“There is a tremendous gap of experience in our society that used to be filled with initiation rites, rites of passage and other markers of life changing events. While some communities support such events, many people are left with no apparent means to fulfill this need if they should find themselves wanting passage. For many, tattoos are a permanent reminder to me of the images individuals hold sacred, such as they are, and of the person they used to be and the person that they aspire to be.” *
The resurgence of tattoos in popular culture is a fast growing phenomenon that’s more than just a fad. Tattoos seem to be fulfilling a need in individuals for a right of passage, to visibly show their identity, their beliefs, and to hold their memories and we at MSP were intrigued by the high number of searches online for tattoos; so we decided to go on a journey to uncover the history of tattoos and the myriad designs found all over the world.
The widely popular tribal tattoo style of today can be traced back to the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. Even the word tattoo is said to have derived from that area. Polynesians used the word “tatao” meaning “to tap”. Tahitians used the word “tatu”, which means to mark something.
There are two different types of Polynesian tattoos. The first is Enata. Enata designs are natural designs that come to symbolize a person’s life history, island of origin, social level, type of work done, etc. For example, if you were a fisherman, you might have a symbol that is there to protect you from dangerous sharks, or to protect your fishing vessel.
The other type of Polynesian tattoo is the Etua. This form has a much stronger spiritual, magical or religious meaning to it and might show particular honor to one or more people in a tribe, or offer protection from (as in, by) the gods.
However, the more popular Polynesian tattoos of today carry a slightly less weighty meaning. The most popular and appreciated designs are the tiki, the turtle, the gecko, the ray, the shark, the dolphin, as well as a lot of abstract symbolic designs. In order to receive these tattoos, it isn’t necessary to go through any rites of passage, or to sit before the special tattoo shaman to be marked. All you need to have is access to a tattoo artist, a design you like, and the money to pay for it to be done.
Despite that fact, following an ancient tradition, many of the Polynesian tattoo designs which are so popular today earned that esteem because of what they traditionally stand for or symbolize:
Tiki: Tiki is a god, most often depicted with his eyes closed. His eyes are closed because Tiki is reported to smell trouble before he sees it.
Shells: Shells represent wealth to the Polynesian cultures, most likely because they were used as a type of currency.
Shark’s teeth: Tattoos of shark’s teeth denote protection.
Sharks: Sharks were sacred animals. Powerful and mighty, Polynesian shark tattoos were often used as a protection from enemies.
Turtles: Turtles symbolized fertility and long life.
Gecko: The gecko is supposed to have supernatural powers, and is regarded by Polynesians with fear and awe. It is rumored that if a green gecko laughs at you, it’s a terrible omen of illness and bad fortune.
With their bold black ink, whimsical abstract geometrical shapes and deep-seated history and legends, the tribal style Polynesian tattoo has fans all across the globe and despite the fact that missionaries and other foreigners tried to abolish this rich cultural tradition, it has managed to experience a new rebirth and popularity and the tattoo has once again found itself back at home in the Polynesian islands, and again are being administered by the local tattoo shamans and artists who picture taking back their traditional role and meaning in this rich, magical, tranquil paradise.
JAPANESE (IREZUMI & YAKUZA) TATTOOS
Irezumi (入れ墨, 入墨, 紋身, 刺花, 剳青, 黥) is a Japanese word that refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent, usually decorative mark; a form of tattooing. The word can be written in several ways, each with slightly different connotations. The most common way of writing irezumi literally means to “insert ink”, and to “decorate the body and also to “pierce”, “stab”, or “prick” by hand.
Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jōmon or paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BC). Some scholars have suggested that the distinctive cord-marked patterns observed on the faces and bodies of figures dated to that period represent tattoos, but this claim is by no means unanimous.
In the following Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol.
Starting in the Kofun period (300–600 AD) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottoes such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master”).
At the beginning of the Meiji period the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.
Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the yakuza, Japan’s notorious mafia, and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
Tattoos are losing their taboo status and ‘inking’ and other forms of body decoration and body modification, are gaining in popularity in Japan. Japanese young people who choose to get tattooed are most often choosing “one point” designs—small designs that can be completed in one sitting. More recently, however sanskrit Siddham script tattoos are becoming more and more fashionable.
Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take one to five years of weekly visits to complete and cost in excess of US$30,000.
AFRICAN TRIBAL TATTOOS
African tribal tattoo art is among the most unique forms of indigenous tattoo art. While most types of tattooing techniques and designs ultimately originated with the principles of opening the skin and rubbing in some sort of pigment that would remain under the skin after the wound had healed, African tribal tattoo art is actually a texturing process rather than simply a dying or pigmentation process. The tattoo design is cut into the flesh with a knife or other sharp object and because of the dark pigmentation of most African people, simply pigmenting or dying the cuts is not sufficient to create a clear, distinct tattoo design. To resolve this issue, the cuts are packed with dust, ashes or colored soil to create a raised design. The resulting ‘raised’ scar is the tattoo. Of course, this practice is by nature excruciatingly painful, but it will clearly indicate whether the recipient; a warrior going into battle, or a girl becoming a woman or a boy becoming a man, is able to withstand the difficulties of survival.
These tattoos, which often indicate age, affiliation and rank, are highly prized because they are not only symbolic of a major accomplishment in determination and hardiness, but they also are ruggedly beautiful and work in with the lines of the body to create an beautiful and mysterious element of danger. They point out certain characteristics about the owner of the tattoo, and they are highly indicative of ‘closeness’ to one’s heritage. The adrinka designs of West Africa, which are geometric symbols, include the adinkrahene, which indicates greatness of character and charisma, and the akoma, which means literally “the heart” and indicates patience and tolerance. Mask tattoo designs are also extremely popular and are a great way to show appreciation for art, culture and heritage all at once.
Other African tribal symbols in tattoo-ing also indicate particular milestones or accomplishments, and having one of these symbols literally engraved on the body is a visual representation of your worth and that of your tribal family. In more modern areas of the world, African tribal tattoo art is popular as a way to remain in touch with one’s roots and to celebrate one’s history.
BALI-NESE TRADITIONAL TATTOOING
No visitor to Bali can possibly fail to notice the sea of inked skin. It’s difficult to know whether this is simply because there is so much skin on view in the first place among both the Balinese and tourist communities or because of something in the air or water – or some other beverage – that makes people want to get tattooed here. Certainly it is increasingly common to see vacationers at the airport sporting vivid patches of inflamed flesh around a freshly punctured illustration of a dolphin, bird, barong mask, or abstract curlicue as they stand in the lineup to board their homeward flights.
Despite that, apart from Bali’s current prime position at the crossroads of global popular and counter-cultures, tattooing is not usually associated with the island in the same way it is with other parts of Indonesia – with the Mentawai Islands, for example, or among the Dayak nations of Kalimantan where characteristic designs have for centuries been used to symbolise group identity and status or mark particular milestones and achievements. But there was and remains a tradition of tattooing in Bali, the designs and meanings of which stand apart from more recent trends.
There is no record to suggest that Bali’s traditional practitioners developed the art to the level attained by the Buddhist sak yant tattooists of Thailand and Cambodia whose arcane combinations of images, magical diagrams and Sanskrit texts still find devotees amongst priests, business people and muay thai boxers alike. But Balinese tattoos that predate the current era did apparently share some features in common, especially the belief that tattoos function as amulets to protect or bestow luck, courage, strength, or sexual prowess to the bearer. While methods have changed, and the use of modern tattooing equipment has enabled a greater range of expression, the same sources of imagery and designs are still used today and are considered by many to have the same magical efficacy, with their bearers, through a self-conducted ceremony or the utterance of a mantra, able to bring them to life and release their power, and, in a sense, to become possessed by them.
Thinking of getting a tatt or extending that half sleeve into a full? Do it. Tattoo-ing is beyond just looking cool, it’s a statement of one’s individuality and life philosophy. No longer seen as a taboo, it’s now embraced as a rite of passage and as a way to keep your memories literally alive.
However here’s the MSP Word of Caution:
1. Don’t get addicted to the needle!!
2. Don’t over do it!! Full body tattooing makes you look a freak and detracts from the individual art on your skin!