The meaning of tattoos and social status has always varied, depending on what culture and location the tattoo is associated with. From ancient South Pacific tribal leaders to modern day science geeks, the art of tattoo has been used to represent many different messages.
Historical Tattoo Meanings
Since the time of the caveman, people have been using tattoos to convey information. The Romans and, subsequently, the Japanese tattooed the foreheads of their slaves with messages like "tax paid" or other pertinent information for their oppressors.
Tattoos were also used as political statements. The Japanese whole body tattoo was created in response to a law that only the Imperial Family or the very wealthy were allowed to wear elaborate clothing.
Many people who were at the very top of their social strata also wore tattoos. Many traditional tattoos of the past were not of a person's own choosing, but part of a larger cultural tradition.
Tattoos and Tribalism
Body art has been used for thousands of years to convey social status among tribal people. Piercings, scarification, and especially tattoos have been used to show everything from criminal history to marital status.
Early in Polynesian tattoo history, only Samoan women of high rank were tattooed. Because of the high social status associated with tattoos, they later became a sign of manhood.
On the island of Borneo, women decorated their forearms with designs which symbolized their skills to attract prospective husbands. These designs were usually created by the Kayan women who were the tattooists for Borneo.
In New Zealand, the Maori people used facial tattoos known as "moko" to show tribal affiliation, lineage, and social status.
Inuit Tattoos, Yesterday and Today
In Alaska, women of the Inuit tribe used to tattoo their faces to indicate marital status. Hunters in this region also bore tattoos for protection from evil spirits and to increase their courage.
As a way of celebrating their heritage and paying homage to their ancestors, many young Alaskan Natives are getting traditional Alaskan tattoos. They are being inked with modern tattoo guns rather than the traditional bone needle and soot-laced thread, but the cultural meaning and pride are still expressed through this form of body art.
Modern Tattoos and Social Status Meanings
As in the past, tattoos hold many different meanings. Geographical locations and cultural contexts all influence how a tattoo is interpreted.
Tattoos and Negative Social Status
In the 1960's tattoos were considered a practice for only the anti-social and counter-culture groups in the United States and other Western countries. Still today, many tatted people have difficulty finding employment or getting promoted within their career field due to the social stigma of tattoos. This attitude is on the decline; however, there are still many negative contexts associated with tattoos among mainstream society. Some of the reasons that people who do not "get" body art feel intimidated by it are:
- Drug culture- Since the 1960's tattoos have often been associated with people who are addicted to drugs.
- Prison or gang tattoos- Just like many tribal tattoos, prison tattoos convey information about affiliation, status, and skills to other members of the prison population. These tattoos are usually considered to be illegal, and a prisoner is sometimes charged with crimes such as conspiracy for getting a tattoo in prison.
- Social dissidence - Many tattoos make strong political statements, others make subtle declarations. Many people are uncomfortable with opinions they believe are not shared by the majority of people.
Tattoos Become More Socially Acceptable
Tattoos are more popular now than they have ever been. Many musicians, actors, models and sports icons have visible tattoos. These are the people who often influence what society finds fashionable.
Tattoos are most often a very personal statement, and even people who don't seem like the "tattoo type" may have one. Genetic scientists may be sporting a DNA tattoo, and that mousey librarian may have a tribute to James Joyce inked on her lower back. Tattoos are a personal and permanent decision. Getting inked should not be done with social status in mind. Your tattoo should be about you.