Thursday, October 18, 2007

Asserting individuality and group membership through tattoo

My friend, Jamie, who is also one of my coworkers at the Annapolis Mall, is pretty heavily tattooed. Some of the tattoos are permanent remnants, or even scars, left over from a rebellious and difficult youth. The red stars behind her ears and the Chinese symbols on her lower back no longer have significance for her, but are instead marks originally intended to assert her individuality and to promote a sense of belonging with her friends, who are also tattooed. Jamie's largest tattoo is two gargoyles sitting back-to-back forming a set of scales, her Libra birth sign. This tattoo, in vibrant, multi shade hues, stretches the breadth of her shoulders, and from nape of the neck to lower back. To other people, this tattoo may make Jamie seem intimidating; however, it is a representation of the state of balance she seeks in her life, and also demonstrates her belief in being nonjudgmental. This tattoo connects Jamie to many of her friends and to a particular group of people, but it also represents her individuality by separating her from non-tattooed people. The particular symbol she chose also asserts individuality because it belongs to and represents her alone. Choosing a tattoo is difficult not only because it will be permanent, but also because it must satisfy two purposes: asserting both individuality and group membership. Jamie's tattoo does have personal meaning for her because she got it at a time when she was attempting to make a break with a difficult youth and find balance. This tattoo is part of Jamie's map. Like Lalolagi's tattoo in Sia Figiel's They Who Do Not Grieve, Jamie's tattoos shows where she has been in life. Each one, whether it remains significant to her today, represents some aspect of her younger or present self.

Jamie's last tattoo is a rainbow colored grim reaper surrounded by roses that stretches from her right knee down to her ankle, completely covering her calf. She regrets this tattoo. Jamie dated a tattoo artist who wanted to tattoo her body in some way. At the time, she felt that even if the relationship didn't work out, the tattoo would remain a reminder of their friendship and a link to the artist-boyfriend. Because he chose the tattoo, its meaning disappeared from her when the relationship broke.

When Jamie is at work, she must cover all of her tattoos. Her hair must be down to cover the stars behind her ears and she always wears pants to cover her leg. It is interesting that a tattoo, which in our society is meant to publicly assert individuality and group membership, must be covered up. While I recognize the importance of being professional, I also think that the store we work at wants to suppress Jamie in some way by covering her tattoos, which are part of who and what she is in the world.

In Sia Figiel's novel, They Who Do Not Grieve, Lalolagi's tattoo is begun at the request of a lover, just like Jamie's grim reaper tattoo. Like Jamie, Lalolagi is reminded of her tatooist-lover by the permanent ink on her body. Tattoos in Figiel's book about Samoans and tattoos in America both have personal and public significance. To foreigners or strangers such as Alisi, a tattoo may be mesmerizing or even erotic as it is a permanent identifying mark on the body of the lover or the other person. In Samoa, when Lalolagi and Tausi get tattoed together, they are blessing and solidifying their friendship through blood (life) shed. They decide to "seal their friendship with the permanancy of starfish on their thighs" (Figiel 249). Pain and the shedding of blood are forms of sacrifice. Tattoos are really wounds made permanent by pouring ink into cut skin. Demonstrating a willingness to wound the body and commemorating that wound by making it a permanent part of the body is powerful. The body becomes a display for declarations of friendship, womanhood, adulthood, and love. According to Figiel's book, a "tattoo is the ultimate expression of alofa, of love" (Figiel 248), and a tattoo is also a prayer for the entire aiga, or community (Figiel 248). In this book, tattoos are closely linked with sex or union (Figiel 250). The tattoo artist is also Lalolagi's lover and she thinks about their lovemaking during the tattoo process. Both love and tattoo are extremely painful. Lalolagi gets the tattoo for love of the artist, for love of Tausi, and as a prayer for the community, in which she may now finally be a member after years of being outcast. The tattoo is a scar that represents the individual's map and the individual's place on society's map.

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