This post is a reply to an editorial I read in North & South magazine last week, in which the editor criticised tattoo culture as ill-thought out and ripe for regret. Unfortunately I cannot find the original editorial online, and I apologise for any errors I make in response to this argument.
Traditional Maori belief held that every person had a soul, and that their soul had a distinct form. To bring a person closer to the image of their soul, Maori carved moko into their faces and bodies. The process here is one of transformation, from a profane human form into the form of the sacred. This transformation was paralleled by a transitory period in traditional Maori life, as moko were often given as part of a coming-of-age ceremony. The transformation then is not just profane to sacred, but also boy to man, child to accepted member of the community. The moko symbolised both the inner soul and the recipient's identification with his community.
Tattoo today is certainly no longer such a sacred art, but still the core elements of tattooing remain and hint at a universal drive behind what would otherwise be bodily mutilation Tattooing is not just the carving of attractive images into one's skin, but rather a quasi-ritualistic means of transforming the body and identifying with the community. This can be seen in anything from the tattooing of a Yakuza initiate in Japan to a group of friends getting matching tattoos on their 21st birthday; both represent a transition in life and both identity the recipient with a wider group. For more on the idea of ritual as a means of self-identification Durkheim is an essential read.
So in response to the N&S editorial's claim that many of those who now are getting tattoos will regret them in later life, I would like to suggest two answers. Firstly, that with the increasing acceptance of tattoos in broader society, it is likely that the number of individuals who experience social stigma leading to regret will decrease dramatically. Second, that those who do feel regret in later life for the design of their tattoo (such as the teenager who gets an offensive or childish design and then later 'grows out' of it) are those who do not understand or fully participate in the ritual transformative and identifying nature of tattooing as an art form, and so are the exception rather than the rule. If tattooing is inherently transformative, then those who do not accept the transformation cannot be said to represent tattooing.
I will use my own tattoos for an example. Personally, I have never been fond of blocks of colour and large images as tattoos. This is simply a preference, my own taste in design rather than any commentary on tattooing as an art form. I also avoid tattooing on my forearms, lower legs or neck, as (given that I study East Asia) I would prefer to have the option of discretion within societies like Japan in which tattooing is not an accepted art form. Taking this into account, I have a tattoo on my shoulderblade of what is known in Buddhism as the Three Refuges. For me this tattoo symbolises my identification with the Buddhist community, and my commitment to the principles of that faith. It is transformative; these principles and that commitment are now forever a part of my body, and they are not something that I can simply wake up and ignore. In getting this tattoo, I was attempting to transform myself into a better Buddhist, one more constantly mindful of the principles that my tattoo embodies, and I was also symbolising my identification with the wider community of other Buddhists who would recognise the design. For me to regret this tattoo in later life is for me to regret my commitment to the principles of my faith, a situation that I find both unlikely and undesirable.
It is possible that an individual could regret their tattoo if they do indeed regret the transformation and identification that it symbolises. A Neo-Nazi who is tattooed with a swastika, but later sees the error of his or her ways, would very likely regret the tattoo and wish for it to be removed. However this is an extreme case, and should most certainly not be considered typical.
In response to N&S's editorial, I answer this. Tattoos are permanent, they are transformative, they are symbols of identification with a community. They are not something to be taken lightly, but for an individual who truly cares about their tattoo they should never be a cause for regret. If a person holds something so dear to them that they wish to permanently engrave it in their skin and make it a part of them forever then that tattoo serves the same function as traditional moko, transforming the body from profane to sacred in ritual.