Tattooing and the Art of Rebellion

Thursday 12th of March 2009 07:53:45 PM [Add To This Article]

Since long before the beginning of recorded history, the tattoo has been a symbol of rebellion. Outcasts, slaves and outsiders bore tattoos proudly and not so proudly throughout history, shaping the way that modern society has viewed tattoos for decades or even centuries. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the role of tattoos changed in Western culture dramatically. However, there is still a tinge of rebellion about even the sweetest butterfly tattoo, and that is one of the things that makes tattoos so appealing to many people in addition to them being personal artistic statements and a way to commemorate important events or people in our lives.

In ancient Japan, working men, gang members and criminals bore tattoos. The criminals were tattooed without their permission as part of their punishment, and their tattoos, which were often on the face or forearm, illustrated their crime. These highly visible tattoos kept these men (and sometimes women) on the outskirts of society, and they were unable to participate in community activities and often spurned by their families. One Japanese emperor actually gave a man a tattoo instead of the death sentence, which just goes to show how serious these tattoos really were when it came to impacting one’s life permanently. However, not to long after Chinese historians started documenting Japanese history and Japanese tattoos, other members of society who also felt outcast or downtrodden began adopting the art. Many heroes in Japanese novels at this time had tattoos, and gang members who believed that they were fighting the government or established for justice or just because they had no other choice or way to live started getting tattoos as well. Japanese tattoo art spread from gang tattoos to the working class, and while it was and still is a highly secret and intimate act, Japanese tattoos and Japanese tattoo designs are now some of the most beautiful in the world. However, their innate beauty and powerful violence make them a favorite of many people who want to express their individuality through a tattoo today.

In Europe, the tattoos had the same role. They were largely the domain of slaves and criminals, and they were not optional for these sects of society. However, as overseas exploration and travel grew popular and more successful over time, sailors began to get tattoos and bring the elaborate tribal tattoos of natives and other “savages” back to home port with them. This art was certainly not adopted by the aristocracy of the day, but it was quickly incorporated into many working class cultures as a way to feel like part of a different world where the rules and opportunities might be different. Even today, tattoos are largely favored by men and women who travel and appreciate other cultures. While they are certainly no longer only the realm of sailors and military men, tattoos in Europe and in the Western world are often a way to express how one feels joined to another culture or another part of the world through a certain tattoo design. 

In America, the tattoo has long been a symbol of individuality and often has been taken to extremes to indicate rebellion against societal norms, parents, “the man” and organized government and religion. Tattoo art is uniquely suited to rebellion in America in particular for several reasons. For starters, it is illegal in nearly every state to get a tattoo without a parent’s consent if you are under the age of 18. Naturally, this makes many teenagers long for a tattoo and devote serious brainpower and energy to getting one before they turn 18. Also, traditionally tattoos have been discouraged if not outright forbidden in many professional arenas. As a result, people who get tattoos, highly visible or otherwise, are viewed as daring and a little less bound by societal conventions than those who refrain from adorning themselves with tattoo designs. Of course, in America as in other countries, certain types of tattoos and tattoo placements are also used to indicate a variety of underground brotherhoods, such as gang tattoos, prison tattoos and recovery tattoos. It should be noted that after the tragedy on September 11, 2001, that tattoos have become strikingly more mainstream. The loss of life and the tragic aspects of the events on that day led many people to make a new (for them) statement in a way that they never would have considered before: they got memorial tattoos for their fellow Americans who died that day. These sentiments have led to an increased acceptance of tattoos in many highly professional workplaces and made the tattoo itself far more mainstream so that its content, rather than its pure existence, is now what determines the rebellious nature of a tattoo.

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