Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Ethnographic Study of Tattoos

What is a blog?

So this is my first blog and as a science geek I am unsure how exactly to "blog". I searched how to blog in Google and when I got 8 million hits I realized that blogging is an art form in itself and this could be more difficult then I thought. But as a first time blogger I think I will just wing it and not use Perez Hiltons sexy must blog tips.


Where do tattoos come from? Who started them and how did the rest of the world discover them? Well, it is difficult to know the answers to these questions for sure, but it has been said that it was in 1769 that the first European set his eyes on someone with a tattoo. It was Captain James Cook in Polynesia and he was met by a Tahitian tribe that were covered in such marks. The Tahitian term for this is “tatau” which means to strike or mark the skin. For them it is an important component of their culture and not only represents the transition between childhood and maturity, but the pain that is involved also signifies sacrifice and shows true commitment. (Polhemus 2004, 42)

Yet soon after, many other groups of people were being encountered with strange markings all over their body as well. They were all unique in their own way and could have no way been influenced by the other. In New Zealand, the Maori tribe established the moko facial tattoos, which consisted of carbon pigment being put into scars, which had been chiselled into the flesh of an individual’s face. While there were also Inuit populations that used soot and entered that into the skin with the use of a needle and thread. (Rainier 2006, 17-18)

Either way, the Europeans that encountered such things then brought word of it back to their home land. Some orally, while others were now them as well marked. Seamen and other travellers had been tattooed by the Tahitians, Maori, Marquesans, Samoans and other Pacific tattoists and soon it became normal for mariners to have tattoos. This shocked many, as tattoos had just been considered a part of the lifestyle of exotic individuals in distant lands. Now these sacred markings were on the bodies of those the tribes had considered honourable. This is how then, the practice of many seamen traditionally having tattoos came into effect. (Douglas 2005, 7)
However, it was in Japan that the sacred markings evolved into art. Tattoos were illegal, but the criminal underworld slowly embraced them and brought them to the forefront of society. They still had a great deal of meaning behind them for the groups, but now were even more creative and artistic. After this occurred, tattoos slowly, but surely, reached the mainstream. (Douglas 2005, 8-9)

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Appropriation & Reappropriation

Slowly parts of the western society embraced the concept of tattoos. They appropriated the idea from the foreign tribes, meaning that they borrowed the idea and then gave it new meaning. (I don’t have my textbook, but I had gotten that from the glossary) The dignified cultural connotations were now lost and instead, they have now be characterized as a sign of resistance. (Beeler 2006, 5) In contemporary societies all over the world, searching for a new identity, a way to bring a group of people together or even a way to express themselves in an original manner, many individuals started getting tattoos. (Rainier 2006, 182)

An example of this is the punk subculture that strongly took hold of the notion of tattoos starting in the 1970’s. They wanted to shock, protest and rebel against society and so, they would get large, colourful tattoos in very visible places on their bodies. By doing this, they created their identity and didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. (Hewer 2004, under “Punk Tattoos”)

Yet in the 1980’s, tattoos hit the mainstream around the world and especially in North America. They had now been reappropreated by society and that meant that anyone could now have an image inked onto their skin and it was not shocking at all. It is no longer seen as unique to have a tattoo and instead, almost anyone can walk into a tattoo parlour and have one done. This includes the middle class, celebrities, the educated and the businessman. These individuals can be very proud of their tattoo, even if it has little meaning, but what is different from the Punks in the 1970’s, is that with the mainstream tattoos, they are usually located somewhere that can easily be hidden by clothing. (Hewer 2004, under “Mainstream Tattoos”)

Tattoo or not to tattoo

I think each of us have asked ourselves this question at least once in our lives, whether we want a tattoo to symbolize something important to us, aesthetic reasons, to defy our parents, or just to have it for the sake of having it. In this day and age it seems your almost deviant if you don't have a tattoo. I know for myself, as I sit in my cardigan sweater, pretending to be a creative writer, I have thought about getting a tattoo. I think its appealing to me because its something people would be surprised to see, and I would suddenly be perceived in a new light. Tattoos are layered with meaning and females who tattoo themselves trigger a reaction with shock value that lingers (Mifflin, 1997, 7). I guess this new light could be good and bad, depending on who the audience of my tattoo is. My mother who told me I could get paralysis in my face if I got my upper ear pierced would probably take an oppositional reading towards my tattoo, but in a women studies class they would probably see my tattoo as a badge of empowerment. But can you really choose your audience? In Rachel’s case, she chose the location of her tattoo to determine her audience (In the life of Rachel, 2010). Only those who are intimate with her will see the word "passion" stamped on her side, the very description of her identity, and therefore her dream to become a surgeon will not be affected. William Zinsser said "Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: Who am I writing for? It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself”(Zinsser, 2001). Does this mean that people tattoo only for themselves and not for their audience? For Gaby, this is not true because she chose her tattoo's as a way to draw attention away from areas of her body she is dissatisfied with. Her tattoos are a way to feel more normative and to try to adapt to the "ideal body" society has deemed, through body modification.

More then just DNA and dermis

To me the skin is a protective barrier to bacteria and disease, the largest organ of the body, a temperature regulator, but to others it is a blank canvas just waiting to be inked. What could be more fascinating to an artist then being able to showcase their art to millions of people everyday. You don't have to wait for people to come see your art instead it will embed itself in others life's without them even realizing. The tattoos can become an expression of the individual, establishing their identity while capturing a societal reaction. The reaction can be one of awe or disgust which is all relative to what one's culture has deemed aesthetically pleasing or tasteful. Taste is influenced on one's cultural background, class standing, and education (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, 56). Therefore ones interpretation of whether a tattoo is pleasing to the eye or appreciated depends on several factors. For example Sally’s father who has a high school education, and is in a low class standing, his taste for her tattoo’s is influenced highly by his background (Sally's Blog, 2010). He was the one who took Sally for her tattoos as a birthday gift. Buying a tattoo for my birthday wouldn’t cross my dads mind, let alone be deemed appropriate, because he is influenced by being an architect and having high class standing. My cousin got a new girlfriend this summer and not until we were at the lake swimming did I notice she had sleeve tattoos. It was very obvious that she was embarrassed to show them and tried to cover them up with a towel when we were sitting on the beach. Was she self-conscious about her tattoos just specifically in the context of my family? I myself was mesmerized by their beauty and was caught in their gaze.

The Gaze

Body modifications that are obviously visible ensure that they are going to be looked upon. The question of who holds the power over the gaze is often questioned. Is it the person who looks at the tattoo or is it the person with the tattoos seeking attention? Jacques Lacan emphasized that the object under the gaze holds the power over the other because not only does it make the subject look, but it also makes the viewer feel as if they are lacking (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, 122). Tattoos can make one who looks, feel that they are lacking and even though we might know that the tattoo is not meant for us, it still has the power to make us look. I feel as though this fits with Gaby, a young woman who unhappy with her body size tattooed her body to draw attention to her tattoos and not her "non ideal body". Lacan would see this as trying to seek out validation from others and attempting to get self assurance in their image. He also states that completion in their look is never achieved and this could be why Gaby is on her fifth tattoo, 12th piercing and has no desire to stop.

Mainstream society would argue that they don't see themselves as lacking but instead their gaze is drawn to the grotesque. I know for myself when I worked at a nursing home and saw one of the residents roll up his sleeve to reveal a pinup girl on his arm, I was compelled to look. As subjects we are hailed to look and this can explain why "inanimate objects can be an active player in processes of sexual desire" (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, 122). I don’t think the image was meant to be seen by me, and so I tried to imagine him getting this tattoo in his youth while away at sea or in the war and how at that time the pinup girl could have been an object of his desire.

The pinup girl is an iconic image, similar to Marilyn Munroe and has been appropriated to appear in tattoos. They promote voyeuristic viewing and the “seemingly private subject-a scantily clad model-is made a spectacle for public consumption”, this is especially true when it is on your body for all to see (Benzel, 1991) . It also exemplifies John Berger’s statement that “men act and women appear”, because the women are being objectified and sexualized into what the ideal female should look like (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009 134 ). But in the feminist era, many females revived the classic 50’s pinup image to generate female power (Mifflin, 1997, 144). For example Jenny Shimizu a Calvin Klein model got a tattoo of a pinup girl straddling a wrench to symbolize her former job as a mechanic. Even today the iconic image is popular among tattoos for men and females, whether to be an object of desire or to challenge just that.

Is a tattoo of a penis right for you?

A penis tattoo might not be your first choice but perhaps you’d rather a daring sexual image on your ass crack or lovehandles, or possibly the vagina armpit tattoo is more your style. The title of the site where I found the young man with the vagina tattoo was “10 tattoos you’ll never get laid with” (Creamy's blog, 2009). Even though there is truth to this title, I don’t think the intent of the guy was to get with more women with a vagina on his armpit. I think he had more of a similar motive as Stephanie Farinelli; to obtain shock value from viewers. Farinelli got 100 penises tattooed on her body, some bearing spider webs, others with eyeballs and all of them different sizes representing the diversity of males. A societal reaction of disgust is exactly what she wanted, but she didn’t anticipate views of sexism because people thought she was “presenting the most important part of the male” (Mifflin, 1997 141). There is a difficulty with art in conveying your message, and every time we as viewers try to interpret an image we are using tools of semiotics. The signifier is the image of a penis and the signified depends on “the context in which it was presented and on the viewers who interpret it” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, 27). At first you don’t even notice that her tattooed necklace is actually male genitals, just as you wouldn’t see the man’s tattoo unless he raised his arm. Viewers of the tattoo will always be curious as to what possessed this person to want to tattoo an image like that on their body? But this is the appeal of tattoos, their secrecy of intent and the public eye’s quest for knowing. The turn off of tattoos is when you are judged based on misinterpretation, such as in Farinelli’s case when viewers would whisper “is she a dyke? Or wonder if her work represented “sexual conquest or castration” (Mifflin, 1997, 142). I know when I viewed the image of the vagina armpit tattoo I was stunned and felt like he had objectified the female body and at the same time I wanted to laugh at its absurdity. Was I his intended audience? Was that the response he was going for? Since the man’s picture was posted on the internet I would gather he was trying to shake some viewers or possibly he lost a bet with his buddies on a night full of wobbly pops. I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that Farinelli and this man were successful in shocking those that view their tattoos similar to freak shows in circuses. When tattoos are so mainstream you have to engage in vulgar and extreme tattoo’s to get the same outraged reaction as the first viewed tattoos. So I guess the question is, how extreme will people go and if these weren’t regrettable what would be?

Facial Tattoos; Breaking down boundaries or just too far?

With how much ease does a tattoo artists let a willing a individual commit to a tattoo such as this? Can the tattoo artists be blamed for unethical conduct in the future? An 18 year old from Kortrijk, Belgium is currently pressing charges against a tattoo artist who she claims abused his right as a tattoo artist and tattooed 56 black stars on her face when she only requested three. She claims she fell asleep in the chair and was unaware of what was going on. However, the artist is adamant that the girl was in fact awake and conscious yet, only displayed dismay when she became aware of the disapproving look on her fathers face.

Facial tattoos inevitably result in one being burdened with a master status. We live in a judging society, and good for you if you don't give a shit what people think because no matter how wonderful of a person you may be, they will judge you accordingly to how they interpret your tattoo. It is an unfortunate fact that people make predetermined judgments on things such as appearance; we not only do it with tattoos, but to individuals with physical deformities, odd hair style and even to the clothes they wear. This idea can be brought into the concept of the marked and the unmarked; binary oppositions. Jacques Derrida said that 'all binary oppositions are encoded with values and concepts of power, superiority and worth.' (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009 111) This system is set up in a way in which the marked is viewed as being abnormal, whereas the standard of normal is displayed through the unmarked. There is always overlapping between the two oppositions; as an individual can be marked with a tattoo, yet not display it to the world and be accepted an unmarked as opposed to being burdened with the stigma of being marked. Facial tattoos are an inevitable declaration of being marked.

From Criminals to Kindergarden Teachers

Though there is still speculation between generations about the acceptance of tattoos, there was a time where tattoos were strictly to mark criminals and deviants of society. Tattoos were once used as an identification technology to identify criminals from commoners in Ancient Greek and Ancient Rome, and even extended to the Soviet Union in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the late 19th century Criminologist Cesare Lombroso began to expose these theories of stigmata atavism. He believed that tattoos were a sign of inherent criminality. That is, tattoos were a master status associated directly with crime. Tattoos remain a critical part of the criminal lifestyle even today as a form of unspoken communication. Tattoos are used to identify oneself with a particular gang, to let be known their criminal accomplishments, their expressions of resistance or injustice, and even forms of self-protection. Contradictory to the purpose tattoos serve outside of jail life, tattoos are a form of critical belonging in prison. Displaying tattoos proves your commitment to a particular group which essentially protects you as there is power in numbers. Tattoos are a self-protection strategy. In order to survive living in close parameters with convicted murders and arsonists, you need to have people to look out for you and have your back. Tattoos provide a means to identify with a group and conform. However, once outside of jail, the very tattoos that protected you now serve the purpose of a master status. You will forever have the master status of an ex-convict unless the initiative is taken to get it removed or covered. Prison tattoos may result in fear, will result in stigma, and always proclaim the possibility of recidivism; one is forever marked as a deviant. (Ariane Ellerbrok, "lecture notes" 2010)

Predetermined Pain?

With divorce rates at an all-time high (in the USA 50% of marriages fail) why on earth do we continue the trend tattoo the names of our current loves on our bodies for the world to see, or get matching tattoos? Will it not just be a constant slap in the face when we succumb to the predictions of society and the relationship goes down the toilet? The removal could be more painful than the separation.

I guess they could finish the circle on themselves. As long as you're in a good place you'll stay in a good place.

I’m sure this is how Anthony wants to be displayed to the world.

What a shame. Who could have seen it coming?

You fill that Canvas

I got my top cartilage pierced when I was 18 years old, and let me tell you, it hurt too god damn much that I'll never set foot in a piercing parlor again... for the purpose of myself anyways.

If I wasn't so indecisive, and if I had the pain tolerance of anything stronger than a kitten, I would be wearing my own gallery of tattoos in expression of myself. Tattoos are an honest way to express your inner feelings, to remember things closest to your heart, honor nationalism or to simply say 'Fuck You' to society. We have fought too hard to suppress creativity in the fear of offending our elders, our friends, family, co-workers and strangers that the creative outlet of tattooing is being viewed as a new culture shock. But let me tell you, tattoos are nothing new. It's only lately that individuals daring enough are embracing their art, their passions, their addictions and are showing them off to the world. Since I don't have the courage to get myself inked, I enjoy taking pride and pleasure in others body art. No Freud, I am not hiding any unconscious sexual feelings by taking part in voyeurism, I am simply feeding my neighbors desire for exhibitionism.

In the eyes of many individuals, an open back is equivalent to an open canvass. It is seen as a place to display ones most meaningful works of art. Catherine Opie took advantage of the skin she was provided with to etch a portrait of 'codes of heternormativity [to] examine lesbian subjectivity in everyday life' in her own form of body modification titled Self Portrait (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009 133). We have always been told not to leave a page blank; we are to create meaningful art from the heart. So in fact, all you judging communists, reformers and religious type, we are only doing what we are told.

Can You Really Rent Out a Bald Head as Advertising Space?

With everyone desperately trying to stand out in a society "non-conformers", it seems that body modifications are our go-to factor to make ourselves unique. However, are we not just engaging in another form of conformity; the latest social trend? In the latter of the 20th century, tattoos have taken on much more of a meaning other than importance, uniqueness and respectable non-violent deviance; it has become a way of advertising and commodification. Tattoos no longer only represent criminals, savages, circus freaks and deviants; Western society has opened up the doors of the world of tattoos to express individuality, possess sentimetal meanings, prolong romantic feelings for eternity and, oddly enough, advertisements. It seems that the current social fad is to get a pernament reminder of all the 'unforgetable' nights you've had thanks to a nice cold bottle of Corona or Pilsner, or your loyalty to brands such as Apple, Nike or Adidas. (Why someone would want to let the public know they support Nike is beyond me.)

I can guarantee any feminist would argue a husbands use of their wives bodies as billboards to display ads for their company is wrong. It's true! They would tattoo their company's logo onto their wives, especially when they would travel overseas, for constant promotion (Orend and Gange, 2009). So why don't we have a blow-up of feminists fighting this trend? Women’s bodies are supposed to be used to promote healthy lifestyles, individuality, power, and advancement in society; not the latest in technology or new, booming businesses. According to Orend and Gange, Harley Davidson tattoos are one of the most prevalent corporate tattoos in today’s society. Many may argue that Harley is a lifestyle; that they live the life of a biker and that is how they wish to identify themselves. Yet, is this an obvious identification or perhaps just an excuse to feel successful in your pursuit for individuality; yet you have only succumb to the ideas and perspectives of another individual and their many followers?

Fetish or Addiction?

Fetishism is a word typically associated with a somewhat negative connotation; essentially thought of as 'creepy' by others, other than the individual possessing the fetish. The most common thing that comes to mind would be a fetish one has with feet. However, fetishes are much more than an individuals desire for something. Sturken and Cartwright define a fetish in psychoanalytical theory as an object that is endowed with magical powers to enable a person to compensate for a physiological lack; they take on charged meanings in the absence of the body desired. A blog by a tattoo enthusiast named Gaby (Shark Week, 2010) mentions her personal attraction to tattoos. This attraction and desire for a partner to have tattoos could be concluded as a tattoo fetishism. At an increasing rapid rate, Gaby is feeding her fetish by adding tattoos to her collection. In the span of one year she quadrupled the number of tattoos on her body. She also mentions an addiction to tattoos in one of her blog entries; so one might ask, where is the line between fetish and addiction?

You can see the ease and comfort level Gaby has in regards to her tattoos by her impulsive action with her fifth tattoo. She put extensive thought and consideration into her first tattoo, but when it came to her fifth tattoo she thought of the idea and executed it within a week. With a drastic increase in size and the smaller lapses in time between tattoos, are they less thought out; do they have less meaning? Also, could this small time gap be a result of a need for a body modification? Shark Week also mentions that tattoos serve a purpose of boosting one’s self confidence so perhaps her impulsiveness on her last tattoos are a direct result of negative feelings towards her body that the artwork counteracts. Or perhaps tattoos are used as a means to prove the control one has over their body in response to a lack of control in one’s childhood; acts of rebellion.

An addiction to tattoos can be displayed by another blogger named Sally (Sally's Blog, 2010). Growing up around tattoos, she developed a liking and admiration for them at a young age. Now, at 22 she owns her own tattoo gun that she bought off eBay. Though her first tattoos were acquired through professional shops, she now dawns much of her own work. With owing her own tattoo gun, she has the ability to add any memory to her body immediately; she not only tattoos herself but others as well. This ability takes out the middle man of a tattoo artist and eliminates the process of booking an appointment, seeing the draft and agreeing to it. Sally has the ability to feed her addiction to tattoos as any moment she feels a need, or the uncontrollable urge.
Whether it be addiction, a fetish, a means of defiance or simply a way of life, tattoos serve many different purposes; kinky or not.

Personal Perspective

I have always wanted a tattoo. The reason behind that is somewhat unclear to me, but I know that the thought of engraving something permanent into my body has some sort of strange appeal. The decision behind what tattoo has always been a difficult one though. At first I had a weird obsession with the nautical star and I kept drawing it with a pen on my left wrist. Mostly during boring classes or really, anytime I had a pen in my hand. I liked the look of it. I love stars! Why not? There was no real meaning behind this choice; all I knew is that I would be completely for having that little star on my wrist forever. That was until a good friend of mine pointed out the fact that in the 1970s, many lesbians would get that exact tattoo done in that exact place. It was somewhat of a secret code that symbolized you were gay. I have nothing against homosexuality, however, I am not gay and the thought that I would be making that statement unknowingly by having this symbol inked on to my skin was now rather unappealing. It made me think, how many people have made that mistake? Not necessarily with the exact same nautical star tattoo, but any other one. How many people had something scratched into a piece of their body in what is a very painful procedure, only to later discover a secret meaning behind it? Many individuals do not do much research on an image before selecting it for their tattoo and even if they had originally admired it, this does not mean that they are aware of its whole story. Symbols in society can either be obvious or hidden, which can then cause much misconception. Symbolism is something very visible in life and is capable of creating very strong representations for many people around the world. Therefore, to avoid a regrettable tattoo, it is vital to look into an image before making your decision. These days, many individuals choose tattoos that have universal meanings, like the cherry blossom for feminine empowerment.

Work Cited

Beeler, Karin E. Tattoos, desire and violence : marks of resistance in literature, film and television. Jefferson, N.C : McFarland, 2006.

Benzel, Kathryn. The Body as Art: Still photographs of Marilyn Monroe. “Journal of Popular Culture.” 1991.

Douglas, Bronwen. Tattoo: bodies, art, and exchange in the Pacific and the West. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Hewer, Tony. “Mainstream Tattoos” Under the Skin. 2004. (accessed March 27, 2010)

Hewer, Tony. “Punk Tattoos” Under the Skin. 2004. (accessed March 27, 2010)

Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. New York City: Juno Books, 1997. 7, 141-144.

Orend, Angela and Gange, Patricia. Corporate Logo Tattoos and the Commodification of the Body. (SAGE) 38, no. 4 2009, 493-517.

Polhemus, Ted. Hot bodies, cool styles: new techniques in self-adornment. London : Tharnes & Hudson, 2004.

Rainier, Chris. Ancient marks: the sacred origins of tattoos and body marking. San Rafael, CA : Earth Aware Editions, 2006.

Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. Practises of looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 27, 122, 56

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper Resources, 2001.

Creamy's Blog. "10 tattoos you'll never get laid with", SodaHead. 2009. (Accessed on April 2, 2010)

References of Interest

Ellerbrok, Ariane; Masters student at the University of Alberta. Gormley, Caitlin personal notes from class lecture 2010.

In the Life of Rachel, tattoo. 2010. (accessed April 6, 2010)

Sally’s Blog, "Me and my tattoo’s". 2010. April 6, 2010)

Shark Week (2010), Blogspot. 2010. March 18, 2010)

Daelyn Cheetham, Savannah Kafara and Caitlin Gormley

1 comment:

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