Skinscapes in Cape Town

Tattoo picture by Cody Black on Unsplash

In the study of material culture (Aronin and Ơ Laoire 2013), “skinscapes” (Peck and Stroud 2015), tattoos and other types of body modification are analyzed as cultural artifacts. In skinscape analysis, body inscriptions are inserted as a special type of semiotic landscapes where the skin is part of the daily human experience and the macro-discourses that accompany it. The skin is interesting as part of landscape research because it is private and vulnerable, but also mobile. However, the most special quality of skinscapes is perhaps the fact that the body is an extremely personal canvas.

An important aspect of the study of skinscapes is how body inscriptions co-create meaning along with the spaces where they are displayed and how these allow their wearers to create, align with or challenge identities and power relations. Understanding the meaning of a tattoo is not an easy task since in every particular case several multimodal semiotic resources are at play. The meaning of a tattoo often depends on its symbols, its placement, the moment when it is displayed, the place where it is displayed, and the person who wears it. Indeed, the meaning of a tattoo can be liquid, and these meanings form an indexical field (Eckert 2008) which is always negotiated between the person who wears it and those who can see it.

In this line of work, Roux, Peck, and Banda (2019) analyze skinscapes in Cape Town, one of the three capital cities of South Africa, where both the mainstream cultural trend of tattooing and the “older sub-culture of prison tattooing” (26) are present. The authors aim to frame the practice of tattooing under the views of multilingualism, creativity, and gendered-identity representations. The study follows four of the twenty-four interviews made to female students at three universities in Cape Town. The interviews focused on the narratives of the students’ tattoos. From the resulting corpus of eighty nine tattoos worn by the South African students, the authors selected four of these because of their multilingualism/multiculturalism:

  • A Mexican-like sugar skull from “The Day of the Dead” upper-back tattoo with no lettering
  • A winged-version of the symbol from the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise forearm tattoo with Elvish (Tengwar) lettering
  • A cursive lettering wrist-tattoo in Afrikaans with the words “soet slap sonder sonde” (sleep sweetly without sin), from lyrics of the South African rock band Fokofpolisiekar
  • A rib-tattoo of a tree and birds with Chinese lettering meaning “stability and resilience”

The study focuses on the narratives of these tattoos as well as the South African context where they are displayed. The authors show how students use the multimodal semiotic material of their tattoos to show different alignments between gendered-identity representations in a creative way within Cape Town’s macro-discourses.

An important contrast highlighted in this study and which is very common in the practice of tattooing is the one that exists between the community language and foreign-language tattoos. Indeed, the practice of tattooing linguistic signs falls under the semiotic landscaping field known as linguistic landscaping. In particular, the study of linguistic skinscapes is the subfield of linguistic landscaping which I label as dermolinguistics, or the study of language on the skin.

The extra-layer of meaning given by the multilingualism that foreign-language tattoos bring to the linguistic landscape of Cape Town is used by the wearers of those tattoos in creative ways. One example is the case of the Elvish inscription beneath the feminized Assassin’s Creed symbol mentioned above. The inscription is a semiotic resource that allows the wearer to subvert the typical Elvish female identity from The Lord of the Rings by encoding the Creed, or the maxim of the Assassin Order, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. In the words of the authors, this creative enterprise allowed this student to picture herself “… as not different from the male gamers and male warrior characters in the Lord of the Rings, who are ardent and passionate fighters” (Roux, Peck and Banda 2019: 34).

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Elvish (Tengwar) script generated using Tecendil – The Tengwar Transcriber

The study of skinscapes and its subfield of dermolinguistics are still young and only a handful of studies have started scratching the surface of the enormous amount of meaning that people encode in their skins through scarification, tattooing and other forms of body modification. The distribution of displayed body inscriptions in urban areas, the social meanings they encode and how these skinscapes contribute to the larger macro-discourses of urban landscapes are interesting questions about our modern sociocultural practices that I can only hope are addressed in the future.


  • Eckert, P. (2008). Variation and the indexical field 1. Journal of sociolinguistics, 12(4), 453-476.a
  • Peck, A., & Stroud, C. (2015). Skinscapes. Linguistic Landscape, 1(1–2), 133–151, DOI: 10.1075/ll.1.1-2.08pec
  • Roux, S., Peck, A., & Banda, F. (2019). Playful female skinscapes: body narrations of multilingual tattoos. International Journal of Multilingualism, 16(1), 25-41. DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2018.1500258
  • Aronin, L., & Ơ Laoire, M. (2013). The material culture of multilingualism: Moving beyond the linguistic landscape. International Journal of Multilingualism, 10, 225–235.
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About damianiji

My name is Damian Romero. I am a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Arizona with a strong focus on corpus linguistics and natural language processing. My research interests lay in the fields of computational social sciences and digital humanities. I also build applications that help companies process natural language data. Click on my picture for my full profile where you will find my website, student profile, and my professional FaceBook account.

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