Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tattoo's Ugly Cousin

Dr. Ellis brings up an important point in her book's introduction during her story of James F. O'Connell. She says of O'Connell's Pacific Tattoos that "they mean what O'Connell says they mean. They also mean what his audience and other North Americans think they mean" (3). This is important to remember with all tattoos, because even sacred one's like O'Connell's can be viewed "as inhuman in a European or United States context" (16).

I noticed this last Christmas when my cousin decided to get a tattoo. I had never been a big fan of tattoos for myself or on anyone else, but my cousin almost had me convinced that hers was going to be a great one. Her middle name is Rose, which takes after my grandmother whose name is Rosemary. My cousin wanted to go with my grandmother to get matching rose tattoos. This would be a symbol of their lineage as well as a special bond between them.

Although she was touched, my grandma was not persuaded to get a tattoo with my cousin. She did however offer to pay for it because of its sentimental value. My cousin went along with it anyway, without telling anyone else in the family besides me or her mother.

She revealed her newly acquired skin at Christmas Eve dinner, which was entertaining to say the least. Everyone who did not know she was getting a tattoo at all was horrified. My aunt and I were shocked at the size and color of this "rose," which resembled more of a barbed wire tattoo than the rose most of us first think of. Suddenly, what I thought was going to be a touching family sentiment became more of a stigma, or a tattoo someone who was "white trash" would have (as my aunt phrased it). Despite the entire family's comments however, my cousin was very happy with her decision.

Why is it that this tattoo was not pleasing to anyone in the family? Was it because we all immediately thought of what OTHER people who didn't know it's meaning would think? For example, if she went on a job interview and people saw that, would they judge her? Although it may not be right to judge a tattoo in that regard, it does have some merit. My cousin wants to go into the finance field and that tattoo would certainly be looked down upon by her superiors or clients. Anyone who asked the meaning of this tattoo would most likely view it in a different light, seeing it as an expression of the love for an elder and a family namesake. However, the business world at first glance would not consider this artwork socially acceptable, and it creates a problem.

My cousin is like O'Connell, who was respected enough to receive the sacred tattoo of Pacific culture but used as a freakshow upon his return home. Similarly, my cousin has a bond with my grandmother that my grandmother approves of, yet it's meanings do not carry over into the real world. My cousin's attempt to stay close to my grandmother is far beyond some of the efforts the rest of my family has made. However, the everyday person does not understand it's true meaning. At first glance, most people will just see a big black rose that has adulterated my cousin's pale Irish skin.

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