Issues of Authorship and Appropriation in Tribal Tattooing

The issue of cultural appropriation is not a light one to say the least. On one side, there are those who denounce it, arguing the evident racism and oppression from which it originates. While on the other side, there are those who cry for “freedom of expression” (Richards). What people have a hard time understanding in discussing cultural appropriation, is defining the difference between appropriation and exchange/borrowing. The biggest difference? A power dynamic. Cultural appropriation happens between a majority and minority (oppressed or marginalized) group of people. Cultural appropriation has expressed itself differently throughout history, but has frequently been shown through the use of fashion and beauty, more recently, tattooing. What is reflected in the cultural appropriation of tribal tattooing is a profound sense of ignorance by those who don the tattoos. It is culturally normalized and so less and less people associate tribal tattoos with the cultures from which they were stolen. And it is this that much investigation into modern body art focuses on, “scholarly literature on contemporary body art focuses on issues of modernity, identity, hybridity, deviance, popular culture, gender, appropriation, authenticity, and globalization” (Schildkrout 322).

Although anthropological and archaeological studies have discovered ancient remains from all over the world with tattooed skin, our “popular understanding of tattooing in Europe and North America” (Schildkrout 326) originates from Captain Cook’s accounts of his eighteenth-century travels through the Pacific. For the Polynesians, the significance of tattooing was far more than aesthetic. The root of the practice is what Gell calls a “stigma of humanity” (Schildkrout 329). Essentially, tattooing was the mark of difference between humans and the gods, “a barrier between a secular self and unmediated divinity” (Schildkrout 329). What Gell draws from his analysis on Polynesian tattooing is that there is a stark difference in significance. While tattooing in Polynesia is deeply cultural and spiritual, western tattooing is “characteristically unanchored” (Schildkrout 330). This is the basis for the culturally appropriative nature of modern Western tattooing, an essential lack of appreciation or understanding of cultures from which designs are borrowed.

Experts attribute this to the “tattoo renaissance”, something that was present not only in indigenous cultures, but also in the Western world, namely the United States. It was Rubin who conceived the idea of the “tattoo renaissance,” identifying two main components that changed in the understanding of Western tattooing: “a change in clientele (from sailors, bikers, and gang members to the middle and upper class) and a change in iconography (from the badge-like images based on repetitive premade designs known as “flash” to the customized full-body tattoo influenced by Polynesian and Japanese tattoo art)” (Schildkrout 335). What this tattoo renaissance did was misrepresent history of Western tattooing. As Schildkrout asserts, people associate meanings with their personal tattoos and in the formation of these “meanings,” raising issues of “authenticity, cultural appropriation, copyright, and the relationship between body art, media culture, and consumerism” (Schildkrout 337-338), through misrepresented ideas of primitive, non-Western, “exotice” cultures. In short, the tattoo renaissance sought to “symbolically undo the conquest of the primitive world” while also taking credit away from those who can actually “claim authorship” of how Western tattooing came to be and has evolved up until now (Schildkrout 338).  

A personal account of cultural appropriation:

Works Cited

Richards, Ally. “Cultural Appropriation and Tattoos.” TH-INK. N.p., 25 July 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 319–344.,

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