Gell, Alfred - Wrapping in Images

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rhi, h",,~ " flllhilshnj h, (hlord l'ni\Trsm Press thanks to Ihe genl'rJl ediTorslup 011,,,,,ard .\lorphy, \ ~nivl'rslt) Lt'\.,turcr in Ethnolo~ at Oxlilrd Jnd I :urator al the Pitt Rivers Museum, llnd Fred Myers. Assodatt

Professor (,f Anthropology at New York University.

Society and Exchange in Nias .'Indrew Bmlly :\nthropolo!(Y, Art, and\t'sthetics Fdit,.d Ir)'],.rnnl' COOII' and .1nlhony Shdllln

The C:uhurc of Coincidmcc: .·\reidt'nt and Absolute Lial->ility in Huli

Laurellce (;oldm,n~

Exchange in Oceania: A Graph Tht'oretic Analysis Per Hat,. and Frallk- H.irtll)'

Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Pn'sentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies


\larquesan Soeicties: Inequality and Political Transformation in Eastern Polynesia Ni,.ho/as Thomas




Tattooing in Polynesia




The purpose of this book is to hring together the lacts concerning tattooing in Polynesia and to offer an interpretation of them. To what extent, and in what ways, were the Polynesians tattooed, during the historical period for which documentation exists? \\ hat can we now recover of the cultural sig-nificance of this once widespread practice? The extant evidence which bears on these questions is in some respects quite full, because tattooing was a visible trait which tended to attract the attention of early observers of the customary practices of south sea islanders; yet often enough the evidence peters out just as we appear to be approaching the heart of the matter. In order to make the fullest possible use of the ethnographic material bearing specifically on tanooing it becomes necessary to range quite widely over the field of Pol}'Desianstudies. So there are many pages, among those to come, on which the word 'tattooing' fails to make an appearance. This digressivefonnat is an unavoidable necessity, and in consequence this book takes the fonn, at least in part, of a general introduction to Polynesian culture and society, besides being a specialized treatment of one particular feature of these societies.

It is not just that some knowledge of the social context and cultural background is required in order to grasp the nature and symbolic associations of Polynesian tattooing. It is rather that tattooing practices played such an integral part in the organization and functioning of major institutions (politics, warfare, religion, and so on) that the description of tattooing practices becomes, inevitably, a description of the wider institutional fonns within which tattooing was embedded. These institutions themselves pose theoretical and interpretative dilemmas, which are the stuff of the ongoing debates between specialists in Oceanic anthropology. Many of these general questions and debating points will be addressed in what is to follow.

The idea which germinated this work is a simple one. It occurred to me, in the process of writing some lectures for a course on 'The Anthropology of Art', that one way of exploring regular co-variation between art style (body art, in this-instance) and the socio-cultural milieu would be to collect together the infonnation on tattooing styles fora number of Polynesian societies, and then to align these data with the corresponding social systems (i.e. degree of


:ntr.ucll\. I'rtSllll"(' or ahsuKl' of cl'ntr.lli,ed government, and so on), Would ,r turn Olit rJw thl'll' lITre IlIlcJhglolc correlations between the tattooing tyl .lIld hroadl',r sonal alld politil'al paramett'l'S among the s~"'pl f PIs . es

, , " . ' •••• es 0 oyneslan

SOCIl'tICS, AccordlOglv I took the social-typololJ'icaJ h "

(' IJ ' " '. O' sc erne contamed m

, 10lman S ,~namf Polynesian Society (1970) and collated it with tattooin

1Il10ml,ltlOn from thl' main ethnographic sources. The resulting colla e wa~ nOl \lllhoUl sornl' mterestillg features: Hawaii, reputedly the furthest ~olved 1011.lrds statl'-formatlon 01 all the Polynesian societies, was also the socie shIm 109 the least cultural emphasis on tattooing' Tonga next' I' ,ty d"liS rLSpelt, a so sl'cml'd to underplav"" I hodv art


' t th ~1, In mem

" , , , U l' 1>arqucsas, at the

O!'posI,te l'nd 01 thc political spectrum-the most stn'fie t 1m th I

' ' I ' '. - ( , c cast

state-oIpl1l.zel (I.C, the n.lOst Opell according to Goldman's schemel-had the most dabnr.lte tat!oomg oj all.

Therc seeml'd, OIl /irst inspection to be some kind of 'elecn' . ffi"

hetll" , ... 'II' ,eamtv

, . ,(l,n SOLletles lilt 1 e anorale tattooing .md an Open (competitive) sta~s}, '10~ ~omerscly, there seemed to be disaffinitv between CI d (stralihed) SOCIetIesand the existence of a culturally stressed trad't1' fbod°se

Jrl B t ' ' I d'd ' . , ) on0 y

.: u. : .IS. I n(~t lall to pomt out in mv lecture, this crude application of thl IOgle of eorrelatlOlls produced as manv I'uzzles and bl t t' h

' j' I ' " " . a an Jrusmatc es as

It III Il1tcrcstmg-lookll1g res~l.ts, There were reputedly stratified societies,

sU~h. as .\.Iang~r~va an~ Tahiti, which practised tattooing extensively. And thcre ," ere soclenes whIch were not at all stratified but which had I

tatto h H" ' , ' even ess

, omg t an awall, such as Niue (Opl'n) and Pukapuka (Tr din al Thesl' non-correlations couJd be accounted for in two ways which a , on ).

by 'illY mea' t IJ I' .. , "ere not

: ' ,. . ns mu ua y exc uSlye; either there was something wron ·th th \Iay In whIch Goldman had classified Pol,,' , I g WI e

, , " ynt SIan socia systems, or there was ~omethmg IIrang WIth the Idea that one should expect to find correlations

C('lltcn body art. and the socio-cuJtural milicu-or at any rate simple ea _

to- gct -at correJatlons. ' , sy

The typological, question concerning how best to classify PI' '

SOCICtIesfi· . 0~neSlan

" , or comparailYC purposes can be deferred until later-tho~gh th ~~~~)encle~ of a typolo~ which puts strife-tom New Zealand and peacefu~

. pula ill the same pigeon-hole hardly needs to be underlined, But the

other prob.Jem h~s to be c~n:ronted without delay, because it is essential to the \~hoJe project. ~ ~gue hohstlc mtuitions apart. on what conceivable grounds s ~uJ? o~e anncl~ate a 'fit' between patterns of sociological variation and ~anatlOn m tattoolOg styJes and institutio1i5' Some kind of recondite but hlllescapabJe caus~J Jinkage between body arts allU political arrangements; That

as ra<her a dub ' . Y' •

. , , , IOUSn~g to It. et nothing less seems to he implied in the search for bod~ -artlsoclCtv corrchtions.

, How might it come abo~t, even in principle, that there would be consistent lIlterpretable. relationships between body art and other social variables' I~

answer to thIS I wo ld ' . h b' .

, u mamtam t at ody art docs mdeed co-vary intelJigibly

with other social factors to the extent that, and because of the fact that, it is functionally implicated in the maintenance and reproduction of the encompassing social system. Of course, this remains to be demonstrated, by means of arguments whiCh must needs be more subtle and methodologically roundabout than the construction of crude tables of correspondences. But I believe that it is possible to show that the distribution of different types of tattooing in Polynesia did not simply reflect the existence ()f a prior socio-political milieu, but, in certain instances, and in combination with certain other factors, was actually constitutive of it. That is to say, tattooing, as a technique (one of the large category which Mauss (1979) idl'l1tified as 'les techniques du corps'), made possible the realization of a distinctive type of social and political being,

In the Polynesian setting, tattooing had an intrinsic functional efficacy as a means, a linking element in the sequence of social intention, action, and result. It formed part of the battery of such technical means on which the reproduction of social life once rested, One could say the same of the techniques involved in canoe-construction or weaving mats, As a technical means of modit)ing, the body, tattooing made possible the realization of a particular type of 'subjectioJl'(Foucault 1979;Sheridan 1980) which, in turn, allowed for the elabOtlfliori and perpetuation of social and political relation-ships of certain distinct kinds. I base this argument on the premiss that the perpetuation of a given polity-a given distribution of power, honour, and access to resources-is contingent on the formation and intergenerational transmission of self-understandings which are congruent with the prevailing milieu, Notions of the person (Mauss 1979; Lukes et al. 1985; .\1.Strathern 1988), its powers and attn'butes, must coincide as far as possible \\ith political necessities, The significance of Mauss's 'body techniques' often stems from the fact that it is through the body, the way in which the body is deployed, displayed, and modified, that socially appropriate self-understandings are formed and reproduced. Tattooing (and, conversely, non-tattooing where tattooing is expected and normal) is a very specific and recognizable way of modifYing the body, and, via the body, reconstructing personhood according to the requirements of the social milieu,

Foucault (1979: 25)writes of a 'microphysics of power' exercised over the body: 'the body is directly involved in the political field; power relations have an immediate hold over it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform'ceremonies, to emit signs'. Pol}ncsian tattooing, as I will show, did ali these things; it was a species of political gesture which marked the b~dy, tortured it, ceremonialiy prepared it for war and sexuality, and which made it emit signs. But, as Foucault immediately goes on to point out, this power exercised over and through the body, is not the privilege of a dominant c1ass...,.-not~ven in western societies and still less so, of course, in


as !litHh ,I' lhe dOllunanL In !'olmesi,l the physical suhjection involved in

tattooing nprcss~J hierarch, ,md domination, yel it was most ardently sought wh~rc, Ul dYcel, 11,was ,mosl o~ligalory. Power over thebody C()lllcs f!"Q1!lthe subJection 01 the soul (p. 2tJ), the 'element in which are articulated the ~ffccts of ~ml'r in relerence to a certain type of knowledge' (Sheridan 1980), knowledgl' In tIllS mstance not heing th<.·codes, so minutely explored by Foucault. WIHCh undcrhe wcstnn 'bio-power' (Rabinow 1984: 17)but the indigenous conceptions and lllythologies of the person, the cosmos and the social order which knd thematic consistency to Polynesian societies.'

, It is the suhjection/subiectitieation of tlw 'soul' through tattooing institu-tl~lI1s-ah, ays m conjunction with a wide array of parallel institutions, tech-l1Iyues, and hOlWy uldes·-which constitutes the main topic of this work. 'Vhy tattoom!l m partlClilar should he susceptible to analysis along these lines is a mallcr wIl1eh I WIll JISCUSSin detail in a moment (Sect. 1.2.1).

Is!and-by-island, society-b!-society comparisons within the Polynesian region have he en a lery ?opular lorm oj exercise for the anthropological imagination for a very long tIme, and no wonder (Goldman 1970·Sahlins 1958' Buck

} 938a;.etc;). But is. this type of island-by-island comp~rison really a ~erfect laboratory ot SOCIal forms as Margaret -'read once claimed? Recentlv scepticism was expressed on this ycry point by Edmund Leach in one of th~ very last oj the onslaughts on anthropological complacency to which he devoted his career. In a postscript to the volume Transfonnali~lIs of Polynesian

Culture (Hooper and Huntsman 1985: 222) whose title alone indicates the

intellectual pitfalls he had in mind, he expressed the opinion that 'Polynesia' was 'not quite, but very nearly ... fa] figment of the ethnographic imagination'. H~ denounced the t.endenc}' to esscntialize 'Polynesian culture' and to sttldy t~IS abstrac:IOTI and Its purely symbolic vicissitudes, instead of focusing atten-tion where It should be focused, on tile real world and its concrete historicity. And he went on to say ~hat the apparent cultural consistency of 'Polynesia' was a result of the filter:mg and distorting of the ethnographic record, as a neces~ary by-product of colonial and missionary penetration. The cultural and hIstorIcal depiction of the south seas was codified and transmitted '1a Eur:o~eans :\ho were (1) participants in the creation of (post-European) socletI~s whICh were none the Ics:; reprcsented as tr'dditional and who were (2) commItted to the grandiose schema of 'Polynesia' as a unified whole.

Leach's douhts about 'Polynesia' arc overstated. But he was surelv right to denounce the complacent assumption that the cultural spectrum of Polvnesia ref~ects a 'cultural logic' such that each society individually repres~nts a ratIonal transform, according to a global law gOH'rning 'Polynesia' as a whole,




of every other one-much as if the relation between these societies was akin 10 the transfonnational relationships which can be said to exist between variant versions of a myth. At the very least, this cultural logic would have to be demonstrated. What is so insidiously tempting is thepetitio prin~pii w~ich hases arguments purporting to explore the interconnected transformatH~ns undergone by diverse Polynesian societies on an implicit appeal 10 the prIn-ciple that this interrelatedness exists intrinsically. .,

How can the choice of 'Pohnesia' as the frame for comparative studlcs be justified, without appealing' to the idealized concept ~f pan-Polyne~ia.n culture? The short answer would appear to be that the UOlty of PolyneSIa IS based on archaeological, linguistic, and historical facts. Pre-historians, such as Bellwood (1978) and Kirch (1984),are entirely uninhibited in making reference 10 the 'Polvnesians' as a people with a culture which can be traced to a unique and iden'tifiahle origin in time and space. The lin~istic.picture is equally unequivocal: the languages spoken in the PolyneSian mangle, as conventionallv defined, are far more closely related to one another than they are to any other Austronesian languages (Pawley and Green 1975). In the light of these well-established findings, Leach's outburst against the concept of Polynesian culture must seem perverse. . . .

But the matter is not so simple as that. The shared ongm and mnumerable resemblances between different Polynesian societies are not in doubt: what is at issue is the implicit assumption that, in so far as Polynesian cultures are actually different from one another, their differences are such as to be attributable to regular transformations of a shared cultural substra~e. ~he similarities between Polynesian societies are a consequence of the hlstoncal facts surrounding their origins. However, the di".ergencies between Pol.Yl1es.ian societies which are hardly less marked, are equally the outcome of hIstOrIcal facts-the same historical facts. In order to account for the dissimilarities between Polynesian societies one can refer to all manner of historical. pr~-cesses, ecological shifts, social and ideological contrasts. But the temptanon IS always to explain the re~idual similarities, such as they are, by reference to a prindple of cultural inertia, 'a common Polynesian heritage' which survive.s (tautologously) wherewr the contingent processes of history have not swept It

away. . .

This heritage or rultural inertia clearly has no status as an hlston~o-explanatory principle on a par "ith the identifiable conti~gent pro:ess~s whIch have caused different Polvnesian societies to pursue different hlstoncal and developmental trajectorie;. If Polynesian societies resemble one another in such a way as to make detailed comparisons possible, it is because the very same historical processes which caused Polynesia to diverge, historically and culturally, from the 'Lapitan' prototype (Kirch 1984: 41-67) also caused the preservation and reproduction of certain cultural elements under altered


'.ctlkr, ,ould nol ICIi1Il'nt culture. hlll~UJge, and society in their entirety, to

,lctonl IIith rhc lircumstances in whit'h they found themselves. All the same,

it \\ as not the tug of common origins which kept Polynesian culture within delimited bounds-if indeed it is possible to say that there are any such bounds-but the strictly localized demands made by the processes of social feprodudion. A different cultural apparatus could have procured the survival of hUlIWl populations in the eventual Polynesian habitat. The organizational and tcchnical mt'ans relied on by the Polynesians are not the only possible ones. But they wcrc thc ones the Polynesians happened to have at hand, and which tlll'Y pressed into service and modified as time went by.

On these grounds I would reject the imputation that willingness to engage in comparisons between Polynesian societies implies acceptance of a global, constLlining Polynesian culture of the kind I,each criticizes. I shall treat the

Iarious island and archipela~rjc politics under consideration here as

inde-pendent entities rather than as refractions or transformations of any under-lying cultural archetype. I am concerned with Polynesia, not as a whole of any kind, hut as a collection of ethnographic examples of societies which differ interestingly from one another. These interesting differences are arbitrary with respect to those factors, relating to origins, in the light of which Polynesia is one. Thus, it is not on continuities and similarities that I am going to lay the greatest stress, but on contr;1sts and divergent developments.

Nor shall I wholly respect the conventional ethnological boundaries of 'Polynesia' which Thomas (l989a) has with some justification identified as the source of misleading contrasts between 'hierarchical' Polynesian societies and 'democratic' .\lelanesian ones (cf. Sahlins 1963; 1989). I shall not, it is true, deal e.\1l'l1sivcly with tattooing in Melanesia, but I iI]clude Fiji in the dis-cussion of tattooing institutions in western Polynesia for reasons which will he come immediately apparent once the discussion gets under way in Chapter 2. And this is not because I think that Fiji ought to be Polynesia, in defiance of the culrural and linguistic data suggesting otherwise, but because Melanesian Fiji was intimately articulated to Polynesian Tonga/Sam~ while remaining culturally quite distinct (Sahlins 1981a; Kaeppler 1977).

The plan behind this study is, therefore, to pursue the differences between various Polynesian societies (plus Fiji), and to correlate these with differences in body art, with a view to clarifYing the role body art plays in social reproduc-tion. At this point I am obliged to open a parent.~esis in order to explain what I mean h\ 'social reproduction' in this and the other contexts in which I employ this form of words. Social reproduction is not reproduction carried out by societies (which arc not agents and which cannot be the subjects of

transitive \erhs like 'reproduce'). l\or do \;ulturcs' reproduce themselves for the same reason. Social reproduction is reproduction carried out by rep~o-ductive agencies (individuals and groups sharing a common reproduetJ~e mterest)'in a social context. Reproduction has been achieved when certam locally conventional criteria of reproductive success have. been met. Among these criteria may be the physical reproduction of offspnng, but not neces-sarily, and certainly this is hardly ever the sole requirement. The criteria of reproducti\'e success, seen from the point of view of the .reproducers, encompass thc production of 'successors' who have all the attnbutes (moral qualities, status attributes, possessions, titles, etc.) they ideally should have, not just physical bodies. Successtlll reproduction (or even averag~ly unsuc-cessful reproduction) cannot occur without the active co-operatlOn of the successors (reproducees) in the reproductive activities of the reproducers, for it is their attributes which provide the yardstick of reproductive success. Reproduction thus encompasses the activities of the reproduced, in so f~~ as they seck to fulfil the e.\..peetations placed upon them by parents, authontJes, and role models-including the e.\vectation that they, in turn, should become

successful reproducers. And so on. .

This network of agentive relations, the agency of the reproducers ~n bringing into being their successors, and. the. agency o~ th~ reproducces m bringing themselves into being in confornuty WIth the obbgatJons and .expecta-tions placed upon them, and thereby assuming responsibility .for theIr rep~o-ducers' reproductive success, is, in sum, the process of SOCIalrep~oductJon (Mcillassoux 1975; Goddier 1978). It is important to note that SOCIalrepro-duction is not intrinsicallv a conservative process, which seeks only the replacement of a 'generatio~' of reproducers by successors. ,,:h~ are thei~ exa~t counterparts-Xerox copies, as it were. Onthe contrary, It IS mherent IIIthIS

definition of social reproduction that reproducers may seek to produce suc-cessors who are different from themselves (e.g. their superiors with respect to rank or wealth) and, conversely, successors can seek to outdo their antecedents in whatever respect is necessary to magnifY their reproductive success,

Social reproduction is guided by collective representations, in so far as the conventional criteria for reproductive success are arbitrary, even though they cannot escape from material constraints. I make the general assumption that societies continue to exist, or change or decay, become extinct, etc. on. the basis of the interaction between locally prevailing collective representatJon~ governing social reproduction and the presence or lack of the necessary material and other conditions on which the implementation of these

repro-ductive schemes depends. .. .

The argument I am putting forward is that tattooing play~d a dislmctJ:e part in social reproduction in certain Polynesian cult~ral se~ngs, but not m an of them, and nol always in identical ways. It would be gomg too far to say that tattooing was essential to the reproduction of these societies, though the


high !'nori!\ "ltlTI ,h\l"ned to the ntir)" , ,

such ,1\ missiooaril's \\h(I'l' '11"11" 't J,ItI0ln,ot tattoomg by agents of chan,ge.

, "',,, as 0 cst'l ) Ish I I

repr\lducthc succcss, may retlect a uite' •. ,a ar~e y nc,,: sC,tof criteria of part, that tattooing institutions PlaYc~ a k~cnume .cultural. ~slght. on their mentality, But one must not exa 0 y p~ m sustammg the 'pagan'

, , ggerate; my monvation' d .

pages to tatt()()inp' is that tatt" , , '. In evotmg so many

th ' , <" oomg IS an exceptionall' . .

at II IS an l'xt'eptionally 'important' onc (h .y mteres.nng sUb,~ct, not

portanr subjcl'ls, like politics rcli!i ' I ~ ough It docs hnk up WIth im-solemnilv, thl'refore one m~', , g °hn, a hance, ctc,), Avoiding excessive

, " ' " y say t at tattooing pIa d '. . .

.angt ntla!, part m social reproduction' th. t' II' ye a Significant, If

, , , , m c 0 owmg ways:

l. I.l!toolllg mstitutions, and the sub'ect .

becoming tattooed and interacting v'll 'd,/r e~enences engendered bv helped produce a cert'lin m' d, vI I (I, er~nl1ally) tattooed social other~

, • III -set, a certam tram I' ' I I ' . '

certain notion of person selt'..h d d e,0 Socia c assdication, a

f:" , ' 00 ,an empowenn t 'h' h ' ,

actor III the reproduction of th., o'h' en.' W Ic lIas an enablIng

c ' e spel'l c types ofsoc I d I"

lound III various parts (It' P II ' ( la an po Inca.! reoimes

' , ( vnesla nol in all ' d O'

extent). , ,an not everywhere to the same

2, T.l!tooing institutions entered d' .

d ' , more IrectIy mt th

pro UCllOn m that they were olit d' I . 0 e process of

re-d ' en Irect v amcul t d th·

an thnebv Ihe social m 'h,' , , a e to e life-cycle

. . ec amsms tor the d' tn'b' f

hfe-chances. _ IS unon 0 (reproductive)

3. Tattooing was itself a reproductive device' . .

mode, Human beings don't J'ust rep d th m the ImagInary or artefaetual but a soI as artefacts (ca~';' ro uce emseJves as th h

0 er umap beings

" •••ngs, canoes fine t xtil b 'ld' '

mtangIble entities such as 0 ~L' e es, UI mgs) and as

s ngs, mv UIS spirit b . . later, tattooing brings into eX!'st . d' emgs, etc. As I WIll describe

b ' ence an populates th ld·th

eIngs, spirit selves which d e wor \\01 subsidiaM!

. ' surroun and protect th ta d' OJ

sometimes be the case that the I' I" e ttooc subJel1. It can d f: ' mu tip Icatlon of this th ff: " , , an anraslzed 'companions' inscribed within ~ong0 amIl18TSpInts

Surrogate for reproduction in th the skin can actually be a

I.'more mundane (ph . I . I)

ta tlooed person is ipsofict od '. YSI0ogIca sense, so the

a () a repr ucer, vlcanousIy, if not in reality.

1.2.1. The Sailor and the Native

Le! me consider another source of preliminarv do

I SIngled out tattooing, of all thin for ' ' ub~s. On what grounds have clearly definable phenomen h~h' a comparative survey? Is tattooing a Why should tattooing in onl'tw 11.',\can usef~Ily be studied cross-culturally?

, cu ure n necessanlv ha' yth'

ta!toom!, in culture BI Th h J ve an mg to do with

h . e s ort anSWer to that is that th .

w y tallooing in culture A sh Id h ' ere ISno reason at all

, ou aye the same cultu I ' 'fi

tattoomg in culture B Tatt ' , b ra Slgnl cance as " ' ,., OOlng IS Y no stretch of the . . .

unncrsal wllh an InvarIant mea' Th ., Imagmatlon a cultural mng, e mlmmum definition of tattooing, the


basic technic.11 ~chema of punrturing the skin and inserting pigment, cannot hy itself sufficeIto delimit any particular symbolic meaning.. The age and scx

of the tattooinltl subject, the nature ,and extent of the designs made, their positioning on the body, the institutional framework of the tattooing process, and many other factors, make all the difference in the world, even within a single 'tattooin~ system', let alone in cross-cultural perspective.

Although tattooing can carry a very wide range of c:.:!tural meanings, even in Polynesia, as will be shown in later chapters, it is also true to say that this variety is by no means infinite. The basic technical schema of tattooing-the fact that it 'in'l Ives puncturing or cutting the skin, that it involves inserting something into the body, and at the same time letting blood, and that the marking left be ind when the scars have healed is pennanent-gives rise to ccrtain e1ectiyc affinities between a finite range of cultural meanings and this possible means (among others) of giving exprcssion to them. Just on the basis of its underlyin technical schema, tattooing has a certain functional valency, In Polynesia, I will argue, this functional valency was widely exploited in the fonnation and nculcation of a personal construct which may be interprcted in political ten s. T allooing was part of the 'technology' for the creation of political subjects, and hence the reproduction of political relations,

In asserting this rather essential proposition, I do not mean that tattooing played a unifdrm role in Polynesian social reproduction. As I have just emphasized, 'P lynesia' is here being considered as a cluster of differentiated systems, held together by no overarching principle of Polynesian socio-cultural consis ency, As politics varied, so did the manner in which the basic technical sche a of tattooing was e:.:ploited in the creation of subjectivity; certain aspects of the totality of possibilities inherent in the basic schema are foregrounded ccording to the demands of the local system, others being suppressed,

The basic te 'hnical schema of tattooing, which will be considered in greater detail in a mo ent, gives rise to a finite (but inconsistent) range of potential significationsly some of which are locally manifested in (relatively) consis-tent guises. d it is important to recognize that the meaning of tattooing in 'local' tattooin systems is never autonomous; the technical schema is read not just by its If, but always in conjunction with other technical schemata-other mutilation, other treatments of the bodily envelope, including clothing, other art forms and fonns of prestige production, and so on.

My intention, so far as possible. is to get at these local meanings, rather than to propose a universal interpretation. But how to be sure of these local mranings? Is the infonnation available good enough? Can it be interpreted in a methodologically sound way? Let me recall another of Leach's admonitory , remarks, cited earlier: the very record on which one might attempt to base

such a reconstruction is itself the product, as he says, of 'European categories of thought' (1985: 222).


In short, \\t: arc here in the presence of a fused mass of interrelated

clements of ethnic and class praetkes l(lrged in a complex historical dynamic which the historians of EuropeanlPolynesian interactions have only recently begun to unravel (Dening 1980; Thomas 1989b; Sahlins 1987). It would be futile to pretend that it is now possible to reconstruct Polynesian tattooing practices as if the encounter between European and Polynesian cultures had never taken place. We can draw no hard and fast line between western ideas about tattooing and Pol}l1esian ideas-the ones we know about, anyway-because both arc the historical residues of a historical episode in which both Europeans and Polynesians participated.

It is true, of course, that the Polynesians had tattooed themselves for millennia prior to the arriyal of Europeans in their area. It is also true that I will often describe Samoan tattooing, \larquesan tattooing, etc. as iitithfully as possible as indigenous traditions of body art, without reference to the circum-stances under which these traditions came to bc recorded. That is the most convenient way of communicating the known ethnographic facts. But the interpretation of thesc facts is quite another matter, and the peculiar cultural fusion between tattooing as a western (class) practice and tattooing as a Pol}l1esian (ethnic) practice cannot be hygienically bracketed away because, in the final analysis, that is our point of contact with the long-dead Polynesians. This is not a matter of imposing western values on Polynesians, but of exploiting the historical resonances which the encounter between us and them produced. The source of the interpretations of practices pro,ided in the ensuing chapters is western in the sense that it is critically, but explicitly, founded on the western perception of tattooing as a component of a certain classhabitusor lifestyle, rather than being conjured out of thin air and purified ethnography. Why be coy about where hypotheses really come from? But just as Sahlins (1987) says that cultural schemes are 'put at risk' by the contingencies of historical conjunctures, so is this western perception when decontextualized and pressed into sef\'ice here. POl}l1esian tattooing is not a class practice, or a sign of criminaliiy. But in order to begin to form a dearer idea of what it really was, it is necessary to explore the constellation of ideas which makes it into these things for us, because it is only in this way that one can begin to respond to its guiding metaphors.

With this in mind, I will turn to the problems of degeneracy, ornament, and crime, as discussed by Cesare Lombroso (1896; 1911) and Adolph Laos (1962 (1908J), not because I wish to reinstate the intellectual reputations of either of them (especially not Lombroso) but because they provide a point of view on tattooing which is explicitly (rather than implicitly) European,


middle-',l.l'S, alld dh,Jppnl\lIl!-,. I do so hCClllsc' these \ery prejudicial altitudes are, in

l'\llr \\a.\, Illuch n\(lrl' rnl'ahng than any attempt to conlront tattooing Irom a S!illldpOlllt 01 cullural neutrality or sympathy could ever be Th' 'I

' h" . , . . rn VlO ent

il!1Upat ~.IS mdlcilive not just of attitudes, but also of the inherent power ~)f1.H!OOI!I!!to e\l)ke a response: and who is to say that


was not the response 1I1lcndedf

!let.l1rl' Sherlod 1.lolmes In'came a detective, he wrote a lIIonograph on Ll!tnOlllg, .lI1d the ahdllv to reco!-'llize talloos played an important part in his ",nilest rl'curded case. Here, as elsewhere, Conan Doyle reveals his familiarity

\\ 1lh the most. advanced criminological theories of his day, for the turn of the

last c'entUT\ wItnessed the development of the earliest scientific investigations of rill' prac,'lllT of tattooing. which were bv nature criml'nolo<Tic'l Th

.. Ih '.. . •.. a, eywere

1l1'1'Irec \ the statIstICIan, lawver and 'criminal anthropolo<Tist' Lb'

h···· '. . ..' •.. am rosa, III

is d,1\' a SOCl,IItlunkcr of \\ orld-wide renown. One of the founders of modern cni11ll101o~:, Lomhroso was an otlshoot of the broad stream of nineteenth-cr!1iury :'wlutlOnan thought, and more specifically a representative of the tn'lhi IlIItJatrd III the 1870s by the embryologist Haekel, which sought to 1l1.rt'll'ret the ontogenetic history of the individual organism as a recapitulation oj irs phylogrnetJe past (Gould 1977; 1984).

. I ('mhros() 's leading idea was that criminal behaviour occurred where an

md.l~:dual, as a consequence of poor breeding, suffered from an ontogenetic de~cl~, an~j n~ver, .a~.a cons~quence, advanced to the evolutionary stage nccrssary lor tully cmhzed socIal life. Criminality was the inborn dispos' .

f ',' . 1 . h . . ItIon

o .. l.nmllla man', w ~ mIght be. recogIlized, not just by law-breaking, but ~(.n IIIthe ab~cnce 01 law-breaki~g,. by certain physical-biological stigmata.

1 hIS came to ?I~ III a moment of mSlght while he was examining the skull of a notl)rJOUS cnmlllal:

At r~~'sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain undc. "fla~mg sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal-an atavistic being who reprod uc:s, m hISperson the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior amnuls. I hus were e:l.plained analomically the enormous jaws high cheek-bo

se]'t ]' . th I h 1 ,nes,

) Ian m . ms, . and e-shaped or sessile ears, found in criminal", savages, and apes, !lIsenslbdl1}to pam, el.1remelyacute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness love of orfl1cs, a~~ I.he irresislible craving for for its own sake, the desire not o~ly to e:\1ll1glilshhieIn the Vlcllm, but10 mutilate the corpse, lear its flesh, and drink its blood. (Lombroso 1911: pp. xiv-xv)

Jt.j~,~u~ as ~.qua~i-biological ata.ism that tattooing first became the object ot Sll:dllhc speculauonlll the \\cst. Lombroso was, of course, well aware that t~ttoomg had t~ he artificially applied to the criminal types who displayed it. ~ot [he tattl~ Itse~f, but the irresistible disposition to become tattooed was bIOJo~,allY ~1Yen, III conjunction with other psychological propensities, such ~s a .ove of ornament and gaudy clothes, a passion lor obscure demotic Jargon. and, most importantly, deficient moral sensibilities.

These moral deheiel1l'ies werr made evident, not only by the acquisition of tattoo markings but also in the sentiments expressed in words and images. Lombroso listed these carefully, emphasizing the presence of ra.c!i<;id/anll!:cjlist political slogans, defiant assertions of loyalty to criminal organ~ations and to


honour which reigns' among thieves, and a wide variety 01 references to sexual themes. Lombroso also noted the fatalistic ethos expressed in many criminal tattoos. 'The notorious criminal Malassen was tattooed on the chest \\ith a drawing of a guillotine, under which was written the following prophesy: "J'ai mal commence, jc finirai mal. C'est la fin qui m'attend".


prostitute's tattoo showed de\il amid hell-fire accompa~ie~ by thc "A toi mon ame".' (1911: 47) On the basis of these and SImIlar tattoos whIch seem to indicate resigned acquiescence in the inevitable consequences of a misspent life, Lombroso concludes that criminals have a dumb, animal-like, acceptanre of their fate, an inherent awareness that, come what may, they arc just not capable of virtue.

It is easy enough to detect, nowadays, in Lombroso's expoSItIon of the atavistic n;ture of criminal man, the simple projection of middle-class antagonism towards unsuitably dressed, tasteless, ill-spoken, and potentially dangerous class enemies and/or 'Victims, tricked out in pseudo-scientific terminology. But it is not enough to be suitably indigIlant about Lombroso's bland prescription that such disagreeable persons should be confined to a system of eugenic gulags-for their own good, of course. Lombroso, III treating tattooing the way he does, is doing more than giving vent to class prejudice; he is also reflecting aspects of a cultural system which, th~re is every reason to think, embraced the very classes whose common humamty he was at such pains to dispute.

Lombroso's biological theories are worthless, but the factual basis upon which thev were erected cannot be disregarded entirely. It is as true now as it was in Lu"mbroso's time that criminals and the insane are very often tattooed, while criminologists, judges, and psychiatrists, on the whole, are not. The_ statistical basis of Lombroso's association between tattooing and incarceration is as strong as ever (Moran 1980; Haines and Hufferman 1958) and is only undermined ~y his failure to prmide 'matched samples' from. dle non-incarcerated population to test for the genuineness of the causal lInkage he asserts (cf. Gould 1984). Even so, the high incidence of tattooing among prisoners could hardly be regarded as a matter of chance, Neither may.the content analysis he makes of criminal tattoos be dismissed simply as a proJec-tion of class prejudice. In tattooing slogans like 'born to be hanged' or the insignia of commonst gangs on their bodies, Lombroso's criminals appear to have played deliberately into his hands. They have biologized their cri~inal~ty, stigmatized themselves, just as he is prepared to biologize them and stigmatIze them. They want to be seen as Lombroso sees them, or, at least, they want it to appear that an act of will, codified in permanent form in the very tissues of


th,'ll hodi"", precedcd the prUhl'JIllCIlI of criminalitv in which they have 1'''IliIIC l'llfllcshnL Thl' onlv difli:renl'c bct\H'Cn the iattoocd crimin~ls and


,I'l1lh~os(l i~that he pretends 10Sl''Cbehind the act(or imagined act) of wilful eonnmtment to IllC,criminJI way of life, an inescapable biological necessity, WIllie tor thc ertmlllals the determining factors are primarily social ones: honour, ambition, the nee'd to struggle against poverty and degradation, and the' Illemal toughness nCl"lkd to recognize, in advance, that the struggle is a 11ll1'l'lcss one.

It ~eems 10 me thaI I,ombroso's treatment of tattooing as a biological atallSIll has ~1certain rnclatory power about it, not because it is biologically

sound. but because l,ombroso's theory e:\"presses in a dish'1lised way the actual

Slrnt'oile proccsscs motivating the practice of the tattooed criminal class, I IOil'llIr anwlIg- thien's. commitment to criminal associates and a criminal life Cltahsll1. making a virtue of nccessity-these arc necessary adaptations t~ ve rv pressing social conditions, yet. at the same time, they are particularly sus"l'[,tibJc ro expression by means of mutilations of the bodv, These mutila~ tions cwkc the permanent, scar-like imprint of lifelong struggles with adversity, and testif}' to the JitCIong commitments which the common struggle CJ1f'cllders, I,ombroso's biologization of the criminal disposition is countered b~ ;lll.oppositional pra~tice, a demotic culture of the body which chooses

blOlog1cal metaphors lor social impulses, and consequently coincides on es~ential ~oints with the prejudicial notions advanced against it by the ~nm1I1oI0~st. Or to be more specific, the powerful metaphor which is implicit

In the baSIC schema of tattooing works identically in both instances but is

interpreted differently. '

In order ~o grasp more fUl~ythe metaphoric burden implicit in the tattooing schel1l.l. ItIS necessary, I thmk, to enquire more deeply into the role of the skin in ,elation to the body-image and the psyche in general-a task which has. hitherto mainly been attempted by certain psychoanalytical writers, whom I will diSCUSSm due course, Meanwhile there is another aspect of Lombroso's assenion of. the natu~al affinity between tattooing and criminality which deserves nOl:Ice, espeL1ally in the present context. Lombroso believed that tattool'd criminals were lower on the evolutionary scale than 'civilized' persons. Pred1Ct:lblv enong]l, he regarded 'savages' as born criminals as well and for the same reasons. Savages were representatives of the 'childhood 'of man' criminals not in the sense that actual crimes could be attributed to them' because in the rude societies in which they lived no laws existed for them t~ break. but certainly criminal in their lack of moral refinement. The fact that tattooing is a practice which united contemporary European criminals and 'Stone\ge' sayages could not fail to escape his attention. But Lombroso's antipath~ t~)wards tattooing is only an aspect of his far more encompassing condemnal:Ion of ornament in all its forms, which he traced back not just to the shallow impulsiveness and emotionality of the savage, but to the basic

condition of animality itself-since where does one lind showiness epitomized if not in the animal kingdom?

Savages and criminals (and children, the prototype of both) share ~ith animals their love of finery, which· demonstrates their moral inferiority (Lombroso 1911; cf. Gould 1984). In elaborating these views, Lombroso played a part, not only in the development of modern criminology, ?ut in. the history of modernist aesthetics, It is not by chance that the penod of Lombroso's greatest fame coincides with the period (between 1885 and 1925) during which decorative detail in art and design fell into ever greater dis-repute, leading to the promulg-ation of the aesthetic of functional (dccoration-free) forms.

The designer and critic Adolf Loos exercised a decisive influence over the development of the modernist attitude towards decoration, and in his essay 'Ornament and Crime' one can easily see direct borrowings from the Italian criminologist, as the title would suggest.

The child is amoral. The Papuans are equally so for us. The Papuans slaughter their enemies and eat them. They arc not criminals. If, however, a man of this century slaughters and eats someone, he is a criminal and a degenerate. The Papuans tano.o their skins, their boats, their oars, in short, everything within reach, But a man of thiS century who tattoos himself is a criminal and a degenerate,.,. I have found the following law and present it to mankind: the evolution of civilization is tantamount to the remo\'J1 of ornament from objects of use. (I %2, cited and! Gombrich 1984) This passage perfectly expresses the rationale behind the negative ~~ge enjoyed by tattooing in educated circles in contemporary western sOClel:Ies. Tattooin~ is archaic; and it runs counter to a very basic idea in western thought, clong antedating Loos, that the human body, unadorned, is beautiful,

and is so because of its functionality. Gombrich (1984) has provided a brilliant account of the history of taste with respect to decoration applied to 'objects of use' and th~ pendulum swings between pro- and anti-decoration sentiment. But even during the most ebullient periods of Eilropean taste, mutilation of the body by scarring or tattooing has rarely been openly promoted among the privile~d ~Iasses. Loos, brusquely imposing the 'denial of synchrony' ris-a-visthe 'savage' Other criticized by Fabian (1983), consigns it to the 'Papuan' doubly displaced to the evolutionary-historical past and the ontogenetic phase of childhood amorality.

I cite this passage-, not simply because it exemplifies a still-widespread middle-class perception of tattooing, to wit, that it is barbaric, but because it signals a basic theme of the ensuing study. !:-oos's objection to tattooing is not, truly that it is criminal, but that it is in poor taste. How has it come about that , in

tht \\'

est, tattooing hasfemained such an obdtJrately 'tasteless' practice? Even a recent glOSSYvolume including chapters on contemporary tattooing in California and l'oti;led, ~i<Tnifica"tl\'hnt lInf'onvincingly, Marks of Civilization


!f\uhll1 j<)\S) !.Ilk I" "ldll.llt that thc Clil'llldc of up-market West Coast

I.ltl"(ljn~ parlours <Iretasll'Iol folk, rather than would-be exhibitionists. For

~"l1le n:.hon, Wilhlll thc confincs of our cultural system, tattooing is not ~\lscl'ptihle to acsthl'tirism within the accepted canon of art forms in the way th,1t many pOllular nafts and pral' for instance-have blTn. The answer lies, as has heen suggested already, in the specific relation I>t'l\\ecn tattooing-, thc bodv, and sub;cctivity, which has an irreducibly political dimension,

In ren'lll vears we haH' heen made aware of the relation which exists hel\\ een taste and p(m cr in its more recogniz;lble forms. The notion of the b,',11 .lI1d its hca!thv appearance .Ire intrinsic to the contemporary middle-el."s lit/hilii.'. as !lourdiCli (1979) has shown with copious examples. Yet,

~r.ll1tlJ1g Ihis li)r thc mome!)t, wc arc still left with an intellectual puzzle. \\ !ur. if alll, is the ClIT\-(,\l'r, so to speak, hetween the apparently unbreak-.lhk linkagc hetwcel] social repn:ssion/marginality and tattooing in our Culiural "'item, and the role which tattooing plays in (non-class) social Sl SIcms in which tallooing is accepted practice?

I oos, in the pass.lg-e cited, suggests that there is this carry-over: savages are cllll,lIike and unciliJi/ed, they arc motivated by the same impulses which g-()\ern the behaviour of children and degenerates in our society, and that is "h~ they succumb to the impulse to become tattooed. The difference is only onc of the population mcan of evolutionary advance, so to speak; among the Papuans the ata,-istie types are in the majority, while among men of this ccntury thcy are (or should be) the minority. The atavistic Papuans are not criminals only because they constitute tlle majority, but they behave as criminals. Their conduct is dictated by the same impulses as those which produce criminals and degenerates in a civilized milieu.

Inns, in other words, is postulating a universal ne:ms between primitiveness/ crimlllaJitY/ornamentality, in opposition to civilization/restraint/functionality. This opposition works along two axes, first to discriminate, within western society, standards of taste (linked implicitly to social class) and secondlv to discriminate between western civilization and barbarism. Here we detect the ideological consequences of the fusion I spoke of earlier between class and cthnic stereotypes and practices, which arose directly from the- historical coincidence of the development of industrial class society and world-wide colonial penetration.

(lne can respond to this fusion in a variety of ways. One strategy is to attl'mpt 10 impose a barrier betwe'?n class and non-class societies in the name of ,mti-ethnoeentrism. It is ethnocentric to form interpretative analogies hetll l'cn class practices in class societies and ethnic practices, even when these practices arc superficially identical. ,!,he alternative strategy-a much lIlore dangerous but possibly more productive one-i;:; to take class practices as the starting-point for the analogical rcconstruction of the significance of

practicl's in non-class societies on the basis of th.e postulate of the intrinsic functional valency of practices under whatsoever clfcumstances they occur.

This is not to absolve Loos of gross ethnocentrism. It is clear that he knows little and cares less about the Papuans and Red Indians he uses as stcx:k figures in his tirade against ornament. Inv~tigation will show .tha~ h~ IS far from correct in attributing body decoratIOn, or other decoratJ~e a~s, to motives of childish gratification. But that really goes without saymg .m. the present context. Rather than restrict oneself, to sim~le-minded denu,ncla~ons. of ethnocentric prejudice, it is much more mterestJng to preserve eertam 01 the logical elements in Loos's thought while revaluing his valu~s. .

Consider the tentative conclusion reached just now m relatIOn to Lombroso's discussion of criminal tattooing, namely that Lombroso and the criminal classes are in different ways responding to a single core meta~hor. centred on the schema of tattooing. Can one not follow an analogous tram.01 thought with respect to Loos's opposition between primitive ornamenta~on and chilized refinement? Is it not conceivable that 'barbarous' orn~entau~n has exactly the significance (the reverse of 'tasteful') which ~oos ascnbes t~It, but in the' context of a value-system which revalues this sigruficance, reversmg the polarity of good and bad but leaving everything else unchanged? .

Consider the alternative, which is to suppose that the body decoratJo~ which Loos regards as uncivilized are locally unders!ood in quite the opposIte sense as culturally approved indications of confonruty to tasteful standards of orna~entation. For many examples along these lines we need look no .funner than the collection Marks of Civilization edited by Rubin (19.88) whi~h has already been mentioned. This phrase occurs ~ ~ the text, III an arnde b}'

Vogel on the Baule of West Mrica '[whose] scanficatJon can be seen as a mark of civilization in general' (1988: 97). The Baule, by scarifYing themselves, arc seeking to distinguish themselves from 'bush creatures' and to show them-selves as 'real human beings' according to Vogel. They are placing themthem-selves on the side of culture (denoted by the presence of artificial scars) as opposed

to nature. . th Ii h f th

But this conclusion does not seem partiCtllarly secure III e g toe

following facts reported by the same author.

1. Canings of nature spirits show elaborate sca~fic~tions, So do carvings of animals. This does not support the idea that scanficauon deno~es culture. as opposed to nature to the Baule. (And on the. difficul~s inherent III employm~ the nature/culture opposition in ethnographIC analySIS, cf.M.Strathern 1980,

and below, Ch. 2.) .

2. Scarifications were done by foreigners, outside the Baule area. DeSIgns

Iwere widely imitated across tribal boundaries .. For instance, one common

design was called 'slave' and imitated the markings of Senufo slaves. If. ~e standard for eivilizedness for the Baule is set by the Baule themselves, It IS


llimrl'll'it! !ll/ro,!"I'I;iJ/l

;l,lrd10SeCIlhl {Ilt I should lrall" lo distant laces to " , , ,

~nnwllto he assol'i.Hed willJ l't'I" ( .p acqlllre scanhcatlOns

II trent posslblv ho 'fl) h'

I'\Tn sl'l\t's. ' , J S I e et mc groups and

3.. It was.c.ommonto scaritYchildren and 've ' '.'

to divert SpInt attacks. Here scarific (. !Pvid'them rubbish names, so as rather than beautification ()t'her ,a ~fion~ c endy a matter of mutilation

. Scan catlOn w d' .

Haule had a varien of diller"nt rea' Ii . as me ICInaI.It seems that

, ,sons or engaging in 'fi'

to thl' indigenous thcorv of th' bIb scan cation, connected

. , ,e o{v ut these had nth· d

pro1e:l!ng a civilized image. .' 0 109 to 0 with

4. I he Baulc, despite preserving their



.ihandolll'd scariliCH;'}IJm' _ _ llstInctJ\e culture and ethnicity

I . " .1Il) )ears ago-but witho t bl . , . '

( 1atthl'l have retrclll'll t(l -Jpr' h d' . u presuma y IIlternng

, ' '. e- uman con Ilion 0 th .

tlw tor ContemporaryBaule bei ",'I', d . n e Contrary,Itmust be

',. . - ng llllize stronglventails b'

o attcmpt to counln this b'. ' h' not emg s{'arified,

I· . - ) .lr/-''1llngt at what c t d . , .

{roilItIOn.i1k(and "h;ch 11--1" ("'pI' "d' . , oun e as CIVIlization

, '. -, " esse via sc'mti ti ) h b

11ell, modem but implicitly e"uival' t ":'1." .ca on . as een replaced by a

.' . ,'1 en CllllzatlOn (whIch e " .

l1on-scanheatlOn) is to imply that th. d'ffi xpresses itself via _modernBaule ciYililationis a'nutter t,e .1 he.rencebetween traditional and

h' "0 swltc 109one set of b't ' Ii

.!I1ot cr. IIIthout reallv changing h' T' ar I rary SignS or \'iCII'or the histon' of'the ], 't11' anyt In.g. hiS hardly amounts to a tenable

, as 10centunes.

It is apparent that the strategy of ·ti··

body arts such as the Baul~s' b' tu .cn thclzmgthe. ethnocentric response to

. " I rnmg e accusation of . .. b

on Its head and claiming that' ou 'b b ' . pnrmnve arbarism

, J r ar arous IS the Ba I ". '1' .

lDaliequate. It is no less eth' u es cnl Ized', IS

p . nocentnc to project on t th B I

'1Pllans a definition of civilization d fi 0 ~ au e or the

condemn them, as Loos does as d' aSIwed e ne .and value It, than it is to to modern men. \\'hat i > d' d . ISPace ~archaIc,child-like) counterparts

, s nee e IS a theorencal a h h'

nrde between standard eth' pproac w Ich squares the Lombroso and Loos and the nocendtns~ and/or class bias, represented by

, ' , more e\Cl0USethnoc tris f .

-apolOgists for primitiye man who insist th en. m 0 cultural-relativist liberal and gifted with perfect t t . at, despIte appearances, he is a squ.lring cannot be achieved ~tshem mki~ttersof Art, Culture, etc. This


I WI out ta ng serious acc f .

o t1e Loos/Lombroso position and I Id rk ount 0 certain aspects

• wou I e to spell out what these are.

1.2.3. The EPidemi%g)' of Tattooing

(;ross!v speaking tattooing and't .

(I ", ' , I s sIster-art scarifi . .

) pre!Jterate tribal societies (2) cation, are charactenstic of , repressed or ma""'; aI' d . . .

more complex state System Th _•••n Ile mmonnes within " s. ere are many e ti b . general case. Lombroso and L '. - xcep ons, ut thiS is the

, oos, by mvoking th

ataVIsm,proyide no satisfacton' > I' . e concept of hereditary

• I . exp ananon for thISstat f lr' .

a. east respond to it and refl"ectit A Iy .. eo aJlalrs, but they do . pure relanVIstanalysis would regard

tattooing cultures in category (I)-in PolYl1esia,lor instance-as haying nothing to do with the tattooing subcultures in category (2). But to do this is to reity cultural boundaries and leads, as we have briefly indicated, to reverse ethnocentrism just as debilitating as the straightforward variety.

Alternatively,we can take this global observation as a starting-point for the elaboration of more positive and plausible hypotheses. Instead of retreating into cultural relativism, one can develop Loos and Lombroso in the following direction. Tattooing in the West is characteristic of marginal subcultures, especially those which suffer repression (e.g. criminals, common soldiers and sailors, lunatics, prostitutes, and so on). As a particular form of bodily mutila-tion, it scems to have an elective affinity for a certain constellation of lifestyles, a certain class of being, which always stands in opposition to the dominant canons of taste in bodily presentation and adornment. (Incidentally, this constellation is precisely reproduced in the Far East, Japan particularly:cL McCallum 1988.)

Outside the West, in tattooing cultures of the preliterate/tribal category, tattooing is not subcultural in this sense, but it is perfectly possible that the lifestyle and values associated with subcultural tattooing in the West continue to be associated with the practice, the only difference being that these are now sociallydominant, constituting the majority culture and no longer the minority one. In other words, these are societies which are dominated by criminals, soldiers, and prostitutes, not societies which repress them. This conclusion, obnoxious to standard anti-ethnocentrism, is not wholly true, as more detailed investigations will reveal, but it cannot be rejected out of hand because it appears to denigrate non-western societies. What this hypothesis does is to run counter to deep-seated middle-class d7Juhts about the moral worth of criminals, soldiers, and prostitutes. That an anthropological hypothesis Should conflict with these moral standards is no reason at all for rejecting it, because it is precisely these deep-seated moral evaluations which constitute ethnocentrism, not the assertion that other people are possibly free of them.

Following this train of thought, it can be suggested that tattooing has a world-'Aide distribution which can be interpreted according to consistent 'epidemiological' principles. In speaking of an 'epidemiology' of tattooing I am invoking Sperber's (1985) proposal for an 'epidemiology of cultural represen-tations'. Sperber's metaphor is an apt one, because tattooing resembles a '3ermatological complaint, and has been the subject of learned dermatological discussions, ycry much as if it were a somatic illness. Sperber suggests that many 'reprcsentations' (he has in mind such common notions, founGin many cultures, as that kings are like lions, or that offerings please the gods) are widespread because they conform to certain basic cognitive requirements of • the human mind.

It is well within the spirit of Sperber's ideas that I should put forward the 'basic schema of tattooing' as a candidate representation for epidemiological


lfc',lllllcnf. 'I atr"nlnc;


indced hwcl )' tt '

~idcrl'll l'omparali\ t:h. whil'h r" ~I' ' ,I a ern 01 m;currenee, when eon-'. " ,,' escm" es t Ie uneven b t 'I h '. ' Pltdlll',lhle, lIlCldence of an illness' th 'I' u ate same tlme

I' ' , ere are u tra-suscept'bl ' I'

W!t're IlIcldenee rises to near 100' • , • I e popu atlons

I " ' per cent (reCIdIVIsts) d" •

atlom who arc hardly CYer touched (" an resIStant popu-has the outstandinu n~erit of 5impIJ'c'ty~mvcrslhty~eachers). Sperber's proposal

, r" ' I. once avmg chart d th d' 'b . pattern of the causal factors I' th e e Ism utlonal

. , "n c structural prop rti· f th cogmtl\ e ap1'aratlls, which arc res ons ·hl. fi e es 0 e human 'catchilll(' li,r some suh,'errs alld ,p fiI C or the representation being

" ' , , . . • not 50 or others.

Alcordlllglv, hanng charted the d' 't'b' f . .

• • IS n utlOn 0 tanoolng e th - I

~l.Ige or on a more n'stril,t"d (r" I) h ' J er on a g obal

, ' • eglona one t e obj - ti ' b

lhscoYl'T\ of the tlcrors "hi.'ll .' I,'h ec ve can e stated as the

" • np am t e observahl d', 'b' ,

Spcrbenan project is Yen mUl'h w'h, "II I e Istn utlOn. ThIS

, " atWI )e anempt'l h ·th

l'l11pJO\lng the epidemiolo'rical met' h " et ~re, WI OUt openly incidenl.I1 to the basic idea SIJerb h,I1' ,or a,m fur~h~r, SinCe this is quite

'h ' er as m mllld. I dIner from S b-'

1.,It er Important respect thou h ' th I per cr m one

, , g ,m at 1m far I" . d

I~ th~t cpi-'1litive psychology provides the kt.v' to th ~s~ CO~Y1nC~ than he

sl.lndmg of all conceivaLle . d'd ' e epIdemIOlogical under-. , " can I ate represent ti Th"

1;lt1ooin!' (considered as a r' _' . a ons, e mCldence of epresentatlOn) certaml)' c t b I . thc basis ,,( am theon in co'ml'tl' k anno e exp allled on

, , • r'" on nown to me thou h "f:

exptun satisfactorih' the distrl'b tl' f th ' g cogmtIve actors may

, ~ U on 0 0 er types of II .

non. Tattooing is also of Course n t " co eC!lve

representa-, " 0 one representati b

01representations and the probl . I on ut a protean family

" , em IS ess a matter of h . th· .

of a smgle specific cultural 'disease' than :>f " . cartIng e inCIdence traceahle ro this 'd'" '. , , e:\plalnlng the varied symptoms

I,ease among the dlnere t I' ,

Polynesia. rattooing is often f"ar too" I n popu a!lons It affects. In

, intimate y embedd d ' I

01technical schemes and symboll'c as " Ii e In a comp ex matrix . SOClatlons or the de f b "

'1!'cprcsclHation from its context, implied in S b' gree 0 _a stractlon of possible, -"one the less, it may be hel ful to J:er er s proposal,. to b~ really CJ'ldemiologicaJ metaphor for purp p f e reader to bear In nund the if nor working-out in det;il. oses 0 general methodological orientation,

if annhing like Sperber's epidemiol 'cal d .

must he that a certain principle of ii:ntitymo e1 IS to work, how~Yer, it rcpresentations: the idea that 'kl'n I'k I: has to apply to the target'

, gs are I e IOns' as fo d' I aI

'), has to COUnt as the same idea ( , un 'n cu tur system repertoire bclonuing to cult I ' representatlon) when encountered in the

O' ura s~stems B or CoN Th' .

the model which is most ll'kely't" , d 'b ,r. IS IS the feature of

I 0 raIse ou ts In wh t I h "d

, may I,law appeared to equivocate betwee~ a , . ave sal up tO,now, lO:lI1el'tlOll. in principle, betvieen the si ifi the POSltlon ~at ~ere IS no CUltural Svstems where it is present while~ hca,nce of tanoolng In any two a ,hasic schema of tattooing W'h" • h ~Ye also repeatedly r,eferred to

IC may pOSSIbly be u· IN'

nlllmenr to deal directh with tl' d I" . mversa " ow IS the . liS C!Cate questlon.

1 have just suggested that tanooing is primarily associated with two socio-logically defined categories (1) marginalized subcultures and (2) preliterate tribal societies. Ihave further hinted that this distribution is explicable because there is elective affinity between tanooing as an expressive mode and certain lifestyle attributes and value orientations, and that these are the common properties of both categories (1) and (2). It would seem to follow that I must have in the back of my mind some universalist interpretation of what tattooing means. It is indeed true that I have a certain general inter-pretative idea, but 1 hope that this need not imply that 1 am hell-bent on forcing all the available ethnographic data, from whatever source, into a single procrustean bed of 'tattooing-theory'.

For a start, I am at present only interested in responding to the overall trend of the evidence, rather than in explaining every single instance of tanooing in one way. For instance, in Polynesia tanooing is not regarded as therapeutic in any obvious way. Nor, as it happens, is therapeutic tattooing much a feature of western practice. But there are parts of south Asia in which the basic technical schema of tattooing is exploited primarily in this con-nection, to the relative exclusion of the kinds of meanings which tanooing has either in the West or in Polynesia. An account of therapeutic tattooing among the Shan (on the Thai/Bunna border)


"recently been published by TaJlnenbaum. She states: 'Shan tattoos are not decorations; they are medicine, in the broad sense, and can be thought of as analogous to vaccina-tions against various diseases' (1987: 693). Here the basic tattooing schema generates a particular metaphoric coding of the therapeutic process, in which the idea of injection (of evi.l-spirit-deflecting or bullet-deflecting sacred power) is involved. This idea is not found everywhere, and not in Polynesia so far as I know. Similarly, the Shan tanooist is either a Buddhist monk or a person of high spiritual standing, and the therapeutic effectiveness of the tanoo depends on L'1ekeeping of religious precepts and food taboos. Merit is absorbed directly via the ink used in the most potent 'five Buddha' tattoo, which contains as an ingredient the exfoliated skin of a monk, This extra-ordinary idea has no parallels elsewhere and, in the tanooing cultures I will be describing later, tattooists are neither attributed with spiritual gifts nor the power to confer them. It is necessary therefore to give full recognition to the rdative autonomy of the complex of ideas underlying Shan tanooing which, as Tannenbaum well demonstrates, are intimately connected to popular Buddhism. None the less, when Tannenbaum uses the following terms to descnbe Phi Lo ('cannibal ogre'), the most powerful of all the Shan's annoury of protective tattoos: 'The tanoo is the body of a monster, rectangular in shape, the face contains a mouth with pointed teeth or, alternatively, the face


l' U)\(JcJ \\JlIi the 'pJril\ hands .. " Phi Lo are said to close off a person,

making- Imn. mmpkleh impervious Ito bullets]', certain Oceanic parallels \.Orne 1f!U11edlalt'l~to nund (e,g, the Marquesas: Von den Steinen 1925). .

JUSl as there IS mort', than one possible reading of the tattooing schema, SO can tit nt' be man~. qUite distinct ways in which tattooing practices can


Illcorporated Into hfrstyks. Just to give one striking example it is worth relllarklll~ on the "lCt that, despite Loos's claim that only criminals and deg-elllT,neS were laltoonl in early twentieth-century Europe, in fact, at !11~t \ny moment, the crowned heads of England, Germany, and Russia were aU (dlscnTtly) tattooed, having each of them submitted to the operation while ILl\clhn~ Jbroad ~lSlOung men (Scutt and Gotch 1974), And so of course IIlTe thousands of per/i:ctly respectable gentlemen who had been 'involved i~ !1nhtan or mercantile anilities which usually involved living away from home hut IIIndl ~\T~e.otherwise lar from criminal. Joseph Banks, who obtained a l.lltuo If! I ahltl, \\as perhaps the original tattooed aristocrat. These indi-\ Iduals, ,lI1d still less Ihe tatlflOed royals, can hardlv be discussed in the same Inms .IS the archet\pal tattooed prisoners of Lombroso's pages. We are

.i1ways ohl~ged


respect the distinction between genuine subcultural tattooing ,llId the kind of ~attooing all aristocrat might acquire, which incorporates a rc!lTcl1c','10lOIl-hte practice, but which cannot be mistaken for the real thing (the 'Prince Hal' syndrome). The Felon, the Aristocrat, and the Good Soldier may all he found to have identical tattoos, but depending on their actual CirCUmstances in li,fe, quitc different linkages may exist between this particular clemen! III the SOCIalpersonae and the remainder of the elements which enter I!1to lts composition, The prisoner's tattoo may best be interpreted as a e()mpO~lellt ,of '~)Ppositional practice' (Hobsbawm 1969), the soldier's as ~r(lllp-IdentlfieatlOn, and the aristocrat's as mark of distinction, to be revealed (ll1h, ,to chosen companions who can be relied on not to misinterpret its sl~'lllhcancc, All these complexities arc possible w:iL~out compromising the Id~a that m each of these cases the same core metaphors arc being invoked for llittcrent purposes.

, I believe that it is possible to do justice to the empirical diversity and mdeed, ambiguity of the ethnographic material relating to tattooing pr;ctices:

\\ I!hout abandoning the notion that tattooing, by virtue of its basic technical

sdlema, i,s comp~rable wherever it Occurs, and that this schema generates mnaphoncal readmgs which, though distinct, arc related to one another, The schema can be taken up and metaphorically exploited in different wavs and for ,IIUcrclH purp~ses, but because it retains its unique character "(Which is ~jehncd IIIphYSIcal/technical terms) in the final analysis all these readings are IIllcrcollnected, and each carries with it all the others as a series of more or Jess prominent overtones, How precisely the tattooing schema is read, and whIch of the possible readings assumes the dominant role and which arc cmcred up. depends on the o\erall Context: the political context, and the

b.~I.iiiliiiiiiii""' ,,,,,,,,,",_, _

culture of the body which is part of it, and the position of the t~tto~d individual in relation to this political milieu. These arc th~ factors ~h,ch ~1l1 be examined in later chapters in relation to tattoomg. 1.he analytical strategy Ipropose is universalistonJy in thiS sense: tattool~g provides a unique source of powerful poIitic~1 metaphors; but I remam, relativist in thinking that this unique source prOVIdes not on~, but ~ numb~r of different metaphoric possibilities, and that these arc explOlte? dl!Terentlal1y, according to the context. To phrase this in terms of ~per~enan Ideas, .1 a~ concerned to chart, within a delimited area, the epidemIOlogy ,not o! one representation but of a family of representations .• ~hic~ arc genencally mtcr-connected but which are individually perfectly dlstmgulshable.

1.3.1. The Skin as a Symbolic Fonn

In order to take this idea further, it is obviously necessary to begin t~ s~ecify the basic tattooing schema in rather greater detail: onl~ the~ will It be possible to evaluate the claims I have made both as to ItS umve,rsah~ and local variability. The best way to approach this topic is via ~ ~onslderatlon of the skin itseif since tattooing (and scarification, body-pamtlng, etc.) are tech-nically pr~duced modifications of this very important but not really very

well-understood organ of the body. ,

Anthropologists and other historians cf culture, in the course of theIr. researches, have amassed enough material to make ~ cross-c~ltural stu~y, of the role of skin as a symbolic form a perfectly feaSible and I~deed en~c~g research project. The material 1 am about to adduce on Polynesian tattoomg IS part of this mass of relevant ethnographic mat~rial. 1 hope that ~OI~e of the interpretative ideas 1 am going to put fo~ard ml~ht also be contnbutlons to a more general understanding of this subJect. But It would be ~e to sa! that, with a few exceptions, anthropologists have not focused on s~ a.s specdically as they might, and that anthropological theory in this area IS stili somewhat

inchoate. , 'Th

Among the outstanding exceptions, to date, are


Turner. s essay on , e Social Skin' (1980) and, less directly on the subJect but stili very releunt, Marilyn Strathern's 'The Self in Self-Decoration' (1979; cf. A. Strath~rn and M. Strathern 1971). More recently, some other writers ?n Melane,sla have emphasized the role of skin as a basic focus of symbohc elaboration (e.g.

o'Hanlon 1983; 1989). ,

1 do not intend to subject this literature to much by way of scrutiny h1:r~, since to do so raises many issues which require detailed .ethn~grap~lc exposition, which would not be germane. However, there is ?ne cruCial pomt which a number of anthropologists have stressed and whlc.h needs to, be highlighted. T. Turner expresses this key idea in the followmg words: the





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