Cultural Ink: Drawing Identity with Tattoos

Do people get tattoos for the same identity-driven reasons they buy products? Tattoos have come a long way from being a sign of rebellion to an accepted form of personal expression. But how connected is body ink to our sense of identity?

In many ancient cultures, tattoos have acted as important signifiers. Back in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “Not one great country can be named, from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the aborigines do not tattoo themselves." Throughout human history, tattoos have been used in myriad contexts and cultures (cultural ink), serving “as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talisman, protection and as the marks of outcasts and convicts.”

"The beautiful thing about tattooing is that it is a statement of what we believe in and who we are." -- Chris Rainer, author of Ancient Marks. Photo by Kimberly Bryant
"The beautiful thing about tattooing is that it is a statement of what we believe in and who we are." -- Chris Rainer, author of Ancient Marks. Photo by Kimberly Bryant

Recent studies have investigated the psychological drive behind tattoos. After interviewing people from different age groups and professions, researchers discovered that tattoos and storytelling were intimately linked. Many people had chosen to get their tattoos to represent a type of narrative they’d experienced in their life. Overcoming major challenges and remembering a loved one were common themes, along with stories of redemption. Tattoos can serve as personal myths, as symbols of different arcs in our storyline of our lives: “Each tattoo can be viewed as a symbol of an episode or scene in the narrative of one's life.”

The study also drew a connection between the reasons why people get tattoos and why they buy products -- as a way to create identity. In this sense, tattoos reiterate the “power of of narrative in the construction of personal identity.” The difference is that trends in lifestyle and products change, while tattoos are permanent: “people use tattoos as a way to find meaning, permanence and stability - and thus a coherent identity - in an increasingly complex and fragmented world.”

Tattoos say a lot about someone's identity. Photo by Kimberly Bryant
Tattoos say a lot about someone's identity. Photo by Kimberly Bryant

The popularity of tattoos has ebbed and flowed throughout centuries: they’ve been worn by criminals as badges of honor, and by models as part of next season’s hottest trends. But regardless of who’s sporting the ink and why, tattoos remain a gateway into our personal and cultural identity.

"The human body is always treated as an image of society." -- Mary Douglas, Anthropologist By Kimberly Bryant, writer @ Ignitechannel.com

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@Kimberly Bryant

Writer @ <a href="http://Ignitechannel.com">Ignitechannel.com</a>. Kimberly Bryant is a Canadian photographer and writer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She holds a degree in Visual Arts from the University of British Columbia, specializing in digital art and printmaking. With interests in film, travel, and visual anthropology, her passion for creative expression shapes who she is and how she interacts with the world.

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