Although Western culture continues to look at body art as a radical movement, civilizations such as Polynesia have been practicing body modification for centuries.
With the slow acceptance of body art throughout Western culture in recent years, the Major Works and Major Issues in Art (IDH 4000) summer class decided to examine four civilizations that have these practices integrated in their lifestyles.
Each semester, the students of the IDH 4000 course choose an art-related topic and capture what they have learned in the form of a presentation. The class prepared a demonstration of their analysis and displayed their research Tuesday in the Marshall Center. The material will be archived in the honors program to show how this particular class viewed the topic.
Senior Carol SubiÃ±o said body art was chosen as the topic because everyone was interested in the subject, but knew little about it.
“Every culture in the world practices some type of body art,” SubiÃ±o said. “The way it’s expressed is very individual. Everything means something else.”
The class decided to focus on Western, Polynesian, Indian and West African cultures for their research. Each group provided a PowerPoint presentation, posters of their findings and invited guest speakers.
The Polynesian group focused on tattooing, embalming and dancing as a form of body art. They adorned their table with grass skirts and an example of an embalmed head, complete with a wig, and explained the actual word “tattoo” originated from Polynesia.
“Tattooing is about pain,” said Eric Jarabak, a junior who took the class.
In Polynesia, tattooing is a form of social and economic rank, as well as a source of pride. According to Colin Arnold, a junior, the tattooist is a trusted person, and the process of getting a tattoo is a ceremony in itself.
Arnold said the warrior class received tattoos for one reason – pain. The more painful the tattoo, the more fierce the warrior was thought to be. Tattoos were also received for instances such as a lost friend.
“They could scare away enemies if they were pretty well marked,” Arnold said.
The Polynesian group also explained the process of embalming heads.
“Body art doesn’t always include what happens during life,” said junior Sandhya Nicholas.
Nicholas said embalmed heads were mostly of chiefs or warriors, although at times women and children were embalmed if they were from a family of high status. Both friends and enemies’ heads were embalmed, although the mouths of enemies heads were open, showing fear, and friends’ mouths were stitched shut in a pout.
As a form of temporary tattoos, the Indian group provided a demonstration on henna designs. Jennifer Clayton, a junior, learned how to apply henna designs for the class and provided the service to guests of the demonstration. She said henna was used primarily for wedding and wedding ceremonies, and is presented to the bride by the groom’s family. In some Indian cultures, the groom’s initials are integrated in to the design, and if the groom finds his initials, he will be the dominant partner in the marriage, and vice versa.
“A woman who has henna on her hand does no chores until it’s gone,” Clayton said.
The henna ink is derived from the myrtle plant, and Clayton said the recent popularity of henna designs in the United States is due to Madonna and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt. Each design is a representation and may include flowers, paisleys or animals.
The West African group focused primarily on scarification and such practices as the stretching of the lip, which was done away with after British colonization. Similar to the Polynesian culture, the West Africans believed the more pain one could withstand, the better he or she was seen in society.
The group hung life-size cutouts from the ceiling diagramming the different areas women were scarred, along with an explanation for each group of scars and what they meant. According to Jennifer Woodard, junior, these scars were a prerequisite for marriage.
The most important scars were a total of 81 cuts on the inside of each thigh, organized into nine rows of nine horizontal cuts which were each one inch long, which were the most important scars in sexual excitation.
“Africa is always viewed as a continent with no culture,” Woodard said. “There’s so much from that continent that it can’t be seen as cultureless.”
The class also focused on dance as a form of body art. Nicholas performed a dance for the presentation and explained that each movement had a meaning. She said women adorned themselves with red ink to amplify the movements of the hands and feet, along with bracelets and other jewelry to add to the music.
“(Indian) dance events start in the early evening and go well into the night,” Nicholas said.
And as the newest culture to embrace body art, the Western group focused on tattoos, piercings and plastic surgery with emphasis on stereotypes these body modifications may bring. Their display included a diagram titled “Is it going to hurt?” of the human body with color-coded areas of how much pain would be involved in getting a tattoo.
Jayme Whitaker and Lindsay Webber of Valhalla, a tattoo and piercing shop located in Ybor City, came to speak with guests about their profession and to elaborate upon the Western style of body art.
Webber said all ages and cultural groups look to get tattooed and pierced. Whitaker added that when a patron comes in wanting a tattoo, he makes it into a research project, asking the person why they want the tattoo and its significance.
“It’s completely safe, as long as it’s done in a sterile environment,” Whitaker said.
They also said Western tattoos began with pin-up girls and later moved to tribal-style art. Today, they said tattoos are taking on characteristics of all different cultures, as well as becoming brighter in color and more realistic.
Becky Vanschoick, senior, said she focused on plastic surgery as a form of Western body art because many people have the surgery performed to enhance their beauty. Vanschoick said she had a breast reduction at the time she began to take the class and decided to incorporate her personal experience into the presentation.
“If you want to get it done, talk to a surgeon first,” she said. While showing the similarities and uniqueness between the four cultures, the IDH 4000 class presented the history of each group while educating guests about common misconceptions.
“People tend to think of body art as negative,” SubiÃ±o said. “If you want to make things more beautiful, what’s easier than your own body?”