I remember as an undergraduate at UCSC, I had a discussion with a graduate student who was studying tattoo culture. I forgot her name, but I know she was a student of Triloki Pandey. As part of her dissertation, she engaged in some participant observation to understand the mentality and transformation one makes when becoming tattooed. She described it as something she had to do, like a rite of passage, to fully gain an understanding of people she was studying. Aside from an excuse to get a tattoo, I always thought that was a remarkable dedication to the research.
The act of becoming tattooed is a significant transformation. Not only is one physically embedding a design onto them self, but the identity that is associated with those that are tattooed has always been phenomenal. Furthermore, the symbolism one carries on their body with tattoing is tantamount evidence as to how we’re symbolic beings and want to identify with things. We’ll go as far as embedding it on our skin.
I know nowadays tattooing has become culturally more acceptable, but even 20 or 30 years ago, those that were tattooed were in a completely different subculture, if not culture, from those that were not tattooed. So where have tattoos come from? Where did we ever get this crazy idea to permanently alter our skin, one vessel of our physical appearance that we have ’til the day we die?
Well, prior to reading Juniper Ellis‘ new book, “Tattooing the World,” I had some basic knowledge that tattooing originated from Pacific Islanders and was spread by European seamen who were traveling the world by boat during the later 1700’s. As I’ve been reading more and more of her book, I’ve come to a greater appreciation and understanding of who were these ‘first’ tattooers and what tattooing means to the people from the Pacific.
That being said, it is with great honor that Dr. Ellis has accepted my invitation to discuss her work on Anthropology.net. For those of you that don’t know Juniper Ellis, she’s a professor of English at Loyola College, where she teaches Maori, Pacific Islands, and U.S. literature. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, she’s written a new book titled, “Tattooing the World,” which is the first book to my knowledge that addresses the origin and meaning behind tattooing and tattoo culture. This text has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fullbright Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
I’ve asked Dr. Ellis to talk to us about her motivations behind writing a book about tattooing. I also invite you to discuss your anthropological thoughts on tattooing, especially how it is becoming widely adopted in modern day cultures despite the fierce stigma that faced this trend. Once I finish the book, I’ll also write a review of it, but in the mean time sit tight for Dr. Ellis to introduce her work. Oh by the way, have you checked out Carl Zimmer‘s project on science tattoos? It is something I’ve been eyeing from afar ever since he announced it last August.