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Borrowing or Blending? Tattoos and Cultural Appropriation

Sailor Jerry, American traditional tattoos, Japanese traditional tattoos

While some cultures have deeply ingrained tattoo and body modification practices, other cultures consider tattoos to be taboo. People who sport tattoos are judged harshly, and sometimes the practice is even outlawed or heavily restricted. It is likely even more common for cultures to display both of these contrary attitudes towards tattoos simultaneously. Japanese culture for example has a storied tattoo history — one that has led to an enduring influence worldwide. However, despite the global importance of Japanese body art, typical attitudes towards tattoos remain somewhat negative. The proliferation of Japanese style tattooing in the West is one example of the tense relationship between tattoos as an art form and cultural appropriation. Both tattoos and cultural appropriation are controversial subjects.

Sailor Jerry, Norman Collins, American traditional tattoos, Japanese traditional tattoosTattoos occupy an interesting space as both significant cultural artifacts and fashionable accessory, and much like fashion more broadly, tattoos are certainly not immune to the sting of cultural appropriation. In fashion, one can see cultural appropriation take place when white celebrities sport important cultural adornments like Hindu bindis or Native American headdresses. When practicing Hindus or Native Americans sport such attire, they don’t receive praise for their fashion sense. Instead, they are likely to face ridicule; even if they do not face outright discrimination for such accessories, they do experience subtle discrimination for their culture, to which these artifacts belong. Cultural appropriation becomes a problem when those with more cultural power pick aspects of foreign cultures to enjoy, meanwhile, those cultures are not only treated as inferior to Western cultures but also have faced forced or coercive assimilation.

Unlike everyday fashion, tattoos are of course much more permanent, so although cultural appropriation is never a desirable look, it’s much more important to consider the cultural sensitivity of one’s body art. Furthermore, though cultural appropriation is widely recognized for its insensitivity and problematic nature, many still question why they should avoid borrowing from other cultures. The main issue is that the borrowing takes place often around significant cultural symbols. Bindis have important meanings in Hinduism, and when they are treated as fashionable accessories, their cultural purpose becomes flattened. Some consider this effect harmless, but take another widespread example of cultural appropriation, cornrows. When African Americans wear this hairstyle, they are very likely to be judged negatively, even racially profiled. However, when white people sport this hairstyle, they do not face the same discrimination.

Because they are both cultural and fashionable, tattoos are similarly prone to possible cultural appropriation. However, the question remains whether it is totally wrong for people to get culturally significant tattoos if they do not belong to that culture themselves. Does appropriation have an equally negative effect on the culture from which the art is borrowed when what is borrowed is tattoos? Is it just as harmful to borrow culturally significant tattoos as it is to borrow hairstyles? Cultural appropriation is complex, and borrowing hairstyles or headdresses cannot necessarily be equated to one another or to borrowing body art practices.

Japanese traditional tattoos, Irezumi tattoos, Hori Ren tattooBorrowing practices from other cultures is unavoidable. Tattooing is a global industry, and its history in the United States is rooted in worldwide travel and cultural blending. That is, much of American traditional tattooing is influenced by Japanese tattoos. From fashion to tattoos, erecting strict borders delineating who is permitted to partake in specific cultural practices and who cannot is bound to cause more harm than good. Nonetheless, it remains important that rather than borrowing blindly, we educate ourselves about the cultures from which our art originates. If we educate ourselves about where our body art comes from, we can ensure we understand the cultural significance of our tattoos, and we can better spread an appreciation of that art to others.

Clients can also seek culturally appropriate artists. Rather than asking a white artist to tattoo something culturally significant, clients can seek out artists who come from that culture themselves. This not only ensures clients are supporting artists with a genuine care for the culture and its art, it also ensures they avoid rewarding white artists at the expense of an artist of color. Sensitivity and education are key to understanding the significance of culturally specific tattoos. When it comes to culturally significant tattoo practices, it is integral for clients and artists to seek out an understanding of the culture at large.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.