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Stereotypes Associated With Tattoos Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4221 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Tattooing is the act of making a mark on the skin by inserting ink to the skin using needles and dyes. The name 'Tattoo' came from the Tahitian word 'Tatu' which means, 'to mark something'. Therefore, tattoo, in this case, would mean to leave a mark on our skin. As its name suggests, tattoos have become a way to identity and represent people in both the negative and positive way. From the past to present, tattoos have undergone a transition from religious practices, branding of slaves and identity of gang members to a widely accepted practice by everyone as a way to represent themselves. Yet, the stigma of tattoos can still be felt today. People tend to have an impression of tattooed people as evil and being part of a triad gang. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, it could be due to firstly, the way tattoo was used in the past, the fact that gang members do use tattoos as an identity and lastly, the image created by the mass media, we will discuss them in detail later in the paper. To prove that these are indeed stereotypes, we will unveil what tattoos truly represent.

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The earliest Tattoos seemed to appear in Polynesia where archaeologists discover tattoos around the islands dating to at least the second millennium B.C. However, the exact location and year is unclear until today. Therefore, our project will be more interested in how tattoos were spread throughout the world. There was no definite answer to which country began to spread the use of tattoos. Margo DeMello wrote in his book that North America was the country that caused the wide spread of Tattoos when Captain James Cook visited Tahiti and discovered the art of tattooing there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He brought the idea of tattooing back to American and was since then spread to Asian countries. The picture below, Figure 1, is an image of an ancient North American with tattoos. In the picture, the person has a full body tattoo which stretches from the face to his ankle.

In another source, 'A Brief History Of Tattoos' stated that Egypt was the one that spread tattoos to other countries. Historical evidences of tattoos in Egypt can be found to be dated as early as before the Pyramids were made. Figure 2 is an image of ancient Egyptians with tattoos. It is visible that the ancient Egyptians had tattoos on their arms and legs.

The trend of people getting tattooed today is an increasing one. In March of 2005, The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found out that 24% of the general U.S. Population had at least one tattoo; 17% of those people have thought about having a tattoo removed and 5% of them have had a tattoo covered up with a different design. The National Geographic News stated in April 2000 that 15% of Americans were tattooed or about 40 million people. The art of tattooing is so popular that the government of America had to set up a tattoo association called the 'National Tattoo Association' to regulate the activities carried out by tattoo enthusiasts and to limit tattooing time and sales of tattoo equipments. There are two main reasons for the increased popularity of tattoos. Firstly, the process of tattooing is less painful and less time consuming today. The most common method of tattooing in modern times is the electric tattoo machine, which inserts ink into the skin via a group of needles that are soldered onto a bar, which is attached to an oscillating unit. This method is much more comfortable as compared to the agonizing traditional method which was to use a tool made of carved bone or wood, and tipped with a cluster of tiny needles, the artist punches into the skin with a succession of painful jabs. Figure 3 is a picture of ancient tattoo tools found in Egypt.

Figure 3

Secondly, the media, although also portrayed people with tattoos in the bad light as we will discuss in the later part of our paper, it has also played a major role in transforming tattoos into something so popular. Advertisements for common commodities ranging from cellular phones to alcoholic beverages have in the past ten years deliberately included tattooed skin. The advertisement for Chuck Taylor sneaker has created an ad in which a man with facial tattoos is photographed with a pair of shoes adorning his neck. Therefore, with these factors, it is inevitable for tattoo to become so popular around the world.

Tattoos are not worn upon the body but rather inscribed into the body. It is often regarded as a commodity which resists consumer ''throw-away''. Tattooing is a product that involves the consumer to become the witness, participant, and life-long bearer of a unique production process; a process in which the producer and consumer unite in complicated exchange that is simultaneously ritualistic and individualistic. However, before getting tattooed, one will see tattooing as a process which they pass through various barriers. Like Lawrence, we think that tattooing requires one to pass through the barrier of entering the studio, decide the design of tattoos, the location of the tattoos and the pain of tattooing. The process of tattooing involves a needle vibrating in and out at an incredible speed dipped in ink creating an indelible mark on the skin that will withstand all the elements and remain there for a lifetime. As tattoos are permanent, there will often be a second thought whether they should get tattoos. For one to get tattooed, he or she must be determined to get tattooed in order to pass through these barriers.

Stereotypes of people with tattoos as ex-convicts and delinquents were due to impression from the past. In the past, many countries used tattoos to mark criminals, to separate them from the majority and to deter people from committing crimes. In China, for example, authorities would tattoo the faces of prisoners who committed severe crimes before they were banished to another land. This is a severe punishment as prisoners who returned to the mainland after their sentence would still be identified as ex-convicts by people and it would be natural for people to shun them. Thus, it is not surprising that the impression of tattoos related to criminals last until today. People in the past also used tattoos in another way, which was to brand slaves. Slaves were tattooed by their masters to claim ownership of their slaves. In ancient Persian, tattoos were used on slaves to indicate both ownership and status. If a slave were to escape from their owner, they can easily be identified by others that they were slaves and who were their masters. Slave tattoos gave the people a status of 'slave' in the past, slaves would be beaten up and abused by just any other people on the road. . In the Greek and roman civilizations, around 2200BC, tattooing was also used in a manner similar to that used with slaves-in other words, a man would tattoo a woman to ensure that she was recognized as his "property" and as a reminder to her to keep her sexual desires under control. Thus, people today may associate people with tattoos with useless people. People today look at people with tattoos as abnormal people; they would think that people with tattoos are not like any ordinary person, something must be different about them. One of the reason could be due to how dime museums and circuses in the past exhibited tattoos. In the nineteenth centuries, 'Freak shows' better known today as circuses emerged. In these performances, tattooed people were considered 'made freaks', which means that they were not born with tattoos but looked like monsters. In dime museums, tattoos were exhibited alongside people with disabilities and natural wonders like wild animals and native people. Thus, this made tattoos seem bizarre at that era.

Tattooed people as gang members?

Secondly, tattooed people are often stereotyped to be gang members. This is true to a certain extent because tattoos have become a popular method adopted by gang members to mark their group identity and their alienation from the mainstream norm and social networks. Gang members in particular take pride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society. Tattoos have long been a means of identifying oneself with a group or culture and triad gangs were one of the first groups to use tattoos as a means of denoting identity and affinity. Tattoos are a way of both asserting membership in the gang and flaunting their lack of membership in straight society. For this reason, street gang members will often get tattoos on their hands and faces so as to permanently bar them from being a part of normal society. Tattoos can tell other details about the bearer, including rank in the gang and number of "hits" or other services performed on the gang's behalf, for example, the yakuza boss has full body suit tattoos. Tattoos were also used to express gang members' often fatalist philosophy of life. One popular tattoo among Hispanic gangsters is a depiction of the smiling and crying comedy and tragedy masks, meaning, "play now and pay later," or "my happy life, my sad life." Clock faces are also found within the intricate artwork that can make up a gangster's tattoos. If the clock has no hands, it symbolizes doing time in prison. In addition, tattoos served as a way for them to disrespect the authority, a desire for revenge, obscene words and obscene images. Take for example, the Yakuza have full-body suit tattoos on them as a symbol of being part of the gang. Tattoos are painful and permanent, this permanence marks their undying loyalty to their gang leader and that they will never leave the gang while the pain derived from tattooing was a symbol of their masculinity and that they were fearless individuals. Tattoos were not just popular in the western triads, Asian gang triads, like those in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan too have tattoos on them. Some Hong Kong triad members have dragons and phoenixes on their arms as a symbol of part of the gang. This may be because in Chinese traditions, phoenixes and dragons are auspicious and powerful animals. These symbols will bless them and allow them to be a successful triad. From our research, we see that that gang triads worldwide seems to have a liking for tattoos and the practice of tattooing, thus we can conclude that tattoos as a representation of gang triads is actually a worldwide phenomenon. Thus, it is no surprise that when people encounter a tattooed person, they will associate him or her with gang triads.

Figure 4: A common tattoo among Hispanic gang members, usually tattooed on the hand between the thumb and index finger.

Figure 5: This symbol that stands for "mi vida loca," "my crazy life." Southeast Asian gangsters have adopted the same tattoo of the three dots, defining its meaning as "To O Can Gica," or "I care for nothing."

In this paper, we will examine the role mass media plays in creating and shaping the stereotypes of people having tattoos. Mass media which includes the newspaper, movies and television has always been a great power of influence of people, affecting our viewpoints, decisions, perceptions, beliefs and even our habits in life. This is because, advancement in technology has made access to mass media content easier to everyone, so much so that it has become a tool for people to obtain knowledge of the world. In addition, as the society we lived in is commercial- and media-driven, television shows, advertisements, movies, cartoons and even music will affect the way we perceive the world around us. It is important to note that our knowledge of the world or what is happening around is frequently derived from the mass media. Many times, it is difficult for us to experience or see it evidently to know of it. Hence, we assumed what portrayed in the mass media to be truth and evidence of what is happening. Studies have shown that mass media tend to present a limited and recurring range of images and ideas which differs from realities hence the mass media is not a reliable source of information for the people. However, the mass media is not entirely unreliable as its credibility will depends almost entirely on the integrity of its author. This is often subjective among authors of TV series, newspaper and movies. Thus, we think that careful thinking should be taken when we are viewing the mass media and the usage of its content. We should not assume that all is true or wrong in the mass media but make our decisions and opinions on what is shown in it. Television dramas and movies like LOST, CSI and Prison Break(See Fig.8) have portray tattoos in the bad light, using tattoos as way to identify criminals, villains and gang members. Take for example, local sitcom 'Police and Thief', Mark Lee who acted as the gang member had a tattoo on his arm. The constant portrayal of stereotyping of people with tattoos will cause people to internalize the image that tattoos are related to villains and criminals. The effects of internalization can be drawn to case study of mass media and thin ideals. Research shows that continual exposure to the image that thin is beautiful has result in people thinking that thin is beautiful. The way the mass media causes people to internalize the images of thin ideals is similar to the way it causes people to internalize the image that tattooed people are villains, criminals and gang members. Hence, it results people to view those with tattoos as people who are criminals, villains and immoral. Research has shown a consistent relationship between the amount of television viewed and beliefs about the social world.

As our world modernizes, tattooing on criminals was abolished and became a trend for many others. The idea of tattoos being associated with crime and gang members also changed. This is partly due to the mass media and the change in gangs' practice. Mass media created the stereotype that tattoos are associated to criminals and gangsters but on the other hand, it also showed celebrities wearing tattoos. With the proliferation of the entertainment media worldwide, it increased people's exposure to celebrities which resulted in an elevation of the power of influence of celebrities. Hence, celebrities play a role in influencing how we see tattoos. Actors, models, musicians, and idolized athletes proudly herald the mainstreaming of a previously marginalized and historically underground practice. This causes tattooing to be gentrified and repackaged as desirable and fashionable. For example, David Beckham has a no. 9 tattooed on him to represent himself; the number he wore for Manchester United.Next, there is a decrease in the practice of tattooing in gang members, the reasons why they do not want tattoos will be discussed further in our project. To unveil the realities of tattoos, we will look into why gang members no longer want tattoos, and also show that tattoos actually have many other different definitions other than the usual image people have.

As mentioned earlier in our paper, tattooed people are stereotyped to be criminals and gang members. Tattoos were a way to represent gang identity, it also became a way for the police to spot gang members and catch them. This causes tattoos to become a disadvantage for gang members and gangs. This is because their illegal activities could be easily discovered if police see a group of tattooed people around. Hence, some gang members and gangs actually discourage tattooing in order to allow their illegal activities to go unspotted. Take for example, in Japan, modern Yakuza bosses discourages tattooing in order to avoid the attention of the police. Another example is seen in the Yamagumi boss Takenaka Masahisa who has no tattoos. In addition, ex-gang members also try to avoid being identified as gang members for fear of being attacked by other gang members. For example, see in Figure 10, a man by the name Hugo removed his tattoos as he was attacked on the streets. From here, we can infer that tattoos are no longer the proud symbol gang members wore to show their identity or ex-gang members wore to show that they were part of them before. With the dangers attached with tattoos wore on them, there is a decrease in this practice in some gangs. Thus it is a stereotype that tattoos actually represent gang triads as gang members can look like the normal average person without tattoos on them.

Tattoos may be a symbol to represent the individualistic character of one through self-expression and creating an identity. Tattoos allow the wearer to be differentiated from the mainstream and contribute to the image of them as being unique. In Ervin Goffman's exposition, he suggested that the physical cues offered to others through scripted body performance are pivoted in shaping interpretations of the self. This statement was further supported by Mark B. Stephens , he said that tattoos are an important way to self-express and create an identity for many, especially the younger generation. Among the general adolescent populations, between 10% and 30% of adolescents or young adults currently have tattoos. Adolescents and their parents are often at odds over the acquisition of bodily decorations. For the adolescent, piercings or tattoos may be seen as personal and beautifying statements, while parents may construe them as oppositional and enraging affronts to their authority In using such decorations, and by marking out their bodily territories, adolescents can support their efforts at autonomy, privacy, and insulation. Seeking individuation, tattooed adolescents can become unambiguously demarcated from others and singled out as unique. Therefore, by having tattoos, it is a way for teenager to convey a message to their parents that they should be in control of their own body and life. In addition, tattoos were frequently used to create group identities, other than gangsters, in the modern world. Tattoos were used as an identity for modern women in Thailand as females were not allowed to have tattoos in the ancient times because the tattoo artists were men and thus, they were not allowed to be touched by other men. Therefore, women with tattoos in Thailand today would signify a new era and the change of conservative women image to a more liberal identity.

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Tattoos can also be as a symbol of following the crowd and worshipping of their idols. With celebrities wearing tattoos, it causes people who enamored with the particular celebrity to follow in their path. This has resulted in a different understanding of tattoos. Those who were followers of the celebrities would definitely see tattoos from a different viewpoint. They will not see tattoos as gang members but cool and fashionable. To the fanatics, their celebrities have the ideal look, thus they will try to look and act like film and television stars by adopting their clothing styles and mannerisms. Hence, we see that if celebrities have tattoos it could most likely cause their fans to have the tattoos too. Take for example, Angelina Jolie have lots of tattoos. Her fans tend to follow the trend and start to have tattoos on their bodies.

Following with the group in case of peer groups will often affect youths. Youth, aged 12 to 17 undergoes a period of uncertainty of their identity as this is period which they are neither children nor adults. Adults treat them as children while they want to be treated as adults, but yet, they are still immature to make some of their decisions. Thus, it causes them to seek the peers for support as they are the ones who can best identify with and understand them. Youth become subjected to peer pressure as they would want to be part of the group. When their peer group wants to have a tattoo, they too would want a tattoo in order to be part of the group as the tattoo would be a group identity. Although there maybe some dissent about where and what tattoos should be place on them, but Youth would usually go ahead with the majority. In this case, tattoos may not be a symbol of being gang members or criminals but intent to signify one's unique identity among peers by being trend followers, which is to have tattoos.

Tattoos as art

Tattoos also became a way for people to decorate themselves, in a way, to enhance their beauty. Researchers have shown that celebrities are icons of fashion trends. With celebrities wearing tattoos there is no doubt that many people look up to tattoos as a decoration on oneself, thus they treat tattoos as a form of art. This results in an erasure of early images and meanings of tattoo by recreating tattoo as a form of art. People treat their skin as canvas and would tattoo as much as they like on it. People are so convinced that tattoo is a form of art that it led to the increase in number of tattoo art galleries for the appreciation of tattoo designs. These galleries display all kinds of tattoo designs, both ancient and modern, which help to understand the meaning behind this body art that is inked into skin. Tattoos are not only become part of the art gallery, it also became more recognized internationally. Many international tattoos shows were held as a way to showcase tattoos as an art. Take for example, Singapore Tattoo show 2009, International London Tattoo Convention were held to showcase tattoos as a form of art. These events received overwhelming response, with an astounding 20000 participants for the London Tattoo Convention. We see an increase in support of tattoos exhibition and that tattoos are slowly recognized as a form of art worldwide.

Tattoos and Religions

In addition, tattooing is a tradition for some religions as it represents their beliefs for their religion and can act as a form of blessings to them. Take for example Euro-Asiatic Catholics living on the Malabar Coast tattooed birds on their forearms as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, while Christian Serbs tattooed their arms with a cross. Catholic girls used to gather in the cloisters of churches to get small religious tattoos that they believed had magic powers in Bosnia and Herzegovina In terms of people's belief and religions, wearing a particular tattoo would enable them, on dying, to pass from this earth to the land of the spirits. Moreover, tattooing has become a spiritual act as its process is often viewed as ritualistic. For some devotees getting tattoos after a long and painful process, they would usually feel a connection with the spiritual world and thus, tattoos became an important part of people's spiritual identities. It was believed that human bodies are sacred, thus tattoos were treated as signs of recognition in the world of the spirits amongst the Naga, in Assam. This is because the husbands would choose a motif to tattoo on the shoulder of their faithful wives so as to recognize them in the afterlife. Similarly, Bengal Hindus believed that a person dying without tattoos wouldn't be recognized by his relatives in the world of the spirits. The pictures below are religious tattoo designs wore by devotees.

Figure 11: Celtic tattoo

Figure 12:Holy spirit tattoo

How stereotypes affect their life?

Stereotype will affect the life of tattooed people in terms of employability, finding a life partner and cause inconvenience to their daily life.

According to a survey, 85% of survey respondents agreed that tattoos impede one's chances of getting a job. Regardless of who the real person may be, stereotypes associated with tattoos can and do affect others. In general, individuals with tattoos are often viewed as 'rougher' or 'less educated.'" Despite such prejudice, only 16% of employers have an official company policy on tattoos and piercings. Vault found that over half of employees with tattoos have to cover them up when they were at work. Forty-two percent of those surveyed admitted to having tattoos. Of that group, 40% had one or more tattoo. Therefore, this survey clearly showed that people with tattoos are prejudiced against and this caused inconvenience to them at work.

Secondly, the stereotypes of tattoos caused tattooed people to have difficulties looking for a life-partner. Studies have shown that different attitudes towards people with tattoos. This is supported by a research done in United Kingdom, the results showed that tattooed women were rated as less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than non-tattooed women by men, with more negative ratings with increasing number of tattoos. This showed that men tend to find women with tattoos less attractive and hence, this made tattooed women less possible to find a partner.

Lastly, people with tattoos experience some inconvenience in life. This is because of its' association with gang members and criminals. Take for example, in Japan, public places like gyms, public baths and hot spring resorts forbid entry of tattooed people. This is because tattoos are greatly associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mob. Owners of these places are afraid that these tattooed people would cause trouble for other customers which will then affect their business and reputation.


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