From designs symbolizing how many lives one has taken, to simple lines meant to attract kind spirits and ward off evil, to portraits of close family members or our favorite fictional characters, tattoos are undeniably a marker of identity. They represent what we hold most dear and the experiences that shape our character. Whether they have clear personal or cultural significance, like the historic facial tattoos of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people, or they simply commemorate our beloved pets, tattoos are deeply personal because they exhibit a willingness to endure pain to enshrine our dedication to the subject.
The sacrifice of flesh and endurance of pain is the chief reason that tattoos are sacred to many indigenous cultures. Tattoos themselves represent strength and dedication, and particular designs compound these themes. Chris Rainier, a photojournalist who has focused much of his work on documenting tattoos from around the globe boldly states, “Today people are appropriating these ancient practices... because they want to carve out an identity in a chaotic postindustrial age by inscribing shoulders and shins with symbols of love, death and belonging.” That is to say, tattoos historically are a method for both expressing individuality as well as a sense of cultural connectedness. We choose how to adorn our bodies, but those choices are inextricably linked to our culture’s symbols.
Although tattoos of all kinds are representative of our individuality, certain cultural markings have specific familial and experiential significance attached to them. For instance, Maori tattoos consist of black linework and shading, with specific patterns boasting different interpretations. These patterns have unique meanings, such as personal health, prosperity, and strength; each pattern is also connected to different animals and their particular characteristics. Fish tails and whale teeth inspire the patterns of Maori tattoos. Because Maori tattoos typically symbolize strength, they also serve as a ritualistic practice that is first indulged as an introduction to adulthood. As Rainier argues, contemporary tattoo culture appropriates historic methods of body modification as a coming-of-age practice. In much the same way that indigenous cultures view body modification as a symbol of strength and maturity, the western contemporary tattoo industry is certainly familiar with providing tattoos as a rite of passage into adulthood when many teens come of age.
Similarly familiar to the local tattoo industry is the tribal style. Unlike the black armbands that likely come to mind when considering tribal tattoos, tattoos performed in the traditions of various indigenous groups are notable for their uniqueness in spite of the use of familiar symbols and patterns. Because these tattoos are typically performed with more delicate instruments than the contemporary tattoo machine, using their original techniques, they are more likely to claim various differences. Though similar patterns may appear across different tattoos in order to represent the same values, no two patterns will be exactly the same.
Commonly, indigenous tattoos are incredibly painful for the same reason that they are so individualised. The processes through which many indigenous cultures perform tattoos are unique to each group, but they share certain similarities. They are frequently painful, time-consuming, and especially intricate. The primitive instruments of indigenous tattoo culture deposit ink in the skin much more slowly than contemporary machines. The pain and intricacy of indigenous tattoo culture are necessary to the experience because these body modifications are about both the culminating work of art as well as the experience of modification itself. The ability to endure modification prepares one for the other pains they will experience in life.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.