Coloured Ink: Is Body Art Just a “White Thing”?

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

I’m an outcast.

I’m a rebel.

I’m an anarchist.

I’m tough.

I sleep in tight vinyl pants.

I set fire to my apartment at least twice a week.

Well . . . not quite.

In actuality, I am a law-abiding citizen who works a 9-to-5 and minds her Ps and Qs. I’m “normal,” but considering the reactions I receive from some, you would think otherwise:

How long did that take?!?!?

Is a greeting.

Oh that must have hurt!

Is a compliment.

Can I see the whole thing?

Is a come-on.

I’m a walking conversation piece, but it’s my own fault. I am the one who chose to have a vine of fuchsia running from the front of my left shoulder down to the middle of the left side of my back, morning glories and tiger lilies blooming up from my right pelvic bone to the top of my ribcage, and my mantra inscribed on the inside of my right wrist. I also happen to have several piercings, and the ones that are exposed to the public sometimes solicit questions regarding my tolerance for pain. I don’t mind the questions about my body art. In fact, I welcome them. Yet I find it humorous and somewhat ironic that my tattoos and piercings, though tasteful and non-threatening, still mark me as an oddity—at least among people who look like me. While whites often ask where I had my work done and by whom, black, brown, and yellow folk often ask me a laundry list of questions, sometimes hold uncomfortably long and awkward conversations with me about their own body modification experiences, or discuss my tattoos with their friends in spite of my standing right in front of them, as if I am a novelty item in a curio chest.

Throughout NYC, especially boroughs like Brooklyn, one of the last strongholds for affordable housing and artsy residents, you will see quite a few men and women with large and visible tattoos, mainly full pieces that cover one or more body parts. Most of those people happen to be young, middle class, and white. While I see a few people of color who are are tattooed and pierced as well, national body modification statistics demonstrate otherwise. In addition, there appear to be fewer who have chosen extravagant displays of their appreciation for body art. Most of the tattoos I have seen on people of color are words, names, or small symbols. Bearing in mind the issue of size and content alone, I understand why the forms of body modification I have undergone evoke curiosity and unusually long conversations with others. In NYC, strangers rarely speak to each other, so maybe other people of color feel more comfortable asking me about my body art because I, like them, am also of color. But what I didn’t have quite a handle on was why fewer people of color I saw tended to go “all out.” Why was extensive body art still relatively taboo among people of color in spite of its increasing popularity (among whites)?

I couldn’t figure it out. Initially, I thought about issues like money. Good tattoos are expensive, and the bigger they are, the more they cost (as tattoos are priced by the hour of work performed). Could the sheer monetary value affixed to large and incredibly detailed tattoos be a deterrent for people of color considering the income gap between them and whites? Piercings also cost quite a bit, especially if one opts to use high quality jewelry (which is better for body piercings in that it decreases the risk of infection and allergic reaction). It doesn’t seem to limit them from buying other things. Why would it be an issue when it comes to body art?

I also considered skin color. The fairer your skin, the more tattoo options you have (as far as colors are concerned). As the tattoo heals, a new layer of skin grows over what is technically an injury to your top epidermal layer. Your new skin serves as a filter for your tattoo. If the filter is dark, the colors in your tattoo will appear muddled and dull by default. Maybe the fact that fewer colors work well on dark skin makes people feel like they are limited in artistic options? But then I thought of the large amount of light-skinned Asian-, African-, and Latino- Americans who had opted to get small tattoos or tattoos with dark ink as opposed to something large and colorful.

Nothing was really adding up.

But this weekend, when I went into Adorned, what could have been considered my second home during my latter years in college, the exchange I had with the piercer helped me put two and two together. We were talking about body art among indigenous groups of Africa and Asia when he mentioned the experience of a black woman who had been interviewed for the documentary film Afro-Punk. She had been ostracized by other black people in her community for her “punk” style, which including piercings and “unusual” hairstyles. In her response, she puts an anthropological spin on what some simply think of as a fad:

It’s not just a trend or a style. There is cultural validity in it for me. My choice the look the way I do is just based on me relating to traditionally African aesthetic.

Did others share this knowledge of body art as authentic cultural expression? Were fewer people of color opting to get tattoos and piercings because of a cultural disconnect?

It made sense in a way. If an art form once specifically associated with your racial, ethnic, or national group is suddenly co-opted by another group of people, especially if you fault that group for having exhibited behavior that runs counter to your group’s progress and growth, it may compel you to abandon the art form in exchange for something different. Body modification was once exclusively associated with indigenous groups in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. The practice was, in itself, something besides skin color that assisted in the “othering” of native peoples during their first encounters with Europeans. But over time, due to influences in music, art, and pop culture, the association shifted. Once considered museum-worthy cultural oddities, mohawks, wooden disks, nose rings, and creative scarring techniques, most of which had significant religious or social meaning within certain groups, had become a popular aesthetic among whites seeking to “other” themselves as members of the “alternative” community. Young whites made a conscious decision to appropriate what was seen as foreign/different, as an homage to other cultures, and assigned new meaning to everyday objects (like safety pins) in order to distance themselves from the establishment and the dominant culture. British sociologist Dick Hebdige discusses this phenomenon at great lengths in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style:

The conflict between [hegemonic culture and subordinate culture] can be encapsulated in a single object, so the tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture- in the styles made up of mundane objects [artifacts] which have a double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the ‘straight’ world of a sinister presence- the presence of difference… On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons… these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value . . .

As a result, the meaning of certain body art is still associated with whites, in particular whites involved in alternative music or art scenes, and the people we see on the pages of National Geographic—both groups that are considered “foreign” in varying degrees by some people of color living in the United States. I wonder if this perception of foreign-ness greatly influences opinions regarding whether or not tattooing and other body modification is appropriate and/or attractive. Is it possible that the act of body modification is seen as a one-way ticket to group isolation from the mainstream and social acceptance?

Assimilation and tradition seem to play a large role here. Though they are usually considered to rest as antipodal points of the identity scale, when it comes to body modification, the exhibition of the two concepts more or less yields the same results. For some groups, the cultural significance of certain art forms died with their ancestors (i.e. indigenous Americans) or were lost as a result of the slave trade (i.e. people of African descent), while for other groups who have migrated to this country by choice, the pressure to become part of what is portrayed as the homogeneous American society remains and may have a profound impact on the choice to utilize body art as a mode of artistic self-expression. After all, it’s hard enough to “fit in” if you are a person of color and/or an immigrant, so why would you choose to do things to yourself to make you stand out as “different”? This sentiment is one frequently expressed by some of my friends’ parents. They attribute their success in America as a direct result of their hard work and often state that they worked so hard in order to make a better life for their children. Most parents say that, no matter their background, but the families I speak of now face other pressures not only to succeed but also to preserve and pass along traditional values of their country of origin to their children. In the instance of a Korean-American friend of mine, her parents consider getting a tattoo to be a complete affront to any of the values they have instilled in their daughter. “My parents would kill me!” she always says, and plans to get her tattoo in a place where she wouldn’t risk accidentally revealing it to her parents. My friend is 25 and has lived away from home for years, but she still fears disappointing them. She and her parents clearly disagree on the significance of tattoos, but mainly as a result of varying associations they each hold of body art in general.

Some of these assumptions are culturally exclusive. For example, in Japan, though tattooing has been commonly practiced there for centuries, tattooing, to some extent, is still associated with the Yakuza, members of traditional Japanese organized crime groups, as they are known to have numerous, sometimes full-body, tattoos. However, right here in the U.S. of A., we have our own culture-specific set of tattoo-related stereotypes. Many people still associate tattoos with criminals, side show performers, prison inmates, punks, goths, bikers, gang members, strippers, members of the lower class, and any so-called social “undesirable.” Much like any other stereotypes, those relating to tattooed people have yet to go away, despite the prevalence of tattooing throughout the country. Shows like TLC’s Miami Ink, the lifting of tattoo bans in many states, the celebrity endorsement of tattooing, and the reclaiming of tattooed and pierced beauty have helped mitigate some of the outdated stereotypes, but I think that they still serve as powerful deterrents from going under the needle.

I think that some people of color may feel that getting large tattoos may set them back in some way or another. As they make daily efforts to counter stereotypes and prove themselves worthy in a society that seems to expect less for them, getting tattoos, no matter how popular they are for others, may be seen as a different type of marker for a person of color. The first people to come to mind as I wrote the previous sentence were black and Latino men. Already stereotyped as criminally-inclined, a man with brown skin who covers himself in tattoos may fit more quickly into a mental line-up with people like 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks before men like Joel Madden and Tommy Lee. This is not to say that Madden and Lee are exactly upstanding citizens, but as far as a criminal record and threatening image are concerned, 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks have them beat, and may ultimately serve as an influence regarding one’s choice either to be tattooed, to hide their tattoos, or to forego it altogether.

There’s also the issue of gender that’s at play, which is another reason I think I may stand out as an oddity. It may also explain why the Suicide Girls, a collective of alternative pin-up girls and burlesque performers, are having so much trouble finding women of color. On their member site, the “Become a Suicide Girl” section reads very much like a college admissions page, with its overzealous advisors in desperate need of diversity:

Suicide Girls encourages women of color to apply. We aim to be a more diverse site, and we need your help!

While I occasionally see men of color with lots of tattoos, I rarely see women with a similar volume of tattoos. Tattooing still seems to be a man’s business. Most of the artists are male, and considering the amount of pain that goes into “getting inked” and the previous social conceptions associated with the art, it seems like tattooing may somehow destroy one’s claim to femininity, again a pretty big risk to take if women within your race/ethnic group may already be considered to be on the margins of popular gender norms and expectations. Coupled with the issue of gender norms, there is also the issue of sexual availability. As some commenters on Latoya’s article “Why Black Girls Aren’t Going Wild”conjectured, there may be a reluctancy to appear as sexual beings (especially overtly so by posing naked for the Suicide Girls or other predominately white magazines, no matter how sex positive and feminist it may claim to be), because, quite frankly, there are already enough sexually oriented stereotypes associated with women of color and there is no need to give society additional ammunition. But then we cross over onto the shaky ground of whether or not feminism, in its new or old forms, was ever really meant to include women of color and their concerns, something I will leave for another time and place.

At the end of the day, I hate to think that what we assume others may think would work to limit our personal choices. After all, I didn’t really think of all these things when I decided to get my tattoos. I wanted to use my body as an artistic memorial to lost loved ones and their significance in my life, to mark my personal growth, to commemorate change. I didn’t really consider what others would think or say when I decided to have something permanently applied to my skin, so why would it be the case for someone else thinking about getting tattoos, subconsciously or otherwise? It’s a personal choice that people justify for their own reasons in their own ways. The small percentage of people of color getting tattooed and pierced also may simply be the result of a limited interest in body art. It’s not for everyone, and that’s ok. I’m very much against the peer pressure-like methods that are utilized to encourage participation in an act that requires careful thought and considering.

I do, however, wish that more people recognized that body modification is very much a part of the cultural heritage for people all around the world and not just a “white thing” or a “punk thing” or a “freak thing.” I wish we all knew more about our history so that we had a clear understanding of how things originated and how they ended up where they are today so that the manifestation of traditional art in popular culture wouldn’t simply be written off as a fad. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Pictured: Sorry, ce n’est pas moi. It’s Suicide Girl “Ansley”