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27th November 2019

Opinion: A note on cultural appropriation of tattoos

Tattoos don’t need to have a meaning for you, but a culturally appropriated symbol might have meaning to someone else
Opinion: A note on cultural appropriation of tattoos
Tattoo photo: Silvana Carlos @Unsplash

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of cultural elements belonging to a minority group by members of a dominant culture. It has become hugely relevant in our society, sparking a range of discussions and strong opinions. It’s a controversial and personal topic where some feel angered by the thought of it and others are largely indifferent.

At sixteen years old I decided that I wanted a tattoo of the Yin and Yang symbol, which represents a concept of dualism in Chinese philosophy. I thought the tattoo would make me seem deep and spiritual, which showed “who I really was” at the ripe-old age of sixteen.

My parents were not so supportive of their sixteen-year-old daughter getting a tattoo of a Chinese symbol simply because “it just vibed with her.” I soon got over this disappointment as I realised how ignorant this tattoo could have appeared, especially since I don’t understand the entire cultural meaning of the tattoo. I just thought it looked and sounded cool.

But there are individuals who do end up getting tattoos of symbols which are taken from cultures and communities that are not their own; ones they haven’t learned about either. There are a number of popular tattoos that are often taken from different cultures or scripts, including symbols, words, and phrases such as the Kanji character for ‘love.’

In other words, people take important symbols from another’s culture and use it as decoration on their body, often without researching the meaning behind the symbol. This may cause offence to those who have a personal connection to the symbol or words and, of course, who do know what it represents.

In one extreme case in 2015, an Australian tourist was visiting India and was harassed by locals due to a tattoo he had of the Hindu goddess Yellamma, the goddess of fertility, and was arrested.

The tattoo was placed on the tourist’s shin which was seen as disrespectful to the religion of the local people and, in their eyes, to the sacred goddess. Whilst the tourist felt he was mistreated simply for having this tattoo, the locals felt he had mistreated their culture and beliefs.

When it comes to cultural appropriation it’s difficult to know where the boundaries are and who gets to decide when those lines are crossed.

Besides a lack of research, another issue that arises with the cultural appropriation of tattoos is that, often, they are taken from cultures that have been oppressed. It might be the sugar skull from Mexico or the Hindu swastika sign, but these symbols were once used against minorities, and showed they were ‘different’.

These symbols are now, however, being used by people without respecting their history or origin, and without crediting the communities from which they came from. This shows little respect and has the potential to cause incidences similar to that experienced by the Australian tourist.

While many designs are undoubtedly beautiful, they are more than just art; they come with a story that should be learned and respected before it is permanently placed on your body for all to see.

Appropriation goes beyond tattoos, and it is worth reading about experiences and thoughts on this. Regardless of our opinion on cultural appropriation, we must always treat everyone’s cultures and traditions with the same level as respect that we would like others to treat ours.

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