Body modifications, with the focus of tattoos, have existed in our society for centuries and the way in which it is perceived has changed somewhat over the years, yet certain dishonors still remain our modern day. Like most body modifications, tattoos are an often misunderstood form of body modification. Despite the stigmas, tattoos have become a unique object of desire to endless diverse groups of people. But are the popular assumptions of tattoos out of sync with the true meaning behind them? Further explanation and exploration of the history will reveal the social and cultural practices of tattooing and the causal connection between the mind and the tattooed body, in addition to providing answers as to why tattoos stimulate uneasiness and curiosity and create a challenge to discursive practices.
The term ‘tattoo’ was dubbed after James Cook’s journey to Polynesia in the 18th century (Fisher, 2002). However, it is known that the art of inking or marking one’s body dates all the way back to the Greeks. In fact, the Greek word ‘stigmata’ actually indicated the act of pricking one’s skin with ink (Caplan, 2000). Making connection to the contemporary idea of tattoos in our society, the word ‘stigmata’ was used in terms of the marking of ‘others’, such as felons and slaves. The association of the meaning behind stigmata was later spread to the Romans, who treated this act of marking as a state control mechanism (Caplan, 2000). This also touches on Michel Foucault’s outline on social control in his book Discipline and Punish:
“But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination” (Foucault, 1979, 25-26).
These body markings have been the Roman’s way of applying control over criminals and slaves (Caplan, 2000). Their marked bodies would then serve as an agent of the state, expressing their social role and plays as a reminder of the state’s power over the public (Caplan, 2000). Criminals would have their crime or the name of their ruler permanently engraved into their skin, while slaves would have either their master’s name or the title ‘slave’ etched into their skin. These markings would serve as permanent imprisonment, for their bodies would always act as their second prison, establishing their place in the world and their future relations with others.
The tattooing of criminals sustained through the Middle Ages and spread across Europe, making the social practice of marking bodies go hand-in-hand with delinquency, deviance and social outcasts. The practice of marking bodies was later used during the colonization projects in Africa and Asia, and like the...