Tattoo Taboos: A Crime Against Society?

MonicaLeslie in Guides

Tattoo lovers and followers from many parts of the world might have no problems with getting the beautiful art of ink.

Either for fashion, love, expression of the most innermost feelings through the medium of a passion or just sending out a message which means something really dear to the heart; tattoos have screamed louder statements than words would dare. However, for those of us from backgrounds immersed in such cultural backgrounds of everything “moral and righteous”, the expression on the faces of parents, family members and friends will always remain etched in our memories the moment we announced the “heartbreaking” news that we would be getting a tattoo. Expressions like “how dare you defile your body” or “what would people think of you” or “you are such a disgrace to this family” are not far-fetched.

For me personally, it was never an easy decision, being a Eurasian; half British and half Chinese and having been caught in the middle of two cultural divides. On one hand, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom with such indifference to extreme cultural beliefs. Heck, some of my friends already got their first tattoos before we were 18. In my case, I still had a lot to explain to my culturally sensitive side of the family, even when I was very well gone into my twenties. However, as a graphic designer and artist, I was not going to let the belief of anyone else overshadow my love, passion and dreams; not even those of my family, unfortunately. The only thing that is saddening is the fact that many of these cultures had the same art of tattooing and tattoos embedded in their way of life through time and all of history, but now generally seen to be some sort of taboo or sacrilege.

Tattoo taboos
Tattoo taboos

In these societies, anyone with a tattoo is seen as an outcast and those unworthy of society. It is not a secret that this assumption is always not true and the expression of art should not in any way signify the commission of a crime. However, if you are considering getting a tattoo, you've probably already put a great deal of thought into what and where you are getting inked. If family, cultural, or societal pressures are holding you back, there is no need to let the disapproval of others hinder your self-expression and love for art. You can take comfort in the fact that tattooing is not a subversive counter-cultural movement; rather, it is an ancient art that has a rich history in cultures around the globe and throughout time.

Tattoo taboos
Tattoo taboos

The earliest record of any tattoo yet discovered dates back to the Copper Age, that is, as early as 3500 BCE. In some cultures it has been used for medicinal or spiritual purposes, and in others it has simply been considered a form of decoration or fashion. Often, tattoos are used as a symbol of identity. Tattoos on Egyptian women were common, but when the Romans gained control of the Mediterranean, they did not approve of this. For them, nothing was greater than the purity of the human form. As the empire expanded, however, Roman soldiers gained respect for their Briton adversaries, who wore tattoos as badges of honor. Many Romans adopted this custom, using tattoos to show strength.

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Tattoo taboos
Tattoo taboos

During the 11th and 12th Centuries, Crusaders would have Jerusalem crosses tattooed on themselves before they went to war. This was to identify them as Christians for burial purposes if they died in battle. After the Crusades, the custom died away again. Criminals were often marked with tattoos, contributing to their unsavory reputation. Tattoos did not become popular again in the West until modern times. In the East, tattoos have an equally long and rich history. The Japanese have practiced tattooing since around the 5th Century BCE. The merchant class used ornate tattoos to rebel against strict laws regulating the use of kimonos to only the royal and elite. Japanese tattoos are seen as a sign of allegiance to the wearer's beliefs.

In Thailand, tattooing remains a huge part of culture and religion. Buddhist monks have been known to use Tattoos for such various reasons as spiritual and protection for soldiers in battle or warfare. In fact, ancient-long tattooing cultures such as the sak yak tattooing are still in vogue not only in Thailand, but worldwide. Also known as the the art of bamboo tattooing, this tattoing tradition is so old that it is really very hard to say exactly when and how it originated. This tradition is believed to have begun in the Buddhist temples and at that time, monks as well as Thai soldiers were obligated to get this religious tattoo from their superiors. It was the belief that it was necessary for strength, protection as well as invisibility.

Tattoo taboos
Tattoo taboos

In China, tattoos are most often viewed negatively. As with Europe, this at least partially due to a history of tattooing criminals to mark them for exile. The earliest mention of Chinese tattoos is in the Water Margin, which speaks of bandits around Mount Liang in the 12th Century having tattoos. A famous legend about Chinese general Yueh Fei, tells of his mother tattooing him to remind him of his duty to his country. Many Chinese tribal groups have long standing tattooing traditions. While each people group has their own tattoo culture, most of them are used as signs of strength, or to show allegiance to a tribe in the face of conflict with neighboring peoples. They are usually given to teenagers around 14 to 15 years old to indicate coming of age and maturity.

Tattoo taboos
Tattoo taboos

Throughout history, people have used tattoos for all different reasons. Tattoos have ranged from badges of honor to signs of disgrace and everything in between. One thing that has not changed is that body art remains a powerful medium for self-expression.

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