Cutting edge

August 10, 2001

The hip but scarcely respectable art of tattooing deserves to be written up not written off, argues Nicholas Thomas

Tattooing has been practised in many parts of the world at many times, and today is increasingly fashionable, if still scarcely respectable. Yet this globally significant form of body art is strangely underresearched: there are old anthropological monographs documenting particular indigenous tattoo traditions, and many recent picture books directed at enthusiasts but very few academic studies. The most distinguished exception is Wrapping in Images, a searching and provocative discussion of Polynesian tattooing by the late, brilliant anthropologist Alfred Gell . But the connections between Oceanic tattoos and those that you and I probably see every day were only touched upon in passing in his book.

The links between Pacific and western tattooing are, however, of fundamental importance. Though at various times Europeans have pierced and stained their skins, the stimulus for modern practices was the encounter between Captain Cook's seamen and the people of Tahiti. Tattooing was one of many Polynesian customs that struck mariners as curious and remarkable, and it was one that many chose to emulate.

Tattooing spread rapidly among mariners, to such an extent that it was widespread by the early 19th century. By then, tattooing was practised in port towns on both sides of the Atlantic and it gradually became a hallmark of the urban underclasses, notoriously criminals and prostitutes.

This early history - when tattooing moved out of Oceania to enter a global maritime culture - has never been systematically studied. The reasons for doing so now go beyond filling in the gaps in the historical record: tattooing provides insights into the most challenging questions about body and self, about art and meaning, and about cross-cultural exchange.

To what extent does selfhood inhere in the skin rather than the mind, and what are the motivations and effects of its deliberate and permanent modification? If art has, in the European intellectual tradition, generally been seen as a bearer of meaning, and tattoos are commonly described as kinds of "writing" on the body, is a theory that emphasises language-like significance adequate to the physical experience that is so essential to this body art form? And, what does it mean when tattoos are transposed from indigenous to European contexts? Do they carry any of their cultural significances with them? Or are these values lost in the "translation"?

These questions have assumed new significance over the past 20 years. The "tattoo renaissance", said to date from the 1980s, was marked by renewed interest in Oceanic tattoo traditions. As a result, American and European tattoo enthusiasts travelled to Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii and Samoa. They made contact, most notably, with Samoan tattooists, who alone had sustained their practice through the centuries of repression by European missionaries and colonial officials. These tattooists began travelling to tattoo conventions in Europe and North America to reveal their technical wisdom and to inflict the extraordinarily painful but visually spectacular traditional thigh and body tattoos on willing white victims.

The contemporary body art scene could not be more different from 18th and 19th-century maritime milieux, but these new adoptions of Polynesian tattoos raise some of the same questions as their forebears. How do the values and effects of body arts change as they are transported from one culture to another? How do these body arts work?

Tattooing is, moreover, appealing as a research topic because it draws disciplines and activities into stimulating dialogue. There is nothing new about interdisciplinary research, and nothing particularly notable in a project that draws together historians, art historians and anthropologists. More unusually, however, the project on tattooing and cultural exchange that has recently been granted funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Board involves collaboration with a distinguished documentary photographer, several museum curators and a number of renowned tattoo artists. The outcomes of the project - based at Goldsmiths College, London, from September - will include not only the usual academic publications, but also exhibitions and workshops involving scholars, artists and tattooists. Anthropology is more than detached academic analysis, it is engaged in public dialogue with all the opportunities and risks that that brings.

Nicholas Thomas is professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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