Monday, March 6, 2017

The Tattoo Taboo

"He's covered in tattoos" she snorted triumphantly, when describing the new partner of a mutual friend. The statement emphasized with a shaking of the head and much eye-rolling, how obviously inappropriate this person was. I wondered how it answered my initial question of her meeting this new person in our mutual friends life - "what's he like?"
 Oh so now I get it - one should be able to make assumptions as to who he is, based on his many tattoos. Ok. Problem solved.
This conversation took place several years ago and it has bugged me ever since. Why is it that a tattoo taboo  exists? The more I looked, the more tattoos I could see. People of all ages and no longer just sailors or military folk, have tattoos.
A friend of mine in USA was talking to me on my recent trip there, about tattoos. He was telling me about how repugnant they were and that people who are tattooed have no self-respect; that they are defacing the human body. Little did he know that under my clothing, I had my own inked skin. I listened as his friends all chimed in about how gang members and prostitutes had tattoos; women certainly should never have them, and generally how ugly they were. 
Sure - I have seen some ugly tattoos, but I think one needs to pause and reflect first before judging, as to the meaning a tattoo might hold for that person; what it signifies; the history behind why it is marking someone's skin, forever. 
Historically, tattoos have been a significant part of many cultures, not just indigenous, but European cultures also.  The tattoo has signified many varying aspects of human life - from tribal rank, to fertility, to being a prisoner, a warrior, a sailor, a samurai ... the tattoo is a living art form, blending colour and creativity into the curves and contours of the human canvas. 
The tattoo is a symbol of empowerment (and yes, I know it has also been used as a mode of oppression); but largely a person makes a decision to permanently ink his or her skin, as an expression of individuality (again, I know tattoos have also been used as a way to identify members of the same group/gang/cult/prison).
Ultimately the experience of being tattooed can be incredibly emancipating - almost rebellious - and will almost certainly remain a talking point.

 

In 2015 I went to Nepal after the last round of earthquakes. While I was there I obtained two more tattoos. I went into the most modern state-of-the-art tattoo studio I had ever seen (Mohans Tattoo Inn - I highly recommend it).  This is in Thamel, Kathmandu; dirty, dusty, teeming with millions - Kathmandu. The Nepali take their tattooing very seriously and are amongst the worlds best.  Traditional Nepali artworks adorn many Nepali torso and women also - adding permanence to the henna tattoos that most women have. 

 
I was encouraged by the normalisation of tattoos in Nepal and it struck me about how culturally significant it was, once again causing me to consider why such a strong tattoo taboo exists in European culture.
The old adage that if someone has tattoos they must be untrustworthy, bad, a criminal or somehow less valuable than an un-inked person, is still difficult to dissolve. The tattoo taboo remains and possibly always will.
I came across this YouTube clip recently about the history of tattoos  Check it out (5 minutes long). It is an enlightening look at where the tattoo has come from and perhaps how society could reframe their view of this art form and the people they adorn.



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