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Beyond skin-deep: the politics of tattooing

When I was in New Zealand, I fancied a typical Māori tattoo. I found the symbols and their function as representations of one’s life story fascinating. I wanted to commemorate my stay in New Zealand and the experiences connected to it. At the same time, on social media platforms like Instagram, I learnt about cultural appropriation. Hence, I started questioning the appropriateness of carrying cultural symbols. From my travels to Thailand, I knew that Thai people did not appreciate seeing the Buddha used as decoration, even less in the form of a tattoo, because of his cultural and religious importance. Manish, an Indian yoga instructor with the OM symbol tattooed on his right hand, explained that the OM symbol should never be displayed below hip level while at the same time remarking that he would not endorse the decision to get an OM tattoo again. Since I did not want to be disrespectful to Māori culture, I started doing some research on the topic.


After doing extensive internet research and talking to Māori tattoo artists, I discovered that Māori tattoos are classified into two categories: Ta Moko and Kiri Tuhi. My Māori tattoo artist reassured me that Kiri Tuhi, meaning skin art, was explicitly for non-Māori. Ta Moko, on the other hand, is uniquely reserved for Māori and is usually tattooed on the face because the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Māori tattoo artist Taryn Beri writes on her website that Kiri Tuhi “is a way for Māori to share [their] cultural arts with people from around the world in a respectful manner”. I, therefore, decided to go ahead and get a Māori tattoo, but I want to take the time to unpack the question of cultural appropriation, as it happens all the time, in case others are considering using culturally significant symbols as tattoos.


Tattoos and tattooed bodies are usually attached to negative stereotypes. Because they originated in non-Western cultures and are seen as a form of body mutilation, tainting the natural, pure body,  the tattoos gained a negative image in the West. In our current society, people may get tattoos to defy traditional societal expectations or simply to commemorate certain life experiences. Tattoos are a channel to express one’s beliefs, values, and memories. They help build or represent an identity, and just like identities can change and evolve, so can tattoos’ meanings. What a specific tattoo means to the tattooed depends on their current context and how they think about the design. It then becomes evident that using significant symbols from another culture also changes their meaning as they are brought to new places and serve new purposes. My tattoo, for example, reminds me of a very positive life experience. It is one of multiple tattoos that show different places I have been to and distinct parts of who I am or was at that time. Despite being a Māori tattoo, however, it does not represent my belonging to that culture and has therefore, very different cultural meanings than it would for a Māori person, who uses their tattoos to communicate their status and personal life story to their people. The idea of changing meanings becomes more clear using the Buddha image as an example.


In Buddhist culture, in which visual representations of the Buddha are reserved for temples and respectfully adorned and prayed to, it seems inappropriate to reduce the Buddha to an aesthetic artefact. For non-Buddhists, a Buddha tattoo may become a way to distance oneself from mainstream society and appear alternative or spiritual. In New Age spirituality, a self-religious movement whose followers often ascribe to Buddhist values and practices, issues arise from its highly commercialised version. The focus becomes looking like the hippie Instagram woman we all know, owning crystals and Buddha statues, advertising one’s yoga classes or selling self-healing courses, showing self-love through consuming products and manifesting money. These practices are misaligned with traditional Buddhist values and are rooted in Western consumer culture. The Buddha is reduced to decorative purposes and is no longer a respected figure. Furthermore, the misinterpretation of Buddhist beliefs and the cherry-picking of aspects that suit Western ideas is problematic. In my opinion, adapting a whole way of life to fit your specific needs, thereby often spreading misinformation, or failing to credit the culture of origin, shows unwillingness to be thoughtful of other cultures and value one’s own ideas over others’. Personally, I chose a Māori tattoo artist and gave him complete freedom of the design. He even spoke a traditional blessing. Simply asking people from a specific culture about their thoughts and respecting their views already shows cultural sensitivity and can lead to consensually wonderful intercultural experiences. 


Furthermore, many Buddhist countries, like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, have suffered under the oppressive nature of colonialism, and they still struggle with exploitation and racism. For example, Western people like to travel to these countries because they are cheap or they want to learn yoga from the source. Yet they prefer to ignore how tourism affects the country or complain about how yoga is taught. If you are interested in getting a cultural tattoo, I advise you to think about the following aspects: First, tattoo parlours make money from tattooing. Getting a Buddha tattoo in the West provides economic benefits for the appropriating culture, not to mention avoiding the discussion with the tattoo artist who may refuse to tattoo a Buddha design.  Second, for the tattooed themselves, the tattoo may enhance social capital and contribute to their identity. In opposition, Buddhists often face discrimination and judgement and have to give up parts of their culture in order to fit Western standards. Ignoring Buddhists’ plea to not use the Buddha as a tattoo, shows the privilege of being able to wilfully ignore Buddhists’ objections to Buddha tattoos without facing repercussions. Third, be informed about your tattoo’s meaning and how it may be perceived by others. Unlike the Buddha image, Māori tattoos are like a written language and can only be correctly read by someone with the appropriate cultural knowledge. My tattoo artist took the time to explain the meanings of the different symbols to me, however, at home, I always have to explain that it is a Māori tattoo and what it means. I am therefore assuming responsibility for their representation in different contexts. Furthermore, if Māori tattoos are tattooed by artists illiterate in Māori symbols, the tattoos become copies of previous templates,they are simplified and generalised and lose their original purpose. Therefore, it is important to make an effort to learn about cultural symbols and their origin and avoid participating in the exploitation of Māori people.


Ta Moko can be a means for Māori to reclaim their cultural identity by identifying with and engaging in culturally traditional tattooing practices. By developing Kiri Tuhi, Māori have shown willingness to share their culture with foreigners, and this exchange has facilitated their appropriation by and adaptation to other cultures. A striking difference between getting a Buddha and a Māori tattoo is that Māori have voiced objection to the appropriation of only certain symbols and their placement. This permission should be respected equally to maintain Māori cultural autonomy. Hereby permitting outsiders to participate in Māori culture without Māori having to claim cultural appropriation and maintaining Māori tattoos’ communicative function as pathways to stand in exchange with the world.  


In our current socio-political climate, information and knowledge about other cultures is freely available. People have the responsibility to learn and inform themselves about other cultures and their customs, as well as listen to their perspectives and opinions. The exchange of meanings within a culture has been extended to a global community, in which cultural content is recontextualised and appropriated. Mass media and global communication facilitate cultural exchange but also impact the meanings associated with cultural symbols. Considering cultural appropriation in the process of getting tattooed is hence relevant to remain respectful to other cultures and avoid partaking in oppressive postcolonial practices. However, not all forms of cultural appropriation need to be wrongful as suggested with the Kiri Tuhi example.

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