Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tattoos: Individual or Communal? Private or Public?

Parts of the introduction and epilogue from Tattooing the World dovetail very nicely with the topic of my post last week, and what I have been thinking about for much of the semester: traveling or transitioning from childhood or innocence into maturity or adulthood. This can also be termed coming of age, and is shown in various ways in cultures throughout the world by ceremonies, celebrations, or tattoos. I find it interesting that in many places tattoos were, and still are, considered a formal introduction into adulthood, and in many other cultures today tattoos have become personal declarations of maturity, or entrance into adulthood (some of these may be eighteenth birthday tattoos). I am struck by the difference between having a community or family bestow this entrance into adulthood on someone via a tattoo and having someone individually proclaim their own newfound maturity.
When James O’Connell reflects on his experience with tattoo it is as one that “marks him as able to marry,” which is presumably an indication of adulthood (5). In Some Things of Value, the Pohnpeians say, “In the past, the time for marriage, or the attainment of adulthood, was symbolized by tattooing of both men and women” (5). This shows that tattooing was a part of culture that was a common or shared experience. When looking at the way tattoo is perceived in America, especially contemporarily, there is a strong sense of individuality, even when it is linked to heritage or family ties. As someone (I think Tori) mentioned in class, there are people who shy away from answering the question of why they got a specific tattoo. This may be a sign of individualization of tattoo, or a shrinking of the community that is allowed to be in the know about a tattoo. Rather than an entire community being in the know, only one’s best friends or family are able to know the meaning behind the tattoo. One example of this from the epilogue is when Mike Tyson claims that the tattoo (on his face) “is personal” (197).

I would argue, though, that there is a difference between claiming the personal nature of a tattoo that is designed by oneself or is a quote, etc. that has particular meaning to that individual and using another culture’s symbol as a tattoo and then not honoring the culture in the explanation of the tattoo, or even not honoring the culture enough to take the time to learn from which culture the design has come.

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