Cultural Appropriation and Tattoos

  • Written By Dan Hunter on January 17, 2022
    Last Updated: January 17, 2022

Tattoos come in all shapes and sizes and many different colors, and it can be a difficult decision when you’re choosing the tattoo to have permanently inked on your body. Some tattoos hold a significant cultural meaning. The decision of which kind of tattoo to have shouldn’t be taken lightly, and you shouldn’t choose a tattoo just because it looks cool.

People use tattoos as a way to express themselves. However, many people aren’t aware of the meaning behind their tattoos and don’t understand the history or culture behind them.

Some tattoos can be culturally appropriative and could cause you issues when disrespecting the culture behind the design. Knowledge, understanding, and respect are vital when looking into tattoo designs and can save you a lot of trouble before having the design permanently inked onto your skin.

We’ll let you know about cultural appropriation and how to avoid any problems with your tattoo design.


What Is Cultural Appropriation?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of cultural appropriation is:

The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.

In basic terms, it means that you take something without permission. You adopt or borrow an element of a culture without acknowledging or crediting the culture source. 

Cultural appropriation is also highlighted when reinforcing stereotypes and not respecting the original meaning of an object or design.

The meaning of the word culture is used when referring to elements associated with ethnicity, religion, location, or social status of people. These elements include symbols, beliefs, language, values, customs, or behaviors. 

Appropriation is when something doesn’t belong to you, and you borrow it without permission. It is based on a lack of knowledge and understanding about the history and culture of the act or object that you’ve used. 

Cultural Appropriation and Tattoos

Cultural appropriation can be tricky to understand, and this issue has become more relevant over the last few years. More people have started to adopt other cultures’ clothing and hairstyles. 

This is the same with tattoo designs that people have seen and liked the look of. They don’t understand the culture and background history of the design, but just know that it looks good and has inspired them.

Cultural appropriation is a controversial and emotive topic. Some people think they can wear whatever they want and have whatever tattoo design they want as long as it’s not offensive.

However, others think that if you’re not a member of that culture, you shouldn’t use any cultural elements. 

Which Tattoos Are Culturally Appropriative?

If you’re looking to get a tattoo but are worried about getting a culturally appropriative design below are some of the tattoo designs that you should avoid:

Ganesha – the elephant headed Hindu god

Ganesha is also known as Vinayaka and Ganapati and is one of the most well-known and respected Hindu gods and deities. The god is revered as the patron of sciences and arts as well as the excellence of wisdom and intellect.

Images of Ganesha can be seen throughout South and Southeast Asia, and the image shouldn’t be used as tattoo inspiration for anyone that’s not of the Hindu faith.

Maori Tribal Tattoos

Traditional Maori tattoos are related to the person’s tribal affiliations and family history. With this in mind, there is no reason for someone who’s not part of the Maori culture to have a Maori tattoo. 

These tattoo designs have been culturally appropriated for many years and, people use the Maori tattoo designs for inspiration for their own tattoos.

Sugar Skull or Calaveras de Azúcar Tattoos

The Sugar skull or Calaveras de Azúcar is a human skull symbol associated with Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. This celebration dates from Aztec culture and honors those who have passed on. 

The skull is a traditional symbol and is seen as culturally appropriative for anyone who is not part of Mexican heritage or culture.

Native American Tattoos

Native American tattoos have been used as a status symbol for many centuries. It’s used to differentiate between tribes or as a symbol of heritage and your ancestral lineage.

These tattoo designs could be seen as culturally appropriative if you’re not of native American heritage. These symbolic designs include Indians in a headdress, dreamcatcher, or arrows. Spirit birds and animals included in the tattoo designs, such as an eagle, bear, or wolf.

Samoan Tribal Tattoos

Samoan people are from the Pacific islands of Polynesia, Fiji, Borneo, and Hawaii and their tribal tattoos belong to them and their cultural heritage. 

As with Maori tribal tattoos, these tattoo designs shouldn’t be worn by anyone who’s not of Samoan heritage. However, they have been culturally appropriated for many years. 

Kanji Tattoos

Japanese Kanji tattoos are popular, but unless you speak or have an understanding of the language and the symbols, they can be seen as offensive and culturally appropriative. 

These tattoos are often misspelled if not completed by someone who understands Kanji, and this is disrespectful for the people of the Kanji culture.

Hindu Goddess Tattoos

Hindu goddesses hold a deep meaning to anyone from this culture, and it’s seen as offensive to have a tattoo design of a Hindu goddess on anyone else. 

The tattoo designs may be stunningly beautiful, but you may get into trouble when visiting India with one of these tattoos.

The History of Cultural Appropriation

The issue of cultural appropriation began in the 16th century when explorers such as James Cook discovered the world and the people who lived there. He was introduced to the art of tattooing by the indigenous people and then took this back to Europe.

Tattoos were initially seen as barbaric, but as the royal family and dignitaries began to travel more, they became souvenirs from exotic foreign lands. 

Nowadays, tattoos are more accessible, as are the designs, and many people don’t understand the background or the culture where the tattoo originally came from. This is where cultural appropriation becomes an issue.

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Many people believe that the use of cultural tattoo designs by those who don’t belong to the cultural heritage is seen as appreciation rather than appropriation. However, there is a big difference between using the design because you like it, and appreciating and understanding the tattoo design.

Appreciation is when someone looks to understand and learn more about another culture to connect with others. Appropriation is when you take an aspect of a culture that’s not your own and use it for your own personal interests.

You can understand more about a culture and cultural appropriation by learning about your own culture and the meaning behind the symbols. How would you then feel if someone used these symbols not as intended but for their own personal use?

Learn more about the various aspects and context of a culture to understand how this can be appreciated rather than appropriated. Sit and listen to the artist who originally created your tattoo design or traditional handmade jewelry; you will learn more about their culture this way. 

Don’t use any cultural symbols offensively. If you are looking to use a cultural symbol for your tattoo, make sure that you do your homework and clearly understand the tattoo’s design and positioning.

Conclusion

Getting a tattoo is a huge commitment, and you want to make sure that the tattoo design and placement that you choose are suitable for you. When you’re looking at tattoo designs, make sure that you do your research before committing to the process. 

There is lots of information available online nowadays, so there is no excuse for not knowing if the design is affected by cultural appropriation or is acceptable to be used without causing any offense. 

If you don’t know about the culture or history behind the tattoo design that you choose, the best thing you can do is take a look online. Don’t just choose a tattoo design because it looks cool; most people choose designs because of the meaning behind them.

By doing your research and understanding the meaning and history behind a design, you will reduce the chances of causing any offense with your tattoo. Knowledge and understanding will prevent you from getting a culturally appropriate tattoo.

We hope you enjoyed our guide and are now more informed regarding cultural appropriation and tattoos.