In The Berg Companion to Fashion, Valerie Steele defines the ‘tattoo’ as “a permanent or semi-permanent body modification that transforms the skin.” According to Steele, the word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word ‘tautau’, meaning “to mark something.” The practice of tattooing involves puncturing the skin and depositing pigments, like ink, to create permanent patterns and designs.
A Harris Poll from 2016 indicates that about three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, and tattoos have reached high levels of visibility within media and popular culture. Even though perceptions are evolving, tattoos are still associated with unfounded negative stereotypes. For many, tattoos are marks of rebellion and are often associated with antisociality, criminal deviance, and even savagery.
This is unfortunate and misguided because tattoos are rooted in a rich cultural history that makes them meaningful both to the wearer and to members of their culture. Tattoos are far from new phenomena, and in order to break down the stereotypes surrounding them, we must look to their historical roots.
Steele writes that the earliest evidence of tattoos we have is Ötzi, a Stone Age mummy whose body was tattooed; these markings may have been tied to medicine, spirituality, or social status.
In different places around the world, tattoos also developed varying significance depending on the context. In the nineteenth century, for instance, British sailors returned from their exploits decorated with tattoos. The popularity of tattoos grew so immense that there was a tattoo artist at almost every British port. The tattoo designs that adorned the sailors’ bodies were often symbols of their courage and ties to their home country, which is significant considering their often lengthy and dangerous journeys at sea.
Tattoos could even signify royalty; in 1862, to commemorate his journey to Jerusalem, Prince Edward of Wales had a holy cross tattooed onto his arm.
When considering earlier historical records of tattoos, it is clear they were pervasive and celebrated by members of both the lower-class and the upper-class. In fact, according to Theresa M. Winge’s book Body Style, most of our negative associations with tattoos have roots in the later part of the twentieth century. At this time, body modification exploded in subcultures such as motorcycle gangs, street gangs, and punks — all of which were associated with deviance.
Those who paint tattoos in a negative light often recall these groups and consequently make assumptions about tattoo wearers. Yet, this narrow view of tattooing overlooks the nuance associated with the practice, both culturally and socially. It is a sliver of tattoo history that is blown out of proportion, considering the robustness of said history.
Furthermore, it is true that tattoos represent group solidarity — they act as markers of members belonging to a subculture or group, and they are often considered more meaningful than piercings or hairstyles. This is due to their permanence, which can symbolize the loyalty a member has to their group. The idea of using tattoos to signify solidarity not only applies to deviants, but also to family, friends, and other intimate social groups that choose to get tattooed as a symbol of their bond.
Tattoos can also be a marker of individuality. Seen this way, tattooing is an accessible form of self-expression; one that is certainly not limited to the subcultures often depicted in association with it.
What is most concerning is that negative stereotypes of tattoos are often tied to pre-existing prejudices and assumptions about marginalized groups.
North American subcultures, such as the Modern Primitives, often romanticize and exoticize the tattoos of non-Western cultures, namely the Polynesians. Indeed, the co-opting of cultural markers into individual fashion statements is a recurring theme in fashion, not unique to tattoos.
Prejudices towards certain groups — whether they are members of a native tribe or individuals in a motorcycle gang — are pervasive, and negative perceptions of tattoos often reflect these underlying problems. It is these harmful ideas that ought to be attacked head on, in the hopes of treating others in a more compassionate and open-minded manner, regardless of our differences. Meanwhile, tattoos as markers of this individuality should be celebrated for the art form that they are.
Ayesha Tak is a fourth-year student at UTM studying Statistics and Sociology.