Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art.

The first tattoo I ever saw was on my paternal grandmother’s right hand. The simple markings — some dots, and what I believe was a flower, stood out in dark green ink on the back of her hand between the base of her thumb and index finger.

I recall my grandmother chuckling softly when I asked about the drawing on her hand. She told me that she had to get the tattoo when she was married, to serve food to her in-laws (whom she lived with initially after her wedding, an arranged marriage at age 16). Grandma said they “chooked” her (Trinidadian slang for piercing or stabbing the skin with a needle) and that it was painful.

What I took from the very brief discussion, was that the tattoo on my grandmother’s hand was not of her choosing, but a cultural custom she was expected or forced to submit to. As she didn’t seem happy talking about it, I never brought the subject up again. My grandmother passed away in 2007, and with her passing, I lost the chance to learn more about the meaning and circumstances of her tattoo directly from her. I asked my eldest uncle (the third of twelve children) about my grandmother’s tattoo, and he shared the following story:

“Long ago…daughters-in-law had to have a tattoo on their hands before their mother- and father-in-law would eat food prepared and presented to them. They not only had to cook the food but bring it to the mother- and father-in-law; when they finished their meals they left the plates for pick up. They could and would refuse the food if the daughter-in-law did not have a tattoo. My mother got hers later, after she had three children. She went to the tattoo artist who was piercing her hands and one on her chest. It was painful and she had me with her. I got annoyed at the artist hurting her and tried pushing his hands away. He grabbed my left hand and stuck the needle in me five times in a pattern and to this day I have the proof. Its like an ampersand (“&”) but not quite defined.”

When I saw that the Royal Ontario Museum (“the ROM”) was hosting a new exhibit on the history and culture of tattoos, I thought about my grandmother. I hoped to learn something about her tattoo, and perhaps more about my own family history and Indian heritage.

Alas, this was not the case.

Don’t get me wrong — I did enjoy the exhibit — but I wish there was more to it. I wanted to see more photos from around the world and learn more about the cultural and religious significance of tattoos in different cultures. The layout of the exhibit was also a bit confusing, and I felt like some parts of the world were left out (the Indian subcontinent and much of Africa, for example). Of course I knew the small exhibit couldn’t provide the history of tattoos in every culture…but more photos would have been nice, at the very least.

Some of the facts I learned and found most interesting:

  1. Tattoos have been around for at least 5,000 years.
  2. The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian word “tatau” as recorded by Europeans in the 1700s.
  3. The tradition of tattooing was repressed by European colonialization and Catholic and Christian missionaries.
  4. In some cultures, tattoos were part of rites of passage, symbols of beauty, prestige and strength, and/or served a protective or defensive purpose. For example, in the Drung culture of Yunnan, China, women’s faces were tattooed for a dual purpose — tattoos were seen as beautiful within this cultural group, but they also protected the women from kidnapping and rape by other groups (as the tattoos were thought to hide their true beauty).
  5. In other cultures, tattoos were associated with gangs, criminals, slaves and prostitutes. A photo of a tattooed man in a Russian prison reminded me of the scene in Eastern Promises, when Viggo Mortensen’s character sits stripped down for assessment by the local mob. His tattoos tell the story of his crimes, prison experiences and the punishments he’s faced. He is accepted into their ranks. (Great film by the way.)

To the credit of this exhibit,  it propelled me to do some research on tattooing in India (which is where the tradition of my grandmother’s tattoo would have originated). I realized that other people have been searching for answers to the same questions I have, and I came across some interesting reading in the work of anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak. Also known as “The Tattoo Hunter,” Dr. Krutak’s work is focused on the history and culture of tattooing around the world.

Conveniently, Dr. Krutak had a lecture scheduled at the ROM, as part of the ‘Tattoos’ exhibition. I bought a ticket, and tonight, attended the event: The Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Tattooing: Medicine, Myth, Magic and Meaning. It was a fascinating lecture, and I love that Dr. Krutak incorporated video into his presentation, because he wanted his collaborators to tell their own story and share their own culture. The photos and history were interesting, and though the lecture covered tattooing traditions in only a few communities around the world, there was depth, an obvious respect for indigenous peoples, cultural practices and history, and some great storytelling by a charismatic speaker.

Coming back around to my grandmother, I know why she had to get a tattoo (because of her in-laws) but the meaning behind it remains outside my understanding. Was it for religious reasons? A social identifier? For protection or strength? Or simply a rite of passage into adulthood? I do not know. But I do hope that one day, I’ll find the answer.

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