Why does one get a tattoo? Why does one think that they can go through a sharp needle poking them rhythmically to put a piece of art on their skin? Why does one embed ink onto themselves like they are a wall being carved? People get tattoos to decorate themselves, to remember those they have lost, to remind themselves of what they want to take to the grave. The answer could be as simple as the little twinkle in their eye when they see themselves inked, as their lit-up faces remind you of the little kids who messily draw on their arms in every colour from the sketch pen box and show off their artistry to every person they encounter.
Everyone knows those obnoxious society aunties who sip Chai and say in their croaky voices, “Kids these days cannot accept themselves as they naturally are! Constantly want to change things,” as they dye their greying hair and get a new pair of spectacles every month.
How old are tattoos?
The physical evidence of tattoos, as far as we know of it, is over 8,000 years old. However, sculptures that are believed to depict tattooed people and tools that could have been used for tattooing are dated back to more than 10s of 1000s of years. To those who refuse to confront the concept of forever due to their commitment issues, well, multiple mummified remains across the globe have some exciting news for you! Mummies from the Chinchorro culture having a mustache tattooed serve as an impeccable reminder that cosmetic procedures are simply not a ‘trend.’ From an Iceman with charcoal tattoos along his spine to an Egyptian priestess with designs that are thought to symbolize fertility imprinted on her, humans have always been in love with the concept of etching their skin with something personal.
Considering the fact that a tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin, it is rather expected that it has been used as a reflection of spirituality since the dawn of time. Rabari women in Kutch are often decorated with elaborate patterns that showcase their faith in magic to the world. Rajput women emboss themselves with the emblem of Lord Krishna’s crown to paint their position in the hierarchy on their arms.
Trigger warning: The following two paragraphs contain graphic descriptions of forceful infliction of pain.
Indian tribes have told and retold tattoo tales as old as time. For instance, the Apatani tribe from Arunachal Pradesh tattooed young women to protect them from being kidnapped by purposely making them appear unattractive. The excruciatingly painful procedure involved piercing the girl’s skin with thorns and pouring a mixture of animal fat and soot in the open wound. Even though the agonizing procedure was banned in the 1970s, many heavily tattooed women are still alive to tell their stories.
The concept of forceful tattooing is unfortunately not alien. Women from lower castes in rural Central India are often tattooed to have a reminder of their inferior status on their bodies. From slaves in early Greece and Rome to criminals as old as in 7th century Japan, to Jews during the Holocaust, tattooing has not always been used as a means of self-expression. It has also been used as a gruesome portrayal of the fact that we are often treated as property by those higher in power; that out of all the things in the world, our body may not even be our own.
And yet, we fight that power structure. Several descendants of Holocaust victims have their family members’ numbers tattooed to take ownership of themselves in a power dynamic that aims to oppress them.
It is no shocker that being tattooed has always raised a bunch of eyebrows, and that is mirrored in the multiple tattoo bans across time. But as they say, “rebellion finds a way.” The notion of underground tattooing continues its legacy today as well in countries such as Korea where there is still a huge stigma attached to being inked. Ironically enough, having art on one’s body is commonly perceived as unprofessional in multiple fields such as medicine and teaching. Who is the society to deny art to those a part of it? Freedom of expression also involves tolerance to the expression of others.
Art cannot be denied. Art will be made, even if it involves intolerance from middle-aged grumpy men who forward misogynistic Whatsapp jokes and obnoxious society aunties.