Tattooing Rituals

The explorer William Dampher brought the tattoo to the contemporary west when he brought the heavily tattooed Polynesian Prince Giolo to London in 1691 and put him on exhibition. He became the rage of London. The British public welcomed the novelty. Europe had not seen tattoos in 600 years. It would be another 100 years before tattoos would make their mark on the West.

The slow spread of tattoos in the West was due to their slow, painstaking procedure of application. Puncture of the skin by hand and subcutaneous injection of ink was unappealing. Tattooing was viewed so poorly that it went underground; becoming a secret society few were accepted into. This ritualistic approach to tattooing is prevalent throughout of its history.

It is believed that the tattoo originated in Ancient Egypt. Archaeologists at Ashmolean Museum in Oxford claim tattoos were first applied to female clay figurines and their human counterparts as early as 4000 BC. Such neo-pagan practices so eerily reminiscent of voodoo that pre-date Christ by nearly four millennia clarify why so many find tattoos mysterious and disturbing.

The migrant Ainu people of Japan adopted tattooing early and considered the tattoo divine. Modern Japanese dismissed such notions of the tattoo and viewed it ornament. Japanese tattooists called the Horis refined tattooing to an art form. Their use of color, sheer intricacy of designs, and use of contrast made their tattoo marks appear almost three-dimensional. Even as art-historians appreciated tattoos as an aesthetic, the human suffering required to endure tattooing mystified many.

Sir Joseph Banks was the first European on record who speculated why. During his 1769 visit to Tahiti, Banks wrote: “What can be a sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it; possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.”

Superstition may well be the reason so many early tattoo wearers endured the pain of tattooing but such notions are scorned or chided by their wearers today. Tattoos seem to be a fundamental area of common ground across cultures. From Africa to Europe, to North America and its thousands of native tribes, the acceptance of tattoo pain and permanence appear integral to very societal structure.

The pantheistic and animistic connotations of tattoos cannot be overlooked. The belief the tattoo wearer calls upon the spirit of his marked image – the dragon, eagle or flower – implies a return to a nature of the human form. Regardless of the reasoning behind them, tattoos are a practice in symbolism as much as art and their ritualistic nature cannot be understated or ignored.

Some civilizations use tattoos for demarcation of degree of crime, others tattoo young girls as rite of passage to womanhood. Tribal Samoan women are married based on the tattoos they wear. Dayak warriors’ tattoos symbolize how many lives they have taken in battle. Such tattoos assure their wearers status for life.
The rewards of such tattoos in tribal life seem to justify the physical pain required to endure their application. Today’s global village makes tattoos and the rites of passage their represent seem out of date.

Teenagers war with each other to fit in with the right crowd, and have the right clothes. Twenty-somethings fight each other harder for the entry-level job that’s
going to take them to the top, or to get into graduate school. Established businessmen will stop at nothing to preserve their balances. Humans seem to love status and will submit to whatever rituals assure them of it.

Popular Tattoo Styles

The most popular tattoo styles are tribal, flowers, stars, crosses, butterflies, fairies, eternity symbols and dragons.

True tribal tattooing has a long history. These tattoos traditionally consisted of black ink and intricate lines heavy with symbolic meaning. Often, young men were tattooed to mark the passage from boyhood into adulthood, while women were tattooed to signify that they were ready to be married. Today, the techniques and significance of tribal tattoos are very different today. Most favor tribal tattoos because of their striking appearance.

Flower tattoos can be far more than just pretty, benign pictures. Flowers can also embody of nature, maturity, birth, life and rebirth. Specific flowers have come to represent varied cultures and beliefs. In Asia, the lotus flower has tremendous spiritual significance. The lotus figures prominently in the Creation Myths of Indian and China, and Buddha is said to have risen at the center of a Lotus Blossom.

In the West, the rose is a symbol of pure love popular with both men and women. A tattoo of a rose with prominent thorns is a reminder that love is not without risk. The rounded, cup-like shape of the flower has been long been seen as a symbol of the feminine. Flowers are also ideal for those hoping for a large variety of color choices.

The star is often considered a symbol of hope, but their nocturnal connotation can also represent the dark or the unknown. Stars can signify countless things depending on the number, color and orientation of the points. The most well known star designs are the Pentagram (five-pointed star), the Nautical Star (five-pointed star), the Hexagram or Star of David (six-pointed star) and the nonagram (nine-pointed star).

Crosses are also a very popular tattoo design. They can range of styles from angular, tribal inspired designs to curving Celtic crosses. Crosses frequently combine other popular tattoo subjects such as flowers and tribal elements. Cross tattoos are worn all over the body, from armbands to lower back pieces to ankles. A symbol with religious implications, crosses can represent faith, belief or the death of a loved one.

Many people are attracted to the colorful symmetry of butterfly tattoos, but they can have deep significance to the wearer as well. Often, butterflies signify metamorphosis, freedom, rebirth or dreams. The latter symbolism derives from the Native American belief that butterflies bring dreams while we sleep.

Angels and fairies are similarly anthropomorphic winged creatures, but they usually convey very different ideas. Angels personify divine will and are symbols of devotion, guidance and protection. Angels and crosses are often used together in memorial tattoos, as angels commonly refer to the souls of the departed.

The Fairy as a tattoo design can be a pop culture reference or a nod to ancient mythology. Fairies are inspirational, because a fairy must earn its wings. They are also transformational, because their wings allow freedom. As a tattoo design, they suggest of freedom, innocence or magic.

Historically and culturally, the infinity symbol is similar to mythological creatures such as Ouroboros, the snake that consumes its tail to form an endless circle. Circles and loops are reminiscent of the idea of life being conceived as an eternal, seasonal cycle that repeats continuously. Eternity symbols can also signify a myriad of religious beliefs, from those that embrace eternal heavenly existence to the idea of endless reincarnation.

Dragon tattoos come in two main forms: the Eastern dragon and the Western dragon. The Eastern dragon is a protective ally. It brings water, signals fertility and ensures prosperity. The Western dragon is an evil creature, a winged, fire-breathing lizard that thwarts brave warriors and threatens distressed damsels.

Cover-up Work

The thing about tattooing at makes people nervous about getting their first tattoo is its permanence. When they seek support or advice from friends and family, the first thing they hear is “Are you sure you want to do that? You can’t just take it off if you don’t like it.” But despite all the warnings and despite all they know about tattoos, they will still get their girlfriend’s name prominently inked into some painfully obvious place on their body. It happens all the time.

Getting someone’s name tattooed on your body is just an example, but it’s one of the most common regrets people have about their tattoos. Fortunately, there are some options. The tattoo can be removed via one of a number of drastic, expensive and painful procedures after which, instead of having an unwanted tattoo people ask you about all the time, you will have a scar people ask you about all the time. In fact, with some methods the scar looks eerily similar to the tattoo. Maybe you have a tattoo you are still in love with, it’s just old, and faded into a mere shadow if its former glory.

Often it’s not having a tattoo people change their minds about, it’s the design or a particular aspect of it. Your best bet is to sheepishly trot yourself back into the tattoo parlor and talk to someone about doing a cover-up job. Chances are great
that you’ll come away from the experience with a design that your happier with and probably wouldn’t have come up with under normal circumstances.

The best candidate for this kind of work is a well healed, but fairly new tattoo that’s small and lightly colored. Of course, that’s just the ideal, and if you had an ideal tat, you wouldn’t be seeking a cover-up job in the first place. Don’t worry if you don’t fall into that category. There are some extremely talented artists out there. The Internet is full of before and after transformations on former darkly colored armbands that are truly amazing.

In every trade, some are decent at what that do, some are great and some are just terrible. Tattooing is no exception. You need to do some pretty intense shopping around before climbing into anyone’s chair. It’s also important to remember not every great tattooist is good at cover-up work. Ask a lot of questions and look at a lot of before and after shots before you make up your mind.

The laziest way of covering up a name for example, is blacking in out with a black box. No kidding, people actually do that. You’re other (and far more tasteful)l choices are incorporating the current design into a different one or covering it up completely with a bigger new one.

If your tat is faded and it’s a touch up you seek, modern technology is most definitely on your side. Ink is ever evolving, and now they are bolder, brighter and better than ever. Chances are you can leave the shop with a tattoo that is sharper, clearer, better looking than it was to begin with.

Complete cover up work can produce some pretty amazing results, but you have to be prepared to have a larger tattoo than you had to begin with. Once you’re confident you’ve found a really awesome artist, the project is likely to turn out best if you allow him as much artistic freedom as you can stand. Cover-ups can be quite difficult, and he knows better than you how to deal with the situation, After all, he is cleaning up your mess.

Religious Objections to Tattooing

Tattoos offend the religious of a variety of familiar denominations. The most dramatic example is found among Jewish believers, who deny a traditional Jewish burial to persons with tattoos, or even bodily piercing. Some Christian churches impose restrictions on bodily “modifications”. While 21st century enlightened individuals might take surprise or offence at religious objection to tattooing or body piercing, basis may be found in an Old Testament passage.

“Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). By this passage, lacerations and tattoos so described were part of non-Jewish mourning rituals, intended to disguise the living from the spirits of the dead. This curious mixture of neo-paganism with orthodox faith is as fascinating to some as disturbing to others. While cultural anthropologists and the religious may wage holy war over the subtext for a tattoo, religious motives seem to weigh very little on choices by those who adorn themselves with ink beneath the skin or piercing it with rings. Some might argue that they should.

Vatican II Council’s declaration that human beings are called upon to view their bodies “As good and honorable since God created it and will raise it up on the last day” (Gaudium et Spes, #14) lends credence to opinions that some tattoo motifs seek to offend the more religious minded. At least, both secular and religious will agree that most tattoo designs seem less than “good and honorable” and so might seem “inappropriate” decoration for a body created by the divine.

The very consideration of religious objection tattoos raises powerful questions of us as a society, and equally interestingly, the degree to which tattoo wearers and objectors view what precisely makes them “human”.

If we judge body modification to be appropriate, do we need to acknowledge the reasons why others may not share our views?
Whether we like it or not our decisions affect our futures. Potential employers look at people differently because of holes in their noses and tattoos on their calves. Forget life-careers for a moment. How we look affects our ability to get a part-time job nowadays. And, if we have a job, it might be wise to check to our employer’s unspoken policy on tattoos and body piercing. While “prejudice” is unfair – it is often inevitable. Is it consistent with the values espoused by any civilized religion? Moral arguments won’t pay your bills. Staring at our navels won’t pay for dinner any more than piercing it will. Choosing between right to self-expression and self-sustenance might seem unfair but it may well be a reality.

My friend Lucian got his ear pierced for his 21st birthday. Friends gently ribbed him and his parents accepted it. Yet the law firm he interned at did not. His employer informed him he’d have to remove it during working hours. Since he’d just had the piercing he couldn’t take the earring out immediately or the hole
would close. He was faced with walking around with a band-aid on his ear for a month and a chip on his shoulder for a lot longer.

Some argue tattoos have religious significance and artistic merit. Do they deserve standalone appreciation rather than criticism?
No reasonable person openly says that tattoos or body piercing are “bad” or that people who have them avoided. Our love of art or religious significance is valid reason for self-expression. It remains up to the individual to weigh the risks and issues they enjoin. Some gangs choose tattoos with a religious theme and such a tattoo may be misinterpreted. As with all forms of expression, tattoos are no different – they are open to interpretation.

Perhaps the tried but true forms remain most valid. After all, you could always demonstrate your faith by wearing a medal or a cross.