Evolution, empowerment, tribute, or a "dehumanized-commercialized-pseudo-bastardized-anlgoized version"

Sacrilege of body manipulations: Henna and tribal tattoos

In the earlier days of Western and Christian colonial thought, manipulating one's body went against the grains of social norms and religious beliefs. Therefore, Americans adapted a sort of rebellious and subversive image when it came to tattoos and piercings. It was a mode used to express one's unique identity as well as a way to speak out against the mediocre mass of middle America. Even today, where body manipulations of all sorts are more commonplace, there is still an attached element of "edgy and racy hipness".

Sacrilege of body manipulation can also be see from a different angle. In a culture where tattooing, dyeing or piercing your body signifies your belongingness of a group and a collective intention; 'inking' yourself with their cultural icons can be seen as a act of misappropriation, disrespect, ignorance, and most of all, blasphemy.

What transformations occur when the orginal context of a sanctimonious icon is altered or removed. Who, if any group or individual does, carries the right to taylor these symbols?

"Madonna has continued to push pop culture beyond previous boundaries and to subvert established rules, conventions, and limits. Her deployment of fashion and sexuality as an iconoclastic modernist. On the other hand, so far her modernist moves have been extremely successful from a commercial point of view and Madonna emerges as much as clever businesswoman as artiste." (Kellner, 284).

" The World Vaishnava Association wants the singer to apologize for what it sees as her sacrilegious performance on last week's MTV Video Awards. The group condemned her for wearing henna marriage markings, which represent purity, while "gyrating in a sexually suggestive manner" and wearing "clothing through which her nipples were clearly visible."

"The essence of purity and divinity is non judgment. They should practice what they preach. If they're so pure, why are they watching MTV?" Madonna said through her publicist Liz Rosenberg, who described the yoga-practicing singer as "very surprised" by the criticism.

However, Madonna did win the respect of some Hindu priests for her pronunciation. Sanskrit language scholars had complained about other mispronunciations of religious incantations on her new Ray Of Light album. But United News of India reported yesterday that Brahmin priests in New Delhi were impressed with her improved pronunciation when she recited a mantra during the awards show." (Toronto Star)



"Fashion: What's Hot: Stain your skin with henna "tattoos",
they won't scar and are hip in Hollywood"

"Demi Moore, Madonna, Mira Sorvino and Liv Tyler are all at it.
They have Mehndi, the traditional Indian henna "tattoo".
While the stars have their favourite design painted by experts,
there's a DIY version to try out at home.
If you need a hobby, or just have a lot of free time,
then you too can try the Mehndi body painting tattoo." (Hunter)


"The bindi has traditionally been a symbol of Hindi femininity in India. Although its use is largely cosmetic in contemporary India, it is still understood to be a marking that indicates that a woman belongs to the Hindu faith. It is also a symbol of fertility and sexual potential: When a woman is widowed in Hindi culture, a ritual is conducted in which the bindi is ceremonially wiped away, never to be worn again. Similarly, mehndi- the henna design on women's hands and feet- is both ceremonial and religious, applied usually during Hindi weddings or other holy and festive celebrations." (Meenashki, 205)

"Thus, popular culture's representation of symbol of South Asian femininity in fashion much be considered in terms of commodification. An important aspect of this is its Western power base and the East-West relations at play: The recognition that Western countries control the means of media production and marketing must underpin any analysis of fashion and entailments." (Meenashki, 205)

Henna has even crossed the lines from South East Asia to the Pacific. The image on the left portrays a person who used henna dye to create a "Moko" (pronounced mo-ku). The New Zealand Moko (as shown on the right), is a highly respected symbol for the Maori people. In fact, those who are not of Maori descent are usually not given the permission to receive a facial tattoo. Another ritualistic aspect of receiving a Moku deals with the sacrifice and pain involved in the process. Therefore, should the image on the left be considered or called a "Moko" by any means?


Traditional Pacific Island tatoos (or tatau) are made up of specifc symbols that can explain an individual's ancestry and/or position in the community. It also reinforces and bonds the person to their culture and their people. The look of traditional Pacific Island tattoes has influenced the designs of contemporary American tattoo artists. However, in America, the act of getting a tattoo can take on a very different meaning.

"As an anthropologist whose more canonical work deal with the politics of 'cultural revival' in the contemporary Pacific, I find this book and the practices it describes intriguing. Is seem as though the whole history of Western speculation about other cultures has been tossed into a blender..." (Reosenblatt, 287).

"Modern primitives posit a distinction between authentic and inauthentic forms of desire and enacts that distinction in a cultural salient way by ritually invoking the idea of the primitive. The skin becomes a kind of battleground on which the selfand society contest each other, and the decorated body becomes an indexical icon on the self's (possible) history." (Rosenblatt, 325)


To the left is a traditional Marquesan tattoo, the design is strictly for Marquesan males. To the right is a similarly looking tribal tattoo designed by Leo Zulueta. Zulueta explains that "tribal" tattoos are very different from "traditional" tattoos. "Traditional tattoos have a specific meaning," he says. Whereas "tribal" tattoos have the influence of traditional symbols, but are altogether different. "I would never put a traditional symbol on somebody, that is something totally different from what I do... What I do is contemporary." (Zulueta, 1996).