Tattoos Are a Part of Our History, So Why Are They So Taboo?

We are still being subjected to unfair prejudices when it comes to this practice

Photo: Minal Jainn/EyeEm/Getty Images

Tattoos have been around for centuries. From Native Americans to ancient Egyptians to Maori tribes, tattoos have held significance in a lot of cultures. They symbolize a person’s identity in a number of ways, whether it’s status within a community, passage into adulthood, or a connection with a particular group.

Art and symbolism are some of the most consistent forms of communication we humans have sustained over the span of our existence. Art, drawings, and symbols have all, time and time again, helped us to express ourselves — whether to communicate with others or with ourselves. It is only natural that we have come to wear forms of symbolic art on our skin forever.

However, as European imperialism spread around the globe, the tradition of tribal tattooing and body art in Asian and African countries was denigrated and deemed “savage” because the practice was unfamiliar to European colonists. Settlers and missionaries imposed their beliefs of modesty and Christianity on the areas where they ruled, and tattoo culture slowly died away. They called this process of killing off cultures and practices “modernization.” Tattoos changed from being an expression of pride in community and identity to being a marker of an era gone by.

Body art for an Indian woman can be a symbol of liberation and a rejection of oppressive and limiting rules.

In recent years, getting a tattoo has been seen as a sign of rebellion and badassness around the world. Still, the tattoo taboo has survived the age of colonialism and still exists in many cultures. Being a member of the South and Southeast Asian community, I find the taboo around tattoos in my culture rather sad. Not only is it disappointing to see people forget their own history, but it is even sadder to see them fight over ideas that were forced upon them only a few centuries ago.

For ages, tattoos in Indian culture were worn to symbolize status or community. Different tribes across the country used ink of varying colors, and tattoos were placed on different parts of the body depending on gender. As traditions began to fade, so too did the reverence for body ink, with some in Indian cultures coming to view tattoos as unacceptable and undesirable.

Although the stigma is again slowly shifting around men getting inked, I find that Asian women are still being subjected to unfair prejudices when it comes to tattoos. In a society where a woman is expected to be submissive, polite, and quiet, an Asian woman with tattoos can give the impression of being easy, rebellious, and unprofessional. Being disobedient and opinionated aren’t exactly the traits of an ideal, desirable woman in Indian society.

Maybe it is the need to tell women what to do with their bodies that really drives the negative perception toward inked women. Comments like “How will you ever get married with a tattoo on you?” and “Nobody will ever love you” and “You have scarred your body for life, and you’re doomed” are often heard by an inked woman.

For some people, tattoos indeed are a form of rebellion — a way of finally making a stand after being asked to not rock the boat their whole life. Tattoos can empower a person and give them the confidence to walk with pride. You can only appreciate the importance of this if you have had to follow rules and expectations without question, like an ideal Indian girl.

It is a coming of age. A graduation ceremony. A reclamation of identity.

Body art for an Indian woman can be a symbol of liberation and a rejection of oppressive and limiting rules. Although not everyone expresses themselves in this manner, it is important to let the ones who choose tattooing as a form of therapeutic self-expression be themselves because, dare I say, tattoos save lives.

The stigma may never really go away, but so long as there is a need for us as humans to express ourselves, tattoos will be there. Besides, public opinion is of the least concern when you get a tattoo. You may encounter negative comments, but as long as you are firm in your decision, who cares what others say?

Now, excuse me while I go plan my next tattoo.

An economist by training & a writer by soul, I write about topics that I feel add value to the world.

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