USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘tattoo’
Customs
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Henna and Jagua

Context:

My mother and I were wandering the streets of Lahaina, HI, and we noticed an abundance of Henna Tattoo parlors. My mother, who had lived in Pakistan for a year in the late 1980’s, had told me a little about henna, and I was curious as to what it was used for and why there are tattoo parlors in Hawaii that use it, when it was originally something that came from the Middle East.

 

Interview:

Me: Can I ask you a few questions about henna?

Informant: I’ll have to ask my boss, as sometimes people come to ask questions and she worries that people will steal her methods, how she does things, that kind of thing. [After a couple of minutes] Okay, she agreed.

Me: Ah. Yeah, I’m not an artist, and I’m not from around here.

Informant: Yeah, I can tell. So her worries are unfounded. So we do not only use henna, but also something called jagua. And jaguar is a fruit fro the Amazon, so it is different from henna. IT is more aboriginal while like henna is kind of traditional. I can’t remember exactly what country in the Amazon it is from, but it comes from the rainforest, which is kind of cool. So all those pictures you see of kids with what looks to be tattoos all over their faces, it’s not actually real. Which is actually surprising to most people, so it’s like, no, no one’s letting their kids get face tattoos even when they look like they are. But I do traditional henna, so if you want a little bit of information on that, as we don’t always have it. Cause jaguar will last for about nine to ten days, whereas traditional henna will last like two to three months.

Me: Oh. Wow. That long?

Informant: Yeah. So most people aren’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Traditional henna, I am trying to think of where it started, I believe in India and I know that it was used for weddings, parties, and ceremonies, and rituals, and stuff like that. There must be some exact reason for why they used it, and I’m thinking that it’s because of, uh…I think that at one point in time the designs used to mean something. You know what I mean?

Me: Uh huh. And perhaps still do.

Informant: Like whoever had this sort of design, that meant that they were getting married, or that they were married.

Me: That it had some sort of cultural significance.

Informant: Yeah. I don’t exactly know it, I just make things look pretty. [Laughter] But I know that…which fingers the design goes up mean something, but I don’t know the exact meanings. I have never actually worked with someone from India who could tell me more about it. We just know more about the jagua fruit.

Me: Then talk about the jagua fruit. If that’s what you know more about.

Informant: Yeah. It’s…I just know that like, they used to do it for ceremonies, like for, I’m trying to think…Like when the boys were reaching adulthood.

Me: Like manhood ceremonies.

Informant: Yeah. And they would do it full bodied ones. And sometimes they would be completely covered and it’s kind of nuts.

Me: Wow, that must have taken a long time to prepare and such.

Informant: Not really, as all it is is just mashing up a fruit. It’s pretty organic and most people don’t really get irritated by it, while henna, a lot of people will because people don’t really know what a lot of people mix their henna with. You know? Because different people mix it with different things. While we just mix. Like our jagua is just a fruit. She buys the fruit and ships it here. IT’s super organic and just mashes it up and puts it in a bottle. I wish I knew more about this, as we are more aesthetic than we are anything else.

Me: I understand.

Informant: I can tell you that there is a difference between the traditional designs and the kinds of stuff that we do, the more picture stuff. You know, the more Western kind of stuff that Americans would get as tattoos.

Me: Yeah, the traditional stuff is much more abstract, floral designs.

Informant: Sorry for not being able to give you more information.

Me: No, that’s alright. This is good. Thanks a lot.

Informant: You’re very welcome.

 

Analysis:

I have noticed over the past several years that henna tattoo parlors are cropping up more and more. To me, this is quite odd, as henna was used, originally, for mostly ceremonial and ritualistic purposes. Also, the fact that the use of henna has spread so far from where the practice began is interesting. This, to me, is an example of something from a non-European culture that has been taken out of context by the Europeans, by the Americans, and turned into a form of body art that has little to no connections to its original purpose, and to the extent that most non-Indian, non-Pakistani, etc. people do not know or understand the cultural significance, the history, the traditions that henna ties into. Also, it is interesting to note that other cultures halfway across the world have a similar means of temporary body art – jagua – that has also been taken out of context to be used for simple decoration, with little care or regard as to the origins, the traditions behind its use. I think that the reason that henna, and to a lesser extent jagua, has become so widespread in American culture is because of its temporary nature. It is not permanent, and so it is a perfect tool for those people who are not sure as to whether or not to get a tattoo, or those people who are not sure they want something of a permanent nature. I think that this is the main reason as to why henna parlors have begun to spring up in the past few years.

Customs

Gaelic Finger Tattoos

“Oh, so in Ireland, you get these dot tattoos on your fingers and every tattoo has a different meaning. Every finger is for a different thing. On your left ring finger, if you’ve had two marriages, you have two dots tattooed on your left ring finger. There’s another finger where you get a dot for each child you’ve had. There’s another finger where you get a dot for every big life experience or tragedy. I call them Gaelic meaning dots because that’s what my Gran calls them. My Gran, that’s my dad’s mom, told me about this. She’s from Ireland. I actually once thought about getting those tattoos. My Gran had them for a long time but had them removed because it was hard for her to get a job. You can still see them lightly because tattoo removal is a lot more advanced now.”

 

The informant’s story about her Gran getting these finger tattoos is particularly interesting because it shows how institutions and traditions can be in conflict with each other, and how one culture’s traditions can be in conflict with another culture’s view of what is acceptable. These finger dot tattoos obviously carry deep importance and the informant told me that she has considered getting them, despite the fact that she was not born in Ireland and never lived there (she identifies as American.) However, the informant’s Gran found it very difficult to get a job when she came to America because tattoos of any sort are usually considered to be trashy or unprofessional, and most Americans are probably not aware of this folk tradition. Thus, her Gran felt she had to adapt and change in order to assimilate and function in American society.

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Religious Tattoo – American

“There’s a couple different reasons I got the tattoo. One, I had been meditating on this verse in Jeremiah that talks about when we put our trust and confidence in God it’s like this great tree with these deep roots that are planted by the river. And during times of drought, and uh, you will not perish, uh, and you will bare much fruit. And so my tattoo is of this tree with these deep really roots to remind myself that I need to put my trust and confidence in him. And that is where my strength comes from. And so that’s the idea behind the tattoo. Um, but I had always been interested in tattoos and um, I also had a very large scar all the way down my back and so I had wanted to put a tattoo over that. And so now, the tattoo that I have now, um, is a beautiful reminder instead of, um, a painful scar. And um, it reminds me of Christ and his love and were I put my strength in.”

The informant is a 33 year old minister from New Mexico who has lived in Los Angeles, California for almost ten years. When she was in her pre-teens about she had scoliosis so bad she had to get a rod put in her back to straighten it – that’s where the scar up and down her back came from. The informant only got the tattoo this past fall. Before she settled on the tree that she got, she had thought about other designs to tattoo on her back like angel’s wings.

I find it interesting that perhaps a half a year before the informant got her tattoo I was talking to her brother, a Denver, CO resident about tattoos and he had mentioned that tree tattoos were pretty popular right now. I have even considered getting a tree tattoo in the past few years. I’m not sure how much the popularity of tree tattoos played into her decision, though. I think it’s clear that this tattoo has a deep meaning for the informant that, like the tattoo itself, is only partly apparent to the passerby (most of it is normally covered by a shirt). The informant has clearly been through some rough times (though she is one of the strongest people I know) and this tattoo reminds her of where her strength comes from and allows her to cover those painful memories with ones that build her up. Essentially, I agree with the informant’s analysis of her tattoo.

I find it interesting that the informant, an Evangelical Christian minister, decided to express her faith through a tattoo. Not 50 years ago tattoos were considered repulsive to many Christians and there is still the notion that conservative people, especially conservative Christians, don’t get tattoos. The informant certainly fits the stereotype of who doesn’t get a tattoo – she was raised in a conservative Christian home where her father converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestant Christianity. However, it may be that the church she grew up in was rather divorced from that strict religious ideology. The New Mexican church her family has been a part of for over 35 years was started in the Jesus People Movement – a movement where large numbers of hippies converted to Evangelical Christianity. As hippies were known for breaking the strict rules of their parents, it makes sense that a Christian movement started by them might be more loose with traditional Christian rules than church movements founded by more strictly rule-abiding Christians. Still, that I know of there is no encouragement from within this church movement for people to express their faith through tattoos.

I think the story about the informant’s tattoo is as important as the tattoo itself. In fact, one cannot be divorced from the other. The tattoo is deeply symbolic to the informant and is an outward expression of her identity as a Christian. The depth of the story behind the informant’s tattoo is reflected in a website about tattoo meanings that quotes John A. Rush’s book Spiritual Tattoo,”It is important to study the myth connected with the images you choose, and if the images are of your own creation, make sure there is a positive outcome to the story/myth. Your tattooing should tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, a story that takes you past the old symbolic references that have bound you to an unhappy, unproductive, torturous existence, a history that you created. You need to build a story that brings you out of the old and into the new (p. 191).” The informant’s story inadvertently follows this recommendation exactly. She took a myth – a verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah – and used it to turn a painful memory into a positive memory, from the old and into the new. Her story also has a beginning – the scar, a middle – the meditation, and an end – a physical reminder of her strength in God.

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Material

Body Art

Tattoos

Me: Do you still have that tat?

David: that what? Tat

Me: U know, that tattoo

David: ooooooh yea. When people ask I tell them I was young and in love.

Me: Yea we were craaaazzzy

David: Well at least its hidden, its not on my arm or anything, could you imagine?

Me: Ouch…

This is a conversation I had with my ex boyfriend after we broke up. We are discussing tattoos that we decided to permanently ink on our body. They are of each other’s first name initial. Stupid, I know but at the time it seemed like a good idea. My parents do not know, of course, they would kill me.

Tattoos in the western world have for a long time been the subject of much opposing opinions. Some people are very conservative and completely against tattoos, some people get one or two, others cover their whole body. It is a form of personal expression that dates back thousands of years between 5000 and 4000 BCE to the Neolithic Stone Age. Yet, even though this practice is ancient and full of historical significance, parents of modern teenagers still shun it as being a taboo. This is especially true in my religion, Judaism, where there is a myth that one who has been tattooed cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is in fact false as I readily researched after hearing this rumor as I have two tattoos and was horrified to hear of this prior to my inking sessions.

The reason I think that tattoos, which I believe can be a beautiful and artistic form of self expression, are shunned is because of the western interpretations and transformation of the art. In many other societies, such as the Polynesian culture, tattoos are found to usually be of one style and help to establish cultural identity. However, Americans, as they notoriously do, myself included, guilty as charged have interpreted the tattoo to mean whatever they desire. In our world, variety is highly coveted and tattoos can range from flowers to star wars characters to spousal names to portraits of loved ones. While this is an amazing advance in the tattoo industry, tattoos in the US do not have the same historical significance like they do in other cultures. It is not as much looked at as a tradition or bodily celebration, but rather shunned by much of society as inappropriate. I think many conservative parents are worried because of the availability to their children to choose basically anything they wish as long as they are eighteen and can pay the money and take the pain. Indeed, my parents would be very mad to learn of my secret tattoo. I now look back and realize it probably was not the smartest decisions. However, I to not think I am alone. With 50% of marriages failing in the United States, there are bound to be more than a few people in the same tattoo situation that I am in.

Source: Wikipedia- Tattoos

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