Tattoos trace history across race and culture

By Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 8/1/2019, midnight

Across Africa, tattoos have different meanings and are made with different techniques. Most tribes will choose the design for the person to wear. For thousands of years in Africa, the practice of tattooing was seen as protection against bad spirits, representing the social status in a group or tribe, and also reflecting personality traits. Tattoos were even believed to cure diseases.

Thanks to shows like “Ink Master” and “Black Ink Crew,” African-American tattoo artists have made a name for themselves. The first Black tattoo artist who won the contest “Ink Master 2016,” was Anthony Michaels. However, according to an article by National Public Radio (NPR) many “canvases,” as they refer to on the show, don’t feature Black skin, which has drawn concern from some Black tattoo clients.

These days however, tattoos are largely mainstream. Both tattoo artists and customers benefit from this arrangement because the artform is now far more acceptible in society. Yet, tattoos among persons of color can still elicit racially-charged overtones, particulary for Black males. Many young Black men applying for employment may be falsely associated with gang activity or being an ex-felon.

And although these days many women, such as L.A. Ink Latina Kathrine von Drachenberg (“Kat Von D”), as well as Katrina Jackson (“Kat Tat”) of Chicago’s Black Ink Crew, rose to fame in an industry that remains primarily male dominated. Sexism, racism and misogyny still abound within the industry.

“I can’t say I’ve heard any negative comment first hand, but I have had to deal with certain stereotypes,” said Richard “MADE RICH” Parker in an interview. “Ya know…people thinking that Black artists are less talented more so because the color of your skin, but I think that’s a stereotype in every business.”

Besides the obvious difference between Black and White skin, there are also bias and stigma associated with what’s considered “cultural appropriation.” For example, getting a Polynesian tribal (such as the exact same one as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) would be considered inappropriate since those types of tattoos are designed for each individual—based on goals and achievements—as well as inherent fears. Such tattoos are recognized as a symbol for guidance and protection.

Some would argue that only Polynesians should get a Polynesian tattoo. Regardless, tattoos have been copied for centuries through cross-cultural variations. Styles have changed and crossed-over to create new ones, and many people will travel to Thailand, for example, to get tattooed by monks hoping that the image will provide personal protection.

Russia has an entire encyclopedia designated to Russian prison tattoos and their meanings. Often, the placement of these tattoos can be considered culturally inappropriate—and at the same time risky—such as stars on the chest or knees (indicating a prisoner’s ranking or authority), or a cross on the chest, which is a symbol for “thieves of laws.”

Tattoos will always be associated with some type of bias about the person or the origin and meaning of the tattoo. More importantly, it is a part of modern culture that connects people from different paths of life and cultural backgrounds.