African American Interpersonal communication Essay through Body Art
Tattoos make an individuals self definition more complete by visually
communicating gang membership, status, rank and personal accomplishment (Phelan 277).
Tattooing and body piercing has been practiced in almost every culture around the world,
and for thousands of years. (Greif, Hewitt 367) The African American culture use body art
as a method of nonverbal interpersonal communication. The word tattoo became part of
the English vocabulary in 1769 when James Cook visited the Pacific Island of Tahiti.
Both sexes, he wrote, paint their bodies.
Tattow as it is called in their language, this is
done by inlaying the color of black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible.
Some have ill designed figures of men birds or dogs, the women generally have this figure
Z simply on every joint of their fingers and toes (Shukla 234). Tattooing and body
piercing are increasing, especially among young college students. Yet in Western culture,
tattooing and piercing often have been considered taboo, perhaps stemming from the
Bibles Old Testament citing in Leviticus 19:28 and Deutronomy 14:1 that prohibits the
marking of ones flesh in celebration of other gods ( Greif, Hewitt 367).
Tattoos reflect a persons past career objectives . To analyze the moral careers
communicated by these tattoos, we identify and elaborate upon five distinct phases in a
prison gang moral career: pre initiate, initiate, member, veteran, and supervisor ( Phelan
The major reasons tattoos are given are traditionally, body art has served to attract the
opposite sex, boost self esteem, ward off or invoke spirits, indicate social position or marital
status, identify with a particular age or gender group or mark a rite of passage, such as puberty or
marriage. It is this sort of strictly prescribed, highly ritualistic decoration that Beckwith and Fisher
depict in African ceremonies. We have tried to show how body art is relevant to every stage of
development, from birth to death, says Fisher. But while the traditional, often spiritually based
versions of bod mod are quickly disappearing among indigenous peoples, the impulses behind
personal adornment remain unchanged: attracting a mate, signaling status, declaring allegiance to
a group( Lemonick 75). For men, the tattoo is a public identity symbol, and their first is usually on
their arm. Women reserve their tattoo for a more intimate audience, and they usually choose their
For most, the tattoo is symbolic of their individuality and having withstood a
painful and exciting event. Tattooees enjoy being noticed, although they reveal their
tattoos selectively ( Davis 471). Anthropologists describe body art or modification as a
way of identifying oneself as being a part of a group, a tribe, or a gang: of denoting ones
financial status or marital status: or even as a way of beautifying the body (Grief, Hewitt
Implicit here is the theme of deliverance–the redemptive passage from pain and
uncertainty wherein the tattoo serves as both silent witness and lucky charm. Yet sailors
and navel men have long applied symbols to their bodies, in an almost magical way, to
guide their vessels and protect themselves, to deflect the temptations of a faraway
women and even alleviate the pain of flogging. Soldiers, bikers and underworld gangs
continue to adorn themselves with a range of symbols and ritual inscriptions: badges of
rank, rites of passages, emblems, slogans and whimsical vision. And as
appalling and savage as the tattooed prisoner appeared to 19th century criminologists, who
wrestled to catalogue the criminal condition, it was well understood that the expansive
repertoire of marks and mutilations universally made in prison bore than idle distraction.
Professor Cesare Lombroso, a leading criminal theorist of the 1890s, cited vengeance ,
vanity and superstitions as prime motivations behind these so called ideographic
hieroglyphs. It was well accepted that tattoo represented a cryptic form of expression and
a way of overcoming a fierce and unfortunate plight (Crockett 15).
For many centuries, body piercings have been evident. Many from pirates to Roman
Centurions, have had body piercing– sometimes symbolizing royalty , bravery, virility, or as a rite
of passage (Greif, Hewitt 368). Why do people alter their body, sometimes painfully and
permanently with body piercing? Enid Schildkrout, curator .