Decolonise Your Tattoo When is a tattoo culturally appropriated?

How much cultural appropriation is in your tattoo?
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Westend61

Who is Chatting?

Anna Felicity Friedman (interdisciplinary tattoo scholar), Atreyee Majumda (historical anthropologist) and José Mendonca (writer) are chatting with you about the intersection between tattoos and colonial thinking – and how we can deal with it.

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Dr. Elisa Jochum
 
With this link, you will get to our broadcast channel on WhatsApp. In this live chat, you are able to discuss with our experts and fellow users about this topic. Every two weeks, a new issue will be discussed. 

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    A Chinese tattoo © picture alliance / blickwinkel

    The other day a co-worker walked into my office and, seeing my many tattoos (I have full sleeves and then some), mentioned that someday she really wants to get a Chinese character tattoo (my co-worker is not of Chinese heritage). This is one of the more common examples of tattoos that could possibly be considered appropriation. It brings up the larger question: how can we engage with tattoos in an increasingly globalized world – both in and outside of their respective cultures of origin? Are any images fair game to be tattooed on someone’s skin, caught up in the global wave of culture?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    I think we engage with tattoos like waves in the sea. All the waves should follow the stream. The bottom of the sea, where the detritus lies, is our cultural residual component.
     
    Tattoos just became a kind of graffiti on the skin. The skin is taken as a medium like the spoken word. People follow the new wave that was once ancient and reappears as something new and pop cultural now. Old things like the tattoo culture are returning...

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    For over 5,000 years (and possibly many more than that), people have been inscribing tattoos. They seem to have arisen independently over time in different parts of the world. People have used them for healing, for protection, for identity marking, to mark rites of passage, to show status, to memorialize, to just plain decorate and for many more reasons.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Maori face-tattoo © picture alliance/Heritage Images

    So, what about when tattoos have deep cultural meanings? And then get inscribed on someone who lacks those cultural connections? Maori tattoos come to mind and there has been significant debate around the appropriation of Maori cultural imagery lately. See, for example: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/cultural-appropriation-maori-face-tattoo-white-woman-new-zealand-sally-anderson-a8367486.html

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Gibt es eine Verantwortung als kulturell sensible Weltbürger (falls man sich selbst als solchen betrachtet), dazu beizutragen, diese Art von Aneignung zu verhindern?  Oder geht es uns nichts an?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    This story evokes two cultural symbols: TATTOO and TABOO. In contemporary society, taboos are being overcome through tattooing. Tattoos become social networks devoid of any elements of control.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Taboos about using imagery from other cultures? I guess, from my perspective, people are becoming increasingly more sensitive about the origins of the images they are putting on their bodies forever...(which I think is a good thing – I am increasingly uncomfortable with people seeing images they think are “cool” and just replicating them on their bodies without understanding the meanings.)

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I think tattoos reveal a particular relationship with the body, which is culturally different. Many indigenous communities are very comfortable with tattoos.

    For example, some indigenous Indian communities ink tattoos on their bodies at an early age. You will find many fetishistic India photos of indigenous women in their traditional garb being photographed showing their tattoos, many on foreheads, some on forearms and such.
     

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    @Anna: This is the result of our time. A time trying to escape from the civilisation of the book, the redefined discourse, to reappropriate anything lost: human identity, equal status. Tattoos, by way of their long history, create a connection – a sense of being linked to their past origins and thus to something universally original.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I also see “cool” as a signature of late capitalism. The cool as a kind of being unaffected by communitarian, ethnic or other signs of belonging. One can access these group signs by being cool and at the same time not be burdened by them. Example being the backpacker who accesses everyone’s culture but does not subscribe to any.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    This is a condition that is made permissible by late capitalism and flexible accumulation.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I am talking about late capitalism which has a distinct aesthetic of freedoms, streamlinedness, and individuation, quite different from the times of 1960s and 1970s – the time of high capitalism in countries like the USA. The latte-drinking, veganism-practicing yoga enthusiast or biker is the person I am thinking of as articulating this late-capitalist aesthetic.
     
    Its articulation involves not only cultural appropriation but also a loose belonging to various traditions. Belonging in the non-West involves some serious commitment. The late-capitalist Western, and at times non-Western, subject is drawn to various traditions and traditional practices, never being bound by any. Not to be bound is the essence of the late-capitalist subject. In the case of tattoos, it involves an aesthetic fascination for say a Chinese or Maori character, without any real commitment to those traditional complexes.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Tattoos are also a provocation – a demonstration of freedom, too – in a modern, urban lifestyle.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Some indigenous communities enjoy sharing their cultural elements (e.g., Japan), but others don’t (e.g., the Maori example above). Also, some kinds of indigenous imagery are more sacred than others. Is it responsible freedom, responsible provocation to not research carefully the imagery you are inking on your body as to whether it might offend people from the culture it came from?

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    So we see people of European/US-American heritage, for example, with elaborate Japanese tattoos, which seems to be ok and not necessarily “exoticist”. (Disclaimer: I wear some Japanese-style tattoos.)
     
    I think under certain circumstances, like when a culture is generally a gift-giving type, when they are ok with the sharing of their art, when tattoos are not tied to any sort of religious or status-marking or deeply meaningful tradition, it becomes more okay to get tattoos from a culture that is not one’s own (however, if I could make different tattoo choices today, I would not get many of the tattoos I have). I also think that actually traveling to a place and interacting with local culture in a non-touristic way can also give a person some licence to get tattoos that are not part of their own culture while avoiding the “exoticist” trap.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    Referring to @José’s comment further above: this particular demonstration of freedom has to do with the conditions of late capitalism.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Yes, it has. Given the fact that the tattoo culture became very commercial.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I am also curious about the middle-class suspicion of tattoos.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    I think the notion of middle-class tattoo aversion is waning significantly, all over the world, as tattoos become desired and a mark of celebrity status. Tattoos are still looked down upon in certain places in the world, especially where gangsters widely adopted tattoos as uniforms of sorts – most notably in Japan and a number of Central and South American countries. My recent travels in the Middle East also showed that, although things are changing, more conservative Muslims generally see tattoos as haram or forbidden. That said, globally, we see tattoos on a much wider variety of people than perhaps ever before.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    In Africa, we still use the practice of scarification. Because you can see it better on our black skin. I give you an example. In the Malange province, here in Angola, there is a municipality where people have their faces scarified. This is like a proof of identity, of belonging to that municipality or village. But traditional healers perform acts of scarification on children’s bellies or on young people’s shoulders, and even on adults, in order to protect these people from some kind of sorcery. In some ways, this kind of tattooing is the cultural heritage of a community. So I believe states should promote studies about these practices and raise public awareness about them as a form of cultural/religious heritage which should not be used for commercialised tattoos.
     

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    @Atreyee: I also know some people here in Angola that belong to the middle class and have tattoos. 

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Of course many popular tattoos today were essentially appropriated from various subcultures...so a different form of a colonial mindset. In the1990s in particular, as high fashion looked ever more to punk and grunge and those types of subcultures, we began to see tattoos become accessories. Something to beautify the body (in a kind of transgressively tinged way), rather than as marks of outsider or fringe status. The black and grey tattooing so prevalent today on sports stars and musicians started largely in the barrios of Southern California, tied to street life – again, its initial appeal was that of the edgy, but it has become the opposite today.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Maybe not a colonial mindset. You look at the spoken word or at graffiti: I see it as a mark of a new world. People want to operate in dimensions of humanity rather than in dimensions of single cultures. Tattoos may act as a protest against racism – a protest inoculated into the skin.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    It’s not only about racism but also about economic differences. The tattoo as a protest against an old, economically and socially stratified society that still uses slaves in its economy...

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Interestingly, scarification has never emerged into pop-culture popularity the way tattooing, piercing and earlobe stretching have. Is this due to racism or that it is a more intense type of body modification from a technical standpoint?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Scarification started as a specific cultural ritual. And it is painful. So it is not easily copied.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Tattoos are expensive, they have become a commodity...how does that work here?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    It works through high publicity on the internet. We have a capitalist industry of tattooing. So it has to work, like Coca-Cola. Tattoos have become an addiction. A skin drug.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    So, I’m curious if you see this as a positive development? I guess I see it as negative.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    I don’t have any tattoos. I love my natural skin. I also regard the commercial appropriation as something negative. But it works as a new kind of identity card for the modern youth and their weakness of mind – as a substitute identity.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I don’t either, and I think some of my friends see me as conservative.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    To clarify, I think the growth of tattooing overall is wonderful, but not the part that I perceive as cultural or subcultural appropriation.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    I agree with you, Anna. I see it more from an economic point of view…
    Nevertheless, I wanted to say that I value the practice of tattooing!
     

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    I think tattooing can be an excellent way to signal identity or to visually accumulate experience. To push this forward, how can people be encouraged to be more careful tattoo consumers, perhaps? If tattoos as a product, an industry are here to stay, globally?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Now I can go back to the idea of “Decolonise Your Tattoo”. In a way, it is a kind of colonisation. But, as a free choice, it acts more as a capitalist wave of consumerism.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I am ambivalent about the global wave of tattooing. I see it as any other fashion fad that draws on the ethnic as curious mementos from other worlds – worlds that the tattoo wearer doesn’t often understand.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    I’ll add that tattooing in particular is an interesting example here because its meaning can vary so widely from culture to culture – different from other things (like food) that have become part of a capitalist society.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Look at teared-up jeans. I think tattoos operate in the same vein: as marks of extensive urbanisation – Coca-Cola, teared-up jeans, graffiti, nihilism, tattoos.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Similarly to how many families moved to towns and cities in the wake of industrialisation, present-day statistics, especially for Africa, reveal a massive shift to capitals, not only from the countryside. Capitals of countries, and I see it here in Luanda, are being invaded by millions of people. One quarter of Angola’s population now lives in Luanda. The phenomenon of tattoos is mostly a practice of urban culture where it turned into a wealthy business. From there, the urban culture of tattoos spreads throughout the countries.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    @Jose: I think, of that list above, tattoos are the most complex and fraught with problems in terms of being appropriated. Because of the sacred and/or specific meaning of the original.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Well, besides their historical complexity, tattoos also became ink messages of an unknown upcoming world. But a residual historical significance will always remain within small traditional groups around the world.

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Personally, I’d like to plead with people to more carefully research the origins of the images they seek to tattoo. Rather than recycling other people’s images, can they come up with something new? If they really want to recycle an image, can they give a solid rationale?

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    @José: Do you mean this in a poststructuralist way? Regarding both the idea to see tattoos and imagery as inextricably linked with questions of origin and the idea of tattoos as a pop-cultural search for identity – as a construction of definite meaning?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    The future is unknown. But the reappropriation of ancient skin design is larger than just pop cultural implications. It is death of education, moral and ethics...

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    We’d like to ask our readers of this debate to continue the discussion. What are your thoughts on decolonising tattoos? What questions can we answer? What from the above discussion can we elaborate upon? Do you have tattoos you regret because you feel you may have been approaching their acquisition from a place of “exoticism” or tourism? Or is “exoticism” in tattooing sometimes okay? Can we ever divorce original meaning from a tattoo if it had sacred origins? How can we move to a future where the choice of tattoo imagery is more carefully considered (or does this not matter)?

  • Reader Reader via WhatsApp

    What do you think about people who create something new based on traditional tattoos as a kind of mix-up of cultures? Doesn’t it fit very well in a word that mixes cultures and traditions?

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    I think it depends on what the source images are. My personal opinion is that certain sacred images are off limits as are those from cultures who do not want their images worn by outsiders. So people need to carefully do their research. If there is a possibility of offending, then maybe different imagery should be chosen.

  • Reader Reader via Telegram

    What about the tradition of tattooing among sailors?

  • Anna Felicity Friedman Anna Felicity Friedman

    Only a small percentage of tattoos on sailors might be considered problematically colonial. Usually, when sailors were getting tattoos of images from another culture, they were either because they were purchased, gifted or traded in some way. Only rarely were they an “exoticist” souvenir. Sailors also had their own tattooing traditions. One might argue that those traditions have been coopted/appropriated by some contemporary tattoo wearers who have “old school” nautical/maritime imagery inscribed when they were never sailors.