For many people, tattoos are marks of machismo – a form of expression for sailors, bikers and convicts with little significance outside of those subcultures. On the contrary, tattoos are often symbolic of rich cultural histories.
In many cases, tattoos are a way to place protective or therapeutic symbols permanently on the body. Polynesian cultures have developed elaborate geometric tattoos over thousands of years. After British explorer James Cook’s expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the marks became fashionable in Europe. As a result, European men in dangerous professions, in particular sailors and coal miners, have tattooed anchors or miner’s lamps on their forearms for protection since the late 18th Century. The tradition of tattooing a loved one’s name also developed during this time.
In other cultures, tattoos mark people as part of specific social, political or religious groups. In the Maori culture of New Zealand, the head is considered the most important part of the body. The face is embellished with elaborate tattoos, which serve as marks of high status. Each tattoo design is unique to the individual, as it conveys specific information about that person’s social status, ancestry and skills. Men are given tattoos at various stages in their lives, and the decorations are designed to enhance their features and make them more attractive to potential wives. Although Maori women are also tattooed on their faces, the markings are concentrated around the mouth. The Maori believe tattoos around the mouth and chin prevent the skin becoming wrinkled and keep them young.
Similarly, there are countless meanings behind traditional Native American tattoos, but most tattoos were a symbol of a warrior’s status within a tribe. It was also common for a tribe to give tattoos to those who had proficiency in using the symbol that was tattooed upon their body. For example, warriors often had tattoos of weaponry, while women were given tattoos of various labor tools. Although Europeans have had the names of loved ones tattooed onto their skin for centuries, Native Americans generally wore their own names.
Various groups throughout Africa employ tattoos as cultural symbols. Berber tribes in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya tattoo fine dots on the faces of women after they give birth to a male heir. Women also tattoo their faces, hands, and ankles with symbols marking their ethnic identity. In Egypt, members of the Christian Copts sect bear small crosses on their inner forearms. The elaborate facial tattoos of Wodaabe, nomadic herders and traders in western Africa, carry various meanings. Wodaabe women dot their temples, cheeks and lips with geometric tattoos to ward off evil spirits. Men and women use black henna as a temporary tattoo covering entire hands, forearm, feet and shin during weddings, baptism, and special holidays.
At times, tattoos are a form of artistic expression. Modern Japanese tattoos are considered fully realized works of art. The highly skilled tattooists of Samoa consider tattooing both a craft and a spiritual awakening. They create their art with the same tools as were used prior to the invention of modern tattooing equipment. This process is seen as a spiritual journey, a strongly psychological experience that will change their lives forever.
In North America, the cultural status of tattooing has steadily evolved over the past thirty years, from a rebellious, anti-social activity in the 1960s to a mainstream means of asserting one’s identity in the 1990s. Although tattooing is simply a trendy fashion statement for many, others choose tattooing as a way of honoring their cultural, ethnic or religious heritage. Often tattoos represent both fashion and cultural significance, as in the increasing popularity of Americanized geometric tribal tattoos.