I remember well when I received my first tattoo at the age of 16. It was the symbol of the world ethos, which represented (and still does) to me an ongoing search of universal values that connects humans across cultures and geographies. The process of choosing the particular design, arranging an appointment and then receiving the tattoo underneath my skin had a deeply spiritual meaning to me.
It then happened that I fell in love with a [tattoo] artist in Kigali, who is now working in Munich and practicing this intimate art on a daily basis. He has come a long way from a selt-taught mobile tattoo artist who started off using conventional needles and threads to standardized German tattoo machines and regulations. At the intersection of tattoo profession, peace work and transcultural language, this contribution reflects some of my thoughts about tattooing as a spiritual practice of peace.
In Germany (and i dare to assume this applies to the majority of Western countries), tattooes have gained popularity over the past decades. Now, almost 30 % of the population are tattooed and it is largely accepted as individual freedom to mark one’s body.
Certainly, the nature of ‘Western’ tattoo popularity might need a critical reflection of commercialization and – most importantly – of cultural appropriation that inhabits tattoo trends, particularly those tribal designs that have culturally significant meaning, yet are often taken from their context onto a person’s skin “just for the looks”.
Tattooing is a practice that appeared across different cultures, times and places simultaneously. Associations and interpretations of tattooes, however, differred across time and cultures. While now, in ‘Western’ countries, tattooes are predominantly seen as forms of storytelling, often through bricolage-style arrangements of tattooes, but also as forms of agency over one’s own body and acts of creating oneself, they were rather associated with criminality and violence some 50 years ago.
The individualized form of tattooing fits neatly into our culture of individualism (with all of its downsides) in which many are marking, even modifying their bodies to stand out and differentiate from others. Nevertheless, in other cultures and other times, tattooes carried deep meanings as they conveyed a sense of belonging and membership to a group, having also been used as markers for social achievements and even spiritual power. Handed down by cultural and ancestral heroes, tattooing rituals would invoke a reconnection to the ancestors.
Such indigenous understanding of tattooing seems far removed for a ‘Western’ individualist mind, but given the entanglement of stories that connect through time and space, it is not. Sadly, the connection between European colonizers and indigenous tattooists is rather one of epistemic and direct physical violence.
Under the dominance of moral interpretations of peace, such as Christianity and Judaism, tattooes were rather marginalized among the imperialist Europe. When James Cook intruded the Pacific island of Tahiti, and witnessed tattooed people and the power that lied in their practice of tattooing, it is not unlikely that this was an intimidating experience for him.
The ideologies that underlie the colonial condition, including racism and cultural superiority, probably made it easy to attempt to erase the practice of tattooing among the colonized peoples, in order to dominate and strategically subjugate them under their own cosmovision, which includes the Cartesian seperation of mind from body and its hierachization over the body.
Bringing the body back into our understanding of the meaning of tattooing leads us from what Ng called the “outside-in” view of the body (i.e. the social constitution of the body through discourse) through an “inside-out” experience of tattooing as a process (i.e. somatic knowing as valid way of knowing).
This insight has the potential to profoundly irritate our understanding of peace as non-violence. Because, in a way, the very act of tattooing is a painful and violent process, with the needle protruding into the skin and creating an image through physical damage of skin tissue. Viewed through the notion of “thinking through the body” (Blackman 2008, 8), then, tattooing presents a wholly different way of understanding practices that have a peace-invoking function, because that is what I read and experience in getting tattoed.
Still, the need to reflect cultural appropriation and the act of resistance that maybe read into indigenous forms of tattooing, become louder to myself. For now, I remain with the irritation voiced above.
Blackman, Lisa. 2008. The Body: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg.
Ng, Roxana 1998. “Is Embodied Teaching and Learning Critical Pedagogy? Some Remarks on Teaching Health and the Body from an Eastern Perspective.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 13–17 April, San Diego, California.
Content of the post is adapted from a short documentary with interviews with indigenous tattoo artist Elle Festin and tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak.