Initiating Boys – Tattoos, Beards and the Search for Manhood.

boys and tattoosIs it just me or did anyone notice a huge surge in tattoos a few years back? Is it just me or did half the NRL and AFL seem to have woken up one day and decided to impersonate a Celtic warrior tribe complete with neck tattoos and warrior bands on their arms.

Over recent years delivering seminars for parents at schools around the world I would always ask the question as to whether people had noticed a surge in tattoos adorning every spare inch of epidermal real-estate for young men? The answer was always in the affirmative.

My essential thesis was that the death of a culture of manhood and initiation does not mean that boys stop looking for initiation. They just try and do it themselves. Unfortunately, one thing every tribe in history that ever took initiation seriously understood is that initiation is, quite simply, something that can never be done outside of a committed community of men. Boys, regardless of all their bluster and faux machismo just can’t initiate themselves.

manhood beard

My thesis is that boys are desperate for initiation, for something, anything to drag them out of the world of Peter Pan and into the great adventure, danger, risk and reward, love, loss, romance and heroism of authentic manhood.

Witness the emergence of the next incarnation. Post tattoo man. The hipster. Have you noticed the surge in beards? That’s the next wave after tattoos. That said, many hipsters join tattoos with beards. They seem unsure whether they are supposed to be intimidating or providing some sort of bearded manly assurance to the greater public.

I stood in the airport today at Sydney and while waiting for a taxi I witnessed a progression of beards on young men. They ranged from the elegantly trimmed to a rather sad looking afterthought clinging reluctantly to the chin of a suited young lion of the world of finance.hipster

Can you see what I am getting at? A generation of unfathered, mentor-less males looking for something, anything to provide the illusion of manhood?

One of the the key focus points of our The Men We Need Resource for schools was the awareness that boys are crying out for the community of men, fathers and teachers to re-engage in this crucial cultural task of initiating boys.

So, over now  to you. Am I going to far with this? Do you agree? What do you see in your school, community or on the street? Post a comment at the bottom.

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  • Jamie Floyd

    Good observation but I think the conclusion is not entirely accurate (though I think in the majority of cases you’re right). I recon there is, in the growing minority, those who as young children have now imitated what they have observed in their father, for good or bad.

    As I was reading this I was thinking of Napoleon who crowned himself emperor. Generally up until this point kingship was bestowed or earned. Our generation of young male leaders are yearning to be recognized as such but have not had it bestowed to them nor (generally) are not willing to earn it.

    Thanks for a another great post. Keep up the good work.

    • jonathandoyle

      Yep…some good points Jamie. I often teach than manhood cannot be bestowed by the self. It has to come from a community and elders. The task is for us to reinvigorate a culture of servant/mentors who seek the good of the younger men following them.

  • Moussa Taouk

    I heard a sermon where the priest said that in a society where masculinity and femininity are done away with, men become either whimpy and soft or violent brutes. I agree with your article. I think people are just insecure within themselves, which leads them to desire tatoos etc to fit into the mould of being a rebel or being tough etc. But this insecurity I think comes from the absence of a virtuous strong father figure.

    • jonathandoyle

      Thanks Moussa. It’s funny how the absence of these great archetypes don’t mean that people don’t still hunger for them. I think also we are living in the middle of a culture that seeks to destroy the idea of gender difference – the ways in which we are complementary BUT DIFFERENT as men and women. It is almost a crime to argue that there is such a thing as ‘sex difference’. I often argue that the way to disprove a trendy idea is to ask a five year old. Ask any five year old if there is a difference between and women and they seem to figure it out without any help from a gender studies department! 🙂

      • Michael Jones

        It’s also almost a crime to suggest that there is such a thing as the ‘language barrier’. Esperanto, anyone?

  • Rooboy

    Hi. Your manhood initiation theory is a good one which I agree with, but I’m not sure in this case. It might be the case for specific tattoos (eg Bra Boys or Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs) but I’m not sure I agree in most cases. There certainly are a plethora of “groups” in society that people join or want to be seen as belonging to. It just seems now behaviour is more extreme as people try to out-do each other to be an individual …just like everyone else! I wonder if the tattoos and beards are initiation or just the cashed-up, unconstrained, existential man/woman[/non-gender, for NSW readers!] looking for a groovy trend and the next new shiny thing?! Whatever is on-trend at the time. It’s always happened – bodgies, widgies, hippies, surfies, grunge, hip-hop etc …indeed the whole fashion culture consumer society promotes. Could it be as easily explained by, as Things of Stone and Wood so elegantly sung in the 90’s: “We’re all just earrings to the left of our parents They’re all just haircuts to the left of theirs”. Just a thought. 🙂

    • jonathandoyle

      Thanks for this comment Rooboy. I think what I am suggesting as the main difference is that what is happening for boys in not just a case of generation rejection of parental identity such as bodgies etc. What I am suggesting is that an entire anthropological tradition of men mentoring and raising boys has all but vanished in the developed world. Rather that just a generational issue I see this as a fundamental cultural crisis where boys are unmoored from the sense of belonging and identity that once was so central. I find it strange that we have such respect (almost awe) for the rights of indigenous cultures but reject as white patriarchal dominance the ways of our own fathers and forefathers. Once again…thanks for your post. It was an intelligent one.