This week, one of the biggest tattoo news items was the deportation of a British tourist from Sri Lanka stemming from her Buddha tattoo, which the country's authorities deemed disrespectful to Buddhism. According to the BBC on Tuesday:
Naomi Coleman was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the capital Colombo after authorities spotted the tattoo on her right arm.This isn't the first time a Buddha tattoo raised problems in Sri Lanka. According to NPR, about a year ago, another British tourist was banned from entering the country for the very same reason. With both cases, the tattoo collectors were tattooed with the Buddha renderings out of respect and devotion, and yet, for the largely Buddhist nation, it was perceived as quite the opposite and taboo.
This story had me thinking of the recent Vice article "Greece's Muslim Immigrants are Ashamed of Their Prison Tattoos" by Alexia Tsagari. That article tells the story of six Muslim men who had tattooed themselves or voluntarily got tattooed while in prison, to later regret their tattoos because of the religious prohibitions and cultural stigma in the largely Islamic countries they emigrated from prior to arriving in Greece.
One of the men, Moshen, told Tsagari:
In prison, it's either them or you. You have to stay strong and struggle to survive on a daily basis. Some fight with their fists, others with their minds. I struggled daily to remain human. For this reason I carved two stars on my chest--a reminder that I wouldn't put my hands up, that I wouldn't surrender even if it meant my life would be in danger. Deep in my soul there are some thoughts and images, some secrets, that words cannot express. I turned these secrets into poems and drawings and had them engraved on my body.Tsagari writes that most Muslims consider tattoos forbidden--haram--and the consequences of getting tattooed can be severe: "In Iran, the government dubs anyone with a tattoo a criminal, and the punishment for getting one can be up to six months in prison and a hundred lashings." However, she explains, "Today, in most Muslim countries, tattoos are considered makrouh--that is, they aren't illegal per se, but it's generally best to avoid them."
Most recently in the US, there was the stir over this Tattooed Jesus ad, whereby a vocal contingent in Lubbock, Texas found a Christian organization's attempt at appealing to the youth was deemed "blasphemous."
[Interestingly, the tattoo found on a 1,300 year-old mummy was most likely a Christian devotional tattoo, so religious tattoos are reaaalllly old news.]
As with the British tourists kicked out of Sri Lanka, so many of these tattoos are inked out of love and respect, and so they warrant acceptance rather than punishment.
Tattoo by Colin Dale.
Last week, the HuffPo's Religion section had an interesting article by Jacob D. Myers entitled, "Holy Ink: The Spirituality of Tattoos." In it, Myers, who is tattooed, explores the spiritual impact of body art and breaks it down into three observations:
* Tattooing can change one's identity, having an affect on how the tattooed person is viewed by others and how she views herself.
* Tattoos are "roadsigns," that is, when tattoos mark a significant life moment, they can "be powerful enough to return one to that state of spirituality."
* And tattoos can make one feel a part of a community.
This may not be big news to all who are tattooed, but it's great to have a well written piece read by those who simply see tattooing as a "fad," or even worse, the realm of "the lowest elements of the human race."
Not every tattoo need be imbued with great spiritual significance, of course, but I agree with Myers in many ways -- most important, that I do feel I am part of a community. It's why I'm sitting here writing this blah blah.
The added bonus of this piece is finding out that Myers is tattooed by one of my favorites Colin Dale of Skin & Bone in Denmark, and that his wife is tattooed by my own artist, Daniel DiMattia of Belgium. There's a great passage in the article where he describes how his wife views her tattoos:
When I asked what she thought about herself on the other side of the needle, she explained that her tattoo did not change her, but was an indelible expression of her journey toward her authentic self. She sees her tattoo as an outward mark of an inward journey, accessing a part of her self that had always been there. I asked her how this step along her journey made her feel and she replied, to my surprise, "Fierce!"Fierce, indeed. More tattoo images in the article's photo slideshow.
Tattoo by Daniel DiMattia.
[Many thanks to David G. for the link!]
There have been a number of posts on this blog devoted to Sak Yant, sacred tattoos, performed by monks in Thailand. The yantras, mystical diagrams, on skin are not only beautiful, but for many, the tattoos bestow upon the wearer super-human powers.
Exploring Sak Yant from its origins to today is "Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos" by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewehatturat.
The book begins with an up-close look into the Wai Khru ceremony at the Wat Bang Phra Buddhist temple: "Uaaahh! The man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. His bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he's rushing directly ahead." The frenzied text, like the tattooed man, soon calms and the reader is then led into the studio of Achan Thoy (pictured below), "a highly respected Dabot Ruesi, a hermit sage of Hindu origin, known as a Rishi or Yogi in India, a man with the power to apply sacred and magic tattoos to a devotee's skin." The scene painted in that studio is indeed magic, with incantations, katas, and of course blood. It is not a mere tattoo appointment. It is a ritual.
Tracing the roots of the ritual, the first chapter of Sacred Skin goes back thousands of years in describing Sak Yant designs and the beliefs behind them, particularly beliefs that the tattoos protect wearers against physical attack and further their strength -- beliefs that are still commonly held today. According to the book, it's because of this that many Thai people "disapprove of the sacred tattoos, ridiculing them as superstition and branding Sak Yant as part of the perceived backwardness of Thailand's rural population." Moreover, like in so many other parts of the world, the tattoos are heavily associated with Thailand's criminal underground.
Yet, as the authors explain, there are many layers to these spiritual tattoos. Most importantly, the monks who create them see Sak Yant as "silent and powerful reminders of a righteous path that all of us, whether we wear yant or not, should aspire to follow."
Chapter II on these tattoo masters and their devotees is especially compelling. A portrait of each is presented along with a short handwritten note by that person discussing the art.
Chapter III offers close-ups of traditional tattoo designs and their meanings; for example, this elephant below, Yant Chang, symbolizes strength.
Sacred Skin then comes full circle in Chapter IV, with even more intense photography from the Wai Khru celebration. The book itself is almost a seamless journey into Thai tattoo culture. I highly recommend it.
I also suggest checking out the Bangkok Post's review and CNN's interview with the authors. The CNN interview also briefly discusses Thailand's Ministry of Culture cracking down on religious tattoos (which we wrote about in June).
Sacred Skin can be purchased on Amazon for $24 (originally $33). And for a peak inside, click SacredSkinThailand.com.
Professional photography in this post by Lee Corkett of Weathervane Images.
I am grateful to have talked with Roni Zulu, the prolific Los Angeles tattoo artist and owner of Zulu Tattoo. Zulu is a master of symbols and the meanings behind them. He started as a graphic designer and session musician until a yearning for more led him to the world of tattooing.
Zulu has tattooed many noteworthy people including Janet Jackson, Deborah Wilson, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Bruce Willis, Montel Williams, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette, Ben Vereen, Rosie O'Donnell, David Duchovny and Lisa Bonet to name a few.
We talked about how he got his start in tattoo, racism, spirituality, and how the art can evolve.
How did you transition from being a graphic designer and musician to tattoo artist?
Well, the transition from being a graphic designer to a tattooist wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I didn't know I would be venturing into a field that was primarily dominated by a prejudiced group of people: the underworld of tattooing was dominated and controlled by biker factions, skinheads and a lot of white supremacists groups. Upon entering into this world and seeking an apprenticeship, I couldn't get one. I was turned away, at times, laughed at as I walked out the door with racial slurs escorting me out.
So I realized that the only way I was going to learn was to teach myself. What I would do is go to conventions with a video camera and stand across the room and film people tattooing and in essence create my own instructional videos. Then I would go to the butcher market and buy pigs ears, a big flat piece of meat you can practice on, similar to human flesh. That was the only way I could break in because I could not get an apprenticeship.
When did you start tattooing?
I would say approximately 17 years ago.
Tell me about opening your own tattoo shop.
I assumed, well if I can't get an apprenticeship, I'm sure that I'm not going to be able to get a station in one of these shops. I went into many of them and saw that they were not the kind of places that I would want to be associated with. The one's that would have me weren't very reputable, and I decided I'm going to have to create my own world.
I opened my own shop after tattooing in my home. I started out tattooing friends and they would tell friends and it got to a point where I had to open a shop because I couldn't run that many people through my house.
When you opened a shop, did you get any resistance from other tattoo shops?
I got a great deal of resistance. It would be common to get to work check the messages and have messages such as "Nigger, close down your shop or were going to bomb it," or "Close down your shop or were going to break your legs." I got these kind of threats daily. At one point a lot of bikers came by with baseball bats and told me I had 24 hours to shut down the shop.
I'm not an advocate of violence but also I'm not going to run, so from that point on, for the next year I went to work with a 357 magnum strapped to my chest, where everyone could see it. I would be sitting there tattooing with a gun strapped so they would know. Like most bullies, they were cowards when they find you're not going to run. At that point, it was like by any means necessarily.