Skin art: proponent or opponent?

What do Harald II, George V, and Edward VII have in common? Correct, they all acted as leaders of the British nation. However, did you know that all three of them also belonged to the ink club? You might be surprised to learn that these historical figures wore tattoos beside sceptre and crown. The truth is that tattoos have roots which date back into ancient times. Who would have thought that archaeologists detected remnants of inked body art on Egypt mummies? 

The historical origin of tattoos is as interesting and diverse as our attitude towards them. How starkly the opinion on inked skin clashes among people, can be illustrated by the following bits of conversation which I caught on the street:

This tattoo looks gorgeous, especially on that spot. The lines are so delicately drawn, and the colours shine so vibrantly. It truly looks like a mesmerising artwork. What does the tattoo mean? Also, don’t you find tattoos crazy attractive? I can’t wait to get one myself! 

Oh, no! I don’t understand why you’d cover yourself in ink. I don’t see the point in tattoos. They’re blemishing, irreversible stains. They hurt, they are expensive, they’ll impact badly on your career, and they’ll look increasingly uglier with age. 

People’s attitudes towards tattoos seem to be as contrasting as ebb and flow. While some enthusiastically endorse any form of dermatological painting, others vehemently disapprove of it. One deems it as beautiful, another as unsightly. It is almost as if the view on tattoos divides people, creating a noticeable barrier between the two factions. The question is, who started building this wall, and when?

To answer this question, I decided to dig deeper into the background of tattooing. Throughout time, tattoos were used to mark members of the lower class, such as sailors, slaves, or criminals. In essence, tattoos formerly symbolised social inferiority, explaining why they established themselves in our Western society with a primarily negative connotation. People were reinforced to associate inked skin with danger, unfavourable character traits, as well as lowlife, due to which a stigma evolved. This stigma remained alive even though tattoos don’t serve as an indicator of one’s social class anymore. It is thus previously-manifested, now-outdated stereotypes which can explain why a negative image of tattoos may still prevail in our heads.

However, culture plays a defining role for our attitudes. In other cultures outside of our Western sphere, tattoos are utilised very differently and are regarded as empowering or even sacred. For instance, Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, proudly embellish themselves with black ink because they consider tattoos as the physical expression of their identity. Their skin carvings narrate the story of their family, their tribe, and themselves. You could say that Maori tattoos resemble a language of its own kind. Once you’ve learnt how to read the different inked patterns, you’ll know somebody’s heritage without having to exchange a word with them. Isn’t this fascinating?

I remember how bewilderedly I reacted when I spotted a moko kauae for the first time in flesh and blood. A moko kauae represents the traditional chin tattoo of Maori women and consists of ornate tribal patterns. For Maori women it is an honour to wear a moko kauae because this facial engraving symbolises a woman’s inner spirits, her power, as well as her pride. While a black-embroidered, female chin is no strange sight in New Zealand, I took much longer than a puzzled stare to become acclimated to it. New Zealand presented me with a tattoo culture I’d never encountered before, especially since I grew up in an environment filled with anti-tattoo voices. As a result, my whole relationship with tattoos was reformed and I actually started growing a desire for getting one myself.

A change of perspective provoked a change of perception. It’s not tattoos themselves which render a person as more likeable or unlikeable. Instead our societal norms and personal beliefs about them do so. Inked marks may have identified a person as member of a lower class at some point in the past, however, this fact only constitutes a bare snippet to the overall story of tattoos. The bigger picture reveals that tattoos have ornamented humans, both criminals and kings, all around the globe for centuries. They have accordingly accompanied civilisation as loyal bearer of meaning and messages from thousands of years ago until today.

[Ricarda Senger – she/her] 

[Photo credit: cottonbro]

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