Photography via Flickr user artdejavu

why that tribal tattoo won’t work in a woke world

Ink must be respectful of all cultures.

by Erica Euse
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10 August 2017, 8:41pm

Photography via Flickr user artdejavu

Weeks after Brooklyn Beckham turned 18, the model-turned photographer revealed that he was getting his first tattoo. Like his famously tatted father, Beckham called on legendary artist Mark Mahoney to do the intricate ink, a Native American chief wearing a traditional feathered headdress on his forearm. But, after unveiling the final product on social media, many commenters were quick to criticize Beckham's choice of design, calling him out for "cultural appropriation" since the young socialite is in fact not Native American.

For decades, people like Beckham have been borrowing symbols and having them branded on their body, from Chinese characters to sacred tribal art. While some may argue it's just a tattoo, too often this imagery is chosen without regard to its meaning or the history that surrounds the marginalized groups it originates from.

"When people incorporate images from a culture that is not part of their heritage or lived experience in some significant way, it can, to use a term from critical studies 'other' that culture—it demeans it, makes it exotic, creates a hierarchy of dominance," explained tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman. "It's generally not wise practice to permanently inscribe something on your body from another culture just because you think it looks cool."

Many of Beckham's followers felt the design, which his dad David Beckham also has etched on his side, trivializes the experience of Native Americans. As one commenter explained, "My people, the Choctaw were beaten. Raped. Starved. Massacred. Stripped of their identity by Europeans. There is nothing fashionable and trendy about that."

According to Friedman, modern tattooing has a long history of drawing from other cultures dating back to the 19th century when Japanese influence became popular, after the country was "opened to the West." At the time, tattoos were becoming popular among wealthy socialites in the United States, and by the turn of the century it was estimated that a third of women in New York City had tattoos, with dragons, a symbol inspired by ancient Japanese mythology, being one of the most common designs, according to Time.

Still, for most of the early 20th century, tattoos were reserved for counterculture groups like bikers and hippies. But by the 1960s the way society viewed body art started to change, thanks to popular figures like Janis Joplin, who helped make tattoos more mainstream. It was during this decade that "tribal" art was also becoming more common as artists drew influence from cultures in Polynesia, Southeast Asia, and indigenous North America. The black geometric designs originated in these cultures, which used tattooing as status symbols, as well as for spiritual and decorative purposes.

This tattoo style was even embraced by fashion designers like Martin Margiela, who sent a tribal-inspired tattoo shirt down the runway in 1989 (it was later reissued during the fashion house's collaboration with H&M in 2012) and Jean Paul Gaultier, who used tribal ink on several occasions including his Spring 1994 show. This only furthered the appropriation issue, since these symbols were deemed "cool," while the people they belonged to remained oppressed.

Along with tribal art, the 90s brought a huge surge in Asian character tattoos, like the ones etched down the arm of Nicki Minaj. These symbols were often picked off generic "flash sheets" that hung on the walls of tattoos studios. The Asian calligraphy offered an "exotic" alternative to English words such as "love" or "strength." By 2000, tattoo artists were estimating that 40 percent of their business was inking Japanese and Chinese pictographs.

But, since the majority of artists were not native speakers, the meaning of the characters were lost in translation. In 2006, it was reported that droves of people were trying to get their Asian-inspired tattoos covered, mostly because of mis-translations.

"No tattoo artist should be inscribing images to which they cannot claim proper cultural connection," said Friedman. "This does not mean that all artists must only tattoo images from their heritage, but it does mean that they should be, at the very least, doing research on the designs they tattoo and forging cultural connections if they desire to tattoo in a style that is not their heritage. Merely tattooing cool designs off of flash sheets or pictures found on the internet is not responsible tattooing when it comes to designs from other cultures."

Tattoo "trends" continue to borrow from disenfranchised groups for their aesthetic rather than their meaning. Recently we've seen a renewed interest in face tattoos, which have a history of being associated with gang and prison culture. Fashion houses like Gucci have recently sent models down the runway with temporary facial ink, at the same time studios around the country are launching programs to help people remove their gang-related tattoos and the stigmatization that comes with them.

"People have been coming in left and right trying to get things covered up," said Dave Cutlip, who runs Southside Tattoo in Maryland. Earlier this year Cutlip launched the Random Acts of Tattoo project, which offers people with racist or gang-related tattoos a free cover up.

Fortunately, Friedman believes that more people are starting to understand the relationship between cultural appropriation and body art.

"I think a small segment of those who get tattooed are starting to understand issues of cultural appropriation," said Friedman, who has started the removal process of her own indigenous-inspired spider tattoo. "People seem to have always been drawn to other cultures through all forms of art and this goes both ways—for example, some of the American-influenced Japanese tattoos or black and grey in India. This doesn't make it always right, but there will likely forever be a market for ill-conceived 'ethnic' tattoos and tattooers who are happy to make that money."

Of course, Friedman is right. People will continue to be inspired by other cultures, which is why doing the research about a culturally-significant symbol can make the difference between appreciation and appropriation. "If you feel you can legitimately explain why you got a design that is not part of your own cultural heritage beyond merely liking the aesthetics, than you can feel more confident in the choice," according to Friedman.

And Cutlip has already noticed a change in the way his clients are choosing their ink. "Tattoos aren't so much taken off the walls anymore like they were back in the day," he said. "People know what they want nowadays."