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When The Image Bled Onto The Body

Emi Jozuka

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The ancient practice of tattooing is a global phenomenon whose origins stretch back at least 30,000 years. Throughout the millennia, tattoos have inscribed mutable and multifaceted meanings onto the human body, their social interpretations inextricably linked to specific cultural contexts and geographical zones. In different parts of the world, the inking of the body has simultaneously been associated with mutilation and adornment, social status and social deviance, personal and collective identification, and signs of religion and punishment.

For the Polynesians—from whom the modern word ‘tattoo’ originates—the painstaking perforation of the skin with indelible markings signified an important rite of passage, an enhancement of the body and a validation of one’s position within a society. A ritual procedure, which incorporated the tattooed into a community of similarly inked members.

In Europe, however, reactions to the tattoo have remained more conservative. Viewed as a form of self-torture, the tattoo represented a way of distorting the Western notion of the ‘natural’ human body and desecrating its image through purposeful modification. The pivotal moment in the West’s understanding of tattoo culture came in the late 1700s, as information collated during Captain Cooke’s voyages in the South Pacific led to a dissemination of images and texts that spread knowledge of the practice in Europe. And as tattooing gained ground, the demand for sessions with amateur tattoo artists increased among sailors in European and American port cities in particular. Many of these early experimentations with tattooing in the West were themselves inspired by Polynesian and Japanese examples.

While tattoos were associated with honour, status and positive social identification in the Pacific, in the West they continued to be seen as the preferred bodily branding style of criminals and the lower classes. In recent decades, however, perceptions surrounding the practice have undergone a sea-change. What was once associated with the underdogs of society was gradually redefined within Western societies in the 80s and 90s. The adoption of the tattoo by a niche, alternative subculture raised its profile as a potent art form, and the melded image-body acted as a vehicle through which the tattooed community could assert their social deviance and challenge the plain-bodied status quo.

Such radical redefinitions of the tattoo—from its association with the shadier aspects of society to fashionable marker of transgression—have been followed by a more widespread social acceptance of the practice as it has become popularised within popular culture through flashy television programmes such as Best Ink and Miami Ink. Celebrities such as David Beckham and Miley Cyrus, who peacock their own brand of body art for the media circuits, have also inadvertently absorbed the tattoo into consumer culture by promoting its appeal among their fans.

Whether it be seen as a socially acceptable form of body art, a transgressive expression of deviance, or heinous bodily mutilation, the global patterns of tattoo culture continue to evolve as tribal and sailor designs alike are re-customized and given new meaning under the direction of each individual tattoo artist.

Emi Jozuka completed an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2014. She is now an independent researcher, writer, and videographer.