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As I flicked through pages of garishly coloured rose and skull designs, the cocktail of exhilaration and shame within my stomach soon proved too overwhelming, and I shamefacedly ducked out of the store.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it’s an indelible one on your body. From the flamboyant designs of the fin de siecle "circus freaks" to the sprawling technicolour cherry blossoms of the Yakuza, tattooing is an ever-evolving, enigmatic and fascinating art form.
As indicated by the recent discovery of bone tattoo tools and pigments in a cave in France, humanity’s fascination with tattooing goes as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic Era. Otzi the Iceman, a crusty mummy from the European Bronze Age, represents one the first examples of tattooing. Believed to be Europe’s oldest mummy, this fantastically flaky creature was decorated with a virtual plethora of stripes, lines and cruciform marks.
In the mid 19th century, tattoos were the fodder of carnival freak shows across the United Kingdom and the United States; sticky, popcorn covered children and their incredulous parents would flock to the circus to gawk at the "Amazing Tattooed Lady". Briefly in vogue, ethnic-inspired (what we would rightly consider appropriated these days) tattoos among the late 19th-century upper-class symbolised great travel and worldliness on the part of the bearer.
In the early 20th century, tattoos were associated with the navy and were less stigmatised. During the 1950s, however, they became increasingly associated with the criminal sphere, being seemingly indicative of outlaw bikers and other social outcasts. The "tattoo renaissance" of the 1970s was due in part to improved hygiene regulation and the popularity of Polynesian and Oriental designs among the free-spirited, flower power hippies. Once a blatant sign of rebellion and counterculture, inked skin now meets our eyes at every turn, on professional athletes, Hollywood’s darlings and even the odd university professor.
Tattoos may serve a variety of purposes, functioning as symbols of religious or spiritual devotion, marks of status or fertility, rites of passage, or decorations for bravery. New Zealand has a rich history of tattooing, especially so with ta moko, traditional Maori tattooing. According to Prof Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, "Ta moko is about who we are, and whom we come from. It is about where we are going, and how we choose to get there. And it is about for always, forever."
Worn as an expression of integrity, Maori identity and prestige, whakapapa and history, ta moko is believed to encapsulate one’s tapu, or spiritual being. After declining during the 20th century, ta moko has been revived as an important art form in recent times, worn as an expression of cultural pride and integrity. In my opinion, ta moko is an exceptionally beautiful and intricate art form that deserves recognition and respect for its cultural significance.
From Ancient Greece to Nazi Germany, tattoos have also been employed as a form of control over the body by the state. Adopted by the Greeks, Romans and Japanese as a punitive or proprietary action, messages such as "Stop me, I’m a runaway" and "Tax Paid" were often tattooed on the foreheads of slaves.
Perhaps the most horrendous use of tattooing occurred during World War 2, when Nazis forcibly tattooed inmates of Auschwitz in 1941 in order to identify the bodies of the registered prisoners. Nazi Germany also utilised tattoos in that SS blood group tattoos were worn by members of the Waffen-SS to identify the individual’s blood type. Ironically, these markers were used after the war as evidence of being part of the Waffen-SS, leading to arrest and prosecution in many cases.
As a form of body modification, tattooing exemplifies resistance to a culture that has commodified the body. A person’s body functions as both a symbolic representation of cultural values and an expression of individual beliefs. Skin is a medium that signifies race, gender and age; it is the intermediate between the social and the self, between personal choice and cultural inscription.
Cultural stereotypes prevalent in Western society have long dictated that tattoos are marks of shame worn only by criminals, fugitives or those fallen from social grace. Indeed, Leviticus 19:28 states that: "Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you." Tattoos therefore are historically perceived as the embodiment of a person’s inability to conform to the prevailing social norms, values and beliefs, as exemplified by the history of Tahitian tattoos.
Before the colonisation of Tahiti, tattooing was a means of manipulating the level of tapu, or noa, that divided society, allowing individuals from different genders, age and classes to interact. With the arrival of missionaries in the 1880s, tattooing became denigrated and ultimately prohibited.
The art form lay dormant until the cultural revitalisation movement of the late 20th century, when it became a form of expressing a connection with one’s traditional culture. Indeed, many Tahitians proudly reappropriated the tattoo as a symbol of "otherness" and defiance of French colonialism.
Consideration of the varying perception and acceptance of tattoos allows for a greater understanding of the cyclical nature of values within societies. Most tattoos possess great significance to the bearer, from a commemoration of a friend or loved one to an affirmation of cultural or tribal identity. I believe tattoos can be an incredible art form. Perhaps one day I will be brave enough to sit as a canvas for one of my own designs.
- Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.