The practice of tattooing has captivated me since I was a child. In my culture, we use henna – which is like tattooing – only on our hands and on festive occasions, like weddings, Eid and parties. Nevertheless, henna only lasts for a few weeks at most and there aren’t many colours available in it.
In contrast to it, tattoos come in all sizes, colours, shapes, and locations you can choose to get on. I want to know how these different properties of tattoos can mean differently for everyone. Furthermore, the question I investigated is how the symbolization behind tattoos has changed. I found my primary research tends to explain the role of tattoos being played in our society today. Whereas my secondary research helped explain the evolution of tattoos and how the meaning behind them has shifted over time. My primary research was collected through personal communication, like interviews and surveys. While my secondary research was gathered from a variety of online journal articles, academic journals, books, documentaries, and Ted-Ed.
According to the Ted-Ed The history of Tattoos, tattoos go back about 8,000 years and there isn’t really one origin point for where they started. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word tatau, which can mean to mark your experiences through which your identity will be reflected (Fedorenko, Sherlock,& Stuhr 1999; Ted-Ed, 2014; Thompson, 2015). According to an article by Thompson (2015), in the 17th and 18th century, the sailors were exposed to the different tattooing practices across the world from India, to Egypt, to Japan, and to Samoa. The explorers observed the use of tattoos as markers of crucial stages in life. They pursued the lead and marked their journeys for where they have been.
The tattoos represented milestones in their lives, things they have achieved and the hard and good times they have been through. However, when they returned home, the tattoos were seen upon as negatively and rejection of their own cultural values. At the time, tattooing was really uncommon and it would be seen as an act of rebelling. I discovered that the class, gender, race, and culture you belong to, immensely affected the acceptance of individuals in society.According to Spindler (1994), tattoos in past were used by prostitutes to specify their profession (Fedorenko, Sherlock,& Stuhr 1999).
This would have acted as a pointer to the level at which these women are at. Everyone would immediately recognize their status as a prostitute and would have looked down on them. This falls in the cultural studies model where their profession was being labelled by a tattoo. It was indirectly a symbol for what decent or high-class women would not want to be. Spindler also explained how tattoos were used by SS men to identify their blood group type on the inside of the upper arm (Fedorenko, Sherlock,& Stuhr 1999). During the battles, – in case of blood transfusion – they can quickly check the blood group and use it.
Nevertheless, we can all imagine how dangerous this can be for the health of the soldiers. According to Brown, Perlmutter, & McDermott (2000), today you cannot donate blood till after 6 months being tattooed. The same needles and ink containers were being used at the time for all the clients. This lead to an increased risk of blood-borne pathogens at the time(Brown, Perlmutter, & McDermott, 2000). Spindler has also mentioned the use of tattoos on the victims of Nazis.
They were forcibly tattooed on their arms their Auschwitz numbers (Fedorenko, Sherlock,& Stuhr 1999; Ted-Ed, 2014). At the time, this determined who they were and separated them from the rest. They had been placed in concentration camps with this similarity between them and others like them.
It had been a marker for whom they were, and a reminder of what makes them different. The ink was permanent and every day they would have seen it visible on their arm. They were being seen as a whole group with numbers for their identities. Because of their religion, beliefs and/or race, they were being treated ill. The tattoo in the eyes of society served as a mark for the ones inferior to them. However, today there has been an extreme shift in the type of people who get tattoos (Thinkhouse, 2013). Today, some holocaust survivors’ descendants have their relatives numbers on their arms (Ted-Ed, 2014). This depicts the painful history and the crime that was committed against the people at the time.
I learnt that many discoveries of tattooed mummies from distinct parts of the world have been made. One of them involves the mummy of Amunet, who was a priestess of middle kingdom Egypt. She used tattoos (appendix 2) to symbolize sexuality and fertility (Ted-Ed, 2014). At the time, the markings on the women’s abdominal part would have stood out when they were pregnant. The tattoo would have expanded as they preceded closer to delivery (Angel, 2012). In the past, the primary role for women was to get pregnant and extend the male bloodlines.
These tattoos would have served as a reminder for the women for whom they are. It was a symbol for their assigned role in society. Looking at the cultural studies model, this is in the gender sector, where only the women were targeted with this tradition. It was clearly being used to distinguish the roles of women and men.
I was shocked by the discovery of the rape case in the late 1920s in Boston. According to Kang and Jones (2007), Albert Parry explained how the prosecutor requested the case to be dropped after finding out that the women had a tattoo. The judge and jury released the two men who had raped the women, and their explanation was the butterfly tattoo had misled them (Kang, & Jones, 2007).
This had happened with many other women during that time. Instead of understanding the meaning behind why the women had gotten tattoos, they were being seen as evidence of guilt. This reveals to us how women were judged on their personal choices by the society as a whole. Looking at it through a material culture lens, this was due to the difference in gender taste choices, which lead to a liking of a certain object over another (Woodward, 2007). Men were dominating in our society at the time, and they were the ones to designate what is acceptable. In the past, tattoos were usually used to distinguish between the diverse groups at the time. However, today there has been a tremendous shift in the representation behind tattoos. There not still fully accepted, though they have shifted towards the neutral zone.
These claims were built from the survey I conducted. In my survey of 60 students from The Bishop Strachan School, I inquired how the symbolization behind tattoos has changed. I emailed an online survey with 7 questions about the acceptance of tattoos. I achieved 42 responses (see appendix 1 for a copy of survey questions).
The results I obtained justifies how the population of BSS society has also transitioned to a neutral zone on tattoos. About 54.8% want to get a tattoo. However, when they were asked, “Whether they it to be easily hidden?” About 67% of the respondents said yes they would like to have the ability to conceal it. Their reasoning was they don’t want to be negatively judged by others, especially for the sake of professionalism. 14% weren’t sure, and the other 19% said No.
They want the tattoo to be visible for who they are and what they have been through. This shows how us, how we still have a long way to develop. We are much more open to others having tattoos, but we are not willing to show our tattoos in the case if we do get one. The results I obtained from my interview affirmed my belief that tattoos today are received by all ages, genders, religions, socio-economic classes and professions (Dietrich, 2018). When asked “What are the main reason behind getting a tattoo?,” John explained how “people are trying to express something that is meaningful to them.
..and something they want to remember it” and carry with them (Dietrich, 2018).Tattoos have transitioned from negatively perceived to a neutral stage. Many people are getting out of their comfort zones to attain them, though still in locations that can be hidden. This is to have the ability to conceal them whenever you want (John, 2018). We have made a great journey so far from the past, where tattoos were used to separate the distinct groups in societies. This area of focus has impelled me to look at the information through a variety of lenses.
It had assisted me to put aside my own biases and try to understand how different time periods can affect the acceptance of materials in our society. Looking at the transition of the symbology behind tattoos, I wonder if it’s associated with how the media has influenced us. We are daily exposed to media, ranging from books to movies, to our favourite celebrities. How might they have played a role in the acceptance of tattoos? If I ever get to look at this topic again, I would try to focus more on real-life artifacts and try to uncover the meaning behind them.