Christopher McCune November 4, 2010
EN 384D.01: Travel Literature Class Blog
Tattoos: An Art Based in Perception
The role of the tattoo in Pacific Island culture is an immense one, tracing its origins back thousands of years. Though once viewed with horror in the Western world, tattoos have long since gained popularity and acceptability in our culture. One of the major differences, however, between the tattooed men and women of the South Pacific, and tattoos in American culture, lies in how we perceive and understand these works of art. In Oceania, the natives are able to "read" tattoos, meaning they can look upon another person and instantly understand the meaning behind that person's tattoos. In America, however, a tattoo's meaning is not instantly clear. This important difference is noted by Dr. Juniper Ellis in her book Tattooing the World, where she explains how, "Outside the Pacific, meaning is created by tattoo bearers and viewers who interpret the designs in new ways."
The fact that tattoos mean not only what the bearer says they mean, but as Ellis says, "also mean what his audience and other North Americans think they mean," is one of the major problems facing American as they consider the idea of inking their skin. In our culture today, especially within the United States, how people perceive you had taken on an immense, and somewhat disproportionate, importance in peoples' lives. Tattoos, while appealing to many, carry with them the strong probability that others will label and judge a person based on a misinterpretation of a tattoo. For many, this possibility is a crippling influence in their fear of getting a tattoo.
This tendency to judge people, often immediately and harshly, based upon something as small, ambiguous, and as easily misunderstood as a tattoo, is a significant issue in our culture. One needs only to look at the social networking site Facebook to see how important others perception of us has really become. Oftentimes, people dissect, evaluate, and judge one another through Facebook based on such shallow evidence as pictures of the person, the number of "friends" they have, and the cursory list in which they identify a few of their hobbies and interests. For example, at the dinner table over the summer I listened as my sister, a soon-to-be college freshman, evaluated the "normalcy" of her own, and each of her friends', randomly assigned roommates. Their judgments had been arrived at solely through the use of Facebook. However, before I am tempted to wag my finger at such behavior, I had to ask myself, have I not been guilty of such snap judgments myself? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes.
Too often we judge people based on some small detail, such as a tattoo or a Facebook page, and thus risk misjudging them. And, as we consider whether to mark ourselves permanently, with an image, symbol, or words, we know that this tattoo will affect, either positively or negatively, how people perceive us. The reality, however, is that, while things may be different for the Pacific Islanders, tattoos in American culture, it is important to remember, do not form the full identity of a person.