The Human Canvas

Cultural Parallels

Modern tattoos are an outlet for self-expression. A symbol of devotion toward a loved one or a hate group, an act of empowerment after a mastectomy, or a drunken mistake, tattoos speak to our sense of individuality. Though historically used to dehumanize Jewish people during the Holocaust, tattoos today are generally viewed as a permanent brand of free will.

In certain civilizations, however, body art functions as a link to one’s culture. Painfully carved into the flesh, the permanence and prominence of Samoan tatau is an enduring nexus between ancient and modern tradition. Tatau are physical manifestations of a person’s mana, their spiritual influence or life force. Similarly, despite their impermanence, Indian mehndi (henna tattoos) are culturally significant. A representation of the sun, mehndi is a Vedic custom meant to evoke the awakening of one’s inner light. Henna body art is an ancient medium known by many names within many cultures. Though commonly attributed to India, the art form has also been practiced throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Despite minor variations in customary style, henna is frequently applied in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

Likewise, while tatau is a Polynesian tradition once practiced in Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, it is now most commonly associated with Samoa alone. The practice declined throughout Polynesia in the 19th century as a result of the emergence of Western missionaries and their Christian beliefs. Tatau was completely eradicated from Tonga and has failed to reemerge, on the basis that the procedure is unsafe and unchristian. The people of the Samoa Islands were unique for their uninterrupted preservation of traditional tatau.

Excruciating, and dangerous for the risk of infection, the continued practice of the traditional tatau process is a testament to the significance of ritual. Some modern Samoans have turned to contemporary Western tattoo machines, though master tattoo artists argue that the resulting tattoos are not authentic. These artists, called tufuga tatatau, are responsible for determining the placement and design of traditional tatau. Samoans believe that patron gods bestow tufuga tatatau with their skills, and as such the artists are revered and well compensated. Tufuga tatatau use handmade tools constructed of animal bones, shells, and wood. Driven by short taps from a mallet called the sausau, the au works like an adze, to carve out patterns in the flesh. The au consists of serrated bone combs affixed to a small turtle shell, with a bamboo hilt.

Soga’imiti with pe'a tatau

Soga’imiti with pe’a tatau. Photo credit: Todd Hunter McGaw.

All tatau are rites of passage, though some are of greater symbolic importance. Covering mid-torso to knees, and meant to represent bat wings enclosing the legs, the pe’a is the most extensive tatau. Men who complete the pe’a are henceforth referred to as soga’imiti, and are commended for their commitment to their extended family and heritage. Historically, this demonstration of courage was required of any man seeking the chief title, matai. While malu encircle women’s thighs, perhaps the most significant tatau for women is the lima. Performed on the hands, lima were necessary for any woman who wished to serve the ceremonial narcotic drink called kava.

Mamanu, or traditional patterns, are overwhelmingly geometric. The placement of a certain shape on the body can alter the design’s meaning. The tufuga tatatau who determine the outcome of the tattoo act as a guide, transitioning the tatau recipient from one stage of their life to the next. Tatau procedures are ceremonial events that can take upwards of three months to complete. Individuals are not tattooed alone; instead two or more people undergo the process at once.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Like traditional tatau, mehndi application is often a group event. Women from every generation of a family gather to adorn their hands and feet before holidays or major life events. One of the most popular applications is the Bridal Mehndi, performed before a wedding. Traditionally performed in the past by members of the Nai caste – an economically and educationally disadvantaged group considered an Other Backward Class by the Indian Government – modern mehndi artistry is a lucrative business for women of any social class.

Unlike tatau, the mehndi application itself can be completed in one session. However, both processes rely on curing, where there is an element of time involved. The tatau may take a year to heal and set properly, while the final color of a mehndi depends on a gradual oxidation over the course of one to three days. After being drawn on the skin from the tip of a cone, the design is washed in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar, and left to set. The henna itself is derived from a thick paste of mashed henna plant leaves. In fact, tatau and mehndi processes are both deeply rooted in nature. As previously mentioned, the tools a tufuga tatatau uses are all organic, and much like the natural henna leaves, tatau ink is a composite of soot from burned candlenut, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and other plant-based liquids.

Tatau traditions have been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. According to Samoan mythology, two sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga brought the art of tatau to Samoa after a visit to Fiji. Their original tools were made of human bones and their ink was human blood. Though the tatau is old, the henna tradition is perhaps thousands of years older. Hopefully, both traditions will endure long into the future.

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What England Means to Me

Corfu to Athens

I started this blog in the middle of the story, as though it were some sort of Homeric epic. While I can hardly claim to have accomplished any heroic feats, my journey spanned several nations and exposed me to new cultural experiences. It was pretty epic in my book. Towards the end of the trip, on the ferry ride from Corfu to Athens, I watched the water trail behind the ship like white, frothy fingers splaying across the surface of the Ionian Sea. I was transfixed by the way the water churned in the ferry’s wake, the way it was pushed away after being pulled in. It hit me then that I wasn’t like the water, I wasn’t violently crashing and quickly subduing. As I said, traveling isn’t a Herculean task, but I was on the cusp of completing a goal I’d had for years. I’d seen London, this remarkable city that always felt a fingertip out of reach, and then I’d ventured even further.

Do not attempt. London phone boxes smell like public urinals.

Do not attempt. London phone boxes smell like (and most likely function as) public urinals.

Bobby and Ben

Bobby and Ben

Ceramic Poppy War Memorial Installation by Paul Cummins. 1914-2014.

Ceramic Poppy War Memorial Installation by Paul Cummins. One hundred years: 1914-2014.

Though I had never set foot on UK soil before last year, I have always felt connected to England. Growing up, my parents subjected me to the cruelest of first world kid problems. They refused to get cable. I had no insight as to what Clarissa explained and no earthly clue who Stick Stickly was until I entered the fourth grade. Consequently, I watched a lot of British comedies on PBS. I loved Keeping Up Appearances for Hyacinth Bucket’s oblivious social mobility aspirations, Red Dwarf for the tongue-in-cheek approach to science fiction, and Mr. Bean for the largely silent, bumbling antics. For years, all I had access to were these Britcoms and others like Absolutely Fabulous, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, The Thin Blue Line, Blackadder, Chef!, and The Vicar of Dibley. These shows informed my sense of humor, and in a way they ostracized me from my classmates on my own terms.

These shows were a portal to a world where I wasn’t obligated to explain myself. My entire life, I’ve watched people peer at me through narrowed eyes as they try to resolve my provenance. My tan skin confuses people; it makes it difficult for them to figure out where I belong on their internal value scale. It’s exhausting to always have to answer the same degrading question every time I meet someone new. “What are you?” Human doesn’t suffice as an answer, and neither does American. They aren’t interested in my nationality, but they also can’t be bothered to sit through a lecture on the implications of African diaspora and intersectionality. “No, what are you really? Where are you from?” It doesn’t matter that I was born in America, that’s not the answer they’re looking for.

The mind is always calculating. People tend to subconsciously box you up when they meet you, so they can assess your worth. Sycophants might wonder, “How much respect do I owe this person?” They want to mentally place you on a hierarchical rung, so they can keep tabs on those who are of value and dismiss those who they deem worthless. Granted, we can’t all be friends, but I am suspicious of those who regard ethnicity to be of greater import than identity when exploring affinity. Being biracial, I straddle the line between being black and white every day. I am frozen in a constant state of cultural liminality, where I am not quite Jamaican, not quite Irish, and yet not immediately accepted as an American. Growing up, I was told I couldn’t possibly be black because you got that good hair though, and I couldn’t claim to be white because wait, you don’t wash your hair every day – that’s gross. My hair has always defined me, for reasons I can’t understand.  

My hair, doing what it wants.

My hair, doing what it wants.

As a kid, I eagerly crossed the threshold of any door that helped me escape the marginalization I felt. Steeped in history and culture, modern England was as much a fantasy realm to me as any kingdom plagued by dragons or evil wizards. Britcoms, though rooted in reality, held the same appeal as the books I loved that were set in fictional universes. After following these shows for years, and tirelessly cheering on Chelsea FC from the confines of my home, I think I had this deluded notion that I belonged. It was pathological, like stalker fan levels of compatibility false logic.

Getting from Heathrow to my hotel was easy. I studied a map and plotted a course. Problems arose, however, once I left the hotel. I had no idea where I was going. Not one clue. Equipped with a checklist of sights to see and places to go, organized by general location, I set off looking for an entrance to the Underground. After walking a considerable distance based on the advice of a street sign, I began to worry that I’d gone too far, or that the sign was posted as a cruel social exercise in futility. I determined to ask for directions from the next moderately friendly-looking woman I saw, so as to minimize my chances of being abducted. (Because I’m too crafty to get capital T Taken, duh.) I spotted two petite girls around my age, and politely veered into their path, not unlike a crazy person.

British queues are no joke. I waited in line to use a trash bin in Westminster Station.

British queues are no joke. I waited in line to use a trash bin in Westminster Station.

I blanked. “Where is the…underground…station?” I prayed they would assume English wasn’t my first language. They pointed across the street and gave me a bless her heart smile before wishing me good luck. When I got back to the hotel room later that night, I told my two Australian roommates. One laughed, but the other corrected me.

“You should have asked where the tube was,” she haughtily explained. I rolled my eyes at my own foolishness, nodded, and repeated tube to myself. “No. The CH-ube,” she stressed.

That one stupid word peeled back the protective veneer of my illusory British identity and exposed me for what I truly was – a stranger in a foreign land. Suddenly this country that had always felt like a second home became distant. I was physically in England, but I finally felt fully rooted in America. Once again, I felt a transatlantic detachment from my surroundings. You cannot choose where you come from, but if you’re lucky you can choose where you go. I’m not done with London yet. The next time I go, I won’t feel like an outsider, I’ll simply be picking up where I left off.

YES, YES, YES at the British Library

YES, YES, YES at the British Library

Buckingham Palace gate

Buckingham Palace gate

King's Cross Station, Platform 9¾ . I want his job.

King’s Cross Station, Harry Potter Platform 9¾ . I want his job.

St. Pancras

St. Pancras Station and Hotel

St. Pancras

St. Paul's, a beautiful cathedral with a storied history

St. Paul’s, a beautiful cathedral with a storied history

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral, from the Millennium Bridge

St. Paul’s Cathedral, from the Millennium Bridge