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Body Art

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Body Art: Tattoo

Tattooing is a form of body art that allows people to express various forms of meanings and messages. Body art, in general, is a “visual language” that can demonstrate accomplishments, display desires and memories, and serve as an identity to exhibit a person’s status in society (Schildkrout 107). However, tattooing can often be misinterpreted and misunderstood, leaving either negative or positive perspectives upon the person that is tattooed. According to Enid Schildkrout, an anthropologist who examined the diverse cultural meanings of body art, body art is “not just the latest fashion”. Rather it is a way of expressing “individuality, social status, and cultural identity”. Tattooing is used in different groups and cultures, and is also processed using different techniques. In Body Art as Visual Language, it is stated that the Japanese would work by hand by using a collection of needles set in a wooden handle. In Polynesian culture, tattooist would pierce the skin with a hammer-like instrument to mark the body.
Steve Gilbert published a collection of historical records of tattooing throughout the world from ancient to present times. He states that in New Zealand, people practice Moko, which was a unique form of decorating the face with “intricate spirals that were incised into the skin to make scars in the form of parallel ridges and grooves” (67). Creating these marked ridges and groove features required the instrument to “penetrate deeply into the flesh” and sometimes cuts were “so deep that they went through the cheek” (67).Te Awekotuku, an essayist and commentator on Maori and feminist issues in New Zealand, describestattooing traditions and their meaning in Maori culture and her memories growing up. She recalls admiring the common chin pattern, as a child, known as Kauae. More than 50 years later, she had her body marked with a Maori traditional tattoo to commemorate a late Maori Queen ( She states that tattoos are about “beauty and belonging” in the Maori culture and it is “more than skin deep” ( Since the advancement in technology, tattooists have been capable of “expanding the range of possible designs, the colors available and the ease with which a tattoo can be applied to the body”. In Western culture, tattoos can have either a negative or positive effect on the individual. Some negative outcomes of applying a tattoo on your body can be that it will fade throughout time. Also some people may regret it and outgrow it. Additionally, tattoos usually do not appear professional to society, and according to Schildkrout, it can become a “sign of rebellion from “coat and tie” culture”. Along with the negative aspects of tattooing, there are also positive motives behind getting a tattoo. Some people may get tattoos for religious and cultural rituals, which will symbolize their status or rank in their society and also “serve as a link to ancestors, deities, or spirits”. Furthermore, tattoos can also represent accomplishments and status within different groups such as gang members or cliques. People may also get tattoos to demonstrate “ideals of beauty” and it varies in different societies or people’s perspectives. In India, henna tattoo designs are applied to a bride to “emphasize her beauty” and also serve as “a shield to repel evil and bring good fortune”. In Tattoo History, tattoos in New Zealand also exhibit beauty and prestige. An “elegantly tattooed face was a great source of pride to a warrior” since it makes him appear fierce in battle and attractive to women (Gilbert 67). In my family only a couple of people have tattoos and they all have different meanings behind them. For example, my uncle has a tattoo of multiple flowers on his arm. Each flower on his arm represents one of his children. Personally I have a love/hate relationship with tattoos. I see tattoos as a way for someone to make themselves an individual or also turn their body into a work of art. On the other hand I feel tattoos could bring negative outcomes depending on the location of it. In my opinion tattoos located on the face are not acceptable and really don’t look good. I currently don’t have any tattoos but I am willing to get some in the future. I feel like a tattoo is a big commitment and is something that I have to be sure about because I don’t want to regret it later on in life.
Many people in society have tattoos. The meaning of tattoos varies from the person that beholds the tattoo and understands the underlying story or image. In Body Art as Visual Language, Schildkrout argues that tattoos encode memories, desires, and life histories. In western culture, tattoos can convey memories when people get tattoos of their family members that have passed away, important dates relating to specific memories, or even new editions to the family such as births or a new pet. Desires can be expressed by acquiring tattoos of money and money signs, jewels and gems, name brand logos, and adding fictional attributes to the body that really do not exist. Such as angel wings, tribal tattoos (even if you are not part of one) and cosmetic makeup tattoos. In different societies, people may obtain tattoos as a form of initiation into a group demonstrating devotion and courage, such as in Japanese full-body tattooing or Maori body and facial patterns. In Polynesian culture, tattoos “denote rank and political status” and have also been used to “define ethnic identity within Pacific island societies”. Tattoos are an “obvious way of signaling cultural differences” and the messages and meanings are only understood in the context of the culture. Tattoos are a medium that can be viewed as someone’s position in society and is always changing. This allows people to “reinvent themselves” and “challenge what is desirable, beauty, and appropriate”. A tattoo can be perceived as a way for people to either demonstrate rebellion, fashion statements, religious beliefs, personal experiences, or just be done to experiment with.

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