In modern Western society, tattoos are a commonplace form of body art that can signify a variety of characteristics about a person. While the context of an individual’s tattoo itself has a narrative, the reason behind getting the tattoo is just as important. By evaluating and interviewing several individuals who have body art, one can learn a lot about what tattoos can signify and how they fit into contemporary American culture.
Undoubtedly, the greatest information a cultural anthropologist can gather about the motives behind tattooing is by interviewing individuals who have tattoos. For the purpose of this paper, I have interviewed several different individuals who have body art regarding the significance of their tattoos, the way society has reacted to their body art, and how they believe their tattoos have influenced or reflect the culture from which they hail.
The first individual I interviewed was a man who had a tattoo of a dog on his forearm. The image of the dog is one of a seemingly vicious dog who has its mouth opened, sharp teeth showing, and wearing a collar with spikes. The tag on the dog’s collar reads “Rao” which I later learned was the name of the dog and the art was commissioned after the dog’s passing as a way to remember the beloved pet. In this instance, the tattoo reflects the individual’s love for his dog, which is a cultural attribute often seen in Western cultures who favor pets and treat them as a member of the family. Thus, this individual’s tattoo is a reflection of Western society’s attachment to animals and namely, pets, whereas other cultures do not value such relationships or perhaps do not keep pets at all.
Similar to this man’s tattoo of his dog, I interviewed another man who had a tattoo inspired by his deceased mother on his neck. The visibility of the tattoo placed on the neck was significant especially as it illustrates the fact that this individual wanted everybody to see his tattoo. Since this man had several tattoos covering his neck, chest, arms and even hands and fingers, it was clear that he had a fondness for the art of tattoos and belonged to a subculture of individuals who participated in more extreme forms of body modification that is not as commonplace in the United States where many individuals conceal their tattoos in professional settings.
Another individual interviewed had a very colorful tattoo of a sugar skull. I learned from this individual that the sugar skull is a symbol of the Mexican day of remembrance, Dia de Los Muertos. This individual was of Mexican heritage and as such, the tradition was very important to them as a way to remember loved ones who had passed. Thus, this individual decided to get a tattoo of a sugar skull as a way to reflect his heritage and to honor loved ones who had passed away. In this sense, the tattoo serves multiple purposes. For one, it reflects the individual’s Mexican roots and on the other hand, serves as a way to remember loved ones.
A woman I interviewed also had a large tattoo of cherry blossoms across her back. The woman expressed that the motive for her tattoo was two-fold. For one, she enjoyed the aesthetics of cherry blossoms as they were one of her favorite flowers. She also expressed that she had a fondness for Asian culture and since cherry blossoms are an important part of Asian culture, she wanted to reflect her appreciation for the cultural peculiarities of Asia and in particular, the Himalayas and Buddhism. Because cherry blossoms also often appear in Asian art, the tattoo signifies an appreciation for other art forms and the transference of Asian symbols to one’s body. I saw this same significance in the last individual I interviewed, whose tattoo mimicked that of traditional Japanese art where a samurai is attacking a giant koi fish. The tattoo was very reminiscent of Japanese ancient folk lore and art, serving as a living representation of this culture.
Tattoos are a unique topic of conversation in the field of cultural anthropology. Tattoos have served a variety of purposes over the years and around the world. In some cultures, tattoos signify and individual’s social status or heritage. They may even indicate the tribe from which an individual hails in indigenous cultures. In this sense, tattoos serve as a cultural identifier and a way to classify people by origin or culture. In addition to classification, tattoos can also serve the purpose of paying homage to one’s culture, family, or personal history. For example, individuals of Asian descent may get tattoos as a way to reflect their heritage or to pay homage to traditional Asian art. The same is true for individuals who get tattoos to honor deceased loved ones or to display their family crest. Yet another motive for body modification is for self-expression and visual representation of one’s identity. In such instances, individuals may get tattoos that reflect their hobbies, interests, or pop culture icons that they admire. They may also opt for inspirational images or messages as a reflection of their life journey. The reasons behind choosing to partake in body modification are thus vast and differ within regions of the world as well as on an individual basis in parts of the world that favor individualism and self expression. While tattoos may serve more of a functional purpose in tribal communities wishing to instill a sense of community and identification of the members of the tribe, industrial societies are more likely to view tattoos as a form of self-expression and self-identity.
While in many cultures, tattoos may be part of the social norm, they are not as commonplace in others and can even be frowned upon. Certain religions and cultures identify tattoos as a desecration of the body rather than a form of art or identification, whether that identification is cultural of self-inflicted. The vast differences in societal views, acceptance, and promotion of body art is thus a fascinating concept for cultural anthropologists to study in order to gain a greater understanding of specific groups of people, social systems, and cultural and religious ideologies.
Through this assignment, I have learned a great deal about the motives behind tattoos and how Western civilization views tattoos as a means to pay homage to loved ones, including pets, or as a form of self-expression, cultural identity, and even a way to inspire one self. Personally, I know many individuals who have tattoos and I am never surprised to learn that an acquaintance of mine has a tattoo. In Western civilization, tattoos, span across socioeconomic statuses, professions, genders, as well as demographics. I have met elderly individuals with tattoos just as I have met young adults who have tattoos.
This assignment has shed light on the acceptance of tattoos in Western civilization and just how commonplace tattoos have become that they are no longer viewed as only being prevalent among sub-cultures, alternative cultures, or even as a way to denote social class. Rather, they have become a personal choice across class systems and cultures following a variety of motives.