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".