Sociology Behind Tattoos

Sociology Behind Tattoos

Body modifications have existed in our society for centuries and the way in which it is perceived has changed somewhat over the years. But certain stigmas still persists to this contemporary day. One such body modification is the act of inking or marking the skin: Tattooing. 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 diverse groups of people. But are the popular perceptions of tattoos out of synch with the true meaning behind them?

This essay will explore the social and cultural practices f tattooing and the causal connection between the mind and the tattooed body. It will also explore why tattoos engender uneasiness and curiosity, and constitutes a challenge to normative discourses and discursive practices. In order to understand the stigma behind tattoos, One must first look into the past and understand the history of the body modification. The Journey from Stigma to Commodity The word ‘tattoo’ first emerged after James Cook’s voyage to Polynesia in the 18th century (Fisher, 2002).

However, it seems that the art of inking or marking ones body dated way back to the Greeks. In fact, the Greek word digamma actually indicated the act of pricking one’s skin with ink (Kaplan, 2000). Making sense out of the contemporary linking of tattoos to stigma in our society. The word stigmata was used by the Greeks for marking ‘Others’, such as felons and slaves. The association of the word to social others was later spread to the Romans and they treated the act of marking as a state control mechanism (Kaplan, 2000).

This touches on Michel Faculty’s framework 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 old 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” (Faculty, 1979, 25-26).

These involuntary body markings have been the Roman’s way of exerting control over the bodies of criminals and slaves (Kaplan, 2000). Their marked bodies would then serve as an agent of the state, communicating their social role ND as a reminder of the state’s power over the bodies of the public (Kaplan, 2000). Criminals would have the name of their crime or the name of the emperor etched into their skins, while slaves would have either their master’s name or the title slave on theirs. These marked others would forever be imprisoned.

For their bodies would always act as the second prison, constituting and problematic their embodied place in the world, and their relations with others. The tattooing Of criminals continued through the Middle Ages and spread across Europe, making the social practice of marking bodies honeymoon with criminality, deviance and social outcasts. The practice of marking bodies was later used during the colonization projects in Africa and Asia. Like the branding of criminals, it was used as a means to exert ownership and power over the bodies of the locals (Fisher, 2002).

With such a dark history, how then did the act of tattooing become voluntary and commoditized? The trend of voluntary tattooing was first observed in the late 17005. Sailors at that time returned home sporting tattoos from overseas to commemorate their voyages (Fisher, 2002). However, this act of voluntary tattooing was more prominently documented in the American Civil War, where soldiers progressively began tattooing their allegiances and military symbols on their bodies (Kaplan, 2000).

The act of tattooing their allegiances was a way for the soldiers to pledge their bodies to their cause and a means of differentiating friend from foe. For aside from the color of their uniforms, how else would they be able to differentiate a Union soldier from a Confederate? Gradually the acceptance of tattoos seeped into the Western society, which led to the tattoo fad in England and USA in the late asses (Kaplan, 2000). Despite the historical stigma, the fashionable society started adorning tattoos as a social expression.

What started as a fad for the working classes, soon spread to the upper classes. Interestingly, the trend did not unify people of different classes. The upper class discriminated the tattooed lower class and saw their tattoos as a sign of deviance. On the most basic level, tattoos acted as a badge of social and cultural differentiation that separated the tattooed from the non-tattooed. On a deeper level, however, social and cultural homogeneity did not unite the tattooed, for the subject tater and aesthetic style of the tattoos created a fault-line that divided the classes. Kaplan, 2000, 148) One reason for the social divide is the reason behind their tattoos. The upper class got tattoos to impress, while the working class got tattoos to express. Over the next few decades, the social practice obtaining sustained itself. But the art still raises eyebrows till this day and the tattooed remain relatively marginality by the larger society. Motivations Behind Tattoos in the Contemporary Era There are multiple reasons for individuals to tattoo their bodies and the seasons are usually individualistic and subjective.

The experience of being tattooed is intricately bound up with one’s character, location, social positioning in relation to the social mechanisms and practices of power and knowledge that constitutes identity and difference (Sullivan, 2001 , 57). The influence from these social mechanism and practices range from violent constraints to less coercive means such as education and beautification. Though subjective, the preponderance of getting a tattoo can be categorized into four main overlapping reasons.

All Of which, sees the art Of inscribing the less as a form of nonverbal communication (Sullivan, 2001 , 21 The first reason for tattoos is to serve as a ritual, physically marking the life event on the body. With the contemporary era having rituals and rites of passage mainly within the context of religion, the tattoo serves as a mark that they have experienced something real about their relationship with the world. In the case of youths, some get tattoos to symbolism control and authority over their own lives (Gang, Jones, 2007). A form of rite of passage to adulthood.

Women have been known to use tattoos to reclaim control of their bodies room a traumatic experience, such as disease or abuse. The physical image of a tattoo is believed to be essential in the recovery of women healing from abuse or trauma (Gang, Jones, 2007). Some of these women utilities the tattoo as a form of aesthetic to cover up scars sustained from fighting diseases. The second reason behind tattoos is identification. The forming of an identity is an important social aspect to both young and old and for some tattoos can be a symbolic part of this identity.

One form of identity is that of association. The tattoo allows the bearer to feel a part of a given group and in some sense a arm of a class marker (Sullivan, 2001 Groups can range from as broad as their country to something more specific like a family or partner. Though some believe that tattoos can provide some aspect of security and belonging in this ever changing world, these believes in relation to a tattoo’s permanence falls short during personal transitions and shifting social norms. Eke how partners who get couple tattoos fall out or the sudden exclusion from a social group.

Another way of identification is portrayed in the form of resistance to social oppression. Some individuals get tattoos as a rebellion to authority and social norms. Many women regard tattoos as a physical way of challenging the traditional gender norms and a permanent demonstration of commitment to alternative gender definitions (Gang, Jones, 2007). On the other hand, men use tattoos to reinforce their masculinity. With the adoption of strong images, like skulls and guns, placed at parts of their body associated with strength, such as their arms. The third reason is magic-religious beliefs (Sullivan, 2001, 15).

Tattoos can be seen as a symbol or talisman that protects its bearer from general or specific harm. These aspects of tattoos are seen as reconnection of the body to nature. Traditional Buddhist scripture, Maori symbols and Celtic runes inscribed on the skin to induce ‘magical’ protection are examples of such practices (Edgerton, Damaging, 1963). Some of those who deeply believe in magical properties of tattoos become neo-primitives. These individuals relate to traditional tribal tattooing and define their movement as a demonstration against the modern society.

Due to their beliefs in reconnecting the body to nature, neo-primitive bodies are usually heavily tattooed. They regard the process of tattooing as a spiritual experience and often regard tattoos as a way to separate themselves from the homogeneity and clockwork society (Gang, Jones, 2007). As mentioned before, the various reasons behind tattoos overlap and this can also be seen as a form of identification. The last reason for one to get tattoos is that of ornamentation. Disregarding any psychosocial function of a tattoo to an individual, tattoos are simply permanent images.

This decorative function of tattoos can be associated with exhibitionism. Thus the modern practice of tattooing can be seen as a product of the ‘surface-oriented’ society (Bell, 1997, 57). In this ‘surface-oriented’ society, the surface is a characteristic of a fast flow of time and everything has to be communicated fast. Tattoos in this case individuate the surface so that it can be defined on first impressions. There is no other form of individuation that is as permanent as a tattoo, which could be one reason why the larger society abhors tattoos.

Understanding the Stigma and Social Effects of Tattoos In our contemporary era where tattoos are increasingly accepted, one has to question why tattoos still cause alarm to others. As mentioned before, one contributing factor is the fear of permanence. In an era where the media and society enforces the need for us to commit to the never-ending notion of the ‘project body’ (Banyan, 1995), the flexibility to change one’s body is greatly valued and permanence is utterly terrifying. The fact that one cannot simply undo a tattoo strikes the larger society as defying the social norm of constant change.

This fear of commitment is perhaps a product of the late capitalist economies. Through the form of new technologies and fashion trends, the notion of ‘change’ has always been commoditized and marketed to the society as new ways of ‘reinventing’ life (Fisher, 2002). The historical association of tattoos to deviance also contributes to the stigma enshrouding tattoos. Tattoos are perceived as a symbol of the ‘postmodern primitive’ causing bearers to be collectively seen as unusual and tribal.

This group identity may not favor tattoo bearers in this culture of body fixation, where boundaries are drawn to include or exclude based on the material body. Like other forms of body modifications, tattoos are perceived as socially diseased bodies (Fisher, 2002). The stigma coupled with the motivations behind tattoos creates contradictions about the tattooed body. Tattoos are seen as a social practice of reclaiming the body within the conditions of repression and strict control due to the complex power of the state over the body.

However, instead of serving as a resistance to the state control, tattoos reinforce the social norms they sought to challenge. Some individuals see their tattoos as marks of individuality and rebellion but their intentions are culturally written over by the society. These motivations behind tattoos eventually bend under the powers of the state forcing people with tattoos to cover up or face social rejection. Much like how some women use tattoos as a means of breaking free from traditional gender norms and yet most women end up using their tattoos to enforce traditional femininity.

Most women’s tattoos, which are usually images associated with femininity like flowers and hearts, are placed in easily hidden areas such as the hip, shoulder or lower back to conform to the societal image Of femininity (Gang, Jones, 2007). It is hard for any to challenge societal and cultural norms that have been firmly established over centuries. Conclusion Since the inception of tattoos, the social interpretation of tattoos have adapted considerably. From a mark of criminality to an embraced art form, the body modification has represented various expressions of the bearers inner self.

However, despite the efforts to normalize tattoos in the society, the social stigma of deviance perceived by the larger society still remains deeply etched in the art. It is apparent that the intended message a bearer wants to communicate through a tattoo may not be perceived correctly by others. These motivations behind tattoos are filtered through cultural and historical lenses that often result in unintended perceptions of tattooed bodies. In edition, the attempts of using tattoos to change social conditions often reinforce the very conditions they seek to counter.

Though these stigmas and misinterpretations see no sign of fading, tattooing will remain as a powerful vehicle of self-expression and social commentary.

Please follow and like us:
Haven’t found the essay you want?