Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tattoos for the Individual and the Community

Like most young adults, I have considered getting a tattoo. This period in my life followed shortly on the heels of the success of the television series Miami Ink. I would watch and wonder just how much it would hurt. After every episode I liked to think that I had learned a little more about the subject and after a season I was practically an expert. All that remained was to pick a suitable image to forever emblazon on my flesh. It was much harder than I had anticipated. I never did get a tattoo and I no longer actively consider the subject, but it will probably always be at the back of my mind somewhere. Anyway, the process of deciding on a tattoo seems at least as important as the act and says just as much about the person.
For a while I was dead set on a dragon. It was something of a phase I was going through that I will not get into in any detail here. At any rate, I ultimately decided against it. Though there is no denying that dragons look cool, it was a superficial choice. I wanted to have a better answer for the inevitable and redundant “Why?” There should be a better reason for getting a tattoo than “It looked cool.” There should be a story behind it. My tattoo should be a statement about who I am as a person.
As I was essentially back at square one, I thought it might help to recall tattoos that I had seen and admired. During my senior year of high school, the goalie on our lacrosse team got a moose inked across his calf. It was his nickname. This tattoo was both, inspired by something important in his life and just strange enough to be very interesting. Sadly, I didn't have any nicknames that lent themselves to visual images. My grandfather had an anchor etched on his forearm. Maybe I could replicate that. It was visually a classic and would be an homage of sorts to my heritage. That was closer but not quite what I had in mind. That was when inspiration struck. What about my family crest? It was somewhat unconventional (a fairly plain shield with three fish running across the top) and would be a constant reminder of my dedication to my family. As I mentioned, I never did get a tattoo, but if I ever do that will be it. Right on the ball of my shoulder.
The topic of tattooing is explored in depth in Sia Figiel's They who do not Grieve. The particular cultural beliefs of the Samoans about tattoos is works counter to the connotations that they have come to take on in the West. In many cases, an individual chooses to get a tattoo as a statement of his or her independence. In Figiel's work, however, tattooing only occurs in pairs. The novel includes several anecdotes concerning close friends getting tattooed together in order to solidify their bond. This practice goes back to the traditional myth of the duality of Cloud Woman and Stone Woman. Rather than representing individual personality, this concept focuses on solidarity.
In addition, the traditional Samoan tattoo does not vary much from person to person. All men are tattooed between their navel and their knees and all women are tattooed similarly. There are typical symbols within the Samoan tattoo that are repeated over and over again. In the first chapter of They who do not Grieve, Malu describes her grandmother's tattoo, noting “a fish, a starfish, a spear, a centipede on [her] left thigh”(6). The sea creatures are representative of the lifestyle that Pacific Islanders glean from the ocean. The spear is a common symbol in mythology, denoting fertility and the origins of man in this and other works we have discussed this semester. Finally, the centipede is unique to Samoa; it is a poisonous creature that must be handled with care to avoid being stung. Though they may be rearranged, these are the predominant subjects of all Samoan tattoos, signifying a cultural identity that is so crucial to their existence that it needs to be displayed prominently on the islanders' skin.
The tattoo takes on a new meaning for the reader in the closing chapters of Figiel's book when Lalolagi clears up the mystery of her granddaughter's name once and for all. She reveals to Malu the identity of her lover from long ago: a tattooist who became infatuated with her. As Lalolagi relates his feelings on tattoo and religion, noting that each step in the process takes on the form of a prayer. Ultimately, he states, “It is a wonder that the women's tattoo is the malu. Malu means to protect. To shelter”(248). Thus, Malu takes the place of the missing half of Lalolagi's tattoo, a constant, living reminder of the shame that her grandmother feels on a daily basis. It also makes Malu a mythical figure, much the same way that Kahu's name promises legendary feats in The Whale Rider. She is meant to protect her family, particularly the maternal line. Malu becomes the next incarnation in a line of beautiful women who will never know their fathers. As a matter of fact, she is already pregnant with the next Malu as the novel draws to a close.

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