Re: mutilation and ritual

Adrienne Dearmas (DearmasA@AOL.COM)
Tue, 9 Jul 1996 12:03:07 -0400

In a message dated 96-07-04 18:07:08 EDT, rs219@IDIR.NET (Robert Snower)

> You say, "Totems
> may have been the
> origin of many tattoos in many cultures, but so many other aspects have
> crept
> in and affected the practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum in any culture!"
> couldn't
> agree more. But I would like to point out that the ORIGIN, as you are now
> using the word, represents the tatoo phenomenon when it had an authentic,
> vital, and essential cultural purpose.

I am a little wary of glorifying the past, especially with regard to tattoos
and I think it is dangerous to generalize about individuals from the past and
their personal reasons for the tattoos they wore. Whereas I generalize about
the pan human need to mutilate the body, it is my impression that every
individual (be it person, family, tribe, community, sub-culture, whatever)
will give a myriad of reasons why they do it. Who's to say they are wrong or

As for origin, let's pick a specific culture to discuss this issue. Say, the
military. Assuming the military tendency stems from the sailor/merchants who
sailed around the world and were exposed to different cultures - the adoption
of tattoos was mimicry, and if I may, just a surface aspect of the tattoo
phenomenon they encountered in the South Seas.

>The present day survivals of the
> taboo phenomenon are, more often than not, as you so skilfully depict, the
> refuge of those who cannot cope with their contemporary culture--a
> regression into the past, rather than a creative response to the present.
> Not so, the original tatoos.

I have to disagree here. I did not get a tattoo b/c I could not cope with my
contemporary culture. I got one to celebrate my research and as a way of
controlling my body and defining myself to the casual observer. Again, every
individual will give different answers as to why (back to the art thing) and
their answers are right for them. I don't think believe contemporary body
mutilations are just about regressing.

> But you give an entirely different meaning to ORIGIN in your response to
> previous post:
> You say:
> "I'm not sure it is a lack of sophistication. At least, I'm not sure what
> you
> mean by sophistication. I think, instead, we have gotten away from the
> meaning of things (i.e. their origin). Tattooing in Western culture has
> origins in many aspects of sub-culture life. <snip>
> Surely, tattooing in Western culture does not have its origins in
> sub-culture life. That is so opposite to what I believe.

Maybe I should clarify. I think tattoos were borrowed from other cultures and
brought to Western culture where they took on their own meaning over time. It
does seem that over time, those who have developed an affinity for tattoos
have been marginalized into sub-cultures. At what point does the origin of
tattoos in Western culture begin? If brought here by merchant sailors, who
compose a sub-culture IMHO, then tattoos would have originated with a
sub-culture. A Mohave friend of mine once pointed out that pottery making is
always evolving. When his great grandmother made pots for tourists, that
technique became part of pottery making history. It didn't matter that the
tourists pots were not "traditional" - in time they became so, regardless.

>As I tried to say above, these are the vestigial remnants of
> a vital past.

Why is Maori tattooing more vital than prison tattooing? The former is dying
out while the latter is flourishing.

>Do you really
> think we can find "the meaning of (these) things" in the sub-culture,
> than in the past?

I think I should refrain from using the term "origin" so cavalierly (is that
a word?), but I still believe that there is a genesis point in which borrowed
tattooing became adopted by Western culture.

>In regard to "sophistication," I was trying to say
> Western culture is more, not less, sophisticated, than some others in this
> regard, and as a result the tatoo data are more condensed and less
> ceremonial than in those cultures where the data are closer in form to
> long ago era when tatoo was, far from sub-culture, the most sophisticated,
> avant-garde, thing going.

So, sophistication squelches ceremony? Sophistication is avant garde? I'm

> Maybe you are right about that negative business. Let me know.

I no longer find your voice negative - you are making me think!

- Adrienne