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.

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