A tattoo is a permanent mark or a design made on the body using ink and needles. Body tattooing is ancient and widespread. Like camouflage cosmetics, body painting is a mechanism for enhancing appearance.
American Indian tribes tattooed the body or the face, or both with ethnic arts that relate to physical prowess, beauty, and temperament. “Culture’s think themselves in the most immediate and affective ways through the combined symbolism’s,” wrote Peter Stallybrass and Allon in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 1986.
Culture and Tradition Inspires Tattoo Body Art
Tattoo symbols created and used by men illustrate not just ethnic art but also tribal way of life. In Japan, tattoo arts make use of symbols related to the Japanese culture and tradition. Japanese tattoo designs often portray bonsai trees and cherry blossoms, geishas and samurais, and the ancient gods and goddesses.
Polynesians on the islands of Tahiti tattooed their boys with ethnic messages to mark the male rites of passage. Body art messages would include biblical texts or good wishes for the child. Soon after, geometric and floral designs are hammered into the skin by hand from face to ankle.
The Pazyryk people believed that tattoo designs of dots and dashes would prevent one from having misfortunes. Similarly, a parrot tattoo etched on the shoulder of a Burmese man could attract good fortune. On the other end of the spectrum, people used Aztec sayings to Russian phrases, Celtic knots and mazes, to ancient scrolls and charms to make a bolder statement.
“I see tattooing as an art form, an expression. I got it to make a fashion statement,” said model Wade McClain in Models with a Strong Inkling by Christina Tam, September 22, 2000, Daily News Record.
Body Art for the Man
Body adornment is ancient and basic to men. In the early days, male bodies are required to get tattoos. Tattooing then involved a higher level of pain that is thought to be perfect to test male masculinity.
The Pazyryks were remarkable Iron Age warriors. As a result, they had elaborate body tattoos with images of fantastic beasts to denote their physical prowess and to set them apart from the rest. “Two monsters resembling griffins decorate the chest, and on the left arm are three partially obliterated images that seem to represent two deer and a mountain goat. On the front of the right leg, a fish extends from the foot to the knee. A monster crawls over the right foot, and on the inside of the shin is a series of four running rams which touch each other to form a single design,” wrote Ronald Scutt and Christopher Gotch in Art, Sex and Symbol, 1995.
A high threshold for the tattooing pain serves as a kind of validation of one’s masculinity. A body tattooed with fantastic body art can add a visual appeal that lends veracity to the male image.
Tattoo Symbolizes Male Inclusiveness
A beautiful piece of art painting can hold the attention of men with luxurious ease. Ancient tattoos were not just decorative arts. Tattoos were also powerful charms and symbols of faith.
Tattoo art can convey the wearer relations, status, and values. Such design of a tattoo has an all-black fine-line style text etched with a heavy outline and little interior shading. The symbol conveys the importance of “roots”—heart and home, and the company of one’s own relations. Today, this tattoo design remains as prison and mainstream style.
Cross tattoos are long time symbols of Christian virtues. Yet, in the world of gangs and mafia, a cross tattoo on the chest is a mark of a thief. “One important facet of a sociological analysis of any social world is to see when, where, and how participants draw the lines that distinguish what they want to be taken as characteristic from what is not to be so taken…” wrote Howard S. Becker in Art Worlds, Berkley: University of California Press, 1982.
History points to the samurai as strong and courageous. Men who choose to be marked with samurai art tattoos desire a strict code of conduct–discipline, sacrifice, trust, and respect in every action. However, not all tattoos express good meaning. Racist groups such as the Hammer Skins carry a pair of crossed hammers to show their total indifference to men of colored skin. Similarly, the skull that symbolizes fear becomes a symbol believed to cheat death when tattooed on the arms of a biker outlaw.
Tattoos are the most artistic, decorative and unique body adornments since ancient time. Tattoo art that was once frowned at by modern society is now a medium of expression to men who use their ankles, arms, backs, chest, and tailbones as an art canvas. Self-empowerment is seen through the ranking of self and the other. (Stallybrass and White: 1986)
- The History of Tattoos, The Vanishing Tattoo, Vanishingtattoo.com
- Mobilization of Arts by Joseph W. Ruane, Frostburg.edu