How views of tattoos are changing around the world

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[Image Credits: Amara Coelho & Isabelle Hunt-Deol]

Content warning: Contains moderate discussion of issues concerning race and colonialism.

‘inking outside the box: how tattoos can free us from the mould of society 

By Poppy Jones

Every tattoo should be handled free of judgement. However, in western society, tattoos have not always been recognised as the same action of artistic freedom and creative expression that many of us see today, and instead were often looked down upon with scorn and contempt due to the fact they are permanent. While this is certainly an outdated view, ink marks are undeniably still seen as ‘unprofessional’. Regardless of how we view them, it’s hard to deny the fact that modern tattooing has become an inadvertent symbol of individuality and a clear display of artistry. 

In the Western world especially, people who have visible tattoos often find themselves facing judgement from others. This is partly due to the permanence of tattoos. In a sense, the relation between tattoos and permanence can be traced back to the phrase ‘my body is a temple’. This phrase suggests that our bodies should be treated as sacred temples, kept in their purest form, devoted to the worship of a deity, in this case, the wellbeing of our own physical form, and remaining unmarked by a permanent artwork. While it is a lovely saying, it does come with a tragic irony – almost all temples are adorned with artworks, offerings and beauty in all forms. In terms of treating our bodies like temples, surely it makes more sense to embellish ourselves in the art of the time; inky frescos along our arms, geometric mosaics shattered down our backs and manuscripts of beautifully written calligraphy across our chests. We could turn the societal reputation of tattoos on its head. We could use tattoos to beautify our own places of worship, our bodies, and to reclaim them as the moulds within which we live. We could imitate the chapels and cathedrals of old; furnished with gilded scriptures, devotional icons and beautifully sacred geometry. Our bodies can become sacred vessels with personal meaning – unique and embellished with the memories we hold dear and tributes to the fads of our time.

In the Western world, there is an element of judgement that surrounds tattoos. However we conceptualise the idea of being tattooed for life, it is important to be respectful and non judgemental about a person’s choices – whether it is an expression of aesthetics, or a way to break away from the conformity of the society that we live in. We are swiftly moving towards a future where everybody should experience freedom of choice, freedom of expression and freedom from judgement. While we still have a long way to go, we should still feel comfortable enough to be able to break away from the tight mould of tradition, and be painted in as many inky gardens of Eden as we desire. 

Traditional as radical: New Zealand’s tattoo revival 

By Clara Strachan

New Zealand’s Maori tattoo culture is remarkable.  It has been dragged through the mire of colonialism and come to flourish across modern day New Zealand; a symbol of resilience and connection to an indomitable and profoundly rich cultural tradition.  Only a handful of decades ago Maori culture was described in terms of extinction by documentarians with accents as stiff as their starched late sixties collars.

Thankfully, this perspective has been obliterated by modern day reality.  Thanks to the efforts of campaigners and a changing society, Maori culture is vital and visible. It now elicits a great sense of national pride across the diverse country.  In this changing cultural landscape, swathes of people across New Zealand and other Polynesian islands are choosing to express their reclaimed and revitalised Maori identities through the art of tattooing.  By choosing to return to traditional designs, placements and methods, Maori people are rebuking European notions of which physical characteristics and cultural symbols deserve respect and value, and are embracing community and spirituality. They are marking their bodies to mark a postcolonial era.  

In traditional Maori culture, a facial tattoo symbolises high rank, experience and maturity. Various designs connote personal strengths, tribal identity and lineage. The ritual itself is ideally undergone after a period of self realisation, with friends and family in an atmosphere of peace, reverence and joy.

Polynesian tattoo artists have begun to relearn the traditional methods, shapes, patterns and meanings, which were forcefully eradicated by European colonisers, from knowledgeable carvers and the few remaining traditional tattooers.  Now, intricate and bold facial Moko tattoos are being worn by Maori people from all walks of life. No longer just for a handful of hardcore cultural revivalists, but professors, MPs, pop culture figures and all types of people in between have chosen to undergo the highly personal and meaningful ritual of receiving a Moko. Notably, Air New Zealand just lifted a ban which forbade visible tattoos in a bid to better reflect and nurture the cultural diversity and heritage of Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand).  The present and future of Maori culture is vibrant, and the evolution of Mokol which lives on in a new generation adapting but remembering its weighty cultural significance, is a radical testament to it.


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