Monday, February 23, 2009

Kimberly's Signifiers Blog on Tattoo in "Cross of Soot" and "Parker's Back"

Sometime around college age, so during my late teens, a number of friends and acquaintances began jumping on what I viewed as the trend wagon of tattoo in the U.S. At that time, in the early 90's, people didn't use computers much, other than occasionally as a word processor, and we really didn't have the sort of access to information, like we do today, at our fingertips. If you wanted to find out information about tattoos or see pictures, you would have likely needed to hit the library and started looking at the encyclopedia. My Sophomore year in college, most of the library's information was accessible on the computer, rather than going to the card catalog, but that was still slow going, and people tended to stick with what they knew from "Library Skills," a class which is likely part of history now, rather than actuality.

That noted about the archaic flow of information, many young adults were getting tattooed, because it was cool and trendy, rather than as a form of language the way tattoo has been illustrated in many of the readings we have encountered from Oceania. Lack of research led to lack of knowledge on tattoo. It seemed sort of like getting earrings, which for me at least, was not a huge expression of language or who I am or was, but because it just seemed like it was time. So really, no reason at all, except perhaps to fit in. It hurt a bit and wasn't a real necessity.

As Dr. Ellis notes in her book, Tattooing the World, "...DeMello concludes, and most scholars concur, that in the United States the meaning of the tattoo design is symbolic, readable only by the few or the one." (p. 197.) I found this statement largely true during my college years when I would ask a friend why he or she wanted to get a certain tattoo, or what it meant. Some would reply that it was a sorority or fraternity thing, almost in a way that seemed out of their control rather than a living part of them of which they felt proud. Others would say they just like cats, or stars, or roses, for instance, so they got one because they think tattoos look cool. Disappointingly, the deeper meaning or signifier of language through symbols was often missing.

The sense that I got from O.E.Parker's tattoos conveyed a similar feeling as what I described above; the feeling is mainly one of disappointment. It seemed that O.E., not unlike numerous others, thought that his tattoos would really sparkle and dazzle. However, in reality, the more tattoos he adorns himself with, the worse he feels they seem to appear. The tattoos don't seem to flow or tell a story or trace genealogy like a malu or tatau; O.E.'s tattoos don't even really compliment each other. O.E. Parker is looking to fulfill something and when he finally thinks he is going to please the character of his wife, who is nearly impossible to please, by getting an expensive tattoo of God on his back, he is let down again.

Poor O.E. Parker is the epitome of an uneducated man, both in the way he speaks, and the choices he personally makes, such as getting so many tattoos that displease him, and marrying a woman that displeases him. This is a far cry from the language of eloquence and sense of pride and belonging conveyed by tattoos of the Maori and Samoan people, for example.

Until more recent decades, many in the US may have speculated, correctly or not, that people such as O.E. Parker were the tattooing type. Dr. Ellis writes, "Outside the Pacific, she(DeMello) suggests, tattoo became associated with the working class; today many people acquire tattoo only after dissociating it from those connections." (p. 198.) We do not know where O.E.Parker is exactly, though it is likened to Birmingham, Alabama, but tattoo has certainly evolved to encompass a wider socio-economic clientele over the years.

On a very different note, Wendt writes a short story based on his only tattoo, or at least his only tattoo at the time of writing "Afterword:Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body." His story, "Cross of Soot," tells an enchanting tale of a boy becoming a man after sneaking into a prison and receiving a tattoo from an inmate there. The inmate, however, was unable to complete the tattoo, yet it still depicts an important and significant image of a cross, a universal symbol, which is at least recognized globally as something. What a cross is, is left to personal interpretation. Nevertheless, this tattoo, which was meant to be a star, is a symbol of pride and entry to manhood, not an unfinished emblem of shame.

It appeared to me that the old man who was tattooing the boy was going to leave the prison and be freed, exonerated, as his family had arrived. After reading Dr. Ellis's interpretation of the man being on death row and leaving to be executed, I was disappointed at the bleakness of the situation. Still, the man passed on something special to the boy, and that appeared positive nonetheless.

The story of Tyson and his tattoo made me think back to O.E.Parker. I felt somewhat saddened that our culture, or at least some people feel our culture in America, has stolen tattoo. As evidenced by the seemingly cavalier way a man got a tattoo of a Maori woman's moko put on his face in L.A., (p.198.) we can see why some people believe that their culture is being stolen and tarnished. That said, there are certainly many people who fully grasp the gravity of tattoo and carefully plan what they are having put on their body. It is an art form, and a language, to which anyone should be entitled, however, attention should be paid to the design being original as to not take something personal from another culture. Still, copying is a high form of flattery.

No comments:

Post a Comment