to express oneself yet doing so with a limited vocabulary.

Conversely, as more and more sections of an individuals’ personal life turn out to be non-permanent the concept of stability itself becomes elusive. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you anticipate that everything will change then the very nature of any decision is temporary. This extends to the choice of tattoos.



Although the term ‘reality’ is used cautiously, there are undeniably common denominators regarding tattoo acceptance within mainstream society. As initially stated, the common denominators are here termed rational logic or whim. These two categories encompass a broad range of actions and end with fundamentally disconnected results.

A tattoo acquired from whim is by far the most common type. Immediate gratification and or shock value are the two most regular motives. Whim tattoos are generally selected from a book of prefabricated designs and applied by someone who knows how to trace a picture. The overly busy decals used on Ed Hardy accessories perhaps being the most infamous example. Most forms of Chinese character tattoos, tribal designs and lower back tattoos also fall within this category. To determine if a tattoo was acquired on a whim one only needs to answer negatively to the following three questions: 1) Was the tattoo something you wanted and thought about for a long time, perhaps even years? 2) Are you the only person with this tattoo? 3) Can you call the person that applied the tattoo an artist?


The differentiation between tattoo types and motivation is not something to cause or promote discrimination. It is a distinction drawn to present a broader range of possibilities. If artists are held to certain standards of quality then the acceptance of tattoo art will be justified. When it comes to the choice of body art, there is no other area over which one has more direct control.


As always, huge thanks to The Tattoo Concierge for their art, inspiration and guidance:
Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published June 6th, 2011




a question of quality lingers

A quick historical comparison of keyword search popularity for “tattoo” and “tattoo art” through ‘Google Trends’ yields an interesting result: a direct inverse correlation. Broad searches for tattoos have been steadily increasing with searches for “tattoo art” steadily decreasing. Whilst reality tattoo shows, celebrity tattooist and tattooed celebrities are on the rise, a question of quality lingers. What defines genuine tattoo art as opposed to a tattooed trend? And why this differentiation is of concern.

For tattooing no one style of design can be held to be inherently superior. From Old School sailor tattoos to modern Chinese Watercolor the skill to perform, irrespective of your field and technique, is the underlying factor that necessitates respect. Additionally, personal inclination towards any one style is too beyond reproach. Preference should not be graded. The issue is that quality can be. And with this there are two distinct types of tattoos. The first are prefabricated or minimally altered designs applied by a tattooist. The second are unique commissions individually recognizable as works of art applied by artists. The former is a tattoo. The latter is tattoo art. The three following situations offer a rationale behind the prevalence of the commonly touted tattoo:

1) Digital Socialization: The first days of widespread internet access, personal e-mail accounts and online pornography spawned a phenomenon referred to here as “novel ethical maneuvering”. The constant trumping in obtainable levels of vulgarity, debasement or shocking images through a volley of e-mails became a widespread practice. The humorous Godwin’s Law states that as any online argument escalates in severity the probability of one participant comparing their other to a Nazi approaches 1 (or 100%). The aforementioned phenomenon of ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ is much the same as Godwin’s Law – only without a finite point of potential termination. The ability and method by which to invoke a reaction has no baseline or ceiling. It is not moving towards a probability of 1 but rather simply branching out in alternate, limitless directions. Today social media sites offer an almost global reach at the cost of traditional human interaction. This digital socialization has two distinct repercussions; decreased importance placed on personal conformation to social appearance norms and the ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ of interactions in order to gain or hold attention. Comparatively impersonal interactions allow for a looser set of physical or ‘off-line’ standards. A near incomprehensible range of interaction choices dictate increasingly striking ‘attention grabbing’ tactics. This effect is then amplified through the user’s ability to join online niche groups (such as ‘tattoo enthusiasts’ or ‘lovers of body art’), a set of actions and shared ideologies ordinarily referred to as sub-culture association. These niche groups then reinforce the aforementioned repercussions of digital socialization. Tattoos have been adopted due to the ‘novel ethical maneuvering’ of personal appearance. In short, digital socialization has allowed for many bad tattooists of varying fame and repute to make quick money

2) The Health Food Correlation: Or more specifically, why junk is still in demand. Today most any piece of information known to mankind is readily available. For any individual living in a developed country the excuse that one does not understand the basics of nutrition or the physical results of a fast food diet has no ground. Completely separate from any suicidal tendencies (in which smoking and extreme sports are also classed), the rationale most commonly used for fast food consumption is the preservation of time. Many state that the demands of modern life limit attention once devoted to healthy, home cooked meals. Ironically, a goal of body maintenance through balanced nutrition would be increased productivity. Using the same convoluted logic, junk tattoos have become prevalent. They are easy to apply and the people applying them have no waiting list. As with junk food the end goal is instant obtainment irrespective of any long term, detrimental effects. The stomach is empty and needs to be filled, a simple equation should standards of quality be lacking. A section of skin is empty and needs to be covered, with what and by who is of minimal importance should the standards of quality be lacking. Short term results outweigh the long term negative effects and immediacy takes precedence.

3) Post-Modernly-Scrooged: Post Modernism has been defined as the flattening of culture. The once meaning rich image of Che Guevara is now placed on children’s notebooks. Mobile telephone ringtones have been turned into popular songs and classical concertos into ringtones. Salvidor Dali’s surrealist paintings have been used by countless individuals for their online avatars and the morality kneaded into commercials more often reside in the popular consciousness than does religious scripture (although this last example might actually be considered progress). Since the introduction of the electric tattoo machine and the standard ‘tattoo studio’ the cultural value or potency of tattoo images for many has also been flattened. As such the concept of a discerning tattoo collector is somewhat abstract in the popular zeitgeist. With comparative standardization of the cultural currency of tattoo images their price of application has too become generally homogeneous. The standardized cost and meaning has allowed for somewhat of an unbiased adoption by mainstream Western society. The goal for many is to simply carry ink rather than a form of cultural currency. Instead of commissioning an artist for a unique creation many simply adhere to the mega-store, mass produced economies of scale. If the end user cannot discern between the varying levels of potency then price and speed of attainment trump all other factors. A finger painting from a kindergartener and a Picasso will seem comparable if presented on a level platform to one who does not understand the criteria by which to judge them.

The value of an artist should not only be derived from their portfolio but more importantly, from their attitude towards the creation of the unique. These aforementioned trends and influences, although perhaps initially bleak, no more heralds the end of tattoo art than television meant the end of cinema. The mass consumption of rapid fire images compared to the depth of a true cinematic experience holds. As the television standards of common tattoos have been on the rise there are still those that will always value the depth and artistry found in unique commissions. The mass tattoo consumption is undeniably a trend yet the evidence of this style-du-jour remains indelible. The definition of true art is something that inspires and transcends, demand nothing less from body art.

Special thanks to Tattoo Concierge for their guidance and inspirational creations:

Written By Dr. J Chou / Henry Haegel, published June 6th, 2011




considering a 5,000 year old art form

For an ever increasing percentage of people across the globe a new online library poses a serious question. When considering a 5,000 year old art form, the compilation of popularized drawings would seem to be nothing extraordinary. Every book store and café from Ivy League schools to sea side tourist-traps sell photographs of famous painters, sculptors and modern pop-artists’ works. And from glossy coffee table books to iPhone cases – the world is saturated with these depictions.

Art has become a daily occurrence. Yet appreciation and recognition is something most do without ever having held a brush or picked up a canvas. The ability to choose and change the artworks around us allows for veracious, constant consumption.

This new online library pertains to a practice that is less recognized as an art form but becoming more commonly demanded, requested and viewed than any before: I am of course speaking about tattooing. On an elemental level these permanent markings hold the most private and intense connection of all art forms. Tattoos can serve as expressions of character, history and even as a record of one’s experiences.

Less well known is the fact that tattoos can be divided into two design categories; flash and custom. Tattoo flash refers to a collection of drawings that have most frequently been used by tattooists around the world. These images adorn the walls of numerous studios and fill the portfolio books of many tattooists. People often arrive at tattoo studios, flick through the pages of the flash collection and simply pick out a design to have placed on their bodies. Flash tattooing is a practice comparable to choosing a sticker from an album.

In a practice more akin to patronage, custom designed body art is the second tattoo type. The client’s preferences, design tastes and even lifestyle is considered by the tattoo artist. With this information the tattoo artist is commissioned to create a unique artwork that will then be tattooed.

Tattoo Concierge in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed body art. Tattoo Concierge’s artworks are tailor made and no design is ever repeated. Breaking through the stereotype of the flash tattoo mindset, Tattoo Concierge has seen unparalleled success. With clients flying in from around the world the waiting list for some of Tattoo Concierge’s artists can be over one year.

The studio is also home to the International Tattoo Academy (ITA). In line with their educational ventures Tattoo Concierge has released a free tattoo flash library. Divided into nine sections the flash library consists of over 4,500 images and is available online:

Tattoo Concierge commented that they hope the release of this free flash library will “Help people appreciate and understand real tattoo art”. With the resurgence of tattooing, the industry is set for continued expansion. Flicking through books we have been asking ‘What represents me’?
If we look up, the question we could be asking is ‘What am I going to create’?
Written By Dr. J Chou, published March 15th, 2011




sources of inspiration
Professional from all fields are now commissioning artists to design unique body art. A free Western masterpiece library of around 150,000 images has been released by a tattoo studio, signifying the rise of the art tattoo.
The number of tattooed people world-wide is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. There is of course no way to accurately count every person wearing ink, surveys of varying sizes and veracity have been conducted across the globe. One indisputable fact remains – tattoos are becoming evidently and markedly popular (pun intended).

It could be said that tattooing is undergoing somewhat of a modern day renaissance. Even 60 years ago the tattoo studio’s primary clientele consisted of sailors, army men and those who have often been categorized as ‘rough individuals’. When speaking with Tattoo Concierge in Hong Kong – we discovered that the vast majority of their clientele consists of international business executives, CEO’s and professionals from all fields. Far from a uniting ‘tattooed’ bond joining the once separate socio-economic classes it seems that a new divide is forming: those who wear tattoo art and those with tattoos.

The difference might seem to be a subtle one from outside the industry but examples of work from the two sides are staggeringly different. Standard designs are the most commonly thought of, searched for and sold tattoo images. These are often referred to as ‘tattoo flash’. They are the pictures of cartoon characters, suns, moons, roses, hearts, dragons, flowers and most every discounted drawing you could expect to find in a well-stocked sticker album. Much like going shopping for a T-Shirt, flash tattoos are prefabricated designs used again and again. The use of tattoo flash could be readily explained through economic terms as impromptu requests in tandem with the financial means of the tattoo studio’s clientele dictated the need for immediate, speedy application of designs. One caveat being that there does exist a range of shared imagery amongst various, often tribal, cultures where tattoo designs are consistently reused. Tattoo flash here obviously does not refer to this meaningful and artistically rich native or tribal iconography.

The art tattoo finds its inspiration in mutual, often lengthy collaboration. No longer constrained to the stock set of images found in tattoo flash, the art tattoo draws its inspiration from every imaginable source. Clients can approach the artist with either a clear image of their perfect body art or a general idea of what elements or style they would like incorporated. Once the positioning, color and design elements have been discussed – the artist will then take some time to create an entirely unique piece for the client. As in the same way that many will not buy their suit off the rack – the rise of the art tattoo is becoming a lifestyle choice of the discerning.

Tattoo Concierge in Hong Kong was the first studio in the region to introduce custom designed body art. Tattoo Concierge’s artworks are tailor made and no design is repeated. Breaking through the stereotype of the flash tattoo mindset, Tattoo Concierge has seen unparalleled success. The studio is also home to the International Tattoo Academy (ITA). For inspiration from more classical sources Tattoo Concierge has released an artist reference library. The library consists of over 150,000 images and features a wide range of Western & Asian masterpieces. It is available online:

Written By Henry Baeger, published April 1st, 2011




growing number choosing tattoo art
After talking with Asia’s largest body art organization we came up with the top 5 questions they hate to hear. It seems as though no matter how educated the clientele, amusing questions are never far away!

Recently there has been a significant amount of attention towards the growing number of people across the globe that are now choosing ‘tattoo art’. Tattoo art has been defined as a unique creation, from a tattoo artist, that was commissioned by the client specifically for single use. On the other side is ‘tattoo flash’, this is where pre-made designs are chosen from a book and simply applied by a tattooist. Tattoo art is the fastest growing type of personally commissioned fine art and its growing popularity has implications for hundreds of millions around the world!

Despite the increasingly discerning choices – some really basic questions still get asked. We talked with Tattoo Concierge in Hong Kong and found the top 5 worst questions you could ask when commissioning tattoo art. Tattoo Concierge was the first studio in Asia to introduce the art tattoo and is the leading body art organization. Despite their clientele being mostly CEO’s, doctors, lawyers and professionals from a variety of fields – Tattoo Concierge is no stranger to the cringe worthy question. In reverse order, here are the top five:

5: “I couldn’t get a big tattoo… If I get a smaller tattoo it will hurt less – right?!”
It is true that there will be less time under the needle but the per-minute pain of getting a tattoo is a finite unit. There are two factors that affect the pain level; position and the person. Tattoos to different parts of the body will have varying levels of pain associated. For instance, clients getting tattoos on the back of their knees, feet or neck often feel that these areas are more painful than getting a tattoo on a more common place like the back or shoulder. The second factor is a person’s pain threshold. Other than these two, big or small, a tattoo is a tattoo!


4: “If I get a big tattoo will it fade faster?”
Whether tattoos fade or last depends entirely on the skill of the artist that applied it and how you treat the tattoo afterwards. If the tattooist doesn’t know what they’re doing or uses inferior ink then the tattoo won’t be applied correctly. If it wasn’t applied correctly it will consequently fade out. Or, if you are out in the sun every day without proper protection over your tattoo then it can start to fade. Size is irrelevant; it’s who applied it and how you take care of it that makes all the difference.

3: “I’d love to get a color tattoo but all the color ones fade out right?”
Not at all! If you go to the right artist, they use the proper ink and you take care of the tattoo then a color tattoo will last as long as a black one! Tattoos sit on the second layer of skin. This means that your own skin tone will be above the color of the tattoo. Apart from that, the life of the color ink is exactly the same as black ink.


2: “I heard that there is a numbing cream I could use so I don’t have to feel the tattoo?”
Quite simply, anyone that even suggests a pain-free tattoo is possible (while you’re conscious) is lying. The fact is that these kinds of products do not work for tattoos. Tattoos are permanent because they rest on the middle layer of skin. Very simply, the top layer of human skin is constantly shedding, the middle layer is stable, and the base layer connects the blood vessels and nerves. Numbing creams are applied and work on the top layer of skin only. The tattoo sits on the second layer of skin. Lidocaine, the most common active ingredient in numbing creams, only works on a tiny portion of skin and does not cut off all sensation to the area.
1: “I want a tattoo! Could you please design it for me?”
This is the grand winner! We are talking about custom designed art. The artist will need to know what style or styles you would like incorporated, where you’d like the tattoo, how much space you’d like to use, your color and design preferences and a whole range of other details. To say “I want a tattoo! Could you please design it for me?” is the equivalent of asking “I want my dream house! Could you please make it for me?”. Being as specific as possible and having references at the ready will help your artist create your custom artwork. Don’t go in empty handed!
Tattoo Concierge followed the interview by saying that no matter what the questions – they’re always happy to answer! Contact details can be found on their websites:

Written By Henry Baeger, published April 11th, 2011