Iryna Lopatiuk – Associate fellow of Ukraine Academy of Science and the Memory Institute. Member of the special scientific unit “Expeditionary corps”.
One of the research areas of the subculture studies is the symbolism inherent in this subculture. Attributes and symbols are one of 10 parameters, allowing thorough investigation of this complex phenomenon (10 parameters are indicated according to the methodology verified by the academician and scientist, Ph.D Oleg Maltsev; this methodology is represented in the scholar’s popular scientific book ‘Sketch a Subculture’).
For the very start, it is proposed to comprehend a particular question. ‘Should a representative of a subculture necessarily ‘profess’ symbolism and encircle himself with accompanying attributes, from necklaces and patches – to tattoos and piercings? The answer is ‘No.’ The fact is that the individual’s concept characterizes the subculture chooses everything himself.’ In such a formation, there is no controlling or another executive ‘body’ that would explain, declare, or impose any particular set of rules, mainly how many tattoos ‘should be on the left and right arm.’
An approach to the study of the subculture that focuses on the phenomenon of ‘symbolism’ allows a researcher to conceptualize several points:
1) The logic of the subculture manifests and substantiates its central idea. Attributes and symbols convey this idea; the imagery and manner of its expression may be incomprehensible to anyone except the particular subculture’s adherent.
2) Symbols can be selected by a representative of the subculture from various cultures and eras. For instance, a role-playing Tolkien-follower may have a Chinese dragon tattooed on his back, Thor’s hammer on his shoulder, and the ring of all-power on his neck (like Frodo the hobbit). Thus, each representative of the subculture has his perception of the idea, to the embodiment of which he aspires. The symbolism and attributes that go with it are his or her expression.
3) All attributes and symbols can be classified into two categories:
a) general distinctive symbols;
b) personal symbols and attributes.
Everyone in the subculture possesses both general attributes and their own. Typical are the mandatory attributes, the things that visually confirm one is belonging to the subculture. On the other hand, every representative also has their attributes, expressing some idea from their perspective.
Typically, the first introduction to symbolism is a physical appearance of a person. As an illustrative example, it is suggested to regard the biker subculture as one of the most widely represented. Therefore, the biker is usually seen wearing a jacket; one may pay attention if there are club colors or any attributes that are not familiar or unclear. The first thing that usually catches the eye is the patches. In the U.S., the patches or stripes on the jackets are the identifying components. There are army patches, military patches, or those a student gets when he joins a club. The Europeans used the American approach as a prototype – and so, bikers in Europe also have their patches. I want to focus the reader’s attention: there is always a prototype – the ‘source’ of what one sees.
The ‘sight’ (or a usual look) is the first thing that focuses one’s attention, helps first to identify and then to classify to which subculture a person belongs, for example, wearing some unusual vest with several patches, that indeed distinguishes oneself from the rest of the world.
Tattoos and inkings are separate issues for research. There is an amateur and author selection of the ‘coolest tattoos’ of various kinds on the Internet, each representative of a subculture chooses (or not) the one he likes. It is a personal symbol, a personal attribute, a personal way of self-expression. However, in instances such as the biker subculture, tattoos have been retransformed and become the same patches.
Thus, the tradition of ‘tattoos on the body’ has ‘migrated’ to the vest (since tattoos are not seen under the outfit, it is necessary to take the distinctive symbols outwardly, from the skin to the clothes and equipment). No doubt, the original prototypology of tattoos goes back to the shadows of centuries gone by in the past, both pirates and sailors tattooed on their chests, for example, and thus showed their attitude to life. If we look at the Russian criminal tradition in research terms, the symbolism of the tattoos is practically sacred – it is the very reflection of a person’s face, his ‘chronicle.’
In particular, confident bikers consider themselves to be some noble road knights and therefore choose knightly attributes. For example, earlier knights had ways to express a unique ‘credo’ – some formulation engraved on the sword, inscribed on the shield. A noble ‘knight’ biker’s attributes may have such an origin (which would be on his patches, inscriptions on the back, etc.)
The shift of ideas from one cultural layer to another is something a researcher frequently encounters in subcultural studies. It should be noted that the transfer of military culture and military uniforms to the biker’ costume’ is a variation of this kind of scenario.’ The variations here are also quite diverse: there is an abundance of military flags.
Moreover, all the multitude of well-known ancient and modern symbols and traditions in the context of the contemporary environment are reinterpreted by representatives of the subculture, who, taking advantage of already existing prototypes, express their perceptions through jackets and vests with patches, tattoos, necklaces, and other attributes.
Besides, psychologically, whenever people gather in a group and form some community, it is crucial for them to ‘feel’ themselves as someone. Moreover, this is the most critical point, or question is ‘who are you?’ Accordingly, an inevitable “bifurcation” arises at this stage, as there are two ways:
1) first there comes the self-realization of ‘who you are,’ and then the conversion of this realization into an attribute;
2) the case in which attributes help one to become ‘somebody.’ So, both paths in more detail could be considered.
Suppose a person is not sure who he is, he cannot answer this question; now, he is given a wreath of dandelions, a colorful scarf, a guitar in one hand, and a Bardo Thödol in the other. Now he knows for sure that he is a hippie. The deliberate approach, however, is the opposite. At first, a person realizes who he is (like ‘I am a biker’), and then this is expressed in concrete paraphernalia. Nevertheless, one of the most transparent tendencies of ‘consumer society,’ which the outstanding French thinker and philosopher Jean Baudrillard outlined 50 years ago, is the straightforward shift from symbols and attributes to becoming or impersonating the community characterized by the symbolism in question.
Consequently, each subculture formation develops BOTH objects of attributes and symbolism. For example, what do professional MC clubs do? First, the club has a certain standard. So, initially, a biker has a jacket with the club colors. Then a person makes this jacket exclusive, something that characterizes only him personally, and that biker knows “who he is” and why he wears a specific patch on his jacket with distinctive lettering. In addition to the name and colors of the club, standards can be developed, among them those that define a person’s place in the general subcultural hierarchy.
For instance, a biker may have his MC club’s insignia on his back, a patch on the left side that determines his status in the hierarchy, and a matador’s pike, for example, as a personal symbol of that biker on the right. So, we see a toreador man, and that is the symbolic constituent of his image. In other words, we see a bullfighter who slays bulls (an ancient Spanish knightly symbol). The matador’s pike is the synthesis of his philosophical ideas and views. Indeed, each person independently decides how he or she represents himself or herself in the world.
All subcultural communities share a central symbol, often a borrowed one—for example, the wolf tattoo on one’s neck. If one sees a wolf tattoo on a metalhead or a graffiti artist, it is too early to conclude that it is the central symbol of their subculture. In general, the wolf symbolizes Castaneda’s teachings, a borrowed symbol, a product of the synthesis of Mexican and Spanish cultures. Moreover, it is expected, as practice indicates, not only among Castanedians.
For example, hippies: this subculture popularized the freedom of sex. The symbol of pacifism (a circle with a ‘trident’ inverted downward) is the main symbol of hippies. There are central symbols in every subculture, and a researcher should be ready to face the fact that main symbols are, in 92% of cases, the borrowed ones, since 92% of the subcultures are synthesized.
Naturally, the central symbol’s purpose is to express the core idea of the subculture. So a jacket might reflect the basic idea of the MC club – since it could be compared with the armor of a knight. Furthermore, bikers in the XXI century do not ride around town with a sword in full swing, yet it is a sword that may be one of the biker’s tattoos.
The subculture’s central symbol most significantly mirrors a person’s affiliation with a particular environment, their involvement with its ideas, and a particular philosophy. Another thing is how a person perceives, understands, and explains that. Therefore, in researching and analyzing the symbolic component of a subculture, it is obligatory to take into account the difference between the potential of the symbol’s original meaning, its source (what exactly is prototyped, where the ornaments, slogans, signs, and symbols are borrowed from) as well as the individual explanation or viewpoint of the subculture’s representative.
Thus, symbols and attributes. As a conclusion regarding consideration of the subject in the discourse of subcultures, I believe it is worth noting the following:
1. Attributes without any words provide an answer to the question ‘who is this person right in front of you.’ Moreover, a reasonable progression of a conscious representative of a subculture originates not from the attributes but directly from the fact that a person is aware of ‘who’ he/she is.
2. Symbolism and attributes are not a ‘dull’ and ‘static’ phenomenon. Each member of a subculture develops a personal perspective and insight into both the subculture’s central idea and the way it is implemented. That is also expressed explicitly through the symbolic component;
3. The attributes are general and private; both require the researcher’s special attention and may reveal and teach us a lot about the particular form of the subculture and its general environment.