Tattoos and Their Cultural Relevance
For as long as there have been people, there have been methods of distinction amongst them. Throughout the years we have discovered ways in which to express our beliefs, our ideals, and our passions. Tattooing has been one of forefront methods in expressing our humanity, or in certain cases, our lack there of. For so many, they have taken on many different representations, each with an equal level of significance. The importance found in the symbolism of tattoos and their cultural relevance has consistently been a trend found throughout history, religion, and art.
The ancient practice of body art commonly known today as tattoo originates from the Tahitian word “tatau”, which means, to tap the mark into the body. Although the word wasn’t coined until 1769 when Captain James Cook landed in Tahiti, tattooing can be seen as far back as five thousand years ago. In 1991 scientists came across the frozen remains of a man they came to call Otzi. Otzi was found with a series of small lines marked upon his lower back, ankles, knees, and feet. The rubbing of powdered charcoal into several vertical wounds made his markings. After extensive testing of Otzi’s remains, scientists had found that he suffered from bone degeneration at the site of his markings. This led them to believe that his tattoos were used as a method for the treatment of pain, rather than for their aesthetic appeal. The uses tattooing held for the Japanese differed beyond ancient healing practices.
The Japanese have been practicing tattooing since the 5th century B.C., although its popularity didn’t really take off until the 17th century. Unlike Otzi, the Japanese tattooed for physical beautification, and to mark criminals. In 17th century Japan it was common practice that ornate kimonos were meant only for royalty and the wealthy, which caused the neglected lower class to rebel by adorning beautifully tattooed body suits. The defiant Japanese commoners covered themselves lavishly from their necks to their elbows, and above the knees. The Japanese government looked upon this disturbance of the poor as subversive, and outlawed tattoos in 1870. This is when the symbolism of tattoos in Japanese culture shifted. They had gone from a representation of splendor, to one associated with Japanese crime. As a result, tattooists were forced to retreat into the background of Japanese society. Luckily for them, the Japanese gangster class in Japan known as the Ikuza, embraced this subculture with open arms. The elaborately designed tattoos of the Ikuza depicted above, represented character traits the wearer desired to emulate. A lion represented courage, while a carp was worn to emulate strength and perseverance. Because the designs required long periods of pain, the act itself was looked upon as a show of allegiance to the wearer’s personal beliefs.
Tattooing was also popular amongst Maori men of New Zealand, who covered their buttocks, thighs, and faces....