A quarterly specialized journal
The Message Of Folklore from Bahrain To The World

Researching tattoos: Symbols and meanings

Issue 39
Researching tattoos: Symbols and meanings

By Dr. Nurulddin Badis, Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University of Tunis


There are many theoretical concepts related to tattoos, and these concepts differ from one region to another and from one people to another.


Tattooing is an ancient custom that has been practiced in many different ways. In ancient civilisations, there were common reasons for tattooing; tattoos seemed to reflect the communities’ beliefs, views on nature and existence, the relationships between individuals, people’s destinies and their relationships with the metaphysical world. A tattoo can serve as a way to commemorate a particular time and place.


Man created tools so he could make tattoos to reflect his thoughts and feelings.


When we talk about the individual, we almost inevitably end up talking about the group. When we describe life, we must also discuss beliefs and metaphysical concepts. Our approach to the phenomenon of tattoos is an approach to the discourse in which the individual investigates his inner self and his surroundings. How can we interpret tattoos? How can we identify their denotations? And, if tattoos are a form of symbolic communication, why are they banned in certain religions and traditions? Do religions ban tattoos because of what they depict, or because of their meanings?


While tattoos had aesthetic value and they served as signs of tribal loyalty in the past, today they are used to express freedom and the search for identity in societies where the individual experiences an identity crisis. Currently in the West, there are new ways of making tattoos; the art is now popular with both young and old people as it is not only perceived as a fashion and a semi-collective expression of freedom, but as a means of communication that surpasses conventional rhetoric.


Regardless of the personal motives, whether a tattoo is used as a way to commemorate a loved one or an important event, as a form of rebellion, or as a way of imitating a celebrity with a particular tattoo, in modern societies, tattoos reflect regional, national and cultural values. We observe that different tattoos are popular in different parts of the world. Irrespective of moral judgements that tattoos are a sign of low self-esteem that makes people more likely to imitate celebrities, the practice is worthy of study as a multi-significant type of discourse. The trend to imitate certain tattoos stemmed from different interpretations of tattoos. Every person with a tattoo interprets their tattoo in a particular way and they behave accordingly, taking into account their specific folk culture.


There are infinite possible interpretations. It is as if a tattoo is a text and its readers decide its meaning, and their interpretations do not necessarily reflect the intention of the individual who has the tattoo.

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