Tattoos: art of the soul

How have tattoos changed over the ages as a means of expression?

Rituals and cultures

Tattoos have long been part of important rituals and traditions in a vast variety of cultures around the globe. Amazon tribes tattooed themselves as a ritual of protection, so the dark spirits would not approach them. Some tattoos were believed to have the mystical power to bring spiritual guardians. Others were used to show the success in battles and to identify different tribes. The Kayabi had tattoos representing the names of enemies they had killed as symbols of honor, pride and power. Girls would get tattoos under their breasts and stomach after puberty to show men that they were ‘women’.

When Christopher Columbus colonised Brazil over 500 years ago, the number of tattooed tribes decreased considerably as the colonisers considered these rituals as a form of tortuous cruelty and sins; the settlers and missionaries wanted to educate and impose their moral codes and religion onto the culture of the indigenous people. Consequently, there are less than ten tribes that still practice the art of tattoo today as part of their rituals, because their beliefs had been colonised, the environment had changed.

Hawaiian people also believed that tattoo had a spiritual meaning aside from their beauty. Hawaiian and Amazon tribes used to apply pigment onto the skin with needles made of bones. When Europeans settlers colonised Hawaii islands, their traditions began to collapse, including the tattoo tradition.

In India, customs surrounding tattoos are a mystery. While they are associated with wealth,  there have been other reasons in different communities across the country.  In the Singhpo of Assam tribe, for instance, women have both their legs tattooed after marriage and men get tattoos on their hands to show their marital status. Women of lower castes get tattoos on visible parts of their bodies in order to represent their inferior economic status. What’s more, they also believe in the spiritual connection with the aid of tattoo and use them as a form of protection from dark spirits and an eternal connection with their ancestors. These tattoos need to have geometrical forms in order to achieve the realms of cosmology. The temporary tattoo art of Mehndi still is traditionally used during celebrations, such as weddings.

Contemporary tattoo art

The method of tattooing changed from pigments, bones and teeth into machines and different colored inks. The first tattooing machine was created by Samuel O’Reilley  in 1881, USA. He learned some tattooing techniques while in the American  Navy.  As they became particularly popular in prison camps, there too began a growing perceived connection between crime and tattoos. This negative association with criminals led to the banning of tattoos in the majority of industries. Those with tattoos suffered discrimination in the workplace,having their moral and intellectual abilities questioned because of their appearance. To be tattooed became a social taboo


Today people of different ethnicities and ages get tattoos for an enormous number of reasons. religion, aesthetics, “for the laugh” with friends, or absolutely no reason at all. Hoping to understand modern motivations, I asked some people why they got tattoos and all had different meanings and stories. Yet a curious connection remains between the history of the tribes that inspired these tattoos and the habits and customs of the modern day.

The meanings I found ranged from none at all  to a symbol of life achievement . Alex, aged 22, has a line tattooed on his arm that has no meaning whatsoever. He decided to get it as his first tattoo just to have one. Meanwhile Marilene decided to get her first tattoo when she was 50 years old, “with the intention of highlighting a new phase in life. I got retired and I chose a blue butterfly as a symbol of freedom. As the butterfly leaves its pupa to live in the world, I left mine. I left my obligations, responsibilities, timetables and things at work, and now I feel free as well” . Marilene’s story has similar principles  to the old tattooing rituals as a celebration act.  And yet others symbolise the present with tattoos. Hoping to reveal her inner self, Laura, aged 23, thinks of them as expressing her inner self. She wants to display the things she loves in life, her ideas and her personality.

Laura used to be a tattoo artist, as well as having her own tattoos. She shared with me her experience of different perspectives: being tattooed and marking someone else’s body forever. She said, “I like to have animals and geometric symbols on my body to show some aspects of my inner personality, it’s like a self-manifestation. And I also feel pretty with my tattoos. I think tattoos need to have a personal meaning, it doesn’t matter what other people think about your tattoos. I think it’s a form of expressing your spirituality, a cultural expression.”

Laura also explained the work environment at a tattoo parlour and how she used to feel when she was tattooing other people, “Sometimes you are undermined because you are a woman tattoo artist. I was the only women where I used to work. It was a very negative environment, in my opinion. Some customers wanted ‘good’ tattoos on their bodies, but others wanted ‘bad’ tattoos like clowns. If you get a clown tattoo it means you killed a policeman, but it’s like a theory. I can’t say if the person did that or not.”

Laura decided to give up being a tattoo artist for a few reasons. While some disappointments drove her away, she also did not like the idea of “marking someone’s body forever” as she described it, “I think there is also a religious idea behind my choice, I don’t know if there’s karma because I’m modifying someone’s body. I don’t want to be penalized for that, I will have to pay the price for tattooing people. Well, according to my parents. So, I was a bit paranoid about that and then I gave up.”

In relation to work opportunities, many companies still do not accept tattoos. Those associated with authority such as flight attendants, nurses and teachers often have strict appearance policies that forbid these displays of self, regardless of their meaning. This isn’t restricted to a western context either. In Japan, tattoos are associated with the Yakuza Mob and public bathhouses and gyms have been known to ban entry for those that don’t conceal their art. The city of Osaka even went so far as to introduce a fine for civil servants with tattoos in 2012 in an effort to keep Yakuza gangsters off the public payroll. While many Japanese natives avoid tattoos due to these associations, this is a problem for the increasing tourist population visiting Japan.

While our generation is more open-minded about the topic, it is clear tattoos remain problematic in certain fields.  However, with the number of tattooed people increasing in our generation, certain questions arise about self expression.When in the public eye, do people have a responsibility to avoid negative associations? Are these associations unfair, even if they’re a declaration of murdering a police officer? To what extent should our freedom of expression carry over into the professional realm, and how important should our art be in expressing who we really are?