A global perspective on symbolism, meaning of body art

There are a number of reasons why people from around the world get body art.

For example, in Malaysia people pierce their bodies for ceremonial, offering or prayer services. It is also important to understand that body art ecompasses all body modifications, from tattoos to piercings to even brandings and scarifications.

Sometimes the meanings behind body art are overlooked and a negative bias is placed upon either the body art specifically or the person who wears it as a whole. However, body art can provide knowledge, context and significance to people’s stories in life and their perceptions of the world. The act of seeing the body art is one thing, but taking the time to understand that body art’s symbolism and meaning is another.

Dr. Gina Zanolini Morrison, a professor of global history and languages at Wilkes University, provided valuable context and insight to this matter or body art and meanings.

“I believe the stigma against body art like tattoos still remains, but it is getting better,” she stated.

Morrison zoned in on some of the many reasons why people, not just in the United States, but around the world get body art. She also drew from her experiences in Malaysia as well as her experiences as teacher of English as a second language.

“I remember being in that class, and I saw Ethiopian women with scars on their faces. I later learned that the scars indicated status, beauty and a cultural identity.”

She also recalled on a time where she witnessed Laotian men, who had large dragon tattoos stretching up and down their bodies, playing soccer.

Morrison also described her time in Malaysia, where she and students had the chance to experience Thaipusam, which is a religious festival that is held annually in honor of Murugan, who is the Hindu god of war. During the festival, devotees who chose to do so became entranced and pierced themselves through any position of the body. The devotees would then climb the temple steps and be presented with a prayer.

Morrison’s experiences depict some but not all reasons why people get body art.

“People get body art like tattoos for symbolic reasons, they use body art as a type of reward in some cases, as well as appeal to a certain social community and sometimes even stray away from the norms of their society,” Morrison explains.

She also explained the rising cultural art of henna from India. “My daughter does Henna and its a very beautiful art form,” she said.

Henna is a body art that is used in India in traditional families often for marriage and ceremonial events. Henna is actually a plant that is turned into paste which is applied to a person’s skin with intricate designs. The paste, however, is not permanent and can be washed off over time.

In continuing the discussion of body art Morrison’s advice for those who are quick to judge based off the sheer image of a tattoo, piercing or scarification on a person is this: “Be cautious with personal questions and give respect to the meanings of personal art.”

If the meanings and symbols behind body art can be analyzed and make a person distinguishable because of their personal art, then it provides society and its people with a chance of an open mind to new ideas, perspectives and insights from not just one person but entire groups of people. It allows for fallacies of body art to not only be challenged, but eradicated at the expense of a tolerant and accepting society.