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Tattoo Body Art Motifs in Drug Culture, Research Paper Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2785

Research Paper

Tattoo body art motifs are significant in how they present reoccurring themes. While there are a wide range of known designs that represent a select group of tribal, clandestine, and other cultural connotations, there are also sub-cultural motifs that arise. Such tattoo art can be found on the bodies of drug users who have their own distinct motifs of shared meaning across a variety of designs. The following will assess the tattoo body art motifs of drug users.

In his book, “Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art,” Michael Atkinson breaks down what he feels is the infatuation with tattoos in modern society. He makes the connection with tattoos the ideology of physical modification which has become a common practice and standard in society among many individuals, and not just those who decorate their bodies with tattoo art. He notes, “we live in an era in which people are expected socially to engage in a full gamut of body-modificationpractices, from the routine haircut to the physically traumatic breast augmentation. Body modification products and services abound in everyday life” (Atkinson, 3). Body modification relates to all aspects of intentional mutilation, piercing, and cosmetic surgery. Atkinson makes the connection with the infatuation people have with getting tattoos with any other form of body modification and he points out the marketability of it as a commercial aesthetic pursuit, when he notes that, “grocery stores, hair salons, diet centres, exercise gyms, fashion retailers, laser eye-care offices, and health spas all offer commodities and strategies oriented toward changing our physical bodies and bettering our lives” (Atkinson, 4). The authors note that, “knowledge of these details may be helpful to clinicians, although images may be influenced by current trends. The word “tattoo” entered the English language as an Anglicized version of the Tahitian word “tatau” (“to mark”). Tattooing represents the conscious act of injuring the skin through the use of specialized tools by special tools, which inject color in the skin with the purpose of obtaining permanent, indelible images” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 28). The growing appeal of tattoos in society is undeniable, especially among women. In his book “Tattoos Secrets of a Strange Art,”  notes that “the tattooers estimate, perhaps extravagantly, that today about five percent of all American women have one or more tattooed designs on their bodies, and that the percentage increases with every year, despite the bad economic conditions in which the tattoo-craft has found itself since 1929” .The tattooers the author interviewed also noted that when women get bit by the “tattoo-bug” they turn into fanatics and do so much more intensely than men. This trend that has established itself in modern times has a long lasting history.

The history of tattooing can be traced throughout Chinese, Japanese and African antiquity as well as on the mummies of Egyptians between 4000 and 2000 B.C.E. On the other hand, tattooing has also been frowned upon or even condemned by several cultures and religions. A prime example can be found in Leviticus 19:28, where it states, “God spoke to Moses, prohibiting tattooing as idolatry: ‘You shall not make any cutting in your flesh nor imprint any marks on you’” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 28). The Prophet Mohammed is cited as issuing a similar decree in the Koran, as well as Pope Adrian I who denounced the marking of the body at the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787. The initial intention of a tattoo was to serve as an indication of status within society original aim of the tattoo was to serve as a nonverbal symbol for personal identification and for making one’s status clear among the other members of society. The authors go on to point out that additional meanings of modern society tattoos and how they are used to express forms of individualism, affection, defiance, or alliance to a particular group. This can especially be seen with drug abusers in the quest to identify themselves, or to express the growth and pain associated with overcoming addiction. In regards to allegiance the authors note that, “the tattoo has also a major function in proclaiming one’s allegiance to a specific group or subculture with its own intrinsic rules, but at the same time also it stresses difference from other groups” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 28). This is why the motif or reoccurring themes associated with many of the tattoos worn by drug users and recovering addicts can represent a world of meaning, an identity and lifestyle all combined in one piece of art. The designs embody an interaction the user as with the world around them as them struggle to make whole what they once were or to develop into something new. The authors touch on this concept noting that, “hence, the tattoo itself and its meaning may reflect the inner world of an individual and his/her relationship with the outside world” . Moreover, according to some authors, the high rate of tattoo found among drug abusers may reflect their lack of social adaptability as well as an obstacle to the process of rehabilitation (8).

In their study Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, evaluated over 1400 drug abusers, who had tattoos with designs specifically related to their drug use were evaluated selected from a larger sample of tattooed males in forensic psychiatric wards, prisons and military recruitment centers during the period 1986-2000 in the former Soviet Union. The authors note that the tattoos of drug users have different uses and meanings. For example, they found that about two-thirds of the tattoo motifs represented a distinct use of a specific drug such as opiates, hallucinogenic or cannabis, while others served as a map or guide to assist the user in finding a perfect location for injecting a syringe. The authors feel that clinicians having an awareness of these issues can better enable them to treat patients who may not be honest about their drug history during the diagnosis process. The other insight it provides is a window into the relation between certain tattoo design motifs and drug culture as a whole.

Despite a variety of literature which focuses primarily on the historical, cosmetic, ethnographical, technique, and the art of tattooing itself, there are very few medical studies on this topic. Psychiatric reports on tattoos and their relationship to mental disturbances are rare (Braithwaite et al, 5). Braithwaite makes a specific connection between tattoos in the psychiatric environment and antisocial behavior. Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner also extracted data from, and based their study on, a similar study which assessed drug abusers and their tattoo selection patterns between period 1986 and 2000 over a subject group of 1,440 subjects in Kazakhastan, Russia, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine. The authors note that the study was carried out in five psychiatric wars which specialize in forensics. These wards were located in two military recruitment centers and three prisons. The study subjects are broken down as follows, “318 prisoners, 255 psychiatric inpatients and 867 conscripts. Among all the examined subjects, 351 persons had 787 tattoos: 236 (74.2%) were prisoners, 46 (18.3%) psychiatric inpatients and 69 (7.9%) were conscripts” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 29). The following images were taken from this study and broken down into categories of criminal and non-criminal, and combined images. The following images taken from the Borokhov, Bastiaan and Lerner study make the connection between motif and the medical indication of these drug related tattoos.

Figure 1 is a common tattoo among drug users and depicts a skull and a snake, with the snake going through one eye socket. The location of the tattoo is often placed on the forearm, arm or shank of the individual wearing it. The authors break down analysis of sixteen tattoo designs, worn by the over 1,400 respondents, noting that 34% of the respondents fell within the GT group, which represents tattoos designs related to general drug use (see Figures. 1 and 2), while 31 tattoos fell into the DT group, which are tattoo designs related to a distinct or specific substance.

Figure 2 represents a half skull and half face and the location of the tattoo is usually on the face shoulder or shank. The above tattoos, in figures 1 and 2 represent the general use of drugs and they fall into the GT group according to the study. The authors point out this connection with general drug use can be made through the skull motif, which signifies the death, pain or rapid decline in one’s health associated with excessive substance abuse.

Figure 3 represents a spider on a web, and location of the tattoo is positioned under the clavicles, located on the back of the hand, shoulder neck, abdomen, thigh, shank, knee, or feet. The Figure above falls into the DT category as it represents the use of a distinct drug. In this case, the spider and web tattoo indicates the person wearing it is an abuser of opiates. The authors note that among all of the 31 tattoos they classified within the DT group, “18 tattoos (38%) were related to the use of cannabinoids (Fig. 3-6); 8 (17%) were connected to use of opioids (Fig. 7-10); and 5 (11%) tattoos were found on persons using hallucinogenic drugs (Fig. 11)” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 29). The author further point out that there was one individual who had 4 different tattoos that were related to the same form of cannabis, while another 3 related to general substance use.

Figure 4 represents a picture of a spider located on the forearm, thigh or shank. In the picture it can be noticed that the spider is headed facing down towards the legs, which signifies that the user is working to stop using drugs, when the spider faces upwards towards the head it signifies that the bearer of the tattoo declares their intent to continue using drugs.

The hemp location is on the forearms, the back and shoulders. The authors were keen to note that a substantial number of their respondents wore tattoos which either represented the use of cannabis or represented the use of cannabis as well as other tattoos representing other drugs.

Figure 6 represents a genie flying out a jug. It’s a common tattoo among drug users usually located on the shank, thing to abdomen. The above image signifies that the person wearing the tattoo is a user of opium. The connection between the genie and opium use is clear in how the genie is surrounded by smoke, he is smoking out of a pipe, but also in the cultural connotation of the genie as it origins are tied to Middle Easter, or Arab cultures, a region which represents a major exporter of opium.

Figure 7 is an image of a poppy and syringe to signify a heroine user. The tattoo is usually located on the shoulder or forearm. When shown pictures of tattoos were shown to these respondents and they related to drug use, the study found that “29 subjects with criminal records demonstrated considerable agreement as to their symbolism. Images relating to the DT group, such as “spiders” (especially in combination with web) were identified by 25 (86%) of the subjects” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 29). The data goes on to conclude that the “genie” image was recognized for its drug affiliation similarly identified by 15 (51%) of candidates, and the “harem” was identified by 11 (37%) subjects. Furthermore, “these images were recognized as “typical” markers of a person who prefers use of cannabinoids. Variations of “poppy” images (as symbols of opioid use) were identified by 7 (24%) subjects” (Borokhov, Bastiaan, and Lerner, 29). What this all reveals is that there is a consensus among drug users, ex-drug users and inmates as to what these symbols mean.

Figure 8 is an image of a syringe with a skeleton leaning on it. The text translates to mean “I was like you.” The image is meant to console other users who might see it, but to also communicate the inevitable outcome of severe drug use.

Figure 9 is a picture of a syringe with barbed wire wrapped around it. While the syringe is a clear indication of drug use, each knot in the barbed wire represents a year served in prison. The above image would be worn by a drug user who has spent four years in prison and usually placed on the shoulder.

Figure 10 is and image where there is a poppy at the tip of a syringe needle. This tattoo is located on the forearm or the inner shoulder. It is the most clear indication of heroin use. It directly implies the injection of heroine as opposed to the smoking of the poppy seeds used to manufacture heroine. Images from the GT group, represent general drug use and they can be identified through the symbol of death, like a skull, a skeleton or bones.

While the connection formed from these tattoos between the person wearing them and the addict community they are representing is a strong bond, the relationship is built on a lot of pain due to death, disease, addiction and often prison time and violence. In a  multivariate analyses study on the connection between HBV infection and HCV infections it was found that receiving a tattoo in prison increased the recipients chances of contracting a virus significantly, even more so if they had a history of heroin use. The study notes that “both HBV and HCV infection were positively associated with age increase age, increasing years of injection and heroin use. Receipt of a tattoo in prison/jail was associated with HBV (odds ratio = 2·3, 95% confidence interval 1·4, 3·8) and HCV (OR = 3·4, 95% CI = 1·6, 7·5) infections” (Samuel et al, 475).The author find that promoting the sterilization of tattoo needle in prison can reduce the contraction of these viruses as a whole. The main point this reveals is the stigma that comes with these motifs. Often it goes unsaid that, many individuals that have tattoos with syringes or prison time syringe tattoos, these individuals are presumed in the outside world as potentially being infected with blood-born viruses. As previously noted, tattoos in modern society are recognized as a way for the wearer to demonstrate their independence, and express themselves.

In sum, tattoo body art motifs are significant in how they present reoccurring themes. The wide range of known designs that represent a select group of tribal, clandestine, and other cultural connotations, drug abuse culture represents one significant subsect of the tattoo art world. These designs can be found on the bodies of drug users who have their own distinct motifs of shared meaning across a variety of designs. Michael Atkinson made some key observations as to the nature of tattoo culture and its expansion in the modern world, but as the study has revealed there many different subcultures that can be identified within the use of a distinct design or set of designs. breaks down what he feels is the infatuation with tattoos in modern society. He makes the connection with tattoos the ideology of physical modification which has become a common practice and standard in society among many individuals, and not just those who decorate their bodies with tattoo art. With a history of tattooing that traces throughout Chinese, Japanese and African antiquity, it could be assumed that there are some tattoo motifs that have stood the test of time, while other have found new meaning. The original objective of the tattoo was to serve as a nonverbal method of signifying one’s status within society, or as a symbol for personal identification. In many way drug culture has adapted the use of tattoos within their community, tattoos are utilized for their intended meaning. These tattoos worn by many drug addicts represent a distinct message about their place in the world and their interaction with society. On the surface, to the uniformed, they much appear as intimidating, but to the culture itself, as well as many of those in law enforcement and now the medical industry, each tattoos tells a story and sends a definable message about the person wearing it.

Work Cited

Atkinson, Michael. Tattooed: The sociogenesis of a body art. University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Borokhov, A., Bastiaans, R., & Lerner, V. (2006). Tattoo designs among drug abusers. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 43(1), 28.

Braithwaite, Ronald, et al. “Tattooing and body piercing among adolescent detainees: relationship to alcohol and other drug use.” Journal of substance abuse 13.1 (2001): 5-16.

Carroll, Sean T., et al. “Tattoos and body piercings as indicators of adolescent risk-taking behaviors.” Pediatrics 109.6 (2002): 1021-1027.

Parry, Albert. Tattoo: Secrets of a strange art. Courier Corporation, 2006.

Samuel, M. C., et al. “Association between heroin use, needle sharing and tattoos received in prison with hepatitis B and C positivity among street-recruited injecting drug users in New Mexico, USA.” Epidemiology and infection 127.03 (2001): 475-484.

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