Making Their Mark
Tattooing and body piercing have always been spiritual rites of passage. Now our culture is discovering their power.
BY: Paul Raushenbush
As the wide-ranging "Body Art" exhibit shows, body marking has served to identify members of groups throughout history, and in nearly every known culture. Visitors to the exhibit stroll past photos of full-body tattoos from Japan which relate an entire mythological tale, Indian brides whose skin has been ritually dyed with henna, as well as traditional African scarring and piercing. Marking the body has been for more than 4,000 years a sign of civilization, individuality, and social identity.
Many of today's tattoo images and piercings reflect a fascination with these ancient cultures, and the rituals and religions of those cultures. Says Dr. Elias Farajaje-Jones, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, "Body piercing, branding, and tattooing is a cultural movement of people reclaiming their bodies in a way which links them to traditional cultures. It is connected to the modern tribal or neo-tribal phenomenon."
Rituals, or newly devised "neo-rituals," are a growing trend in tattooing and piercing. The smell of incense fills Matty Jankowski's tattoo and piercing shop and the walls are covered with sacred images. Mikel routinely asks clients if they are interested in medical or ritual piercing. Both routinely perform ritualistic piercings that require fasting and meditation prior to the event.
Oneze Lafontant, one of the Museum of Natural History's explainers, thinks the tattooed ought to make the connection with the long history of marking the body. "People have to know that what they are doing is coming from somewhere. This exhibit is an open door to cultures where these rituals were a part of life. Only through entering that door can somebody realize that there is history behind what they are doing and that it is meaningful."
According to Dr. Farajaje-Jones, it's impossible to generalize about why, or with what people mark themselves--or where they do. "Some people say this part of my bodywants
to be pierced. People can be very specific about what they do pierce or tattoo or not, as a signifier to their community or the world."
Tattooing is not accepted everywhere as a part of spiritual growth. The practice is taboo today in some Christian denominations. (There is evidence, however, that Christians tattooed themselves in medieval times to prepare themselves for pilgrimages and crusades.) Judaism and Islam have historically discouraged body art, citing prohibitive statements in the Hebrew scriptures and the Qu'ran (Leviticus 19:28, and Surah Nisa'I verses 119-120, and Surah infitar verses 6-9).
But Daniel "Hoss" Ostrowski thinks tattoos can draw people to faith. Ostrowski heads the Christian Tattoo Association, a group of more than 150 Christians involved in the tattoo world. The association is primarily social but there is also an important evangelical outreach element. Ostrowski has the name Jesus tattooed on his right elbow, with blood dripping from the letters. Many people ask him about the design, which is an opening for evangelizing. "Tattooing is a unique way to express your faith" he explains, "it shows on the outside what you got on the inside-if it is real."
"Americans are starved for culture," suggests Mikel, "We have so many influences that it is hard to figure out what your culture is. So you have to figure it out for yourself. But everyone is looking for that eternal sense of being. What I try to teach people is that what you choose to do with your body, while it may look cool, it has meaning. It is important to remember that: what we do has meaning".
**Tattooing is an invasive procedure that can result in serious skin and blood infection. Where procedures involving penetration of the skin are not performed correctly, they can be means of transmitting organisms that cause diseases like AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. It is advisable that pregnant women and persons with possible allergies to ink or dyes consult with their physician prior to getting a tattoo. In New York State, it is against the law to tattoo any person under the age of 18 years. Parental consent for tattooing persons under the age of 18 is not allowable.