Modifying the body: tattoos and piercings

by Kasey West

Body modification in the form of tattooing and piercing is traditionally viewed with reserve in contemporary Western societies. Those with tattoos or piercings are seen as rebellious and defiant of social conventions. However, body adornment in other non-Western cultures plays an expressive role in the articulation of cultural and religious values. Ritual ceremonies involving body modification and ornamentation mark rites of passage, the calling of spirits and the enhancement of beauty (1). Whilst Western societies promote slender, tall athletic bodies as an ideal of beauty, perceptions of beauty in other cultures often focus on what has been done to the body rather than on the body itself.

Body modification is not a new practice. It can be seen in many ancient cultures. Evidence of body marking has been found on Egyptian mummies dating from between 4000 and 2000 BC. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word meaning ‘to strike’, tatau , and examples can be found in the history of ancient societies in Hawaii and Tahiti. A recently discovered ‘Ice Man’ whose tattoo markings were preserved in a glacier, is estimated to be around 5000 years old. In Britain, tattoos of animal motifs on members of ancient tribes were designed to scare their adversaries in warfare. As Julius Caesar remarked, the blue appearance that these tattoos gave to the warriors made them ‘frightful to look upon in battle’ (2). However, when Roman soldiers imitated these tattoos themselves, the Roman Emperor Constantine I banned the practice as being against ‘God’s handiwork’. In effect, body ornamentation in Western Europe was thereby largely repressed and extinguished through fear of religious persecution by the then dominanct Christian religion.

In other non-Western cultures, however, tattooing, piercing and scarification of the body were regarded as a necessary part of religious expression. Within these cultures, body adornment and alteration were believed to distinguish humans from other animals, so providing evidence of civilisation and socialisation. Ornamentation was performed following strict observation of ritual preparation, ceremony and taboos. For example, tattooing was widespread as a religious practice among the peoples of the South Pacific. In the Marquesan Islands, tattooing of men began at puberty in a ceremonial rite. Women’s arms and legs were also inscribed with complex and elaborate motifs. These tattoos were believed to defend against spiritual and physical danger. Similarly, a sacred rite among the Maori involved using a mallet and chisel to gouge deep cuts in the skin, usually on the face. Those who received the tattoo were highly respected for their spirituality and bravery and were secluded from other non-sacred people while their wounds healed.

A form of tattooing called cicatrisation or scarification is widely practised in traditional African societies. Rubbing charcoal into small cuts made with razors or thorns forms decorative patterns of scar tissue in the skin. These designs are often indicative of social rank, traits of character, political status and religious authority. For African women, scarification is largely associated with fertility. Scars added at puberty, after the birth of the first child, or following the end of breastfeeding highlight the bravery of women in enduring the pain of childbirth. Scars on the hips and buttocks, on the other hand, both visually and tactually accentuate the erotic and sensual aspects of these parts of the female body.

In other cultures, piercing rather than tattooing forms the main focus of such religious and social symbolism. For example ear piercings in Alaska are used to represent social status and prestige. Similarly, lip piercings in Inuit (Eskimo) societies are performed at puberty to mark a boy’s transition to manhood, whilst social distinction is emphasized by nose piercings among the Tlingit of Alaska. Tattooing, on the other hand, is traditionally thought to enhance female beauty in Inuit (Eskimo) societies. Close parallel lines running from the lower lip to the chin of a young girl are usually drawn by older women using a needle, thread and lamp soot.

Body ornamentation, especially tattooing, was spread among Western societies when soldiers and sailors returning from conquest and trade imitated the practices they had seen among the indigenous people of Asia, Africa and the South Pacific. Working class men in Europe and America wore tattoos primarily as a symbol of tough masculine pride throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, a revival of interest in body modification in Western industrialized societies in the late twentieth century is associated more with domestic youth culture movements than with the foreign origins of such practices. The Beatniks of the 1950s and Hippie movements of the 1960s turned to Asian tattooing techniques as a personal expression of spiritual and mystical body aestheticism. Conversely, working-class young people of the Punk movement in the late 1970s and 80s used tattoos and piercing as symbols of rebellion in an explicit political protest against their feelings of imprisonment in society’s rigid class structure and values.

A recent rise in the popularity of tattooing and piercing in the West is evident in magazine features (3), themed photographic exhibitions (4) and newspaper articles (5). In America, it is estimated that between 10 and 25 per cent of teenagers have some kind of tattoo or piercing (6). The opening of a tattoo and piercing section in the London high-street store, Selfridges, indicates a new interest among middle class men and women in body modification techniques. This can be attributed to an increasing professionalism of such practices and access to high quality tattooing resources (7). Popular forms of tattooing range from a single image to a full bodysuit tattoo. Common sites of body piercing include the ear, eyebrow, nose, bridge, cheek, lip, navel, nipple and genital. Different methods of piercing add further variety to body modification styles and include the regular method, surface, pearling, sub-incision and pocket piercing.

However, whilst body modification may be finding new levels of acceptance in certain areas of society, motivations for tattooing and piercing among adolescents and middle class women are profoundly different in nature from those of the sailors, soldiers, bikers and gang members more commonly associated with such practices in the West. Originally a social symbol of group identification and affiliation, tattoos and piercings are now being invested with more personal, individual meanings. Clinton Sanders, a sociologist who spent seven years engaged in field research work among young people with tattoos, believes that tattoos provided his subjects with a means of self-identity. He writes that they marked themselves with ‘indelible symbols of what they see themselves to be’ (8). The sociologist Chris Shilling argues that as notions of the inner ‘self’ are conflated with the appearance of the surface of the body, adornment and ornamentation occupy an increasingly significant role in the construction of personal identity (9). In other words, piercings, tattoos and other body modifications allow a person to control and manipulate visual projections of their own sense of individuality. For example, the website ‘Body Modification Ezine’ (10) includes numerous readers’ stories about the extent to which a tattoo or piercing has changed their image of themselves. One contributor wrote that being pierced ‘helped me know who I am’.

It appears therefore that, whilst practices of body modification in traditional non-Western cultures serve to connect people to their social position and ancestry, tattooing and body piercing in the West functions to delineate individuals from the society in which they live. As such, body modification in contemporary Western societies is not only a code of identity but also an attainable aesthetic standard of beauty and physical appeal among those that ascribe to its values.

(1) Krakow, A. (1994) The Total Tattoo Book , New York, Warner Books.

(2) Sanders, C. (1988) ‘Marks of mischief. Becoming and being tattooed’ in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography , Vol. 16, No. 4, Jan, p. 395  432.

(3) For example, Betts, K. (1994) ‘Body language’ in Vogue , April, vol. 184, issue 4, p. 344.

(4) For example, Manne, D. (1993) ‘Hung up on SM’ in The Melbourne Times , July 7, p. 13.

(5) For example, Masterton, A. (1994) ‘Carved in Flesh’ in The Age Extra , September 3, p. 13.

(6) (2002)’Body piercing, tattooing, self-esteem and body investment in adolescent girls’, Adolescence , Autumn issue.

(7) Rubin, A. (1988) Marks of Civilisation , Los Angeles, Museum of Cultural History.

(8) Sanders, C. (1988) ‘Marks of mischief: becoming tattooed’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography , Vol. 6, No. 4, Jan., pp. 393-432.

(9) Shilling, C. (1993) The Body and Social Theory , London, Sage.


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