The rich history of the origins of tattoo, specifically in the Pacific, is often lost in present-day discussion about the practice and its prominence in the Western world. Although “the process by which the patterns move beyond the Pacific makes visible the way cultures travel,” (15) that travel across oceans causes an evolution in the cultural norms associated with tattooing. In the United Sates, we do not share the genealogy or ancestral relationships which bring inherent and known meaning to a tattoo. The various Pacific communities continue to understand certain symbols and styles of tattoo because of deep-rooted, inherited significance. These tattoos assign its bearer identity and assert certain personality traits; however, the imagery holds meaning itself, without the need for explanation. In the United States, we lack a shared history of this degree. Tattoos are individual because the design is chosen and manipulated to represent any idea, milestone, belief, person or struggle that the bearer chooses.
In the epilogue of the text, the art of tattooing in the United States is examined more closely. I agree with the conclusions of anthropologist Margo DeMello, as presented by Ellis, who writes that “in the United States, the meaning of the tattoo design is symbolic, readable only by the few or the one” (197). This general statement is illustrated in the example that Ellis includes in the epilogue of Tattooing the World. Mike Tyson gets a Maori-inspired tattoo on his face but refuses to elucidate the meaning of the design: he appears unaware of its historical roots and also claims that a tattoo is personal. Due to its location on the body, a facial tattoo “offers a bold and even confrontational proclamation of identity” (197). I find that this individualizing of tattoo, especially in the 21st century United States, has caused the art to lose one of its more beautiful aspects: its sacredness. Ellis’s introduction includes a statement that poignantly communicates what is means for tattoo to be sacred. She writes that “because it spills blood, because it makes visible deep energies and allegiance, tattoo embodies the volatile power of the sacred” (22).
The tattoo enters the realm of sacrosanct because it transforms something internal into something outwardly visible. Physical blood is drawn in the tattooing process, but a tattoo also represents something of importance to the bearer. I find some tattoos and the stories associated with them to be very moving and unifying. As we have discussed throughout the semester, art is an invitation to travel, to enter another reality. Tattoo, as a form of art, creates the space through which an outsider can join someone else’s story. Like DeMello’s study suggests, “in the absence of the story […], the symbol’s meaning remains elusive” (197). The sacredness of a tattoo comes from its incredible power to communicate an inner idea and link the “travels” of multiple actors.
A tattoo belongs to an individual yet it is in the public eye. Whether it is visible at almost all times (on the hands, arms, face or neck) or carved in a more intimate location, a tattoo is presented to others on some level. If one chooses to bring the internal into the public sphere, into the sphere of criticism and opinion, it is necessary that they claim its meaning. Why outwardly mark your body if you are uncomfortable with others’ questions and sharing the tattoo’s figurative meaning? Ellis states at the outset of Tattooing the World that “people modify important aspects of the living art” (16); however, by denying a viewer access to the journey associated with a tattoo, regardless of how life-altering or dull the journey was, the bearer negates its sacredness. Claiming that a tattoo is simply “personal” limits the art to the superficial and denies the tradition out of which our contemporary tattooing practices were born.