How the ‘Civilized’ West Muddied the Meaning of Tribal Tattoos.

Appropriation isolated from the fashion industry is defined as the act of taking something for one’s own use, usually without the owner’s permission. In relation to the fashion industry frequently certain styles or symbols are taken or appropriated from subcultures without their consent in order to be modified and sold to mainstream culture.  Most often, regardless of intention, appropriation shifts or depletes the original meaning that these styles and symbols once had. A question can be raised however, if appropriation in terms of tattoos and their permanence hinders the nonchalant yet ruthless appropriation that often happens in the fashion cycle. hpa1-the-igorot-of-the-mountains01 Tattoos can both be seen as an anti-fashion object and objects intricately involved with the fashion cycle (Sweetman 301).  Permanence pulls into question whether of not the typical affects of appropriation can be considered.  As asserted by Sweetman it is helpful to rationalize that the denotative value of a tattoo is unchanging while its connotative meaning is inescapably subject to changing meanings due to appropriation and the fashion cycle. Wonka      From the 1970s to the present there has been a considerable resurgence in the popularity of tattooing and body piercing in the West.  Not only involving a remarkable growth in numbers, but a spread in clientele (Sweetman 292).  More specifically tribal tattoos began their resurgence in popular culture in the late 80s and early 90s.  Generation X in particular bought into a “back to nature” mindset in which they embraced and appropriated certain cultural aspects of primitive cultures (Squires).  Originally in their respective cultures these tribal tattoos were used to identify the wearers as members of a specific tribe, social status, religion, and in some cases area of expertise or employment.  Typical of the fashion cycle this appropriation of tribal tattooing in modern American culture ultimately eliminated these historical and cultural ties between these tribal symbols and their original meanings.book7book11 It can be questioned why the West would desire to appropriate or ‘experience’ the primitive.  Traditionally the Western experience is seen as a superior one, while the primitive historically has been defined as a savage pejorative.  According to Hooks’ “Eating Other” the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with its own crises of identity, with its own need to demarcate subject object (367).  In some cases Westerns who get these tribal tattoos may be looking to rebel against the western consumer civilization it resides in by experiencing its primitive counterpart “the Other” (Hooks 367).  These Americans might also be appropriating this specific tribal style tattoo because it is deep rooted in tradition.  Famous tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy describes tattoos as having the power to re-connect post-modern American consumers to their culture.

“Most of us grew up in this weird limbo of being nouveau American, without tradition we’re linked to…with tattoos you are able to fuse several different cultures – make references to different parts of world culture.  This is a very postmodernist idea that you can make reference to references and so forth to derive new meaning.”

(Vale & Juno 54)

tumblr_mbqxh8zsmE1rpvtsao1_500 Tattoos in many cases are utilized as an accessory expressing a distinct individuality.  People often use tattoos as an attempt to anchor their self-identity in the post-modern era where meanings are constantly changing because of the fashion cycle (Sweetman 302).  Ironically, however, by appropriating traditional tribal style tattoos in an attempt to anchor themselves these Western consumers are only further complicating the original meanings of these tattoos.  When you see someone walking down the street with a tribal tattoo now you draw connections far from the tribes and cultures from which it originally functioned.  Appropriations like these expose the way meaningless commodification, which happens so often in the fashion cycle, strips signs of political integrity and meaning (Hooks 375).  A huge fear with regards to this appropriation is that cultural differences will be continually commodified and offered up to the dominant white West simply as dishes – the fear is that the Other, such as these tribal tattoos, will be consumed, stripped of meaning, and completely forgotten leaving no room for any real political or social change (Hooks 380).  How though, if at all, does this relationship between the dominant white West and the primitive Other change when these appropriations become permanent pieces of the Western consumers body?  What happens when the appropriated symbols are not something that can be eaten up and forgotten?  Is the mindless process of appropriation changed with the process of tattoos? image842 Regardless of the denotative value of the tattoo it is impossible to ignore the constant shifts in meaning of content of the tattoo due to appropriation in the fashion cycle.  Because fashion is constantly appropriating styles, objects, and images there are no set meanings for these tribal tattoos.  More importantly, as Westerns continue to appropriate and use these images casually for their own uses they destroy any definitive meaning that might remain.  Even in terms of your own encounters with these tribal tattoos you can see that

“While the permanence of the tattoo may disallow easy revisability inline with the dictates of fashion…its external referents can and do change.”

(Sweetman 302) 

In this post-modern consumer society we cannot guarantee or predict the way signs will be appropriate or meanings will shift.  However, the one thing that is almost certain is that through appropriation the original meanings associated with these signs will be complicated.

tumblr_lu4dpriojW1qk99w3o1_400     We can look at tattoos as separate from the fashion cycle because of their permanence.  Tattoos are often used as tools for individual expression and freedom, they are acquired as an attempt to reclaim your body and make meaning for yourself.  In this sense it seems very logical that someone with tribal tattoos is only concerned with the individual meaning they have constructed of these signs regardless of the broader external context that is constantly changing through appropriation.  If you are using tattoos as a tool to anchor your self-identity it seems that the changing meanings are irrelevant.  “A tattoo is never just what the appearance [or image] is, anyway.  You can only really know about the tattoo by getting to know the person wearing it” (Vale & Juno 55).  Ultimately I believe in the case of appropriation of tribal tattoos, context is used to determine whether the fashion cycle affects meaning.  There are two conversations that can exist simultaneously the first lead by the individual wearing the tattoo and the second by the audience seeing the tattoo.  In each narrative it is up to the leader of the conversation to decide whether or not the meaning of their tattoo is complicated because of appropriation by the fashion cycle. hpa1-the-igorot-of-the-mountains12 In deciding whether or not appropriation of tribal tattoos in the West completely destroyed their original meanings I think we need to decide which context we reside in.  Do these women’s tribal tattoos mean anything to you?  Do you think the meaning of these Igorot women’s tattoos changes because their style has been appropriation in the West?   – Imani Ribadeneyra


Hooks, Bell. ‘Eating the Other’ N.p.: n.p., 1992. Print.

Squires, Josh. “Tribal Tattoos History and Meaning – Richmond Tattoo Shops.” Richmond Tattoo Shops. N.p., 08 Sept. 2013. Web. 06 May 2014.

Sweetman, P. “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity.” Body & Society 5.2-3 (1999): Print.

Vale, V., and Juno. “Modern Primitives”. Print.


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