The practicing of tattooing, scaring or marking the body stretches through history and between cultural boarders. Designs, methods and backgrounds vary largely in line with the context. Tattoos can be interpreted as stories to be told, carriers of a symbolic message or meaningful reminders to the bearers. According to a study from 2015, 30% of people in the UK between 25-39 years have at least one tattoo (Statista, 2015).
Hence, for some it may be an empty signifier but most people declare having a reason behind their tattoo. Swallows represent freedom, anchors stand for stability and eagle tattoos mostly express a patriotic love to an idealised America. However, the art of tattoos can go beyond individual choices, as we have witnessed during the holocaust where jewish people were robbed their names and strictly referred to as the number tattooed to their flesh.
Another element of tattoos is the belongingness of a certain group. Membership can be illustrated with a shared symbolic meaning and bodily pain. Prison gangs and other criminal groups are good examples of this. Many of the members of the Japanese criminal organisation, Yakuza, have full-body tattoos made with non-electrical tools. The ink injected in ones skin represented a commitment and loyalty towards the syndicate. Given the overall negative approach to tattoos existing in the Japanese society, the fully inked bodies are even more captivating (Yamada, 2009).
Alfred Gell said that “Tattooing (and conversely non-tattooing where tattooing is expected and normal) is a very specific and recognisable way of modifying the body, and, via the body, reconstructing personhood according to the requirements of the social milieu” (Gell, 1993). Just as Yukuzu's expectations to undergo tattooing, the marks of one body can function as a mirror of ones culture or society. One can however question if Gell's words are applicable on the Western form of tattooing where the emblems mostly reflects an individual marking and not an recognition to a specific group. Differentiating the tattooing of adolescents in the UK to a group like the Maori people of New Zealand therefore seems fundamental when aiming to understand tattooing on a deeper level.
The Maori people are known for their inked body parts, foremost the faces. They use their art of tattoo as a consolidating element between body and culture (Pritchard, 2000). Patterns are carved into the skin in moko and design leaves many spectators stunned. Records of acknowledgement of the 'incomparable art' and 'remarkable faces' dates as far back as to in 1770 when Captain James Cook arrived to the continent. The further interpretations from Cook's botanist on the reasoning behind the face scars are however deeply impregnated with highly ethnocentric judgement (Ellis, 2008).
Alongside with the moko art being an important cultural element are the tattoos also a question of aestheticism. The pigmented skin fascinates, seduces, terrifies and acknowledges the culture simultaneously (Te Awekotuku, 2002). A way to express one self. Within the Maori society a well tattooed face signifies beauty. Immanuel Kant on the other hand, when reflecting over the recognition of beauty, considered that the simple Maori patterns where to compare with the natural beauty of flowers but that a separation from the face is fundamental to perceive it (Kant, 1724).
As we have seen earlier, the notion of beauty is deeply associated not only to an individual's context but also deeply rooted in subjectivity. Tattoos may go beyond appearance as with the Maori. They can signify belongingness or simply just a question of personal decoration of the body. Kant perception of the moko tradition is only one of many instinctive judgements of another person's body.
From upper left, group of Yakuza members, a traditional Maori face tattoo, an American eagle and an anchor tattoo.
Bell, C. 2014, Cultural Memory Inscribed in the Skin: Symbols of Nation as Tattoo Art in New Zealand, Kultura (Skopje), Vol.4(6), pp.43-50
Ellis, J., 2008, Tattooing the World, 3 Another Aesthetic: Beauty and Morality in Facial Tattoo, Columbia University Press, pp. 74-95
Gell, A., 1993, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia Oxford Clarendon Press.
Kant, I. 1724-1804, Critique of the power of judgment; edited by Paul Guyer, Cambridge University Press, 2000
Pritchard, S. 2000, Essence, Identity, Signature: Tattoos and Cultural Property Social Semiotics, Vol.10(3), p.331-346
Te Awekotuku, N. 2002, Ta Moko: Culture, body modification, and the psychology of identity, The Maori and Psychology Research Unit, University of Waikato
Yamada, M. 2009, Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol.12(4), pp.319-338