If I had a dollar for every time my mum has complained about me looking like a gang member because of my tattoos, I’d probably have enough cash to get my whole body inked. Her favourite reminder for me is to cover up in front of my extended family, in fear that I might accidentally give my grandparents a heart attack.
On one hand, I’m not sure I can really blame her visceral reaction to my tattoo considering its historical connotations with criminality. Ancient Greek and Romans deemed tattoos as ‘barbaric’ and used the method to brand war prisoners and slaves; Japanese Yakuza adopted tattooing as a method of recognition. It’s no wonder tattoos have a negative social stigma in different countries and cultures around the world.
However, my mum conveniently ignores the importance of tattoos in traditional customs and indigenous cultures – the way they are seen as symbols representing maturity and the process itself as a rite of passage. An example would be Ta moko, the Māori ritual that considers traditional tattoos as a symbol of deep cultural appreciation and affirmation. Other indigenous cultures use tattoos to signify status, position and identity instead of them being strictly for aesthetic value. Some countries, such as Egypt, Thailand and India, consider traditional tattoos as providing spiritual protection and as a signifier of luck.
It’s not just the ‘gangster’ trope or the refusal to admit the cultural significance of tattoos that frustrates me, it’s also the parental view that ‘you’ll never find a proper job unless you cover up your tattoos. My parents worry how people will perceive me or worse, question how I was brought up.
Is this simply a generational gap? If I look back to the 70s and 80s, tattoos and rock’n’roll culture spring to mind. With an influx of different global tattoo styles and the gradual rise of female and POC tattoo artists, the 70s finally saw tattoos recognised as an art form and act of youth insubordination. Unfortunately, the heavily tattooed rock’n’roll individuals of the 70s were portrayed as rebellious, drug-using riffraff. How dare they express themselves through loud music and permanent ink on their skin!
The 70s and 80s were also the peak of youth impressionability for both the Baby Boomers and Generation X, which makes up for the majority of our parents. Therefore, it’s no surprise that rebellion is still synonymous with tattoo culture for many older generations today. A 2018 study by Linde Trommel showed that tattooed individuals were still partially associated with deviance. Despite this, tattoos are gradually becoming more accepted in professional settings and in many different workplaces. The change in work policies regarding visible tattoos is only one of the many improvements society has made to remove the stigma surrounding tattoos.
So, if deviance is the main reason getting a tattoo is so appealing, it might not be so badass. The huge number of people walking around with different types of ink and body modifications today might actually mean you are less likely to stand out in a crowd.
Of course, all these explanations are not necessarily going to go down well when I am trying to explain to my parents why yet another part of my arm is encased in cling wrap. I try to tell them that my tattoos are how I express myself and that it’s MY body, but all they hear is defiance against their so-called words of reason.
“Tattooing goes against the Confucian values of filial piety and avoidance of injury to the body, as it is given by one’s parents. These cultural beliefs are common to Japanese and Korean societies too.”Cheryl Heng, South China Morning Post
However, this quote makes me wonder if my parents really care about the tattoo or whether they are upset by the fact their child is now an independent adult who wants to claim autonomy over their own body – and perhaps that just doesn’t sit right with them. But along with so many other young people, I choose to express my individuality via my tattoos. And with each meaningful piece of ink, I find that my self-confidence grows. Sometimes, there’s just no explanation adequate enough to please anyone by yourself.
Claryss Kuan is in her final year of the Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and she is our current editor of the MZ blog. As a Malaysian-Chinese student living in Melbourne, her writing aspires to reflect the experiences many international students face when living abroad.
Cover image by Kate Davies on Unsplash.