Body Art and the Asian Culture
Body Art & the Asian Culture Marcie Helman March 22, 2009 Body art is a definitive and visual part of the Asian culture used to identify social and religious representations. The term tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word tatu, meaning to mark . Throughout history, many cultures have socially acceptable ways in which to showcase their individuality. Contrary to popular belief, in the Asian culture, body modification is typically considered to be distasteful and socially unacceptable.
The resurgence and ultimate popularity of the Asian Hanzi and Kanji characters is most prevalent in today’s younger generation. However, the significance of Asian characters used in today’s modern society is not as symbolic as its ancient representation. In the early 1700’s, the Japanese used tattoos as a form of branding as a classification of criminals within their society. Those who bore the mark of dishonor on their foreheads were called Ronin, a masterless samurai warrior. These criminals were believed to be the grass root society in which the “yakuza” was born.
The Yakuza felt that because tattooing was painful, it was a proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them outlaws forever. Historians note that this type of punishment replaced the earlier ostracism of nose or ear amputation. These types of punishments are clearly very visible and physical attributes that cannot be shielded or otherwise hidden. The Horis, the Japanese tattoo artist, were the undisputed masters in the use of color, perspective and imaginative design.
One of the most intricate and colorful tattoo designs is found in the Irezumi, a culturally Japanese form of the body art. Early Chinese traditions regarding body art is quite surprising given our modern culture and the freedom of expression. It was believed that in early China, the art of Ci Shen and Wen Shen, loosely translated means to “puncture the body”, was considered distasteful and was an uncommon practice because it was a desecration of the body. The Chinese believe that the body is a precious gift and must be treated with respect. To harm, or in this case, puncture, was clearly sacrilegious.
Synonymous with the Japanese culture, it was also used as a form of branding for their criminal population. There are hundreds of islands that make up Polynesia (also referred to as Oceania) including the more well-known islands of Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand, Marquesas, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Early Polynesian history is not of written form, therefore, the use of this art to express their individuality was more pronounced than that of the Eastern lands of Japan and China. Most of what is known today within the French Polynesian society has been passed from generation to generation through legends, songs and ritual ceremonies.
People were able to easily identify each other’s origins solely based on the design of their body art. Polynesian body art is used in many ritualistic and ceremonial rites of passage. Different symbols, design motifs and markings depict maturity, genealogy and rank within their society. Polynesian tattooing is considered to be the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. It is believed that most everyone in ancient Polynesian society bore a tattoo; it was a symbol of their mana, their spiritual power or life force.
The design and placement on the body of the tattoo is decided by the “master”, a highly revered elder within the village and surrounding community. Other variables that determine design and location of the tattoo on the body are life events. An example would be if they were a warrior; preparing for or returning heroically from, battle. A composite of the more familiar Polynesian islands with their cultural adaptations regarding tattoos and interpretations within their social group will be elaborated below. Captain Cook had assisted in the popularity of this art by discussions with other British citizens.
It has been noted that Ma’i, a Polynesian who accompanied Captain Cook back to the British Isles had become partly famous and enjoyed celebrity status because of his tattoos. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become a tradition in the British Navy and by 1862 was commonplace to have at least one professional tattoo artist in residence at most British ports. In Thailand, the Sak Yant is a protective tattoo that covers the body of Thai soldiers. This is an ancient tradition that spans centuries. One of he most highly esteemed locations for Sak Yant is located about 30 miles west of Bangkok called the Wat Bang Phra Buddhist temple. In today’s modern society, incorporating the use of both Asian character symbols as well as the Asian-inspired art such as dragons and tigers, the art has become much more a part of contemporary lifestyles. As cited above, the art of tattooingspans the Asian region in ways that are intricate with its culture. The direction in which tattooing as an art and personal statement seems to be making its inroads into the middle-class community, allowing our newest generation of twenty-something’s to lead the way.
With the traditional Asian culture, it seems to be that even the most austere conservatives are more tolerant and accepting, maybe even allowing, this brand of individuality. It is also reflected in the popularity of American youths depiction of body art who are brandishing Asian inspired motifs that \are more concurrent with traditional styles. Most notably, North American statistics show that one in seven people have at least one tattoo further emphasizing how tattoos are appearing more frequently than in previous generations. REFERENCES