When talking about tattoos in terms of cultural significance, I cannot skip mentioning the incorporation of traditional tribal tattoos in the contemporary trend stage and ask myself whether by displacing a symbol from its original social and cultural context, we risk emptying it from its meaning and value. I consider the modern individual’s search for authenticity in the past the core of the desire to depict his personal values (or the values he wants to be associated with) through an exotic and extraordinary angle, through the mysterious and the unknown, presented by the dream of what he imagines to be an exotic culture.
I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of removing a cultural signifier from its original context and adapting it to the modern consumer environment. I associate it with a feeling of staged authenticity, of oversimplification and commodification of an indigenous culture, whose signs, traditions and values are turned into tourist kitsch or trendy accessory. That being said, I believe the problem is our desire to live in a world of our own image and making, a world where traditional values are forcefully adapted to contemporary logic. A great part of our modern lifestyles consists of aspiring to certain brand identities, we fashion our own sense of the world through myths, created around brands. In a sense, this tendency to mythologize ourselves through symbols and connotations could be seen as also represented in the original values behind traditional tribal tattoos, communicating spiritual beliefs, social status and cultural belonging. These two ways of mythologizing our existence, however, although triggered by the same human feature, are cultivated in drastically different cultural, historical and social environments, which often causes our desire to merge them in the pursue of authenticity to end in uniformity. In other words, I don’t see how a tribal tattoo that once communicated social status, spiritual beliefs or belonging, could match the branded identity the modern individual aspires to without losing the value it had in its genuine cultural environment.
When thinking about this unsettling mash of cultural contexts, I keep coming back to the concept of imaginative hedonism – the desire to experience in reality what you’ve seen as a mythical connotation behind a consumer product. This desire always ends in dissatisfaction due to our inability to preserve the mythical, exotic and extraordinary while transferring it in the field of the ordinary. What we ought to know is that the mythical world of the extraordinary exists only on the outside. What for the modern man is an exotic sign of ancient spiritual belief was once a way of coping with the everyday social existence in a culture, whose structure the contemporary man will never know well enough to appreciate in its true pattern. Thus, he is in a way condemned to pursue authenticity in an adjusted to his consumer needs form in a never- ending search for self – fulfillment.
I want to make clear that I do not intent any judgment against people that choose styles of tattoos, connected to past cultures, ideologies or values. I am simply using tribal tattoos to exemplify the idea that the moment you take the exotic out of the extraordinary and place it next to your IKEA sofa is the moment of its true nature’s death.