Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tattoos: not just skin deep

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Tattoos not just skin deep

Just as a war hero is decorated with medals, others decorate themselves with tattoos. They both use their decorations to express different aspects of themselves. Often when people overcome an obstacle or show bravery they get a tattoo where a veteran has a medal to show off instead. Historically, tattoos have shown honor and rank. Tattoos can also express interests and personality. Tattoos are not, as many people think, merely contemporary fads designed for shock effect but rather they are adornments often of cultural significance going back into history.

Going back as far as tattoos do in history, let’s look at why they got tattooed. First off, rites of passage. The most obvious use of body modification in rites of passage is to mark the body with a permanent reminder of an important event or stage in the individual’s life. Because individuals see the decorations on their bodies every day, which commemorates important times in their lives, they will never forget it, and will also probably never forget how those times felt. Some people mark their bodies in a rite of passage because they feel they need to “move on to a higher plane of existence” (Gargulinski, ). Comparatively, in modern times By piercing and tattooing their bodies they show they are beginning to establish their own identities and they force their parents to see them as separate entities (Howard, 1). Arnold Van Gennep separates rites of passage into three phases rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of incorporation (Van Gennep, 11). He further divides initiation into a dual series of rites based on these three first there is a rite of separation from the usual environment, then the individual is incorporated into the sacred environment, next is the period of transition, the individual is then separated from the sacred environment, and incorporated into the usual environment, as a new person (Van Gennep, 8).

Tattoos have also shown social status; they have been used both to denote high rank and to brand society‘s outcasts (Tattoo, ). Tattoos told of the person’s position in life, his or her rank and parentage, their marriage status, what line of work they were in, and their ‘mana’ or power bestowed by the gods (Vale, 11). The markings may give information about group membership, rank and status. Body paintings may also indicate the particular social role one is playing at a given time and express social and religious values (Clerk, 57). As punishment the ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos to brand slaves and criminals (Govenar, 55). Tattoos were used in the 0th century to label inmates of Nazi concentration camps (Tattoo, ).

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They have also been used to show devotion and allegiance. A major devotion has been religiously. Many traditional cultures also used tattoos on the flesh as a sort of passport to the world after death, although interestingly, with all the emphasis on the next world in ancient Egyptian culture, there is no indication that this was the case their (Lloyd, ). The traditional reasons for tattooing included to connect with the Divine, as a tribute or act of sacrifice to a deity, or as a talisman to provide magical or medical protection (Lloyd, ). Other signs of devotion that are common in Japanese cultures are badges of initiation where they must complete a task and then they get a “badge” signifying the accomplishment. Modernly people will show devotion to their country, a loved one (whether as a tribute or in memory), or even a sports team.

There are also spiritual, somewhat cleansing and therapeutic, reasons to get tattoos. Women will get tattoos after divorces to prove that they are moving on and showing strength. When people survive life threatening things such as accidents or illness (whether themselves or loved ones) they may choose to get a tattoo to remember the pain and triumph of that time.

Tattoos, modernly, are used to prove things. The ways in which an individual chooses to decorate their body demonstrates who they are or who they wish to be within the boundaries of their society. People choose specific methods of decoration in order to provide their community with a way to judge their internal self externally (Wall). Withstanding the pain of tattooing and other body alterations is significant in American culture. Tiv women remark on the ability of scarification to indicate masculinity and the desire to withstand pain in order to be attractive.

Then there is the most obvious reason self-expression and decoration. Lately, people do it just to be trendy, they see a friend or a celebrity “icon” has it and they want it done. They even use tattoos as permanent make-up. Modern individuals may do it for all sorts of reasons, trivial or profound, but ancient and traditional societies possess serious and conscious reasoning (Tattoo). Tattoos can be used when people are seeking a ‘public identity’ or wish to rebel also.

Although public perception is changing, a visible body mark is still symbolic of rejection of mainstream culture and its ethic of appropriate image and control of the body. In contrast to religious creeds that dictate reverence for God’s finished work of the unmarred human body, body alteration glorifies the human body as unfinished, to be adorned and recreated. Only gradually is it becoming accepted as adornment and as a sign of self-proclaimed identity (Hewitt).

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