A Tattoo’s Worth a Thousand Words

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Take a look at this photo. What are your initial thoughts on this tattoo?

After being tipped by reader pinkyloveswhisky, I headed on over to the BMEZine blog to check out what all the fuss was about, and I tried to do the exercise I recommended above. What were my initial thoughts on this tattoo? First I thought, wow, this is beautiful and very well done. The colors and detailing are perfect. The necklaces are so realistically portrayed I feel like I could reach out and touch them. I thought of documentaries I had seen on television about people living in remote villages and where the origins of many of the forms of body modification we participate in today can be traced.

Then I read the statement made by the man who had requested this piece:

I, like so many of our community members, have been totally fascinated with tribal cultures and their ideas of body art and beauty. In all simplicity this tattoo is my way of paying homage and showing people what body modification means to me and showing where my roots in this industry lay.

He notes that the piece is not a reference to anyone in particular or any one specific person, but for him the piece represents a means of paying homage to the peoples to whom we owe the popularity of body modification.

I think his tattoo is beautiful and personally take no issue with it. It’s all the same if any other person got a portrait piece done of a famous entertainer or public figure. However, on the blog itself, many people took issue with Dave’s statement and his use of the word “tribal.”

Here are some excerpts:

max on June 13th, 2009 at 4:23 pm:
it’s a great piece! however, i don’t understand why people refer to body modifications as tribal. all that is doing is perpetuating racial stereotypes. take any african studies course (or any minority group for that matter) and open your eyes to the implications (direct or indirect) such terms can endorse. it simply does not do any justice for the ethnic groups it’s meant to portray.

Jon P on June 13th, 2009 at 5:53 pm:
I, too, don’t think referring to this type of imagery as “tribal” or the body modification they practice as “tribal” either. Describing an indigenous culture as “tribal” merely denotes the way they organise socially, it’s not a way of describing cultures.
It’s fine and dandy to pay homage to a particular influence you’ve had. But if you only know the culture through textbooks and National Geographic documentaries, then you can’t really know the culture at all. Seeing an indigenous person’s stretched earlobes might have sparked your interest in body manipulation and what not, but that’s not what a culture is about. An having a portrait of an indigenous person on your body just smacks of the antiquated “noble savage” concept which all of us trained anthropologists cringe at.
The tattoo itself is cringe-worthy. It’s like a piece of tourist art you’d buy on your way through Africa or something.

VOMIT on June 13th, 2009 at 6:25 pm:
I’m totally diggin it.
Max: MANY cultures participated in body modification, some just little things, others a lot. But in no way would I say that a small minority participated in body modification. I don’t see how referring to body modification as being tribal in origin is not beneficial. Why does it have to be either? It’s good to know the history of something you love and enjoy. If that thing is body modification then it makes sense to look back at past cultures and see how it all started and what form it took. I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with understanding your own identity, not unless you are of tribal decent. Also I think the fact that you think saying something is of tribal origin will some how hurt the modified community or alienate us even more is a bit sickening. If anything, I would think proving that body modification goes back a long way in history would make people see it less as a thing just for freaks or weirdos.

The comments continued on like this for another few days, ending with the usual “you are being overly sensitive” meme:

Jon P on June 17th, 2009 at 4:46 am:
See, it’s a very ingrained attitude being exhibited here. The oppressors, or those who live from the fruits of oppression, will always belittle those who draw attention to, or seek to right the wrong of, their oppressive attitudes and behaviours. Call it a WASP culture or whatever you want, but the dominant White culture that controls how indigenous people live their lives will always see them as subservient and not quite equal. You can tell that by the way everyone dismisses the discussion surrounding the inherently racist/eurocentric nature of the term ‘tribal’.
Poo poo it if you will, but it doesn’t make it an less true or important.

socialcoma on June 17th, 2009 at 6:01 pm:
blah blah oppressors blah blah wasp blah blah racist blah blah eurocentric
just let the man enjoy his tattoo

As I said above, I think the tattoo is beautiful and I appreciate it for its artistic value primarily. The artist did an amazing job. From a personal standpoint as a person who has about half of her upper body tattooed (and always yearning for more body work), has had her share of piercings (from visual to well-hidden), and who is thinking about gauging her ears, you could say I am biased. I respect the personal choice to have body modification done and think this choice goes hand in hand with the art one chooses as well. My tattoo pieces, while not portraits, have incredible significance to me and tell stories of my family history and my personal growth. In terms of artistic choice, I do not think art has one specific owner. While a style of body modification may have begun in one place or another, that does not mean it necessarily belongs and must stay within said location of culture. Culture and art are mutable entities. They change drastically over time and with cultural exchange.

That said, I do not believe that borrowing elements from other cultures is a sin. I see plenty of Americans, for example, who get Japanese style tattoos, most of which became all the more popular with the introduction of shows like Miami Ink, a reality tv series that, without a doubt, led to more acceptance of body modification in American culture, and arguably may have led to its very demise as an “underground” or “alternative” choice. Many Americans have or have had some form of modification done to their bodies, and if it’s not in the form of art, it’s via nose jobs, breast implants, and Botox. Whether we like it or not, body modification is just as much a part of American culture now as earlobe stretching, neck lengthening, and disk insertion is/was for “tribal” cultures. As I note in a previous piece, “Coloured Ink: Is Body Art Just a “White” Thing?” cultural appropriation is far more a part of our culture than we realize,

“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.”

Now back to the comments above and the use of the word “tribal.” I think the word has become synonymous with Eurocentrism and the imperial gaze only in recent years, as I recall “tribal” being an acceptable term in the 1980s. Much with any other word used to describe a culture different from one’s own, the word has undergone considerable changes in meaning as a result of our growing sensitivity in considering “otherness.” This, I think, is a good thing. We should be careful with the words we choose to discuss other groups, though certainly should not be made to feel self-conscious if a passé term is used. In my opinion, the man who got this piece was not meaning to demean or offend indigenous groups by using the word “tribal.” I would go as far as to say that the majority of the people who know the “right” and “wrong” terms to use in this case are people immersed in anthropological, critical race theory, or history work, not necessarily the average American.

I also do not consider this art piece an example of cultural appropriation. He had a picture permanently inked onto his skin, an image of someone else, and I judge this piece as I would any other portrait. If a white performer tattooed a portrait of Michael Jackson on his or her body as a means of paying homage to a man who influenced his or her career committing cultural appropriation or exhibiting Eurocentrism? If the performer goes on to say that black musical traditions have had a profound impact on his or her work, is he or she being offensive?

I am leaving this piece a bit of an open thread because I have already stated my thoughts on the piece. What are your thoughts, readers (on both the piece and the comments)?

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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