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As far back as recorded human civilization goes, man has looked for means by which to differentiate himself from others of his kind and, by this, create a unique identity for himself. Various means have been used to accomplish this, most notably of which is tattooing. Tattoos offer to assist man in his ambition to achieve self-identity and expression by providing him with the means through which he can demonstrate his uniqueness and difference from the others.
They also give a person a platform on which he/she can show his affiliations to a particular group. In recent times, tattooing as an art form has experienced monumental changes from the earlier years, where it the exclusive premise of sailors and prisoners, to being widely acceptable and even fashionable to the general population today (Ricci 1).
With its prevalence in contemporary society, the social acceptability of tattoos has advanced dramatically. This change in perception of tattoos among the general population has resulted in the fashionably of tattoos. This paper shall argue that tattoos, which in the past were a social taboo reserved for the outcasts, have evolved to become socially acceptable and even hugely fashionably amongst some people. To reinforce this argument, the paper shall provide a brief history of tattoos and highlight the changes in the perception of tattoos by society.
History Overview of Tattoos
Schildkrout defines tattooing as the “insertion of ink or other pigments through the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, and into the dermis, the deeper skin” (4). The very word “tattoo” is suggested to have come from the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means “marking the skin with pigments” (Goldstein 418). This form of body art is implemented by using a sharp object to puncture the skin, therefore, making a permanent mark. Tattooing has a long history.
It is regarded as an ancient form of body art that was used to convey status and accomplishment and serve as a reminder about some memory, desire, or significant moments in history. Tattoos have always held different meanings to people throughout history (Rio and Bianchini 21). As a result of this, there has been a great variance in the significance of tattoos from culture to culture, and additionally, the significance has changed considerably through time.
The roles of tattoos range from decoration, serving as a mark of belonging to a particular group to displaying an individual’s rank and social positioning. It should be noted that while tattoos were initially intended to be permanent markings, there have been recent modern techniques that can be used to remove the markings.
The history of Tattoos can be traced as far back in history as 3300BC in the Egyptian society, where the markings found on mummified bodies from Egyptian tombs attest to this tattooing culture in ancient Egypt (Rio and Bianchini 45). The tattoos on these mummified bodies revealed that the Egyptians used tattoos mostly for beautification purposes and to show the social status of the person wearing the tattoos. Another ancient civilization that made use of the tattoos was the Greeks. In their case, the tattoos were used as a means of communication amongst the country’s spies. Rio and Bianchini document that by using the tattoos present on a hidden part of the body, spies could identify each other while on hostile grounds and tell ranks (67).
The Asian community also made use of tattoos from historical times. In this society, tattoos were used to mostly show the social standing of an individual. Levy reveals that girls wore tattoos that told their position in society and defined their areas of specialization in trade (134). As such, one could tell facts such as a girl’s marital status and the crafts that she engaged in by only looking at her body markings.
Therefore, tattoos in this community played not only an aesthetic role but also a very functional role. Tattoos were also used by Western nations, most notable of which is Britain. In this case, the tattoos were used as a means for identifying one’s social standing. One could use a tattoo as a sign of noble birth by having their family crest tattooed on them. In western culture, the Britons used tattoos for social status identification, as was exhibited by the tattooing of family crests on one’s body. The use of tattoos was not solely limited to this as tattoos were also used for ceremonial purposes where they played a decorative role.
Tattoos also had a less appealing application in the dark slave trade era. DeMello bleakly documents that “tattoos in the slave-trade days were the distinction between the colonizer and the colonized” (93). On being sold to their masters, the captured slaves were “tattooed” with their owner’s unique mark, and from the makings, one could tell apart a free man from a slave. In these circumstances, having a tattoo was not a matter of personal pride or even choice but a sign of being owned. In other communities such as the Japanese, tattoos were reserved for criminals. This group was tattooed hence marking them as society’s misfits. These are some of the negative undertones associated with tattoos that have made some people (especially those who have some religious affiliation) shy away from tattoos (Levy 125).
The modes in which tattooing is done have changed even as man has made technological advances from primitive means to ultra-modern. The traditional methods included the puncturing of the skin by hitting a needle with a minute hammer by the Polynesians to use handheld bundles of needles fixed on wooden handles by the Japanese (Schildkrout 4). Modern-day tattooing utilizes electric pens and a wide range of colors for the individual to choose from. The electric tattooing machine patented by Samuel O’Reilly in 1981 is arguably the invention that popularized tattooing and made it attractive to more people (DeMello 21).
Before the creation of this machine, tattoo artists relied on traditional means, which were painful and slow. A relatively small number of tattooists who were well versed with this method meant that only a small number of people could be served. The Electric Tattooing machine revolutionalized the tattoo industry by making the experience significantly less painful for the client. In addition to this, obtaining tattoos became affordable since a wider number of people could learn the craft and become tattooists.
Reasons for Rejection of Tattoos
While wearing tattoos in modern society is a matter of personal choice, there are several reasons why tattoos were viewed negatively by many communities in the past. At the very basic, tattoos come in various forms, and while some are benign in nature, others are undeniably obscene. In the past, tattoos were mostly adorned by peoples of questionable character (sailors, gang members, and criminals). As is to be expected, these people were more inclined to sport vulgar tattoos. Examples of tattoos favored by this subset of society are; pirate flags on the arms, spiders on webs on the neck, or nude images on the arms.
DeMello contends that the primary objectives of such tattoos are to shock the onlooker, and as such, this category of tattoos is bound to elicit adverse reactions from people (34). This inflammatory attribute of tattoos resulted in the general public being opposed to them. This state has changed significantly in recent times since a wider section of society now wears tattoos. The new wearers do not favor the vulgar tattoos, and the general public is, therefore, more accepting of tattoos.
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Tattoos may have deep-rooted meanings associated with them. Many of the people who get tattoos may be oblivious to the deeper meaning of the tattoos they get. Therefore, a person may get a tattoo that sends negative or even violent messages to the public. Tattoos from gangs and criminals are especially notorious for having negative messages. This may result in a person being perceived negatively because of a tattoo. For example, in a business setting, an employee who bears a tattoo affiliated to a gang will be perceived by the customers to be a member of the band, whether this is the case or otherwise. This will hurt the business since the customer may avoid the premises as a result of this. It is for this reason that many organizations have policies against tattoos in visible areas by their employees.
Religion, without a doubt, played a role in the previous negative perception of tattoos. Schildkrout reveals that there have been numerous religious injunctions against tattooing by most of the major religions of the world (4).
The reason for this attitude by a religious organization is because of the negative connotation attached to tattoos. As has been noted, in the early years of our history, tattoos were mostly restricted to sailors, prisoners, and other characters of low social standing and questionable morals. Tattoos were therefore seen to represent all that the religious organizations preached against. However, the religiousness of people is in recent times at an all-time low. Nonreligious people do not feel the need to conform to the standards of any religion. A report by Laumann and Derick on the distribution of tattoos in the US revealed that “tattooed respondents were less likely to claim a religious affiliation than the non-tattooed” (5).
Acceptance of Tattoos
There has been an apparent growth in the number of people having tattoos over the past two decades. This growth has been especially prevalent among the 18-35 year age bracket. This growth can be attributed to several reasons. For a start, there have been moves towards more liberal attitudes and self-expression. Modern society is characterized by a significant shift towards tolerance, acceptability, respect for others, and avoidance of discrimination and stereotyping. This shift has had a very favorable effect on tattoos.
One of the seemingly paradoxical reasons for the prevalence of tattoos has been introducing effective tattoo removal technology. This factor has created a situation whereby tattoos are no longer a permanent state of affairs. One may erase the tattoo when one feels that their tattoo is invoking too much adverse reaction. Research by Armstrong and Saunders reveals that if a tattoo can result in negative attitudes, say in a new job or career, the tattoo wearer can quickly request tattoo removal (879).
Rio and Bianchini suggest that as a result of laser removal technology, people no longer fear that a tattoo will be a permanent part of their lives (23). This is an appealing reality, especially to the youth who are inclined to experiment with new fashions.
While the shock value and the curiosity that tattoos attracted were some of the why people shunned them, these attributes have been exploited by most people in the entertainment business in the modern-day. In particular, the show business has made use of tattoos since, in this trade, the overall aim is to keep people engaged and entertain them by shocking them or amusing them. According to DeMello, the entertainment business was the first to popularize tattooing among the masses (15).
The media has created several icons, such as movie stars and musicians who portray tattoos as cool. Also, the media has, to a large extent, ignored the unpopular subgroups that were in the past, synonymous with tattooing to maintain the popular image of the tattoo. Tattoos have, therefore, become a means through which one can make a fashion statement.
The law has, to some extent, helped advance the cause of tattoos. While in the past, people would have gotten away with discriminating against others because of their tattoos, now a person can seek legal redress should that happen. This is especially the case with regard to tattoos of a religious nature. In line with the freedom of worship, the law protects one from being discriminated against because of a tattoo proclaiming his religious affiliations.
Therefore, a person can sport a “religious tattoo” without fear of reprisal since they have the law on their side. However, in this scenario, one has to demonstrate the religious significance of the tattoo. The legal backing of tattoos is especially necessary for business settings where employers have a right to the dress code of the employee. In addition to this, anti-discriminatory laws have resulted in an increased tolerance for tattoos. Therefore, people no longer fear being discriminated against because they have tattoos on them.
A positive attribute of tattoos is that they can enhance the relationship between people. This is when tattoos are used as a mark of identity or allegiance to a particular creed. In such a scenario, tattoos will enhance group cohesion, for example, in members of the same religious sect or gang. The reason for this is that people tend to gravitate towards others who have the same beliefs or interests as they have.
Discussion and Conclusion
For all the growth and positive perception that tattoos have achieved through the years, there is still a lack of universal acceptance of tattoos. Therefore, there are places where tattoos may have a negative impact on the wearer, such as in some work settings where tattoos are seen as synonymous with lowered credibility, competence, and sociability. Goldstein corroborates this fact by stating that tattoos were and in some places still often are associated with “sailors and other seamen, gang members, criminals, and other similar subgroups in society” (418).
However, this scenario has changed as a result of the popularization of tattoos in modern times. This has resulted in more people being open-minded about tattoos and adopting a more tolerant attitude to people adorning tattoos.
This paper set out to argue that tattoos, which were a social taboo in the past, have gained wide acceptance among the general population. The article has, to this end, demonstrated that in the present day, tattoos had enjoyed widespread acceptance by all classes of people. With the increasing affordability of tattoos and a wide range of artwork being tattooed, the craft is enjoying unprecedented blooming.
The popularization of the tattoo culture by famous public figures has also led to an increase in tolerance and acceptability for tattoos. The paper has taken care to note that while tattoos have enjoyed acceptance by mainstream media and popular culture, they are still a touchy issue to some people. However, this paper has demonstrated that the people who view tattoos negatively are not in the minority, unlike in the past, where tattoos were viewed negatively by a majority of the population.
From this paper, it is clear that society’s perception of tattoos has undergone a monumental change in favor of tattoos. Even so, tattoos are not yet universally accepted. As such, one should be sensitive to the needs of others and take care to ensure that their tattoos do not intentionally offend others. This will lead to the further acceptance of tattoos as the favorite means of self-identity and expression in our society.
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