There is no culture in which people do not, or did not paint, pierce, tattoo, reshape, or simply adorn their bodies (Schildkrout, 2001). Throughout history, body art and ornamentation has become a worldwide phenomenon and has played a key role in our lives, yet there is a social stigma which we cannot seem to rid ourselves of. It is most commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted which can be attributed to the fact that the symbolism and significance of the body art and/or ornamentation doesn’t always translate the same among the cultures. Although Western culture views body art and ornamentation as being associated with mischief and rebellion, Japanese and African cultures use it as a way of expressing spirituality as well as cultural expression. The existence of body art and ornamentation can be traced all the way back thirty thousand years or more back to when cavemen drew pictures on the cave walls. According to Kuhn & Stiner (n.d.), the alteration and enhancement of one’s body originated from the Kapthurin formation in Kenya. Anthropologists even believe that body art and ornamentation was present during the Middle Pleistocene in both Eurasia and Africa.
Expression and art are two factors that play a fundamental part in African culture. According to Clarke (2006), many African societies symbolically view body art and ornamentation as a special role in guiding one’s destiny and success, mediating between world of the living as well as the spiritual world, expressing community ideals, defining power and leadership, protecting and healing, and celebrating or commemorating the cycles of life, human and agricultural.
African culture uses a variety of ways to display their body art and ornamentation depending on which society they live in. These ways include: incorporating shells, teeth, or claws into their clothing or jewelry, wearing colored body paint, exaggerating human features (i.e. elongation of the neck), gauging piercings in the ears and/or lip, scarification, and tattooing. Looking from another culture’s perspective, the various forms of African body art and ornamentation are seen as being weird, out of the ordinary, and we don’t understand the importance they hold within these African cultures. On the other hand, there are other cultures such as the Japanese, who instead of outwardly portraying their body art and ornamentation will instead conceal it so it won’t be visible at all.
The first signs of body art and ornamentation which appear in the Japanese culture were first noted as originating all the way back to AD 297 (Rapp, 2010). Back then, tattoos would signify which occupational group certain men belonged to and men, both young and old, would get tattoos all over their bodies including their faces. Men would even go as far as getting full body tattoos which could be found on laborers, firemen, and gangsters (Hopkins-Tanne, 2000). The Chinese considered all Japanese tattoos an act of barbarism and was perceived as being extremely negative. The body art and ornamentation that exists and has existed within the Japanese culture spreads beyond just tattooing and there are a few other methods that they used. First, many married Japanese women or courtesan in the 10th through 19th centuries would apply a paste to their teeth which would blacken them (Schildkrout, 2001). This was considered as being beautiful as well as sexually appealing to where as we would view that as abnormal and ugly. Secondly, they would bind the women’s feet in order to make them smaller and the process was extremely excruciating, but again, it was considered as being beautiful.
The pain that was felt and the blood that was shed served as an offering to the gods, ancestors, and spirits (2001). On the other end of the spectrum, culture within the United States has a split view regarding body art and ornamentation. In the United States, forms of body art and ornamentation can include: tattoos, piercings, branding, corseting, scarification, gauging the earlobe, make-up, plastic surgery, and dental implants (Schwarz, 2006). We live in a society where we idolize and preach the importance of physical attractiveness. In doing so, there is the separation of individuals into five different groups that exist within the social structure. The five groups include: the conformist group, the innovators, ritualists, retreatists, and the rebellion group (Rapp, 2010). The conformist group consists of individuals who understand and accept the emphasis on the beauty of the body in its natural state and the only type of body art or ornamentation that’s used is superficial. On the other hand, the individuals who are classified as innovators accept the whole concept of the beauty of the natural body, but go to the extremes to achieve this. The individuals who refuse to conform to what society has deemed as beautiful yet maintains a natural body and stays within certain bounds regarding body art and ornamentation. Retreatists include individuals who don’t abide by the guidelines of proper hygiene as well as body art and ornamentation and won’t acknowledge the beauty of the natural body. Lastly, there are individuals who are set out to change the social structure and bring about a new phase of body art and ornamentation and they make up the rebellion group (2010). Nowadays, in American culture we see body art and ornamentation, such as tattoos and piercings, as being acceptable as well as fashionable. It’s not uncommon to see people have a variety of body art, ornamentation, and body modification performed. The majority of people go and get tattoos when they experience a pivotal point in their lives as well as trying to create a sense of identity for themselves.
Everyone tries to be original in their own way, but the end result is the creation and growth of conformity. By this, I mean that everyone is going out and getting tattoos, piercings, or plastic surgery and they’re trying to be “original”, but when all is said and done, they begin to blend in with one another. No matter what people say or do, a stigma has remained attached to all the various kinds of body art and ornamentation. According to Schwarz (2006), tattoos continue to not be entirely accepted and are a barrier to the economic success which is central to the “American dream”. For example, most employers have rules for their employees stating that they cannot have any visible tattoos and/or piercings that are visible to the public. This could be partly because there are individuals that could be offended and businesses could suffer from a loss of customers and sales. In the American culture, tattoos are not acceptable in a number of situations especially when it has to do with the general public (2006). The highest percentage of the American culture that has body art and ornamentation can be found in the younger generations. Many teens go through a period in their lives where they feel the need to rebel against the social norm especially to spite their parents. Their choices of body art and ornamentation are indicative of their attitudes and values (Crapo, 2013). Attitudes are statements of one’s preferences while values are what we consider good or bad (2013). This plays into why certain individuals look down upon body art and ornamentation and end up enforcing the negative stigma. In conclusion, the implementation of body art and ornamentation is a designated way of indicating the various cultural differences that exist within cultures worldwide. The main reason there has been the rise in the popularity of body art and ornamentation is a result of cultural commercialism. Despite how hard we try to eliminate the social stigma of body art and ornamentation, it will never completely be gone. Unfortunately, we can’t have everyone’s personal opinion be the same as one another, but there is one thing that we can do. We can make the effort to educate the various cultures on one another so that we are able to comprehend the vocabulary that is used, the meaning of symbols, myths and legends, and social values. People in different cultures continue focusing on the negative aspects of body art and ornamentation, but if we were able to understand one another, the idea of peace on earth isn’t that far out of reach.
Clarke, C. (2006). The art of africa: A response for educators. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from Ebscohost database Crapo, R.H. (2013). Cultural anthropology. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education Hopkins-Tanne, J. (2000). Body art: Marks of identity. British Medical Journal. doi: 320(7226):64 Kappeler, P., Stahl, J., & Wohlrab, S. (2006). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Science Direct: Body Image 4, 87-95. Retrieved from http://www.sociodep.hku.hk/bbf/BBF%20Readings%20W12/W12%20Modifying_the_Body.pdf Kuhn, S.L. & Stiner, M.C. (n.d.) Body ornamentation as information technology: Towards an understanding of the significance of early beads. Retrieved from http://courses.washington.edu.archyaec/archy401/readings/kuhn-beads.pdf