The art of tattoo has the power to change and mark, more than superficially, the individual who wears it. It may be a reference to a personal journey, an accomplishment, or a tribute to a loved one, but regardless of motivation, the tattoo stands as a permanent reminder of a pinnacle moment for the wearer. The traditional tatau helped to create this notion, but even more so, it helped contextualize the one who wore the tattoo as a member of a specific community. This cultural motif may seem foreign to the Western eye, yet it is this communal rite of passage that helped the initial art to flourish.
“The Pacific patterns convey that the individual is a member of a particular family, tribe, or community, and may depict everything from a person’s birthplace to authority inherited and achieved,” (11). It is in this way that tattooing is a physical representation of something greater than self, something not only more powerful but insightful, full of rich history and encompassing a notion of longevity. The wearing of a tattoo bears almost a theological power, it serves as a noticeable and sometimes recognizable demonstration of community. “The practice also conveys an ethic—of responsibility to one’s family and community—and is thus related to concepts of the sacred and profane,” (12). This idea functions specifically in the moko face designs which distinguish a person’s particular “affiliations and ancestry, the lines of descent and ascent that make the individual part of a community and give her or him a standing place in the world,” (22). It is in this way that the process, as dictated by the greater community, welcomes and praises its members. This sense of cultural kinship, however, displays each member as having negated personal identification for the sake of that of the community; this communal ideology only functions when the individual is present within the group. “Once the bearer leaves the Pacific the tattoo requires explanation, inspires new narratives. This is how the art of tattoo simultaneously notes a person for his or her individuality.
The notion of culture clashing appears in the anecdote surrounding James F. O’Connell. For him, the act of leaving the traditional Pacific region, which bestowed him with the traditional tattoo, means that he must now explicate for all who see him. The tattoos, taken out of their intended context, take on new connotation, “the lightly patterned lines that adorn his hands, arms, legs, and thighs. But the tattoos still speak, even in North America. They mean what O’Connell says they mean,” (3). This demonstrates the strong individualistic ties associated with tattoo. “The marks that made O’Connell ordinary in the Pacific made him extraordinary in the United States; he carried the material signs of his subjectivity with him,” (49). As noted through intellectual discourse on this matter, there is no “official” regulation as to what age a person should be in order to receive the tattoo, or more contemporarily, whether or not someone should receive the tattoo at all. In that way, the practice of receiving the tattoo is still a personal choice. Especially in the more modern, western tradition, tattoos are seen as a private matter, with deep associated meaning for the wearer. The example of Mike Tyson and his moko-like tattoo, exemplifies this model as he simply goes on to say, “‘a tattoo is personal,’” (197). Additionally, Dr. Ellis points to other scholarly investigation which says, “that in the United States the meaning of the tattoo design is symbolic, readable only by the few or the one,” (197). And so, the art of tattoo places itself in a precarious position between self and society, which straddle two very different expressions of personality.
Moreover, tattoo can be neither simply a demonstration of community, nor merely a representation of self. It is always a personal choice, regardless of community pressure, while in the act of choosing one becomes a member of a Pacific culture, sometimes unknowingly. Tattoo’s ownership sits at the crux of our humanity, it tugs at our desire to both express our individuality yet feel welcomed and appreciated. Glancing at someone’s seemingly pointless tattoo one might wonder how this art form could ever correlate to a deeper understanding of our human nature. Through study it becomes clearer that tattoo moves beyond the traditional bounds of cultural diffusion into a new and complex genre of self-actualization through cultural motifs.