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To tattoo or not to tattoo? .... is that really the question?

I taught a very talented high school senior who I knew was going to pursue an art career. When I asked him what area he was most interested in, he said "tattooing." He seemed the least likely person to have said that given he had no tattoos. This started me thinking about the varied ways contemporary culture has embraced the idea of tattooing.

The purpose of tattooing has changed over time. In parts of Asia, as far back as the sixth century, tattooing was used as a form of punishment. Criminals in China were marked to set them apart. Later, Buddhist monks had prayers written on their backs. Various indigenous cultures used tattooing and body scarring as decoration or to mark a right of passage. Yet, in the twentieth century, tattooing took on a dreadful use in Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners were "branded" with numbers. Now in inner-city gang culture, tattooing is body art that serves as a visual mark of conformity to a particular group.

I recently saw a young man in the Boston subway with his body adorned with many tattooed images. The image that struck me most was a bar code on the back of his calf. I wondered, if we ran him through the checkout line, what would he be worth? Moments later, on the same train, I saw a middle-aged man with a full-color Halloween pumpkin on his forearm. In my mind I was asking.... What was he thinking?

Next, in the farmland of New Jersey, I saw a young man with a bold black tattooed image in Japanese (Kanji) lettering on his arm. Right below it was the Irish symbol of a heart held by two hands. How culturally diverse!

In Vernaza, I saw a young Italian man tattooed with a black Maltese cross on one arm and the Egyptian symbol of an ankh on the other. I wondered, is this a new fashion trend or just a reflection on how connected we are multiculturally?

Then in England, I came across yet another man with a tattooed bar code, this time on the back of his neck. I couldn't resist asking him the obvious question, "Why a bar code?" His response took me by surprise: "We are born a number in the evolution of mankind. It is up to us as to how we develop to our fullest potential."

Aesthetic Concerns

As an artist, I believe that the human form is beautiful as it is and it is not necessary to adorn it with tattoos. I also question the lack of originality in image choice. Many appear cut and pasted, on various parts of the human anatomy, as a series of unrelated images. Where's the overall design sense? Also, tattooing is viewed as permanent body art, yet how many people would keep the same art work on the same wall, for their entire lives?

In the end, I think I will preserve my human form in its original state. Oddly, there remains something still engaging about the idea of a tattoo. Yet, I think I'll pass and just continue to look, with some amusement, at what others are doing. I also wished my student the best in his future career of designing and creating his own individual style of tattooing.

Ken Vieth is a contributing editor for SchoolArts. author of From Ordinary to Extraordinary and Engaging the Adolescent Mind, and co-author of The Visual Experience, all published by Davis. kvieth@crusoe.net
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Title Annotation:Point of View
Author:Vieth, Ken
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:579
Previous Article:Diversity in action.
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