Think! - 205: No World For Tomorrow

Published: 14 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

In a recent TV interview, comedian Russell Peters mentioned something that had been irritating him for quite some time. When asked if he’s more prone to grouchiness as he ages, 41-year-old Peters responded that he wasn’t necessarily becoming an angrier person, but some things just happened to be irritating him more than before.

Everybody’s got a tattoo nowadays and nobody’s earning them,” Peters said, as he went on to expound upon the days when a neck tattoo on a person signified a degree of toughness that was earned and unquestionable.

Though it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement made by a comedian with no tattoos, the general observation is perhaps a valid one. Amongst most tattooists, paying ones dues isn’t a laughing matter, but rather a necessary step in validating oneself amongst their peers. It is in fact, safe to say that no legitimate, professional tattooist got to the point they’re currently at without some combination of apprenticing, patience, perseverance and discipline. For this reason (and understandably so), those who do not at the very least follow similar paths to becoming an artist are not taken seriously. The message is clear: pay your dues, or get the hell out of the way.

That being said, it makes sense that this ethic carries a certain amount of weight in and amongst the tattooed and the industry itself. As tempting as it may be to write off the idea of a need to earn one’s tattoos as little more than tattoo snobbery, the fact of the matter is that the notion of a need to earn, prove or otherwise measure up, is and has been a part of tattoo for centuries. In Western culture, what we know as the modern era of tattoo saw pioneers like American tattooist Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins emulating the strict guidelines practiced by Japanese tattooists in deciding whether or not their clients were worthy of the tattoos that they requested. In this respect, it was the artist who decided whether or not their client had earned their tattoos. This sort of artistic sensibility can still be found amongst some artists, though it certainly is not the norm. What has become more of a norm is that the concepts of fashion and trendsetting are readily replacing any need or desire to measure up to one’s tattoos.

But hold on a second, what does that really mean anyway – to measure up to one’s tattoos? How could one ever be expected to measure up to something that is born out of free willed desire to decorate their body with permanent art? A large part of this concept doubtlessly stems from tattoo’s past and the daredevil, tough guy reputation that it has clung to, whether willingly or by accident.

The tattoos of old dealt with soldiers, who on leave before being dropped into hostile enemy territory, decided to get tattooed as a method to express what they were feeling. Does the story behind why a tattoo was gotten have to be valid, or is that simply splitting hairs?

As much as we would all like to say that everyone is free to be tattooed with whatever they want or who are we to question what someone else wants, aren’t we all guilty of doing it to a certain degree? No matter how open minded we all become to the idea of tattoo, isn’t there always that niggling concept of whether or not someone’s tattoo is valid in our eyes or the eyes of the tattoo industry as a whole and if so, is that not in some ways a good thing – that there still does exist the need to be judged by our tattoos amongst our peers?
As with all things tattoo, the issue isn’t so cut and dry. Literally speaking, those who have earned their tattoos are quite often far different than the average tattoo enthusiast. To really earn a tattoo is to reach a point in one’s life where the inking of the flesh is a rite of passage, one that is associated with manhood or womanhood, or one which ventures into darker territories than the average person is prepared to experience.

The Maori people of New Zealand for example, carry a longstanding tradition of facial tattoo that begins at puberty and continues on into adult life. These tattoos define rites of passage and important events in a person’s life that give solid confirmation of a person’s status within the group. To not be tattooed is tantamount to saying that you have no social status whatsoever. Men are given a facial tattoo, or a Moko as it’s known in the Maori culture, confirming their identity and signifying everything from ancestry, to social rank and virility. Yet the process of receiving a Moko is not one to be taken lightly. In addition to the bearer having to reach certain points in their life before they can be tattooed, there are also other sacrifices that must be made in conjunction with receiving the Moko. For example, once the tattoo has been given, the bearer must then abstain from sex and the eating of solid foods until their face has healed. Food is given to the newly tattooed Maori in liquid form, through a wooden funnel, ensuring that no contaminants come in contact with the sensitive tattooed area. This is doubtlessly an act that requires devotion and commitment – an act that no one can claim to be lacking any sense of paid dues.

The Maori have and always will, earn their tattoos.

To earn a tattoo in this manner doesn’t exactly apply to the average person, but the Maori are by no means exclusive in their use of painstaking, culturally relevant tattoos. However, as diverse as tattoo always has been and can be expected to remain, it only stands to reason that the concept of personal sacrifice or general discomfort doesn’t necessarily exist solely as a badge of honour for those whose tattoos represent a good or noble status amongst their peers. Gang tattoos or prison tattoos have existed for centuries, placing their bearers in a league of their own, one that isn’t admirable or even considered to be a sought-after level of humanity. It might seem utterly irrelevant to place any emphasis whatsoever on criminal tattoos within the space of an argument such as this, but the truth is that criminal tattoos are earned and there are no two ways about it.

These are markings of a life spent outside of the status quo, a life filled with violence or even genuine evil, but a life clearly mapped out on the flesh, none the less. Prisoners in the UK have been tattooed with the acronym ACAB for decades, which can be claimed to stand for ‘Always Carry A Bible’, but is more accurately understood to be ‘All Coppers Are Bastards’. In the United States, gang members are regularly tattooed with the area code of the neighbourhood from which they hail. Teardrop tattoos are gang related tattoos intended to signify that the bearer has killed or had a friend who was killed as a result of gang violence. And that’s only the tip of a rather massive worldwide sub-culture. The main issue here is that no one has to agree with, or even respect the myriad tattoos that a criminal or political prisoner can have, but the fact is undeniable that these are tattoos given to people who have earned them in some capacity, whether it be acknowledged by the criminal circles in which they operate, or the actions they have performed to receive them. There are reasons for these tattoos and they do not point to a simple life or a mere fleeting fashion trend.

And yet despite these tattoos having been issued as a result of a life of problems, problems are so very often exactly what seem to exist when dues aren’t paid and when tattoos in effect, aren’t earned. Understanding has always played a vital role in the entire tattoo lifestyle, making the proliferation of tattoo possible on numerous levels and styles, enabling the new school to remain open and respectful of past masters and their need to pass on what they have learned.

A genuine, objective mindset has remained a constant amongst the tattoo community as a result of and a desire to understand an individual’s need to express themselves through their art. Unfortunately, as is often increasingly commonplace with tattoo, judgements are made without the aid of actual understanding. When this occurs, the judgements made are typically based on ignorance with the end results never being good. The rut that tattoo had found itself pigeonholed in for many years, and which is now only beginning to erode, was entirely based on a lack of understanding, leading to judgements that either condemned or completely sold short this ancient art form. It was and remains a complete lack of understanding that repeatedly leads to people taking unnecessary risks with their tattoos: either getting tattooed by a scratcher or with unsanitary equipment, or simply getting tattooed by a sub-par tattooist. Regretting a tattoo also stems from a general lack of understanding, as in the bearer failed to understand the actual commitment involved in getting the tattoo. The popularity of foreign script tattoos further emphasises the rather unfavourable results that can occur when people fail to understand the significance of the image or script that they wish to have done. This is most evident with Asian and in particular, Chinese characters, which can be seen on a vast array of people of all nationalities. These sorts of tattoos are particularly popular in Western countries, most typically amongst people who neither read nor speak any dialect of Chinese nor Japanese. In 2004, Darlington, England, teen Joanne Raine made headlines when she received her boyfriend’s nickname – ‘Roo’ – tattooed in Chinese characters down her stomach. Initially quite pleased with the £80 tattoo, Raine’s joy quickly faded some time later when she discovered that the script actually translated to ‘supermarket’ – a far cry from the indelible mark of her love that she had originally intended.

While incidents such as these are far more common than we think and although they carry a certain level of humour with them, they do add credence to the theory that too many of today’s tattoos are not earned, but rather undertaken with little to no thought of either their meaning, nor their permanence. Said Raine shortly after discovering what her tattoo actually meant, “I did not think about whether it meant forever. I’m just going to have to keep it as I can’t afford to get another one done.” In the modern era of tattoo, being able to afford your artwork is perhaps the only barrier that one has to surpass in order to actually get tattooed. For many years, it was the actual fear of pain, followed by the permanence of the tattoo itself that kept many far from the needle. The truth is, that it was precisely the pain and the permanence that created the closest thing that modern, law-abiding society had to being capable of earning a tattoo. Anyone who would actively seek out a tattooist and willingly sit in that tattooist’s chair in order to get something that would forever be a part of them, well, they would have earned that piece of artwork to the best of their ability. Today’s prevalence of tattoo studios makes finding a place to get tattooed easier than finding a place to eat lunch. The notion of pain from a tattoo has been so heavily discussed and dissected that it no longer commands any sort of respect. Teenage girls and senior citizens are tattooed in the same studios as muscle-bound bikers and soldiers. It seems that for the average person, the only way to earn a tattoo anymore is to literally earn them by working until one has the money to pay for it. That certainly isn’t to suggest that people no longer seek out tattoos that matter to them or have some sort of definite place in their lives. What it does suggest however, is that one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world has firmly carved out its place in modern society and in the process – perhaps unwillingly – been forced to adapt to all the things that make up modern society and its fast paced emphasis on instant gratification. There was once a point where being aware of underground bands or musicians implied that one had made the effort to seek out information or dedicate much time to learning and listening. The advent of the internet brought with it many conveniences, among which being the ease with which anyone at any time can go online and discover obscure bands close to home or continents away within minutes. If tattoo has lost its ability to earn its dedication, then it is simply one of many sub-cultures to suffer at the hands of a new era. Earning a tattoo now seems to be relegated to how many ‘likes’ one can receive online from posting a photo or video of their latest artwork on Facebook or YouTube. Is this the new definition of earning a tattoo?

Though this very well may be the new definition of earning a tattoo, another angle to consider in this argument is that the concept of earning a tattoo may no longer be what it once was, and perhaps dealing in terms of a broader spectrum is not necessarily a bad thing. Those who were once thought to have earned their tattoos were considered by the general public to be outlaws or tough guys. In many instances this attribute had nothing to do with who these people really were – they were merely branded as such because they were taking part in what was then thought of as an outlaw tradition. Today, there exists a much wider scope of tattooed people and because their motivations for being tattooed might not be as instantly recognizable and definable as their predecessors, they in turn have made themselves less easy to stereotype.

While many of those tattooed today may do so for frivolous reasons or may be pursuing something that runs counter to what tattoo has previously been about, when all is said and done, each individual must live with their choice of tattoo. The judgment of others should never be the motivating force for receiving one and the only person whom we should ever be concerned with satisfying in this respect is none other than ourselves. Earn it in your own eyes and no one else can ever tell you different. Fake it and rest assured, you’ll more likely feel the difference sooner rather than later.


Text: Mike Jones