This article challenges the perception that tattoos solely serve an individualistic, decorative function. By delving into the varying stories told by tattoos and their rich cultural significance around the world, we discover that body art is not skin-deep. Rather, it serves a symbolic function. By illuminating a unique story of community values and beliefs, tattoos freeze moments in history, inviting us to surveil the skin’s surface as a story.
Tattoos are an ancient artform appearing in diverse cultures throughout history. Despite their historical roots, tattoos continue to gain popularity around the world today. The word ‘tattoo’ derives from the Polynesian word ‘Ta’ (meaning ‘to strike’). This subsequently evolved into the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning ‘to mark something’.
In the Western world, body art forms are often elaborately etched images, artistically designed to draw the eye into a display of aesthetics and splendour. However, simple patterned designs and small marked lines also carry a vast display of meaning – even if this meaning is buried beneath the skin.
For years, people around the world have artistically inscribed human skin. Outwardly, tattoos are visual inscriptions made on the skin’s surface. However, their meanings transcend the body in a complex story of identity and culture. In this way, the tattooed individual is inevitably woven into the social fabric of their communities. Their imprinted dermis anchors social values to the physical body, crafting a nexus between tangible and intangible worlds of living.
A common perception of those with tattoos involves an individualistic mode of self-expression and personal choice. However, anthropologists and sociologists focus on the group patterns and overall trends in tattooing. This reveals valuable insights into the cultural meanings behind such artforms and the reasons they are valued throughout the global village.
Tattoos as symbols of identity and culture
A study on the meaning of tattoos among college students (Dickson et al. 2015) found that body ink is a crucial tool used in meaning-making processes for teenagers as adulthood looms. Certainly, many people view this permanent artform as a means of representing self-expression and personal growth. Despite this individualistic outlook, tattoo motivation has also been tied to social influences. In other words, inked individuals are more likely to have close friends and families who are tattooed (Dickson et al. 2015). Taken broadly, this means that social attitudes towards tattoos are likely to illuminate how individuals perceive themselves in relation to the broader community.
Many individuals open their skin to ink for the role it plays in emotional management. For instance, tattoos nostalgically preserve the memory and identity of deceased loved ones on the skin. This mitigates the sorrow and pain of losing family and friends.
Once, while I was waitressing at a café, I met a woman who was completely veiled in tattoos – intricate drawings of her deceased dogs (about thirty of them). It sounds a little crazy! But this shows that body art as memorabilia is not limited to humans. Rather, these inked images can represent anything someone feels an emotional connection to. Indeed, the tattooed woman told me that her dog ink collection helped her feel like her furry friends were always with her. This helped her process her grief and remain happy.
With the impetus for tattoo inscription driven by the loss of a social connection, the social is once again tied to the individual. Through this lens, it’s almost impossible to perceive this form of body art as an isolated or meaningless event of individualism.
Women have also used tattoos to reclaim their bodies from emotionally taxing experiences such as abuse and illness. For example, tattoo artist and breast cancer survivor Sasha Merritt creates body art for other cancer survivors known as ‘breastoration ink’. Her tattoos craft a new aesthetic for mastectomy scars and help women express the distressing elements of the disease.
One of society’s first cosmetic procedures around the world was tattoos. Tattoos have been used in beauty-enhancing processes for decades, from tinted eyelids and eyebrows to inked beauty marks,
According to Robert Arp (2012), ‘aesthetics’ go beyond definitions of art and beauty. It also includes the ways we value art for its meaning and interpretation. The beauty of tattoos, in this sense, has a social meaning-making element.
Interestingly, fashion and beauty are temporary trends in society, but inked art is permanent – it freezes a trend in time through its adornment on the skin’s surface. In this way, inked bodies move through space as representations of a particular social epoch.
In some cultures, tattooists hold powers attributed to them by deities and ancestral spirits. These otherworldly beings are said to channel their supernatural powers into the artist. In Samoa, male tattooing experts (tufuga tā tatau) had to participate in a long training program to earn a place in the league of tattooers. Those who are successful are blessed with the spiritual power of tracing their genealogy.
In ancient Egypt, tattoos were adorned by pregnant women as a form of symbolic protection for the unborn child. It is said that as the woman’s belly swells with the pregnancy, the ink stretches and forms a net design around the abdomen. This created a protective barricade between the unborn child and the outer world.
In a study on tattoos in prisons (Phelan and Hunt 1998), it was found that inmate’s ink was often a symbol of gang membership, status and rank.
Among the Yimchunger Naga tribe of India, people earned ‘warrior tattoos’ as recognition for killing tigers. Here, body art is a marker of power and social achievement.
In many Indigenous communities around the world, tattoos were an exclusive trade. They were ritualistically performed by experts who were socially initiated into this superior position. Today, however, it is commonplace that anyone with some level of artistic ability can become a tattoo artist.
Tattoo significance around the world
Morphing perceptions in Western society
In 1999, the University of California conducted a ‘Business Attire Survey’. This study found that an enormous 90 per cent of campus recruiters perceived tattoos in a negative light. Young people have varying reasons for inking their bodies, including the simple ‘body decoration’ motivation. Yet, these people were more likely to be perceived as drug users, troublemakers and drop-outs. A dominant view now, however, is that it is unethical for a professional to judge an individual because they have tattoos.
Nowadays, the perception of tattoos as a personal quest for individuality in a unique customisation of the self is more common. Moving away from social trends of tattoo seeking (such as spiritual protection and group membership), body art in western society serves the dominant purpose of self-expression and aesthetic appeal. Before, tattooists were people that could operate a piece of machinery; now they are artists in a legitimate profession.
However, in some respects, tattoos continue to be viewed negatively. These include concerns about securing a future job with openly inked bodies and an ongoing association of tattoos with gang membership, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities.
Tattoos have become more common; many young people get inked on a whim for no particular reason. Tattoos, in this sense, are only skin-deep and hold limited cultural significance compared with the historical rituals of the past. Yet, there remain conflicting views about tattoos in society. For example, Williams, Thomas and Christensen’s (2014) study on social workers revealed that visible ink within the occupation continues to be viewed negatively. Interestingly, this contradicts the social work profession’s emphasis on promoting cultural experience and diversity.
Tattoos in Africa
For millennia, tattoos in Africa were understood as disease curers, spirit protectors and tribe affiliation markets. In many Central African tribes, undergoing tattooing scarification is undisputable if an individual wants to maintain ties with their community. The tribe leader’s skin often acts as a canvas, symbolically detailing the tribe’s story.
For Africa’s Indigenous Amazighs (Berbers), body art was used as a social marker. Amazigh people typically housed etchings on their foreheads, around their eyes and on their palms. Beyond the means of beautification or aesthetic appeal, these art forms symbolised the collective memory of the tribe. In addition, it also denoted a woman’s marital status. For Amazigh, tattooing is a visual and enduring language that echoes the inclination of the human spirit towards the pursuit of immortality.
However, over the years, these tattoos are fading. Many women ceased engagement with this artistic practice when Islamist ideology dominated North Africa throughout the 1970s.
In sub-Saharan Africa, scarification is the most common form of body art on the skin. A blade slices the skin, and scar tissue forms a permanently patterned wound. Traditional examples of scarring range from fishbones to crocodile skin.
These scars protect against evil and represent tribal identity. Scarification designs have also been an important aspect of rites of passage ceremonies; they represent the progression from one stage of life development to another. Scarification after puberty, for example, typically represents a young person’s initiation into adulthood. In this way, tattooed skin has been described as ‘social skin’. Scarification is not limited to Africa; it is a common practice used by Indigenous cultures in Australia, New Zealand and Papa New Guinea.
Today, a similar scarring process known as cicatrization is used. The skin is sliced and scrubbed with ash, causing the wound to bulge into a three-dimensional scar form.
Tattoos in Japan
Traditional Japanese tattoos are known as irezumi, meaning ‘inserting ink’. Wooden handles, metal needles and silk threads are used to inscribe Irezumi.
In northern Japan, the Ainu people are known for their traditional inking practices. These tattoos were typically used for decorative purposes, or as markers of social status. However, few Ainu people bear their bodies to such artforms today.
Tattoo stigma in Japan
Tattoos in Japan have been stigmatized for their affiliation with organised crime gangs. For example, the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) pledged their group loyalty with full-body ink markings. As a result, this created a social aversion to inked bodies that continues today. Interestingly, public facilities such as saunas and gyms often display ‘No tattoos allowed’ signs.
In the 1600s, Japanese authorities enacted a policy. As part of this policy, all criminals had to be tattooed. This was known as bokkei, or ‘punishment by tattoo’, and contributes to the ongoing stigmatization of body art in Japan.
The Japanese full-body tattoo (Horimono) was often adopted by people in the lower classes who strongly disliked the Japanese authorities. In this case, the art of ink takes on a new meaning. These forms of body art act as an expression of resistance, not a marker of belonging. That is to say, a marker against society.
For more information about tattoo stigma in Japan and beyond, consider reading this fascinating article.
Tattoos in India
Like in other countries, tattoo meanings in India vary across different tribes. Some Indian communities compare body art to jewellery that cannot be stolen. Additionally, in tribes such as the Noctes and Wanchos of Arunachal, inked skin symbolises strength and courage, partly because of the painful process.
In the Toda tribe of South India, traditional tattoos known as pachakutharathu were popular up until 1980. These markings formed labyrinth designs. Worming around the skin, their barrier-like presence warded off evil spirits.
Tattoos and gender in India
Traditionally, tattoos symbolised protection for young women. These markings were deemed unattractive to neighbouring communities and, as a result, this repelled men who might otherwise try and steal women.
The Singhpo tribe of Assam and Arunachal had separate tattoo norms for each gender. Married women had tattoos on their knees and ankles, while men typically housed them on their hands.
Women of the Kutia Kondh tribe of Orissa were known as ‘the people of the spirit world’. They would etch their faces with geometric patterns, believing that these marks would help them recognise one another in the spirit world. Importantly, the ‘tattoo as supernatural protection’ theme emerges once again.
For the Māori people of New Zealand, tattoos (or ‘Tā moko’) are unique expressions of cultural identity and tradition. The Māori believed the head is the most sacred part of the body. Therefore, many of their markings tend to be facial.
For men, the moko spans their faces and thighs, while for women, the lips, chin and throat are traditional locations.
Lines called Manawa, (meaning ‘heart’) comprise the Māori tattoo. These lines represent one’s life journey and time spent on Earth. Additionally, the korus offshoots represent people and social groups. In this sense, it is impossible to perceive tattoos as serving a mere individual decorative function. Rather, they are an intricate web of social connections that tie the individual to their origins.
Further emphasising the social aspects of tattooing, a highly ranked Māori publicised their social status through their tattoos. Comparably, it would be rare for someone with low status to have any tattoos.
Policy vs culture
Tattoo understandings are shifting away from signs of rebellion and nonconformity towards symbols of cultural meaning. However, remnants of the past seep into modern-day workplaces. Rawiri Iti, the national president of Māori Wardens Australia, argues that discrimination based on tattoos persists in the workplace. However, there is certainly a difference between a conspicuous ankle tattoo and a full face Tā moko. Rawiri recalls a time he walked into a job interview and left immediately after the employer saw his tattooed face.
From Rawiri’s perspective, understanding the environment we live in today is crucial. Growing up, the Māori language had little significance outside of New Zealand. Today, however, it is taught globally. Therefore, implementing workplace policies that welcome and appreciate cultural tattoos will be an important step in reducing workplace discrimination. As Rawiri notes, however, a wider societal shift is also necessary.
Beyond the skin: what can we learn from tattoo diversity?
Rawiri’s story reminds us that first impressions don’t tell the whole story. In fact, the skin shields a host of complex meanings. The tattoo is merely a slightly ajar window, offering a tiny glimpse – a blurb, perhaps – into an entire novel of identity, community and history.
The tattoo’s decorative or ‘trendy’ function dominates perceptions of tattoos in Western society. However, the rich history of body art around the world suggests that they are more than this. By scanning tattoos that rest on body canvasses, we are viewing an intricate system of meaning tied to community values and beliefs.
Above all, it is near impossible to tie tattoos to a singular individualistic perception. While body art today is a popular means for young people to express themselves, this need for self-expression often emerges within the social circumstances they are living in. In other words, perhaps it is to stand out, express resistance, or feel a sense of belonging. This form of body art is a permanent marker of social identity. Sadly, however, many traditional forms of tattooing are fading around the world. Consequently, we are losing the unique cultural stories that come with them.