Tattoos: a Cultural Statement


Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking -- Chris Rainier


I’ve never really understood tattoos.  Where I grew up in New Jersey, I seldom saw a person with tattoos.  When I did, it was usually on a young guy who just came back for a tour of duty in the Army or Navy.  It looked painful to me.  And then, I wondered what you do with a girlfriend’s name after you get a new girlfriend!  So it was easy for me to take solace in the only biblical passage that addresses tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 — “You must not . . . incise a tattoo on yourself.”  But I’ve remained curious about what motivates people to make such permanent marks on their bodies.  The latest issue of Smithsonian (October 2010) is helping me understand this a little more.  It features an article on the photography of Chris Rainier, a protege of Andel Adams. (Don’t miss the video clip in this link.)

It’s about a statement of identity.  In the article he explains that they are saying “This is who I am, and what I have done.”  For the Dyak people of Borneo, “when we have lost our tattoos, we have lost our culture.”   So the motivation seems to be deeply rooted in personal identification with a particular culture.  I see this coming from a need to belong.  With regard to the present-day application of tattoos in America, Rainier believes that these individuals “want to carve out an identity in a chaotic postindustrial age by inscribing shoulders and shins with symbols of love, death and belonging.”

All this encourages me to understand more about the person rather than judging them or simply cringing because it all seems so painful.  When I interview parolees fresh out of prison who have so marked their bodies, I ask, “Tell me about your favorite one and what’s the story behind it.”  Thanks, Chris Rainier and Smithsonian, for lifting the veil for me.

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