Art of the Flesh

    Recently, I dragged myself into a tattoo shop in Pacific Beach and had a pretty darn cool design tattooed on my back. With the flutters in my stomach, I was surprised that I actually had the courage to do it. Not only was I shelling out over $200 to have this thing painfully and permanently injected into my dermis, but my father was going to kill me.

    I am no criminal, nor am I an aspiring rock star. I don’t own a motorcycle. Yet I have a tattoo.

    Tattoos date from prehistoric times and have been an important part of human culture throughout history.

    Professor Ernesto Silva of the UCSD visual arts department said he feels that images are an integral part of human culture.

    “”As a painter and a sculptor, I definitely believe in the power of images whether you put an image in a painting or draw it on the sidewalk with chalk or tattoo an image your body,”” Silva said. “”I think they all have the potential to be as powerful and as meaningful as each other.””

    Although they exist in many cultures, tattoos have played many different roles in each. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, used tattoos to identify slaves and criminals.

    In early Japan, decorative tattooing became popular (and associated with organized crime) in the 17th century and was used by the “”Yakuza”” (seen as defenders against the oppressive regime) to show lifelong commitment and strength.

    The spreading popularity of Japanese tattoo extended to foreigners in the 19th century when Japanese artists tattooed foreigners. Traditional Japanese designs, however, cover the back and extend over the limbs. These traditional designs depict themes such as courage or fidelity, and symbolize the merits of the tattooed person.

    The influence of Japanese tattoos later spread to England where it burgeoned as the social elite became patrons of this exclusive art form.

    Many people now see tattoos as desecrating the body, or as an act of rebellion, but tattoos can be a personal artistic representation. Tattoo artists themselves see their work as true art and take their profession very seriously.

    “”Tattooing is a legitimate art form,”” said Randy Janson, a tattoo artist at Avalon Tattoo in Pacific Beach. “”Tattooing is a service and I see myself as the practitioner. Someone requests something and I am able to make their dreams come true.””

    Some medical professionals in the past believed tattoos to be motivated by perverse or repressed sexual desires. In the United States, tattoos seem synonymous with leather-clad bikers or rock stars.

    But in some cultures, such as the Samoan or Maori cultures of the Pacific Islands, tattoo is a distinguished form of art in which only highly respected men represent their historical legacies and virtues for public view upon their flesh.

    “”The way I see tattoos, at least at the moment you get one, it seems to be a very strong belief in something, and it becomes a transformation of your skin like a constant and long-term representation of yourself,”” Silva said.

    Whatever its origins or representations, tattoo is an art form that combines beauty, pain and commitment.

    Despite the extensive and colorful history of tattoos, I’m sure my father still won’t approve. But my tattoo is an artistic representation of myself, as other tattoos have been representative of countless other people.

    My tattoo helps link me with centuries of people all over the world who committed themselves to symbols that represent them and their beliefs. I’m proud of my tattoo, even if my parents are not.

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