Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Stealing" the Pacific Tattoo

After reading just the Introduction and Epilogue of Tattooing the World, I began to truly understand Professor Ellis’ reason for not getting any tattoos: respect for and understanding of the sacred origins of the tattooing process., a process that still lives on today in the Pacific islands. After reading about the origins of tattoo and the integral role of tattoo in the cultures of the people of the Pacific, it was difficult for me to imagine how my hypothetical tattoo could possibly fit in with centuries of tradition. If I haven’t visited these islands and haven’t been accepted into their community, what meaning would my tattoo have? Would my tattoo lose some of its significance if I was tattooed with an electric needle, sparing me the pain of the traditional manual tattooing methods? Dr. Ellis writes about this risk of losing the meaning of tattoo:
When tattoo—sacred in its home contexts—is bought, borrowed, or stolen, the design’s meaning comes unmoored. That process may heighten artistic freedom for the writers, artists, and designers who use the patterns; it may be highly meaningful to the individuals who bear the design and to the societies through which they move. But it is also true that in this process, the patterns may be treated as pure form. The people, ways of being, and lands that shaped the designs may be removed from consideration, treated as not present (consigned to the distant past or to an unreachable place) if they are acknowledged at all. Such consequences are often completely unintended by outsiders who admire the designs. (18-19)

Learning about the origins and cultural significance of tattoo in the Pacific has changed the way that I view the tattoo. After knowing these things, it becomes easier to view Western tattooing as a process “bought, borrowed, or stolen” from the Pacific. This doesn’t mean that I condemn modern people get tattooed without understanding everything about Samoan or Maōri traditions. One of the ways to reconcile the two cultures is to recognize that the culture of Western tattoos has developed into its own unique art form, stemming from yet separate from the Pacific tattoo. Therefore, Western tattoo may not have the intrinsic cultural role of the Pacific tattoo, but it has developed its own unique place in our society. If the indigenous Pacific influence on Western tattoo is recognized and the sacredness of the process is respected, I believe that Western tattoo will be able to develop its own significant place in society, without denying its Pacific heritage.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Continuation of the Contemporary Discussion of Tattoos

         Forgive me for lapsing into something personal, but I was made aware of a situation that I found highly interesting and completely relevant to the "tattoo culture" discussion. First off, the book was deeply thorough—even in just the introduction—and left me at a loss for things to respond with. The story of James F. O'Connell was my first thought, because the reaction of the Europeans seems to pervade into our contemporary society, where we (meaning employers and the like) prefer them to be covered and out of sight. They're dirty and shameful, incomplete or otherwise.
         However, when asking my friends what to write about, I was told of three siblings who speak to each other in an ongoing discourse regarding tattoos, both literally and figuratively. They are as follows:

Jenny (32) – Oldest sister, and has four tattoos. A fish-hook on her left wrist, symbolizing the “J” of her and siblings' names as well as her love of the beach; the name “Jackie Blue” with an anchor on her back, which is her mother's nickname for her in her mother's handwriting; a butterfly, which sounds common, but I was assured she's a true-blue hippie and owns it; and a wishbone under her left arm, signaling the time when she split one with her grandmother whom died two days later after winning the bigger half over her granddaughter.
Jason (24) – Youngest sibling and brother, sponsored skateboarder with a dab of ink on his foot to be explained later.
Jon (30) – Middle child and older brother. Clean cut, married with a daughter, and ex-varsity athlete (lacrosse).

         The siblings have, on numerous occasions, gotten into arguments over the purpose and true meaning of tattoos. Jenny is the full advocate for tattoos. She says that if one feels more comfortable or more themselves with ink on their skin, there's no reason not too. It's an expression of oneself, a powerful one, and it should be accepted as just that. Jon in response will say that tattoos are nothing more than branding on a t-shirt, except permanent. Citing the common places for people to get tattoos, e.g. back, legs, biceps, he says that they are out of sight or obscured from the bearer, and thus the tattoo is not for themselves, but for everyone else. They're an extravagant, reckless and permanent marking that has the same effect as wearing a branded t-shirt. Looking at the profiles of the two, it's easy to see where the dissonance naturally lies.
         The interesting case though is the youngest, Jason. Frequently hearing the banter between his two older siblings, he at first sided with Jon, saying tattoos are stupid and not as personal as everyone makes them out to be. Yet they grew on him. In a fashion typical for Jason, he decided that, while he found them pointless, he wanted to do it for the fun, for the experience. The tattoo he chose was a skateboard on his foot, placed in such a way that it would appear to be going up the ramp of his arch. He went to get the tattoo, and after a few pricks of his skin, realized that he could not bear the pain and left the parlor leaving three dots of incomplete ink on his foot.
         Jason of course finds his story funny, but in combination with his other two siblings, he creates one end of a full spectrum of the tattoo dynamic that reveals and boils down the contemporary discussion and perception of tattoos. Jenny bears her tattoos as memories and proof of both herself and her life. They help to define “Jenny” and honor her as an individual and person. Jon scorns tattoos as adolescent and careless, defining nothing but the irresponsibility and lack of self-control of the tattoo bearer. His sympathies are shared by those I mentioned in the beginning: the remnants of those who feared O'Connell when he returned home. Jason is perpetually torn between the two, seeing both sides as valid but taking a middle road that accepts the tattoo—along with the body and to an extent, life itself—as something not to be taken all that seriously, perhaps even temporary or borrowed, echoing the idea that “'even though it is on my skin it doesn't necessarily belong to me'” (193).

A Language to Shape Language

We have discussed in class the idea that tattoos are a form of communication. They are a conversation piece, a means to display some inward phenomenon and a method to describe one’s life story. We have studied the concept of “tatau” in cultures of the South Pacific and how being tataued signifies to the community that one has matured and is able to take on responsibilities that one was not able to until after the process of tatauing. In Wendt’s essay he even goes so far as to use the metaphor of “tatauing” the post-colonial body to communicate to the world the maturation of post-colonial literature to a meaningful and important display of post-colonized cultures’ pride. Physically and permanently altering one’s body in this fashion is indicative of some message that clearly cannot be communicated adequately in any other way.

The idea that “Tattoo shapes language itself” is a new and intriguing one brought up in the introduction to Dr. Ellis’s Tattooing the World (14). This sentence implies that tattooing is not merely a form of language in and of itself, as had been previously established, but also is powerful enough to change other languages. The power of the concept of tattooing and the word “tattoo” to manipulate languages such as English, French and Spanish is derived from the extreme form of travel that tattooing allows one to engage in. To engage in tattoo is to, with the stroke of a needle, travel through mental, physical, historical and cultural planes. According to Dr. Ellis, “Tattoo […] indicates the edge beyond which the observer may not move, the edge that guarantees the speculative meaning the observer assigns to that beyond” (15). There comes a point where other languages cannot adequately describe what tattoo is and the observer of the tattoo must accept speculation in lieu of the absolute which defined words offer. Tattoo exists as a form of language beyond that which has been previously experienced and therefore in turn shapes the previously experienced languages with its power. The power of tattoo is to exist as a language to shape other languages.

Tattoos and Concepts of Beauty

     One of the fascinating facts that I found quite interesting in "Tattooing the World" is that Immanuel Kant had written on tattoos. As a student of philosophy I have long been an admirer (and quasi-sympathizer) of Kant, and so I thought a bit of investigation into what Kant says about tattoos might be merited. What I discovered in his writings stands in sharp contrast to much of what we have discussed of tattoos already in class, and also with what is written in "Tattooing the World". 
     Let it be said that I did not spend too much time with the appropriate section of the Critique of Pure Judgment that concerns tattoos. But while what Kant says typically demands repeated readings to gain understanding, I think that what Kant says about tattoos is rather perspicuous. Kant states that there are two types of beauty: free and dependent. Free beauty admits of no presuppositions, while dependent beauty does admit of presuppositions. That is a complicated way of saying that when we come across an object of free beauty, we do not possess any preconceived notions of structure or purpose to which we compare this object. But with objects of dependent beauty, we do possess certain preconceived notions of structure or purpose. Examples will help the understanding of this distinction. Kant speaks of flowers and buildings. When we see a flower, we immediately take note of its beauty, but we do not compare its beauty to the standard that is the "purpose" of a flower. Kant says that we don't consider how well a flower might pollenate when we consider its beauty; flowers are simply--freely--beautiful. But when we see a building that we might label as beautiful, that process of labeling is dependent on how well the building conforms to our standard of how a "good" building ought to function. Were we to stand in rapture before the Parthenon, but then notice that its roof leaked, or that its foundation was unstable, these judgments would detract from the beauty of the Parthenon. 
     Kant says that because of this distinction between free beauty and dependent beauty, free and dependent beauty must never mix. He goes on to identify tattoos (Maori tattoos are his frame of reference) as examples of free beauty, and the human body as an example of dependent beauty. The logical extension of these identifications is that tattoos do not possess a preconceived notion of purpose, while the human body does. 
     I do not agree with Kant, and I do not think that what we have discussed in class thus far, and certainly not what we have read of "Tattooing the World" so far, reconciles with Kant's theory either. It should also be said here that Kant himself offers no compelling reason for why free and dependent beauty ought not to mix. Maybe we could build our way towards a refutation of what Kant says about tattoos by first discussing a broader example of free and dependent beauty: art and churches. Kant would--I believe--argue that art and churches ought not to mix. Works of art are examples of free beauty, and churches (as buildings) are examples of dependent beauty. 
     I think the salient fact that Kant misses is that free beauty is itself the (perhaps "a") standard to which instantiations of dependent beauty are compared. The purpose of art in churches is to remind the parishioner of the beauty and love of God, and to direct thoughts upwards, towards higher and more noble ideals. Art is meant to inspire and to remind, in this context. As such, art itself functions as a standard to which the building of a church itself is compared. A church that through its very structure does not conform to a standard of beauty, well, is ugly. But this ugliness exists not only in a physical sense, but also we might say in some metaphysical way as well: the building fails to "live up" to the beauty which directs the church itself towards its true purpose. 
     I believe that free and dependent beauty are inextricably linked. This is not to say that an example of dependent beauty must always feature the adornments of free beauty, but that there is certainly no problem when the latter adorns the former. 
     We are now in a fine position to compare these matters to our discussion of tattoos. Consider what we have read in "Tattooing the World" about tattoos functioning as analogues of language, and tattoos rooting a person through art into a family and a larger community. As an analogue of language, tattoos are a means of expression, though they seem to often lack the universal clarity of definition and meaning that is part and parcel of words. 
     But I think this is more a problem of context than of definition, and perhaps Ellis would agree. One of the troubles for O'Connell was that the definition and meaning of his tattoos seemed to escape him. As a natural outlier to South-Pacific culture, he adopted the art of a culture on his body but never inherited the meaning of his tattoos. But I don't think this is equivocal to stating that the tattoos qua tattoos lacked universal meaning. What the tattoos on O'Connell's body lacked was a proper context for appreciation. Consider a painting--let's say Caravaggio's "Conversion of St. Paul"--and contemplate how the meaning of that painting changes if it hangs on a wall in the National Gallery rather than in the Cesari chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Absent the context of a Christian church in a very Christian city, the painting means something very different. Such is the case with O'Connell's tattoos: as an outsider, he lacked privileged access to the meaning of his tattoos that could ever only be understood from within the culture. 
     For South-Pacific islanders, it is evident from "Tattooing the World" that tattoos possess very certain and clear meanings and definitions. They express ethical, cultural, familial, and community obligations.  Tattoos also serve as a constituent part of the self-concept or personal identity. As works of free art--in the Kantian sense--these tattoos function as standards by which the conduct of the person tattooed is to be compared. Though the tattoos as art alone are beautiful, there is necessarily beauty in the meaning of the tattoos as well. A person so adorned walks and lives with a regular reminder of the standard to which he or she ought to conduct their lives, and in this guise tattoos are beautiful creations indeed. 
     I will close by stating that what Kant lacks in his theory might be complemented by a more classical conception of beauty found in Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. The classical conception of beauty focuses on symmetry, proportion, and form. So where Kant says the key is that free and dependent beauty never mix, a classical philosopher such as Aristotle might respond by stating that the key is that beautiful objects must actually be beautiful. There is such a thing as bad art, and so a beautiful tattoo is composed of two parts: a justifiably beautiful meaning represented in a justifiably beautiful tattoo, both free of whimsy, caprice, and frivolity. 


I found this book empowering because it allowed me to learn about the history of tattoo and cause me to have new ideas about tattoo. Before reading about tattoo in this book my conception of tattoo was its modern day definition. I also have a new outlook on tattoos and that is a positive one. I have always been open minded about tattoos but our American culture is so much the opposite to that, which makes it hard to have real discussions about tattoos because it can bring so much disapproval to the one who wishes to get a tattoo. I feel like American tattoos are much more focused on shapes and words, whereas tattoos that originated in the Pacific region have many lines and patterns. It was fun discovering this whole new world of tattoo. I liked that the book made connections to prior readings, like, The Cross of Soot and They Who Do Not Grieve. Before this class I was unfamiliar with many of the authors and texts and as I'm reading it's like I'm traveling through the class and as I'm traveling I'm making great connections. The references to the texts we've read in this book reaffirms that I'm traveling through reading. The theme of the tattoo as an object of exchange stuck out to me because I immediately agreed that this is true. When we are talking to someone about a tattoo they have it is like we are exchanging stories. That person will give the background information about it, why they got it, and what it means. And the person who received the story will eventually pass it on to someone and say something like, " I know this person with this tattoo and they have it here and they got it after this." Tattoos are a great way to tell stories because they are so visual. In a way the visual nature of tattoos makes them so universal that almost anyone has an idea of what a particular tattoo may be about. In a world before books tattoo was another way of writing down stories. Other cultures told stories orally, but the Pacific Islanders found something special in the art of tattoo and made it their tradition. It is also good to see tattoo moving in a new direction in American culture. After decades of dissent towards tattoos after a long history of Christian missionaries being against tattoos it is refreshing to see new perspectives coming about for the culture of tattoo. For Pacific Islanders participating in tattoo may have been an expression of their rebellion to the Christian groups who were trying to reform their lifestyle. To this day, there is a stigma that some of the people who get a lot of tattoos are the "I don't care what you think, I'm going to do what I want to do" type. That sense of rebellion that lives on in American culture is rooted in the Pacific culture of tattoo.

Tattoo: The Post-Colonial Comeback

When I think of tattoos, I tend to picture “I Love Mom” in hearts or huge crosses encircling men’s upper arms.  Not until reading Hau’ofa’s essays, Fiegel’s novel, or your book Dr. Ellis, have I thought of tattoo as a language or a history.  And when I read Rey Chow’s comments, I began to see tattoo in a completely new light.  

Chow mentions that because of its pictographic nature, Westerners may not always understand Chinese writing.  And while they may not understand it, “they nonetheless proceed to do so by inscribing it in a new kind of theorizing (speculation), a new kind of intelligibility” (15).  Westerners therefore translate Chinese into Western alphabets, something they themselves can make sense of.  The same can be thought of tattoo.  Those who do not belong to Maori, or Tongan, or Samoan cultures may not comprehend the meaning behind full body adornment, but since tattoo has traveled across the globe, the Western world can now make sense of the process in their own way.  “The inscrutable Chinese ideogram [tattoo] has led to a new scrutability, a new insight that remains Western and that becomes, thereafter, global” (15).  Westerners can take the language of tattoo and make it their own.  Though the process and product of Western tattoo is completely different than that of Pacific culture, it stems from the same roots.  Just like a language, tattoo has been translated for all people to understand.   

As we have discussed in previous classes, the spread of tattoo is like an act of reclamation for Pacific islanders.  Tattoo is the language Oceania has used to reclaim its independence and cultural freedom.  Because tattoo has spread throughout the world, Western cultures have inadvertently taken part in Pacific custom and tradition; and have therefore acknowledged its importance and historical significance.   In this post-colonial world, tattoo is Oceania’s way of saying “look we can influence you too”.   

Tattooing the World or Just Ourselves?

In 2004 my brother lost one of his best friends and teammate to leukemia.  It was a sad and tragic event in my brother’s life.  One day this kid was doing great, in remission, running up and down a football field, and the next day he’s laying in a hospital bed, hollowed and writing.  One of the last things he wrote was a very powerful message; he must have known he was going to die.  “God smiles at us all, but it is those who smile back that he brings into His kingdom.” He wrote it moments before his peaceful death.  My brother and a few other teammates decided, as a way to commemorate his loss, they would get the message tattooed on their bodies.  It certainly has a meaning—to commemorate that young man’s life, celebrate it, and remind others that he was there for them, guiding them.  These men, football players, will forever be permanently united in his memory.  Therefore this tattoo is not just a mere ink and skin creation; rather, it’s a profound cosmic connecter; his presence is translated by the tattoo.
            Most people may look at the scripted tattoo on my brother’s bulky, muscular arm and think, “Hey look at that gaudy tattoo. What a Guido.  I wonder if he even knows what it means.”  By just sheer glance, they will never get the full capacity for what it truly stands for.  Some people may think that it’s trashy; some may think it makes no sense; some may take extreme offense to it.  Nevertheless, it means something to my brother.  Yes, sit there and look at my arm, but I don’t care what you think it means or whether or not you like it.  It’s significance is known to me, and probably no one else, besides the other men who have it’s replica, will be able to conceive the same impact that it has had on my life.

            In the introduction to Tattooing the World, what struck me right off the bat was that O’Connell had these elaborate tattoos from the Pacific yet had no idea what either of them meant.  How could you get a tattoo simply for the ink? Sure, he receives a lot of attention for them, but why does he have them?
            I constructed my own interpretation for why O’Connell has all of the Pacific tattoos.  One, it symbolizes his travels; each tattoo is a permanent connection to the moment in which he received it.  He is reminded of the tattooists, the climate, the place, the pain of the needle.  Secondly, he could be purely attracted to the aesthetic look that they bring to his body; he is seen as a warrior, and he is unique from everyone else.  Thirdly, it shapes his identity.  “As ‘the tattooed Irishman,’ O’Connell finds in the motifs an identity, not just a job, and creates his own account of life in Pohnpei as a result of the apparent script the women have impressed upon him” (Ellis 3).  In a way his life and mission is to be a canvas for an artist to display his or her work.  He is a media; he is a living art form, and his life is centered on this.  All the people that he meets and shows his tattoos to are affected by his tattoos in some way, even if they seem ambivalent to them; the tattoos live through him. 
            In relation to my brother’s tattoo, O’Connell wants and cares about people’s view of his tattoos.  Every tattoo has a story, and he wants to promote that everyone experiences this story.  However from what I know of my brother, he could care less about what others think of his tattoo; it’s for his mind only. 

Ink on Skin: An Extension of Language

Delving deeper into the world of tattoo, I am struck by the similarities in the way we understand tattoo and the way we understand language. Tattoo itself seems to be another language, but I think it's more suitable to say that tattoo is an extension of language—an extension of what we can understand that we understand. (So, of course we need to invite Derrida into this conversation.)

In the introduction to Tattooing the World, we are presented with the idea that tattoos speak to us through our interpretations of them. In O'Connell's story, these overlapping interpretations are "the Pacific, the personal or performative, and the social" (3). We can break down our interpretation of language in a similar way: through the author, the text, and the reader(s). In Derrida's Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, he implies that language is its own authority; tattoo, also, becomes its own authority with its own power since no one interpretation or interpretive community can find the meaning of a tattoo, since each tattoo carries the weight of tradition, the individual significance and the infinite interpretations from outside. The tattoo, then, is really a power beyond human beings, though human beings employ the art.

I think the understanding of tattoo as a "silent placeholder" (15) is really fascinating and supports the idea of tattoo as a power beyond human understanding. In the case of the "inscrutable" Chinese characters, they are "a guarantee of intelligibility because the present viewer cannot sound of read them" (15). If we don't fully understand tattoo, then that creates a potential energy of intelligence that we seek to find meaning within. 

Because tattoo can be read in so many different ways, its meaning is very sacred. The person being tattooed might choose the marking, but the marking in turn recreates and re-identifies that person from then on. Like language, although we create it and use it for expression and understanding, it is a greater force and mystery than we could have endowed it with ourselves. 

It's Permanent!

           A tattoo states a message and tells a story, but what it says and how it’s told matters.  Permanent ink really stays on the skin, and hopefully your story is worth telling again and again.  The continuity of your tattoo hopefully conveys a pattern or symbol worth continuing.  I associate tattoos with regret.  A generalization and negative stigma of a spiritually rich art form, I attest there are particular examples of unfortunate stories; ones worth telling maybe once.  The cynic is a disappointed optimist; I guess I have seen too many egregious tattoos, ones with a story not worth telling, clichéd patterns, and emotionally driven mistakes.  Tramp stamps, barbed wire, and cruddy expressions disappoint me because I want and believe there is more to tattoo.  In Dr. Ellis’ book, Tattooing The World, she states, “When tattoo—sacred in its home contexts—is bought, borrowed, or stolen, the designs’ meaning comes unmoored…it is also true that in this process, the patterns may be treated as pure form. The people, ways of being, and lands that shaped the designs may be removed from consideration, treated as not present (consigned to the distant past or to an unreachable place) if they are acknowledged at all” (Ellis, 18,19).  I infer that in the process of stealing and borrowing ideas the tattoo becomes “unmoored” or unanchored.  This feeling of being lost at sea translates to what I see.  Bad tattoos, and we all know what I’m talking about, seem like muted expressions that are later realized as a regrettable decision.  Mistakes are made when we try to find expression through avenues we do not understand and appreciate.  The misconception with a lot of designs and tattoos leads to my cynical standpoint.  I defend my mindset by asking you to look around, to see the abysmal representations of the richly spiritual art form, to witness the stories of regret told by those emotionally driven or deceived people.  I do not abhor tattoos, in fact if it is used or expressed in the ‘right’ way I think they are awesome and deepen my appreciation for the individual.  But when they are not, boy do I have some heated words for their misplaced ink.  

Who Owns Tattoo

In the epilogue of Tattooing The World,  there is discussion about who really possess an individual’s tattoo. This is an interesting perspective to take because it is normally thought that the person who has the tattoo is the owner. However, this is not always the case because there are different reasons that may provoke someone to get one which technically gives ownership to an outsider. The epilogue opens with the question “who owns tattoo?” This is followed by multiple situations that suggest that it is not the wearer of the tattoo that owns but either a community, social expectation, or individuals.
Some traditions place the expectation on someone to get tattooed, “ Maori follow tradition in seeking approval of their family and elders before acquiring a moko” (193). This is a key example because the ownership really does lie in those that pressure another individual to get tattooed. Ellis states that “the tattoo is owned simultaneously by bearer, artist, and community” (194). Tattoo is a piece of art that has the ability to encompass so much history and meaning. It is essential to learn about that past and the thought process behind it to figure out if the bearer is its true owner. 
Without a doubt there are so many outside influences that do contribute to the type of tattoo a person gets as well as its meaning. The bearer can only really own it when everything about the piece is driven by their own personal wants, ideas, and desires. However, even then the overall outcome is still a product of some sort of influence that the person has faced throughout their life. In many of the stories that have been read this semester, the characters get their tattoos because there is something pushing them to do so. Parker, in Parker’s Back may have not been forced to get any of the tattoos that he has but it is the places he has been and the moments he has experienced that inspired them. Is it fair to say that he is the owner of them? Or are the pass events of his life the true owners of them? There is definitely not a clear way to decipher what makes someone the true owner of their tattoo. In truth, there is so much in the world that people are exposed to daily which results in no clear cut answer.
Today, many people are uneducated when it comes to the history of tattoo. Ellis discusses the “deterritorialization of tattoo” which is a result of its disassociation with Maori and Pacific faces and bodies as well as designs. Although it is impossible to educate everyone in the world about where this art originated, it is still important to know about it. This relates to the idea of owning a tattoo because if someone picks a design that they like but don’t know where it came from, it is not really their own. On the other hand, anyone has the ability to choose the story behind their own tattoo and how they tell it will create the reality that they want. Tattoos are just as impersonal as they are personal. For every tattoo that someone puts on their body there is an audience out there who interprets that message in the way they want. Maybe it is safe to say that the owner of the tattoo can be anyone who reads its message, whether they be the bearer or the audience. 

The Mysterious Meanings of Tattoos

            Different cultures interpret tattoos in different ways.  Although tattoos are becoming more and more accepted in western culture, they are still generally frowned upon.  While receiving tattoos can be considered a rite of passage and a sign of maturity in western culture, it is definitely so in the culture of the Pacific.  Unlike western culture where tattoos are applied using a modern tattoo machine that greatly reduces the pain that the receiver experiences, tattoos are traditionally applied using a painful chisel and mallet method in the Pacific.  The painful experience of receiving a tattoo is part of the rite of passage in the Pacific.  Tattoos of the Pacific culture are also highly symbolic and outwardly tell the story of the person, while many tattoos of western culture have no significance at all, as seen in O.E. Parker’s tattoos in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back.”  People all over the world receive tattoos for a variety of reasons, but none are as rooted in the symbolism of its culture as in the Pacific.
            We learn in the introduction of Dr. Ellis’ book Tattooing the World that James O’Connell was the first man to display tattoos traditional in Pacific culture in the United States.  Many people were appalled by his tattoos mainly because they did not understand the symbolism behind them.  Only someone who understood the symbolism behind Pacific tattoos would understand the stories told by O’Connell’s tattoos.  O’Connell’s tattoos meant what he said they meant, despite others’ false interpretations of his inked body.
            It seems in western culture that people get tattoos without as special of a meaning as those of the Pacific culture.  In O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back,” the reasoning behind Parker’s tattoo of the face of God is not explicitly stated.  We do not know if it was to impress his wife, because of his recent car accident, or something else.  This proves that it is impossible to understand the meaning of someone’s tattoo without being explicitly told so.

Connotation of Tattoos

   In Tattooing the World the reader gets to travel in a different sense of the word. Ellis' work takes us, as readers, to another method of interpretation. Tattooing the World depicts that there are a multitude of ways to interpret the meaning of a tattoo. This is made present in the illustration of the life of James F. O'Connell in the Introduction of Tattooing the World. Based on where he was, his tattoos meant something different to the people around him.
   During his time in the Pacific, he received tattoos and markings all over his body that represent his place within that culture. In fact, Ellis mentions that "identity, power, and place are among the most important forms of belonging indicated by tattoo" (18). Through out our discussions on tattoos, we have learned from other stories that, in the islands, being able to sit through the pain of a tattoo made someone courageous and well respected; a man was able to be proud and seen as a true man. The same could be said about O'Connell during his time in the Pacific. He was able to travel from place to place and, because his tattoos showed his connection to a specific chief, he was respected everywhere he went.
  However, once O'Connell returned to New York, he was no longer respected but mocked because of his tattoos as well as feared. For example, pregnant women were told to avoid viewing his tattoos; "failure to do so, they warned women, would transmit the tattoo marks to their unborn" (9). It was not culturally acceptable to be covered in markings in the United States. Furthermore, while men and women were revered in the Pacific as courageous and respectable because of their tattoos, to the people of the United States, they were sexually promiscuous. On page 27, Ellis demonstrates how people were attempting to "define relation between tattoo and what they viewed as sexual deviancy." Men who received tattoos (in the eyes of the west) were latent homosexual looking for a form of homosexual experience through the penetration of a needle and tattooed women are deemed to be "sexually experienced" (27-28). In this light, people in the West interpret tattoos in a completely different way than the people of the Pacific do.
  I think Ellis describes this concept of different interpretations through the same markings elegantly through her inclusion of the word 'stigma' on page 13. In this context, 'stigma' means tattoo and its plural form 'stigmata' can be translated to marks or brands. However, in today's society, 'stigma' comes with a negative connotation. When something has a 'stigma,' we usually see it as a bad thing or a disgraceful mark. So what does that say about tattoos in the western world?
  Tattooing the World allows its readers to see that tattoos may look a like and be designed in similar ways but every single one is actually unique. Everyone from all walks of life define them and interpret them differently. Just like words have numerous connotations, tattoos do too.