Body modifications have existed in our society for centuries and the way in which it is perceived has changed somewhat over the years. But certain stigmas still persists to this contemporary day. One such body modification is the act of inking or marking the skin: Tattooing. Like most body modifications, tattoos are an often misunderstood form of body modification. Despite the stigmas, tattoos have become a unique object of desire to diverse groups of people. But are the popular perceptions of tattoos out of synch with the true meaning behind them? This essay will explore the social and cultural practices of tattooing and the causal connection between the mind and the tattooed body. It will also explore why tattoos engender uneasiness and curiosity, and constitutes a challenge to normative discourses and discursive practices. In order to understand the stigma behind tattoos, one must first look into the past and understand the history of the body modification. The Journey from Stigma to Commodity
The word ‘tattoo’ first emerged after James Cook’s voyage to Polynesia in the 18th century (Fisher, 2002). However, it seems that the art of inking or marking one’s body dated way back to the Greeks. In fact, the Greek word stigmata actually indicated the act of pricking one’s skin with ink (Caplan, 2000). Making sense out of the contemporary linking of tattoos to stigma in our society. The word stigmata was used by the Greeks for marking ‘Others’, such as felons and slaves. The association of the word to social others was later spread to the Romans and they treated the act of marking as a state control mechanism (Caplan, 2000). This touches on Michel Foucault’s framework on social control in his book Discipline and Punish: “But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination” (Foucault, 1979, 25-26). These involuntary body markings have been the Roman’s way of exerting control over the bodies of criminals and slaves (Caplan, 2000). Their marked bodies would then serve as an agent of the state, communicating their social role and as a reminder of the state’s power over the bodies of the public (Caplan, 2000). Criminals would have the name of their crime or the name of the emperor etched into their skins, while slaves would have either their master’s name or the title slave on theirs. These marked others would forever be imprisoned. For their bodies would always act as the second prison, constituting and problematizing their embodied place in the world, and their relations with others. The tattooing of criminals continued through the Middle Ages and spread across Europe, making the social practice of marking bodies synonymous with criminality, deviance and social outcasts. The practice of marking bodies was later used during the colonization projects in Africa and Asia. Like the branding of criminals, it was used as a means to exert ownership and power over the bodies of the locals (Fisher, 2002). With such a dark history, how then did the act of tattooing become voluntary and commoditized? The trend of voluntary tattooing was first observed in the late 1700s. Sailors at that time returned home sporting tattoos from overseas to commemorate their voyages (Fisher, 2002). However, this act of voluntary tattooing was more prominently documented in the American Civil War, where soldiers progressively began tattooing their allegiances and military symbols on their bodies (Caplan, 2000). The act of tattooing their allegiances was a way for the soldiers to pledge their bodies to their cause and a means of differentiating friend from...
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