The tattoo as a physical object inscribed on the skin exists in an ambiguous position, being both on the surface of the body as well as imbedded into the very fiber of the skin. In this way, a tattoo has an interesting duality that is not existent in other forms of body modification and adornment. A tattoo, unlike body painting, is permanent. It becomes part of the wearer’s skin, but it also bears the qualities of the superficial, the superimposed.
In the West, especially, tattoos are viewed as something external imposed over the natural body. The unadorned and unaltered body is constructed as the natural state and any willful changes wrought on its surface are by definition, cultural inscriptions. This makes sense from a Western perspective where the intellectual and philosophical traditions that support and inform these views come from the Greeks, who idolized the unadorned athletic body. As such, anything other than that “natural” ideal was necessarily an unnatural modification. This tradition of thought continued with Christianity where the belief was that the unadorned body was made in the image of God and was therefore the base structure onto which all things (clothing, body art etc…) were imposed. Even more modern thinkers such as Foucault describe “the body as ‘the inscribed surface of events'” (Mascia-Lees 1992:147), continuing the concept that the markings of a body come from an external source and must be inscribed onto it.
This perspective captures only one tradition of thought, as Benson observes, “every culture’s ideas about the body both reflect and sustain ideas about the broader social and cultural universe in which those bodies are located” (2000:234). The ancient notions of what is natural and unnatural to the body in Western society are now challenged by medical science, which incorporates a variety of “unnatural” solutions to health problems such as pacemakers, replacement limbs and the like. Moreover, it must be understood that many non-Western cultures view the body in a completely different light. In many societies, the tattoo is not an outside inscription on the surface of an already complete body but an external manifestation of the internal. The tattoo’s purpose, therefore, is to explain or display a person’s internal self on the outside of the body, cementing and solidifying the internal by marking the external. From this perspective, the unmarked body can be constructed as the unnatural because it bears no reflections of what is internal.
The tattoo has had so many different functions throughout history that it is hard to come up with a definitive list. Tattoos have been used as rites of passage, to mourn the dead, as decoration, for protection, to harness magical powers, to proclaim membership in a group, to proclaim one’s defiance of social norms, to heal the mind/body split, as punishment, and to record the events of one’s life.
In indigenous practice, the ordeal of getting a tattoo signified a person’s readiness to become an adult. This was one way that the tattoo was used among the Maoris of New Zealand. People in Hawaii would also mark their bodies in remembrance of their dead spouses or much loved kings. This purpose is still in use today, as many people get the names or images of deceased relatives tattooed on themselves in remembrance. The tattoo has always had a decorative purpose, even when its main purpose was different, since tattoos are generally considered to be beautiful and appealing. No one would willingly get a tattoo they considered ugly. But in some cultures and for the most part in Western society today, tattoos take on a purely decorative quality. They are meant to enhance the wearer’s beauty and attractiveness. Women usually get feminine tattoos that are meant to be attractive to men, while men will get more masculine tattoos in order to attract women. Additionally, interesting and visually pleasing tattoos will also bring the wearer much admiration and interest from both sexes, who will wish to know all about it, thus increasing the wearer’s popularity overall. This motivation is certainly a large factor in the popularity of tattoos among Western youth today.
Tattoos among the Burmese and among ancient groups of people in Central Asia were well known for having magical qualities that brought the wearer protection or increased their powers for whatever purpose they wished. Today, this is still practiced among pagan and Wiccan wearers of tattoos in the Western world who choose to tattoo various symbols for their purported magical qualities. The number of people, however, who actually believe that tattooing a specific symbol will protect them or make them more powerful is very small. More often than not, these tattoos have a different purpose – to proclaim membership in a specific group.
Tattoos are very powerful symbols of membership because of their permanence. Their prevalence as identifiers for gangs underscores that concept since, as with a tattoo, membership in a gang is often a lifelong commitment. Tattooing of religious symbols connects one to a religious group, gang symbols connects one to a gang, cultural revival tattoos connect one to all other members of that ethnic group, and so forth. While being inclusive, tattoos also function to the contrary by clearly being exclusive as well. In the modern world, tattoo wearers will be excluded from certain types of occupations, often depending on the size, type, and style of their tattoos. A giant swastika on the forehead included the wearer in a neo-Nazi gang, but also excluded him from regular society. It also proclaims that person’s defiance of social norms, another purpose of tattoo in modern culture. Tattoos and those who wear them are still considered to be slightly different from those who are not tattooed. They are perceived as more on the fringes, on the cutting edge, than other people, and a certain type of tattoo will proclaim that “edginess,” that defiance of social convention.
Healing the mind/body split is something posited by Mercury as a possible purpose of the tattoo in the modern world. She writes “the advent of cyberspace has created a rootless, placeless society, accessed by the seated and thinking. One’s place is nowhere or anywhere…the physical body never interacts with anyone. A result of this statelessness is psychic and physical numbness. Tattooing, piercing, implanting, and branding are means of jump-starting sensate functioning that has lost its capacity for feeling” (2003:88). People who subscribe to the ‘new primitives’ subculture and philosophy often cite this as a purpose for their various body modifications.
Historically tattoos were used as punishment among the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and the Japanese. There have also been more modern manifestations of this use, including the tattooing of Nazi concentration camp prisoners and Saddam Hussein’s alleged tattooing of people opposing his regime.
Tattoos are used as a record of one’s life so that with every significant event another tattoo is added until the skin is the story of the person in it. People get tattoos to remind them of achievements as well as their lowest points so that they are able to put the past behind them. This use is common today and is often combined with the mourning purpose of tattoos.