Inked: Changing Perceptions of Tattoos

Tia Winter | 9 April 2018

The changing face of tattoosWith the earliest tattoo having been found on Otzi the iceman, the practice is undeniably ancient. However, the topic has been a cause of controversy among the larger, more conservative sectors of society of centuries. Those negative perceptions only started changing over the past couple of decades.

The history and changing perceptions around tattoos is fascinating, to say the least. It proves that activities once regarded as a vice can gain greater social acceptability when naysayers finally start realising that there was never a bogeyman hiding under that bed in the first place. Similar has happened with activities such as gambling, since the arrival of the online and mobile casinos that made the pastime more visible and more socially acceptable than ever before.

Tattoos: History in Ink

The word tattoo was introduced to the English language from Samoan, in which the word appears as tatau, and means to strike or hit something. Many early cultures used it as a rite of passage, a sign of allegiance, a mark of beauty or a magical practice to ward off evil and promote good fortune.

However, its initial popularity in the west grew out of curiosity and fascination more than anything else.  The west’s love affair with the art form came to an end in the 1940s. The years following World War II were marked by a resurgence in conservative family values and, they became the mark of the outcast, the deviant, and the criminal.

Despite these negative perceptions, those who got themselves inked covered up when absolutely necessary, and sported their tatts with pride when not. Whether rock and rollers, sportsmen, or other public figures, they had a role to play in changing society’s misconceptions.

Times have changed. The numbers prove it. Until as recently as a decade ago, tattooing was illegal in parts of the USA. Today, more than 45 million Americans admit to sporting ink somewhere on their bodies, more than 36 per cent of who are between the ages of 18 and 25.

Perceptions of Ink

Getting inked gets more popularOnce a rite of passage and later a sign of criminality, the ancient art form once practiced with sharpened sticks, soot, and natural dyes, is now all things to all the inked. Some get themselves tattooed to commemorate a life event or the life of a loved one, whereas, for others, it is a sign of identification with a particular group, ideology, or quality.

There are others yet who, rather than turning to the now-fading trend of adult colouring books, prefer to see their body as a blank canvas. The designs they sport are about self-expression in line and colour. Their bodies are temples, and they are in the mood to do some decorating.

Different in Japan

Whereas perceptions regarding tattoos are changing for the better in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia, and part of Asia and the Middle East, Japan’s relationship with them remains shaky. The cultural associations run deep, and have yet to show significant signs of changing.

For starters, they were originally used on the islands as part of the punishment of certain criminals. It does not help that many Japanese gangs of organised criminals still practice full-body tattooing using traditional methods. Another reason the country’s relationship with the practice is uneasy is because of cultural expectations in which children must remain subservient and in awe of their parents, so the permanent marking of the body with ink is seen as disrespecting those from whom that body was generated.

While there are Japanese tattoo-lovers who have no problem getting themselves marked, they usually place the tattoos in areas that are easy to conceal. More than 50 per cent of the country’s hot springs, bathhouses, and resorts ban anyone sporting tatts – even if they happen to be tourists. Still, the changing attitudes in the west and other parts of the world offer an indication that, one day, Japan will readily distinguish between art, crime, and disrespectful behaviour and that the stigma behind tattoos will fade.