Inscribing the Body [Long Blog Post]

Schildkrout, Enid. 2004. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol.33, pp.319-344.

Angelina Jolie, Wanted

Tattoos have been a hot debate in recent years; yet so many people now have them in today’s society.  The term of inscription that is introduced in “Inscribing the Body” includes concepts from a post-structuralistic view, a more metaphorical concept than just the physical modification of an individual’s flesh.

It was interesting to me to read and discover that most cultures consider cosmetic surgery to be included in the inscription process.  People ask more so, “the question of how skin becomes, rather than simply is,” (qtd. in Schildkrout, 2004, p. 320).  This statement was very striking to me.  It is also very true.  In recent decades, tattoos have become more and more prevalent in the American culture.  I myself have two tattoos that have great significance to me, and I am not finished with them yet.  I viewed my body in the way that this statement is phrased:  how my body will become.

Taylor, a renowned Anthropologist, compared tattooing to other forms of art across the different cultures.  “Body art represent a sustained effort to reverse the dematerialization of art by making the body matter” (qtd. in Schildkrout, 2004, p. 320).  Even touching base on reincarnation, inscriptions on the body “redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin” (qtd. in Schildkrout, 2004, p. 320).  In implying that tattoos introduce a closer relationship between oneself and the world that an individual lives in, it proposes that an individual is not at his/her closest with nature unless meaningful inscriptions are permanently applied to one’s body.

Given the fact that tattoos are more of a symbol of representation, the psychology of the mind has risen to be an important aspect of what lies within inscription.  Freud also pitches in a little psychology with the anthropological viewpoint in saying, “perceptions and memories are entangled inside and through the body’s surface” (qtd. in Schildkrout, 2004, p. 321).  This implies that the inscriptions, scars, or even wrinkles – anything that physically stands out on an individual represents how other people perceive them.  The memories that surface on the skin, such as scars or wrinkles, are natural, physical alterations to the skin that were once previously encased within one’s body (Schildkrout, 2004, p.321).

Lévi Strauss (1963) implored that inscriptions on the body were also imprints on the mind and indentations within the soul.  These imprints were the history, traditions, and praises of that individuals culture (Schildkrout, 2004, 321).  Gell (1993), who studied tattoos in Polynesia, introduced the idea of a second skin.  Essentially, the idea is that once an individual is tattooed, another life is created known as a subsidiary self.  With the second skin come new ancestors, spirits, and rulers.

“Not only does the tattooed skin negotiate between the individual and society and between different social groups, but also mediates relations between persons and spirits, the human and the divine” (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 321).

Second skin also includes body-paint, war-paint, wigs, etc., as well as tattoos.

Historically, tattooing was seen as branding, marks from scars, and tattooing was even used as a form of punishment for the Chinese (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 323).  They were used to identify slaves, prisoners, and convicts.  Gangs quickly turned tattoos from “branding” to a sense of “unity.”  Early historian John Bulwer’s work of Anthropometamorphosis, written in 1653 brought up the notion that currently is a big controversy to Christian’s.  “Bulwer compared the body art of exotic foreigners to the ideal of ‘natural’ bodies made in God’s image” (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 324).  People view, historically, tattoos as being very sinful, volatile, and even savage because people were “falsifying what was made in God’s image” (2004, p. 324).  Bulwer also emphasized that makeup, corsets, and changing one’s body in an unnatural way was also doing the same thing.

Now, we go a little deeper into history.  The Bible now reveals that tattooing was a little more than a cultural practice.  MacQuarrie’s intensive research on,

“Medieval Irish Literature, show that not only is there evidence for tattooing as a cultural practice, but also that God’s word and work were passed on through generations through tattoos inscribed on the bodies of Saints, like the stigmata on St. Francis of Assisi.”  (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 325)

The art that has appeared on the bodies of both men and women were also incorporated into pottery, artwork, clothing, blankets, staffs, and many other things that were of great significance to people of various tribes.  These showed that not only does the culture itself matter to these individuals, but it is important for the people to openly express the meanings and importance of their culture.  Pottery was something that proved to be of great importance and symbolic meaning to various cultures – and it was proved during funeral ceremonies.  “Funeral ceremonies include ritual pottery incised with scarification marks. At the end of the ceremony the pots are smashed to allow the ancestral spirit to safely move on to the afterlife” (as cited in Schildkrout, 2004, p. 325).

I find this ritual of burial very fascinating because it does not allow for immense sadness and mourning.  The idea of smashing pottery that has markings of the culture and possibly some illustrations that were tattoos on the individual encases a sense of moving on.  This notion does not allow for drawn out weeping and over-dramatized speeches or ceremonies.

In this photo to the left, it shows a Sudanese elderly woman with a scarification tattoo on her face.  The scarification technique involved actually cutting the skin off so that once it healed, it would heal as a scar, showing the design that was cut into the skin.

In the photo to the right, this is one piece of pottery made in Nigeria.  This would be some of the types of pottery that would be smashed during the funeral ceremony.  The etchings of design on this piece are what would considered scarification on pottery to represent whoever was being buried.

As tattoos quickly began to modernize, millions of people began to gravitate towards getting tattoos, whatever the meaning of them may or may not be.  For me, this article was very interesting to read because I have very meaningful tattoos and I learned a lot of new information.  No matter how much my parents hate tattoos, mine have a very intimate meaning and I will never regret them.


About lhitt

Senior at ODU. Working to become a police officer in North Carolina.
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