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.