By Savitre “Rapture” Schaefferkoetter, Staff Writer
Tattoos. What images come to mind when you think of this word? Does it make you smile, frown or shrug with indifference?
First, where did this idea of decorating the human body come from? According to the Smithsonian’s website, the oldest known tattooed human being is about 5,200 years old. Since then, tattoos have been prevalent in different societies and may carry a good or bad meaning. Particularly, during the Chinese Han dynasty, only criminals were tattooed. However, the Maori people of Polynesia saw tattoos as an enhancement to one’s beauty.
How are tattoos viewed today? They are becoming more acceptable in the workplace, for example, within good taste. My conservative and highly professional workplace has just updated their dress code to state that tattoos may be visibly worn within the building, but must be covered up when we have to attend court to testify for cases we are involved in (for more details about my career, refer to my “Women in Forensic Science” articles).
Jaclyn Sakura Knitter studied this cultural phenomenon when she was an intern at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, particularly the concept of the heritage tattoo where language or symbols that are culturally significant to the wearer are incorporated to their tattoos. Asian-American young adults may seek the heritage tattoo to show that the body art is not an act of rude defiance, but of a brave reverence to the culture they share with their parents.
In her paper, Knitter stated, “The heritage tattoo is proposed here as a culturally alternative medium that allows Asian American young adults of East Asian ancestry to re-articulate their Asian identity.”
Eng Ung, a fellow sister from Epsilon Chapter, shared her own tattooed journey with me.
“My grandma was my role model, a huge inspiration, and had a big part in raising me,” she said.
One of Ung’s tattoos is a mandala, representing the Buddhist faith that was so important to her grandmother. The other represents a quote from Ung’s grandma, written in Khmer, embellished by her favorite flower and her name.
Tina Tran, also of Epsilon Chapter, adorns three tattoos, which have a spiritual meaning.
She said she believes “there is always a guiding light leading us into a better tomorrow.”
Her lotus flower, cross, and seed of life body art pieces present her Vietnamese and Catholic upbringing.
Personally, I did not feel the need to get my own ink until I underwent an awakening back in 2010. During that time, I knew what image I wanted (a phoenix, which is a prominent figure in Thai mythology) and knew that I wanted it permanently etched on my body. I had always had this flirtation with the pin-up image, and I discovered that modern pin-ups were covered with ink, and so I aspire to be one of those girls, one tattoo at a time.
My family is in a mixed mode when it comes to upholding certain Asian traditions. My grandfather on my mom’s side has some tattoos on him, and he is a Buddhist monk.
In the summer of 2010, when I decided to get my first piece, I drove around with my parents and relatives, shopping for tattoo parlors in Chicago. This story, alongside the other narratives previously mentioned, is evidence that tattoos are becoming a socially acceptable fixture of living art, as much as a cultural mark on Asian American heritage.
Featured and Article Images: Special to The Jade Times
- Knitter, Jaclyn Sakura. Heritage Tattoos and Cultural Transmission by Gener-Asian Y Paper for Fall 2014 Capstone. Published Fall 2014. Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Washington, DC.
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. (2016, July). Beyond the Stigma: Tattoos in Asian America. Retrieved from http://smithsonianapa.org/now/beyond-the-stigma/.
- Smithsonian.com. (2016, July). Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History. Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/?no-ist.