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Michael Parkes, Contributor

Whether you love or hate tattoos, they are a portal into the psyche and history of the people who get inked. Tribes, prisons, countries, pirates, sports teams, relationships with lovers, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters are all present in the portraits people paint on their skin. They are a foundation of the tattoo culture and the search for identity for a large number of people on this mother earth of ours. The faces of people of the past, symbols of significance, landscapes of cities, and countries are all wonderfully depicted through art on skin. You only need to take a moment to ask people why they selected the type of tattoo to understand a bit more about that personal belief, life experiences, or identity.

The tattoo has been a part of our history from the beginnings of the known history of man with the recent discovery of a tattoo on an Egyptian mummy this approximately 5,200 years old. Even though it had been in a museum for 100 years, the tattoos were only just noticed using infrared light, with academics seeking to understand more about the mummy’s identity through the symbolism of the tattoos.

Previously, all that academics and museum visitors alike had been able to see were faint, dark smudges on the man’s right arm. But recent infrared examination has revealed the marks are in fact tattoos depicting two animals – a giant wild bull and a wild North African goat-like creature. It is likely the man wore his tattoos in order to help project an image of strength and macho virility. Throughout much of the ancient world, both types of animal were often associated with male power, virility, fertility, and creation.

Depending on your age or origins, you will have different perceptions or associations to people with tattoos up both arm sleeves, neck, or back. Are they motorcycle gang members, rock stars, military members, tribe members, or prison inmates? The stories we were told in the past about tattoos led to fear about getting inked in visible locations because it could impact your ability to get an office job, be a model, or becoming a business leader. So it left tattooing as a subculture and symbolism of rebellion as a way of showing others what is on the inside, by inking it on your skin. Now that it is accepted as a part of pop culture, it is common to see tattoos on legs, arms, heads, butts, and fingers on a stroll around any urban center, movies, advertising, or television series such as Miami Ink.

  Tattoo artists became celebrities. Artists like Ami James, Tommy Montoya, Kat von D, and Megan Massacre became famous for their appearances on these shows. Their art was suddenly the focus of mainstream media and their skills were known to all. Everyone wanted to get inked by them. So, naturally, other celebrities started getting inked by them. Rihanna, David Beckham, Angelina Jolie, and Adam Levine, are several examples of mainstream media icons that have tattoos and openly display them.

Now there is a proliferation of tattoo parlors across the world in our megacities, European urban centers, and local tourist spots point to a market for urban entrepreneurs to use their creative skills in small businesses to service what must be an increasing demand. These entrepreneurs are often covered from head to toe in tattoos. They are well-educated in the artist’s style origins, use of color or not, use of a machine or handpicked, hygiene, safety, and of course, the skills of local running a local business. The tip here is to ask questions of your tattooist to test their knowledge of safety, even if to at least check if the ink they use if toxic or not.

  …the general health warning is that tattoo inks are provided by a sector of the cosmetics industry which is unregulated and there for standards and quality vary widely. Toxic ingredients are quite common, and depending on what type of inks the consumer uses in a tattoo may have long-ranging effects on their health, and this is not often considered when the decision to get tattooed is made.

The question to be asked is what is driving this demand, is just that now pop culture, media, and marketing has made it ‘cool’? Is it because of some sadomasochistic desire for pain and reward? Is it about differentiation and a sense of belonging to a tribe? Or is it a hunt for identity as every new tattoo tells the outside more about what is going on inside? These questions lead us to examine why do people choose to get a tattoo? Why that image? Why another skull, knife, tree, yin/yang, pistol, flower, Buddha, sun, or moon?

Here, Carl Jung might offer an insight into the symbolism of images chosen. Firstly, let’s assume the majority of people do not involve their psycho-analyst in the process of discernment when selecting the image to be inked and could, therefore, be considered an unconscious act. Meaning that the images people have tattooed could represent a part of their unconscious identity manifest in the real world. However, rather than examine, explore, test, and look into the symbolism of the image, it is left on the skin as a constant reminder. It is never integrated as an identity one wants to own or discard.

  I frequently encountered tattoos with a mandala symbol. This is exactly the symbol Jung dreamed, drew and embraced when he descended into his unconscious, a journey captured in the “Red Book.” Jung considered the mandala an ancient symbol, representing psychological formations, transformation, and eternal re-creation. He saw the mandala as a symbol of self; it was a circular pattern that contained design motifs which were universal in nature, across cultures and time. The mandala represented the wholeness of personality.


The shift in tattoo culture from historical tribal significance to symbols or sub-culture and now into the mainstream pop culture means it is now in the arena of social status, such as a clothing brand and susceptible to social engineering through marketing. So whether you believe you are your tattoos or they are you, you believe they demonstrate significant events or symbols of your identity, be sure to question what the symbolism says about you.  Remember, images have meaning across time, and this meaning can be associated across time, in the case of the Egyptian mummy 5,200 years. So what will your canvass say as a carcass about you and your society if preserved and discovered in the year 7,218?

About the Author

Michael Parkes is a staff writer for Waking Times, the author of the blog, Michael works at the intersection of environment, sustainability, food production, nutritional impact, and human behavior. He is the Director of Sustainable Behaviours for The Global Leadership Practice, a trained Organisational Analysis Consultant, the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies, UK; Masters of Environment, Bachelor of Medical Sciences, Post Graduate Diploma of Applied Science; Australia. Practitioner Ashtanga yoga; Digital Creative and Global Citizen.


This article (Tattoo Culture and the Search for Identity) was created and published by Waking Times and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Michael Parkes and


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