Tattoos and Systemic Importance: Superfluous Ornament

AWhen Beethoven’s 250th birthday was celebrated in December, another jubilee went largely unnoticed: that of Adolf Loos, who was born on December 10, 1870. Perhaps, once his pedophile assaults are proven, it would be better to just forget about him. Anyone who hushes up his work with his person, however, refuses to learn anything from it. Recently, however, the knowledge of Loos’ unsavory obsessions has given us interesting insights. In his architectural work one suddenly noticed how the interior, which encourages a refined voyeurism, is hidden behind a hermetic and non-transparent facade. His writings, too, can still lead to new reflections, even his most famous essay, the title of which – “Ornament and Crime” – knows even many of those who have not read it.

The text goes back to a lecture that Loos gave in November 1909 in Berlin. He later worked it out in writing and illustrated it with photographs, once again in Vienna and several other cities, including Prague, where it was even heard by Kafka. Its central message is that “humanity must be freed from superfluous ornament”. In order to achieve this goal, as Loos later admits, one does not even have to make any special efforts, because the progressive modernization of the world already amounts to bringing the functionality of all things to the fore in the greatest possible clarity. Horse-drawn carriages were decorated with carvings and paintings, bicycles and locomotives were not. Everything that is irrelevant to the function of a thing dies. That is why the ornament disappears all by itself, and “where it has once disappeared, it cannot be reattached,” as Loos claims. Just as man will never return to tattoos on the face. “

Latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats

Loos was particularly fascinated by tattoos, and he dedicated his best-known sentences to them: “The papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oars, in short everything he can get at. He is not a criminal. The modern man who gets tattooed is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons where eighty percent of inmates have tattoos. Those tattooed who are not in custody are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. When a tattooed man dies in freedom, he died a few years before he committed a murder. “

It is easy to overlook the premises of such bizarre assertions. It seems obvious that Loos regards tattoos as ornamental decorations on the human body that otherwise have no function. But people are not objects of daily use, and their function, unlike that of a desk lamp, cannot be determined by instruments. If one even wants to speak of a person’s function, then at best it would be a social function like that of a mother or a father. It is significant that Loos did not give any further thought to this. If he had, he would have surely recognized that the meaning of tattoos can only be explained by their social functions.


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