Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tattoos: More Than Skin Deep

What is it about tattoos? When I was young, having your skin marked with 'Mom' in a heart, a skull and cross bones, or a loved one's name was left to sailors and others tough enough to take the pain and the consequences when they changed girlfriends. Today, tattoos are fashionably mainstream.

In New Zealand, tattooing is even more so. It has profound cultural significance for both Maori and Pacific Islanders and it is not uncommon to see Maori men with full facial tattoos and Maori women with the traditional chin tattoo. This is a sign of a resurgence of cultural pride, but I'm also intrigued by a huge increase in the number of other New Zealanders being tattooed.

Walk along a New Zealand beach in summer - believe me, this is something to do before you die - and the variety and number of tattoos is incredible. Many of them are very elaborate (not just a small red rose or an ironic anchor entwined with rope) and tell stories; stories that have meaning to the people who wear them and are drawn from a world of cultures from Japan to Egypt, from the Celtics to the Chinese. These are literally personal Lovemarks.

The mystery of individual iconography, sensuality of color and line permanently drawn on the body, and intimacy of personal commitment. It is probably no coincidence that in a world obsessed by security, identity and surveillance, so many people are choosing to mark themselves permanently as individuals. Optimists, every one of them, wearing their confidence in the future with pride. Of course they bring to mind their direct opposite which I saw recently. Temporary tattoos. They looked real enough but were simply transfers. The tag line on the packaging? "Almost forever".


Susan Plunkett said...

My mother got her first tattoo in her 60's and now has three.

I enjoy the NZ tattoos very much and the symbology and meaning. I was watching a flock of white cockatoos from my balcony recently and a NZ gent walked down the street in blue jeans and white singlet with those wonderful upper arm bands and a ..(not sure of the word)..sunburst across a shoulder. He looked wonderful.

I was at a pool the other day swimming and talked later to one of the lifeguards who is a NZ'er. I said..why are you here out of interest. He looked at me and said..a lady.. :-)

Phil Darby said...

One thing about working from time to time in developing markets, as we both do, you get to see Maslow's theory in the raw.

I've been having a debate with a commentator on my blog about whether Maslow's is a long term evolutionary process the progress of which is measured over civilisations or something that we can each progress through in our lifetimes. I believe that it can be both, but both civilisations and individuals mostly get stuck in the phase that Maslow calls "Belonging" but I categorise as "I am what I wear, buy, eat etc".

This is where the developing economies come in to play because they offer an accelerated run-through of the development process - especially those communities that were behind the Iron Curtain for so many years. Since the fall of Communism there has been a mad scramble by entire populations desperate to wear the badges of belonging to Western Ciques.

We wear Nikes, Gucci, Deisel et al as badges of belonging to brand communties that we feel represent our beliefs, values etc. Tatoos are the same. Your guy with the tat of New Zealand is representing his belonging to "brand New Zealand", the prisoner with "MUM" on his arm is reflecting family values, Temporary tats could e seen as representing a lack of commitment, but the community could equally be a religious sect, a rock band or just a social community - Although, thinking about it, I've yet to see "Face Book Rocks" emblazoned across anybody's chest!

Susan Plunkett said...

I winced at the developing country analogy as I immediately thought of how quickly Maccas etc insert their way in. I hardly see this as 'development' Phil.

On the rest I largely agree.

Sin Titulo said...

Estudio publicidad, y una vez un profesor dijo exactamente lo que tu estas diciendo acá. El ramo se llamaba lovemarks.
Tengo dos amigos que tiene tatuado el logo de una marca de snowboard, y otro, del grupo red hot chilli peppers.

I like your blog, it keeps me motivated with my studie.

Kevin Roberts said...

Phil, thanks for your interesting insight. I think you are right about Facebook. For all its popularity I’d still put it in the Fad sector of the Love/Respect Axis. Lot’s of young people I know try it for six months to a year and then fade off.