Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Getting your first tattoo is exciting, nerve wracking and often a bit rebellious. Millennials and Gen Z are increasingly normalising getting body ink as means of self-expression and confidence. A beautifully placed piece of art etched into your skin forever can turn a part of your body you were previously self-conscious about into your favourite. Many take weeks, months or years thinking about what they want to get done, however, some are done tastelessly and without thought for cultural sensitivities. It is far too common to see non-BIPOC with cultural, religious or spiritually important tattoos without proper thought of their meaning.

One of the main offenders that you see are the huge ‘tribal’ tattoos that people get purely for aesthetics without knowing anything about the peoples they come from or what they represent. This is without a doubt cultural appropriation: when one group copies another group’s culture, turning it into something it was not meant to be. The roots of cultural appropriation for such tribal tattoos became popularised in the 1980s when westerners travelled to places like Samoa and Tahiti, experiencing Polynesian culture for the very first time. When this was brought back to the US and incorporated into popular styles of tattooing, it became disassociated from its original cultural meaning. Traditionally in Tongan society warriors were tattooed by priests, which carried profound social and cultural significance.  Likewise in ancient Samoan culture tattoo artists held a privileged position which was often passed down through birth right, and tattoo ceremonies were held.

Whilst these geometric designs are incredibly striking, one should never just see the pattern of Maori, Samoan, Tongan tattoos and take them at face value. They represent over a thousand years of cultural development – they are not for people who do not experience, understand or appreciate the culture they come from. Such appropriation is an extension of power and dominance between cultures. The western cultures taking the tattoos rarely recognise or credit where they come from, stealing ownership of sacred markings and passing them off as their own. Polynesia for example has been plagued by western imperialist oppression for hundreds of years, and the popularisation of tribal tattoos is merely an extension of colonial demand and desire.

This naturally brings up the debate over what is cultural appropriation and what is cultural appreciation?

As previously mentioned, appropriation is stealing from a culture without any respect or understanding of what you are taking. Appreciation however is when you do the research on the culture, try to understand it, support cultural businesses or social movements, and engage in the wider community. Appreciation is trying to empower the culture without making yourself the loudest voice or taking what you do not understand. So, no, tribal tattoos are not inherently cultural appropriation. If an individual studies the culture in question, understands the struggles the community has faced, learns of the meaning behind the tattoo and actively works to connect themselves with the culture then this could be considered appreciation. But how many people do you know with tribal tattoos who can say that they did all of that before getting inked? More often than not these tattoos are undertaken purely for aesthetic reasons, which is something that needs to stop. In this era of increased awareness for problematic behaviour that was previously accepted, it is time for people to more carefully think before they ink.