An Eye Is Upon You - 222: A Matter of Consent

Published: 26 February, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 222, March, 2013

My experience of tattoos, and life as a tattooed person has been overwhelmingly positive – I get to negotiate the world on my own terms…

Whether I engage with the curiosity of others or ignore it, allowing myself to feel discriminated against or to feel special is entirely within my own control. I look this way because I choose to, and I made that choice knowing what the consequences might be. My path here was consensual.

Consent is a familiar term in tattooing; we sign forms consenting to the procedure, accept the risks, and formally take responsibility for the difficult-to-reverse decision we are making. We do this so routinely that we barely register its significance, but it is crucial; tattoos without consent are assault, legally and morally.

Merely agreeing to something is not the same as consenting to it. Consent can only take place when the risks are made plain and considered. It must be given voluntarily and the consenter must have the capacity to understand exactly what it is they are signing up for.

Which is precisely why children, animals and drunken people should not, and according to British good practice, must not, be tattooed. Yet this month, footage of a child receiving a tattoo appeared online – in the video a little boy, aged around three is crying, clearly in considerable pain and struggling to get away. Under no circumstances is he agreeing to the procedure, and even if he was, his minor status renders him incapable of informed consent. The footage is upsetting and difficult to watch and the boy’s reaction and the failure of his mother to protect him have provoked an understandably emotional response all over the internet. It is hard to reconcile our positive, western, adult experience of tattooing with what we are being shown, and the video’s back-story (reports claim it originates from a South American Religious sect) does little to dampen our disquiet.

Religion has been used in justification for the tattooing of minors for centuries – a well-known example being the Coptic Christians of Egypt, who traditionally display a small cross tattoo on the inside wrist. Egypt’s tattoo history is over 4,000 years old, and post-Christ, the Copts combined the ancient practice with their new spiritual beliefs. In a country where the Muslim majority treat Christians as outsiders, the cross tattoo functions as a sign of community pride and a symbol of stubborn visibility in the face of discrimination and persecution.

Here in the west, we may not always sympathise with the spirituality, but we can certainly recognise the motivations – our tattoos also mark us out as a proud community and pose a defiant challenge to those that do not understand us. What is difficult for us to understand is that traditionally, the Coptic cross is just as likely to be tattooed onto a child at the behest of its parents as it is to be tattooed onto an adult, and historically, the tattoos could be performed at a staggeringly young 40 days after birth.

Faith and indelibility are in some ways conceptual bedfellows. Faith is to believe without material evidence and if one’s belief is not dependant on logical proof, it is theoretically free of outside influence and can therefore survive any adversity. Celebrating that consistency with a permanent mark can make perfect sense, but faith is personal, it isn’t hereditary and it cannot be given or enforced by another, it is internal and ever questioning, and faith without understanding is as useless as consent without knowledge.

In legend, the tattoo of the Coptic child guards against kidnapping and abduction by preventing the child’s true identity from being concealed – perhaps so, but it also prevents that child from living as an adult without any religion, or from choosing to follow a faith different from that of their parents. In short, tattooing children denies them autonomy by removing the possibility of reinvention, to tattoo, is to control.

Non-consensual tattooing has been used to control in other, more explicit ways too – the Romans tattooed those convicted of crime, as did the Japanese during the middle ages. Russia’s prison tattoo culture includes tattoos made forcibly on those that have committed perceived wrongs, and even now, forced tattooing has been cited in some cases of domestic abuse. Perhaps most significantly, tattoos were used in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany to identify minorities and to dehumanise and control their difference.

Nothing is ever wholly positive and those of us that are lucky enough to be able to choose our marks, to control our own self image through the permanent art we love, must never forget those that have suffered otherwise. I hope that little boy from the video is safe now.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos