Cultural appropriation is the concept in sociology that deals with the subjugation or adoption of an element of a minority culture by the dominant culture. Examples of cultural appropriation in America can be observed when white people get tattoos that originated from a minority culture, such as a dream catcher taken from Native American tradition or characters taken from the Chinese language. To be fair, this is often done without intending to hurt anyone’s feelings, but the reality is that it does hurt people and it can cause problems.
There are a few reasons that cultural appropriation is considered insensitive. One reason is because these symbols have deep historical roots and meanings that are often misunderstood or misrepresented by members of a different culture. It doesn’t feel good to see a symbol from your culture being used as a decoration by a person from another culture, especially when it is apparent that the person does not have an understanding of the history of the symbol or object. This is not just a problem when it comes to tattoos; it extends to pop culture as well. Artists such as Elvis and Eminem have made music that was influenced by and originated from black culture, which definitely ruffled feathers and upset more than a few people. Another instance of obvious cultural appropriation is when non-Natives choose to wear Native American headdresses at festivals like Burning Man. There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross, and that is one of them.
So what do you do if you have already appropriated an element from a minority culture for your personal use? In the case of tattoos, there are a few options centered around hiding or removing it. You can use one of the many tattoo concealers available on the market, which do a great job of hiding a tattoo you want to keep out of sight. Another option is laser removal if it is causing problems on a regular basis. Depending on the design, you may also be able to cover it up with another tattoo. The most important thing you can do is realize that it might be hurtful, so you can be mindful of its existence on your body and the effect it may have on the people you interact with.
Getting a tattoo can be a life-altering decision. To avoid putting your ignorance on full display, it might be a good idea to consult a friend or the internet before inking something that might have unintended consequences. A simple question posted on Reddit or Quora will probably yield plenty of results if you want to ask about your next tattoo. I would always recommend doing some research before making a decision that is intended to be permanent. If your artwork isn’t original, look into the history and background of your design to avoid a social faux pas.
I think it is worth reiterating that cultural appropriation doesn’t make you a bad person. It is best summarized by a former head councilman of the Zuni Pueblo who said, "We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing." It is always good practice to remain mindful of other people and their feelings. So the next time you are thinking of getting a tattoo of something sacred, consider how that image might reflect on you down the road.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.