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In the last few years tattoos have become extremely popular in mainstream culture.  The once negative mentality and stigma regarding tattoos for being only for “dangerous looking people” is slowly diminishing with the growing tattooed population. Tattooing, as you can probably guess, is nothing new. It has been seen in many cultures throughout the ages. There is even evidence of tattooing being performed in Ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago(1).

I have never been a fan of tattoos however, I have always wondered what would motivate a person to get a tattoo. I have come to the conclusion that  getting tattooed has a different meaning for everyone. For some people, a tattoo could have come from a night of drunkenness, an emblem of the nights they cannot remember. Some people may get a tattoo just for the hell of it. For me, the most fascinating reason for someone to get a tattoo is for the meaning associated with the tattoo.

I have read many people describe tattooing as filling a blank canvas with art. It sounds very poetic. It reminds me a little of John Locke’s Tabula Rasa, which is a fancy way for describing the view that humans are born as a blank slate on which experience writes. In this view, tattooing is like physically imprinting experiences or memories onto the body. The tattoo draws out the events from the past unique to the individual, they are then coded into symbolism unique to the individual, and finally they are imprinted onto the individual’s body.

Coming from an English major’s point of view, this genre of motivation to get a tattoo is very interesting to me. I spend a lot of my time as a student analysing symbols in works of fiction. Symbols are not concrete, they change depending on the point of view of those interpreting the symbol. Which is why when you do a literature degree, you will have to understand a little about the author’s background and the historical contexts to get a better grasp on what they wish to say. Tattoos are the same way. To interpret tattoos, you are essentially interpreting the people with the tattoos themselves.

A tattoo does not only say a lot about the person with the tattoo, but also of the culture in which they live. We take it for granted that we understand symbols that are relevant to our culture. For instance it is common knowledge that a heart means love. In the future, if there is no way to decode the common symbols we use today, then our symbols will be extinct. Does this mean that it loses all trace of meaning? It is my view that it does not. If you have a tattoo of a rose, for example, someone in the future could believe that your tattoo is a symbol of high status, or that you personally liked roses, thus giving the tattoo new meaning.

As for me, I am not planning to get a tattoo. There is something very attractive to me about remaining a blank canvas. A blank canvas is the starting point from where an artist can see future possibilities. Once he creates a single stroke or marking on the canvas, it will take on the symbolism he has chosen. If I were to choose a symbol to represent myself, I would want to be seen as the blank canvas with endless possibilities.

Until next time,


(1) Tattoos: the Ancient and Mysterious History – Smithsonianmag.com