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Tattoos trace history across race and culture


To have a tattoo these days would be considered mainstream. Even a face tattoo is nothing that consists of shock value, thanks to SoundCloud rappers like Daniel Hernandez, professionally known for his rapper persona-name Tekashi69, and the latest Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, who was also known by his artist name XXXTentacion. But tattoos and tattooing came a long way, especially across race and culture.

In ancient times, tattoos were a way of identifying someone’s status in society and tribe. The word “tattoo” originated from the Samoan word “tatau” and has many meanings. “Ta” means “to strike,” and “tau” means “to reach an end, a conclusion, as well as war or battle.” The word “tatau” also means “rightness or balance.” Which makes sense, thinking about the process of getting tattooed.

But it wasn’t the indigenous people who originated tattoo art. In reality, the Egyptians were the pioneers. Tattooing was practiced by people across cultures—from Japan to Europe—in which individuals adorned their bodies with art. After Christianity was introduced to Europeans, tattoos became something associated with the outlaws and outcasts of society. However, in the 18th century, British sailors would travel to the South Pacific, and returned with tattoos that reminded them of their voyages.

While the art form is more mainstream today, tattoos still don’t come without a stigma. For instance, the Chinese have been tattooing for centuries, (termed “Ci Shen” or “Wen Shen”) but it’s not something that is being practiced frequently. Throughout Chinese history, this art form has been seen as an abuse of the body, something considered undesirable.

Tattoos in modern times can be perceived as lustful or even promiscuous on women. A study that sent 11 women to the beaches of Brittany, France observed how long it would take men to approach women without any tattoos and with one tattoo on the lower back. It took an average of 24 minutes for men to approach the tattooed women to start a conversation. Those men also admit to thinking those women would have sex with them on the first date.

But for Black women, elements of misogyny and prejudice can come from within the Black community, where some Black men may refer to Black women with tattoos as “ghetto” or “trashy.”

According to, “despite the increasing popularity of tattoos over the last decade, people with tattoos are viewed negatively.” As well, “studies focusing exclusively on tattooed women have found that they are judged more harshly than their male counterparts.

In Japanese culture, tattooing is also known as “irezumi” and has always been seen as controversial. The modern Japanese trends witnessed today are derived from the Edo Period (1603-1868). The importance of tattoos in Japanese culture has fluctuated in popularity and acceptance, somewhat similar to Chinese culture.

Applying a tattoo has often been used as a punishment in both Japanese and Chinese cultures. However, tattoos in Japanese culture were initially associated with firemen, who wore them as a type of spiritual protection. These men were admired for their bravery—and sex appeal—which, in turn, would foster imitation. After the Meiji period, the Japanese government made getting tattoos illegal and tattooing was associated with being a criminal. Today, most members of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, are heavily tattooed, which they conceal in public.

Across Africa, tattoos have different meanings and are made with different techniques. Most tribes will choose the design for the person to wear. For thousands of years in Africa, the practice of tattooing was seen as protection against bad spirits, representing the social status in a group or tribe, and also reflecting personality traits. Tattoos were even believed to cure diseases.

Thanks to shows like “Ink Master” and “Black Ink Crew,” African-American tattoo artists have made a name for themselves. The first Black tattoo artist who won the contest “Ink Master 2016,” was Anthony Michaels. However, according to an article by National Public Radio (NPR) many “canvases,” as they refer to on the show, don’t feature Black skin, which has drawn concern from some Black tattoo clients.

These days however, tattoos are largely mainstream. Both tattoo artists and customers benefit from this arrangement because the artform is now far more acceptible in society. Yet, tattoos among persons of color can still elicit racially-charged overtones, particulary for Black males. Many young Black men applying for employment may be falsely associated with gang activity or being an ex-felon.

And although these days many women, such as L.A. Ink Latina Kathrine von Drachenberg (“Kat Von D”), as well as Katrina Jackson (“Kat Tat”) of Chicago’s Black Ink Crew, rose to fame in an industry that remains primarily male dominated. Sexism, racism and misogyny still abound within the industry.

“I can’t say I’ve heard any negative comment first hand, but I have had to deal with certain stereotypes,” said Richard “MADE RICH” Parker in an interview. “Ya know…people thinking that Black artists are less talented more so because the color of your skin, but I think that’s a stereotype in every business.”

Besides the obvious difference between Black and White skin, there are also bias and stigma associated with what’s considered “cultural appropriation.” For example, getting a Polynesian tribal (such as the exact same one as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) would be considered inappropriate since those types of tattoos are designed for each individual—based on goals and achievements—as well as inherent fears. Such tattoos are recognized as a symbol for guidance and protection.

Some would argue that only Polynesians should get a Polynesian tattoo. Regardless, tattoos have been copied for centuries through cross-cultural variations. Styles have changed and crossed-over to create new ones, and many people will travel to Thailand, for example, to get tattooed by monks hoping that the image will provide personal protection.

Russia has an entire encyclopedia designated to Russian prison tattoos and their meanings. Often, the placement of these tattoos can be considered culturally inappropriate—and at the same time risky—such as stars on the chest or knees (indicating a prisoner’s ranking or authority), or a cross on the chest, which is a symbol for “thieves of laws.”

Tattoos will always be associated with some type of bias about the person or the origin and meaning of the tattoo. More importantly, it is a part of modern culture that connects people from different paths of life and cultural backgrounds.