In the Introduction of Tattooing The World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin, Dr. Ellis explains the significance of tattoo, as well as the variety of interpretations throughout the world. Dr. Ellis stresses the importance of the fact that tattoos are interpreted quite differently depending on social context, just as text can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Thus, tattoo is not simply a form on art on the body; it is also a script that signifies many things. A prime example of the various ways that tattoo can be interpreted is most clearly illustrated by means of a castaway named James O’ Connell, who Dr. Ellis introduces from the outset of her work. James O’Connell’s full body Pacific tattoos are characteristic of societal norms in the Pacific, but cause women and children to run and scream in America (Ellis 1). It is through this example that the true nature of tattoo is exposed. It is read on a variety of different levels, and is, above all, “personal, performative, and social” (Ellis 3). The multiple functions of the tattoo, in addition to the differing interpretations, embody the underlying idea behind Ellis’ work and offer insight into its connection with travel.
According to Dr. Ellis, tattoo functions as a “form of social registry” (3). One of the ways that tattoo functions as a social registry is in its representation of gender roles. While in the Pacific, O’Connell underwent a process that is “entrusted almost exclusively to women and used for purposes of recording individual lineages and clan histories” (Ellis 5). O’Connell was a man being tattooed by a woman, which signifies power and authority on behalf of the female gender. Dr. Ellis writes, “ As for the gender role he performs in his narrative, he [O’Connell] shows himself to be a man penetrated by a women. That position was familiar to men in Pohnpei, but not to men in the United States” (8). This reversal of gender roles can be seen as shocking, but if anything, it exemplifies the fact that tattoo is interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on context and location. In America, O’Connell’s tattoos were seen as a threat to traditional “gender roles and standard forms of reproduction” (Ellis 8). This is evidence of the fact that the meanings of tattoo develop and change throughout travel.
The permanence of tattoo certainly adds to its significance and impact on the world. While tattoo can certainly be a positive signifier of various positions or functions within society, and can be a means of inclusion, it can also be a permanent sign of degradation and shame. For example, Dr. Ellis explains that the “tribal tattoo was condemned in the Catholic Church” (12) and that it was also seen as a sign of shame in the general origins of monotheistic religious history. Because tattoo is interpreted from such a wide variety of lenses, it has the power to be read in a very negative light. When an individual makes the decision to acquire a tattoo, or is forced to receive this marking, he or she is associating themselves with a particular object, idea, belief, etc in a very distinct, powerful way. Similarly, when an individual cannot have a tattoo completed, a social stigma can be placed upon them. Dr. Ellis writes, “In psychoanalytic theory, tattoo also inaugurates the subject” (14). Unfortunately, if a certain individual is not able to have an important tattoo completed, their reputation will be forever tarnished. Thus, the question remains: what if an individual represents something completely different than that which they display on their body? Therefore, tattoo acts as a life story- a script of an individual that can be read by society on a completely different level than the individual prefers.
Thus, tattoo is a form of both exclusion and inclusion. It can gain an individual access to membership in a community, or can be a means of everlasting shame. Society ultimately determines the perception by which the tattoo is read. The fact that it is permanent, but subject to a variety of interpretations, makes it a powerful part of humanity that has forever impacted history and society as a whole. Tattoo can be seen as one of the most important forms of identity within the context of both travel and life in general. When tattoo travels, it is read in different ways, just as the individual. As Dr. Ellis writes, “Tattoo is a primary form of signification that indicates who does and does not belong” (31). Thus, the individual and the tattoo can be read as one and the same, regardless of the desires of the individual receiving the tattoo. It is in the hands of society to determine how these tattoos are read.