Tattoos: more than just art

Tattooing dates back to ancient times and has remained part of global culture to the modern day. In some ancient civilisations and cultures tattooing was associated with the prison world, and therefore with the outcasts of society: under the Roman Empire, slaves and criminals were tattooed. In Russian and American prisons, men would use tattoos as a mean of communication, to claim an identity or show their status.

However, in many cultures, especially throughout Asia and the Pacific, tattoos are not considered negatively, in fact they usually symbolised a person's high status, heritage and social standing within their tribe or community.

Read the article about tattooing and identify the statements as True, False or Not Given.

  1. Many politicians in New Zealand have facial tattoos.

  2. Native people in New Zealand use tattoos to indicate their heritage.

  3. The facial tattooing of Chin women derives from a kidnapping incident in the 11th century.

  4. The Myanmar government prohibited facial tattoos due to health and human rights issues.

  5. Tattoos have become popular and normalised in developed countries.

  6. Increasingly, tattoos are considered and evaluated as works of art.

Nanaia Mahuta

Facial tattoos became more socially acceptable following the recent appointment of New Zealand's new foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta. While still a rare sight in business and politics, facial tattoos are increasingly common in contemporary New Zealand society. The tattoos often carry huge cultural significance for the wearer, telling a visual story that connect indigenous people to their ancestors.

Exhibition of status is at the root of the tattoo culture and practice in many countries and cultures in Asia and the Pacific Islands like Japan, Polynesia, Myanmar and New Zealand where tattoos are a sign of tribe affiliation. In all cases, for most of its history, tattooing used a complex system of symbols and its purpose was to deliver a message on the identity of the person who bore it and their connection to the community in which they lived.

The tattoos of the Chin women of Myanmar reportedly date back to the 11th century and while the history and traditions surrounding the origin of the practice are unclear, they will soon become lost to time. In the 1960s, the Burmese government banned the practice of face tattoos. The ban was part of a larger government effort to rid the country of old traditions and usher in a new era of modernization. The Chin State women of today are the last of the face tattoo tradition. Once they are gone, the tradition and history of Chin State tattoos will go with them.

Today, tattoos in Western developed countries have become a mainstream trend and are no longer associated with cultural identity or outsider status. Now, increasingly, reactions of surprise or shock to facial tattoos have been replaced by a critical evaluation of the artist's work, and tattoos are less about sending a message than they are now about pure aestheticism.

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