Oscar is a white guy living in Austin, Texas, with a penchant for Japanese-style tattoos. A huge black and white dragon arcs over his left shoulder. The dragon's scales subtly change shape as he moves, and the beast's eyes are beady and glaring, nestled below spiked eyebrows and above bared fangs. The tattoo is lightly shaded, darker around the perimeter of the dragon, with a background of stylized leaves and waves that add depth and complexity to the piece.
What Oscar knows about the origins of Japanese tattooing, he likes: "It's associated with outlaws and outcasts—there were all these merchants and gangsters in Japan that were shunned from the societal hierarchy. Some people think the tradition began as a way for those merchants to show off their wealth privately, and for gangsters to mark themselves as part of a counterculture."
He delayed getting this particular tattoo for a long time, thinking that "it had to have a lot of meaning." But the more time he spent around tattoo artists, the more he "realized it's more about the art—you don't have to 100 percent understand the context to appreciate something."
Oscar asked that his real name not be used for this story, but says he's OK with the "risk" associated with his choice of tattoo. "People might be offended by it, people might be scared by it, and I like that—I like the fact that it can be polarizing or controversial. I ultimately got it because it was something I liked and I didn't feel like I had to justify it beyond that."
According to some figures on the activist left, hoop earrings should only be worn by black and Latina women. Don't even think about donning a feathered headdress at a music festival—those don't belong to you. And if your child wants to dress up as the Disney character Moana for Halloween, beware, unless she's of Polynesian descent. Cultural appropriation—co-opting specific elements of a culture that is not your own—is the term used to condemn these offenses. It has become a major battleground for the social justice movement.
But what happens when the ink embedded in your skin is unacceptable to polite society? As a form of public art and personal adornment, tattooing has a long history of cultural borrowing. Some popular tattoos have historical lineages so tangled it's hard to tell who is appropriating whose heritage. For tattoo artists and clients, it may not be easy to separate art from politics, the deeply personal from the public and political.
Every tattoo carries the risk of regret. But in the current ultra-sensitized atmosphere, that regret can set in quickly.
Paul Smith at Bijou Studio in Austin, Texas, has been tattooing for 15 years, specializing in traditional American and Japanese-style tattoos. He's covered in ink, all the way down to his hands, with a large black scorpion reaching close to his fingers.
Sitting outside his clean and well-decorated East Austin shop, tucked between grungy dive bars and new-construction apartment buildings, Smith explains that copying and hybridization are deeply embedded in tattoo history. "Whatever tattoos someone got halfway around the world, that was copied in a sort of cross-pollination," he says. Sailors used to travel from port to port collecting evidence of their travels on their skin.
About 90 percent of sailors in the late 19th century sported tattoos, History Today estimates. Since seamen were among the rare commuters to distant lands, they were the ones who observed—and borrowed from—other cultures. Their tattoos were often nautical in theme: anchors, fully rigged ships, or swallows for every 5,000 miles traveled. Some sailors were adorned with gaudy, colorful Hula girls to remember trips to Hawaii or pin-up girls to remember ladies from back home. Others chose "hold fast" knuckle tattoos, a reference to staying steady—physically and mentally—while out at sea, or large, ornate beasts like dragons to represent trips to China.
Tattooing has leaked from the individualistic fringes to the mainstream over the last couple of decades. The first Playboy Playmate with a visible tattoo debuted her body art in 1993, and Mattel released an "inked" Barbie doll in 2011.
As tattoos become more common, they're giving the easily offended new fodder to rail against. But it also means the number of human canvases for the art form has grown.
Japanese tattooing flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, although some still saw it as the mark of a criminal. In the 19th century, the Japanese government prohibited the practice, but white people still sought it out, and the industry thrived underground. Although the ban was lifted in 1948, many Japanese once again saw tattoos (irezumi) as reserved for yakuza—gangsters—not law-abiding citizens. Now the government classifies tattooing as a medical practice (since needles are inserted into skin) and has required artists to hold licenses since 2001.
Without fervent support from the West and a constant influx of foreign (and mostly white) customers, the intricate tattoos that developed during the Edo period might not have survived.
"When the ink was still bumpy on my skin, a good friend of mine with Cherokee heritage asked me, 'So what tribe exactly is your dream catcher from, Kathleen?' And that was the moment I felt my first pang of shame." A melodramatic 2015 xoJane confessional features a young woman explaining "what my ill-advised dream catcher tattoo taught me about youth, regret, and cultural appropriation." Her mistake is presented as a cautionary tale. Meanwhile the Tumblr blog Your Tattoo is Racist doles out bite-sized screeds against white people bearing Maya Angelou quotes, mandalas, Buddhas, and yin-yangs.
But diatribes against cultural appropriation—the idea that a specific practice is sacred and cannot be replicated, experimented with, or even made fun of—miss the mark. In the words of writer Salman Rushdie, "The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes."
Symbols evolve over time, and nothing is ever fully "authentic," since authenticity can mean something different depending on who you ask. Unfortunately, activists have condemned the borrowing and sharing of other cultures, instead of seeing it as something that preserves a symbol and guarantees its use for years to come. As the novelist Lionel Shriver put it at the Brisbane Writers Festival: "Those who embrace a vast range of 'identities'…are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other people's attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft."
Nobody owns his or her culture. All practices are impure, borrowed from distant places at some point or another. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality: The tradition of Japanese tattooing survived in the West after being banned in the East, skull decorations didn't even originate in Mexico, and sailors carried designs with abandon, from port to port all over the world.
Human beings have been repurposing stolen symbols for centuries, and breathing new life into them. As Bijou Studio's Smith put it,"People catch shit for having dreadlocks or braids, but you probably had Vikings that had matted-up hair. Are you gonna have to figure out where everything on the planet originated before you say it or listen to it or wear it?"
"I don't make moral judgments on the tattoos people bring to me. It's a personal thing," says Sarah Koopman of Mom's Tattoos, also in Austin. "I'm pretty libertarian when it comes to that: Do what you do. You're not messing with me, I don't care."
"People catch shit for having dreadlocks or braids," one tattoo artist notes, "but you probably had Vikings that had matted-up hair. Are you gonna have to figure out where everything on the planet originated before you say it or listen to it or wear it?"
"All art is forged from somewhere," she adds. "Everything in an Asian tattoo down to where it is on the body, what color it is, how many claws the dragon has…it all tells a story. Of course there are outliers, but I see it more as just a respect and admiration for the beauty of these art forms."
Asked if she thinks demand for controversial tattoos—dreamcatchers, kanji, headdresses—will decrease, Koopman says that even if they go out of vogue, "something new will pop up," borrowed from somewhere else. "That's how it's always been."
Texas is a frontier in the appropriation debate because it's nestled between the U.S. and Mexico, sharing influences from both. Calaveras, or sugar skulls, are popular tattoos with customers of all races, yet the appropriation police would certainly deem them offensive, since they reference Dia de los Muertos and "belong" to Mexican culture. Brock University in Canada even banned Dia de los Muertos costumes, with one student group claiming that "vetting Halloween costumes isn't a matter of telling people what to wear. It's a matter of paying respect to the stories and experiences of marginalized groups who are depicted in these costumes."
But Dia de los Muertos itself is an example of how watery and untenable cultural appropriation arguments are: The holiday was created by the Aztecs, who believed heaven's gates opened one day a year for the deceased to briefly reunite with their families. Spanish conquistadors realized it was too popular to be stamped out, so they merged it with All Saints Day.
To celebrate, families make ornate altars, decorating them with sugar skulls and flowers. But even the widely recognized calaveras de azucar did not originate in the country: Skull decorations were brought to the New World by Italian missionaries. When Mexicans realized they couldn't afford fancy Italian imports, they fashioned facsimiles out of cheap and abundant sugar instead.
So Dia de los Muertos is about honoring the dead, something all cultures yearn for and many cultures wish they could do better. For white people—especially white people living in places like Texas, where culture bleeds freely back and forth across the invisible lines we call borders—it makes sense that they might want to commemorate a departed loved one with a calavera tattoo, too. Isn't that choice motivated by appreciation for these Mexican symbols?
Smith has "tattooed as many Dia de los Muertos skulls on white people as eagles and flags on Mexican people. Are they ripping it off?" His point is a good one: Our judgment of cultural appropriation should consider whether the act is rooted in hatred or appreciation. Should we really be attempting to police something as intimate as the way someone chooses to memorialize a dead loved one?
Given concerns over appropriation, do tattooists worry they might start seeing new laws limiting what they can do with their needles? Roach Rude, another artist at Mom's, says that "would go against freedom of speech."
Legally speaking, Rude is probably right that a government crackdown on cultural appropriation would have a hard time passing muster. But the question of what artistry is covered by the First Amendment is central to a heated political and legal debate happening right now: If a state forces a baker to serve gay customers—going against the baker's beliefs—is that an infringement on the baker's freedom of expression?
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court is considering just such a case, and in State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, the Washington Supreme Court considered a similar controversy regarding a florist's right to decline to provide her services for a same-sex wedding. But tattooing, too, deserves protection.
Although tattoo artists, like bakers and florists, often take instruction from their clients, they have control over some aspects of the design and should not be forced to implicitly condone messages they are not comfortable with. Their portfolios, and the work they choose to study and create, say a lot about them.
"I don't express on other people unless I have the room to do so," says Smith. He sees tattoos primarily as his customers' speech. "It is speech in a way—any image you inscribe on your skin is your way of saying something."
He sees his role within the context of free association. "If it's something I associate as a hate symbol…I can choose freely not to associate," he says. But it also depends on the reason the person is there. "If they have hate symbols on them and they want to get [them] covered up, that's a possibility."
Hate symbols could include swastikas, 88s (code for the letters HH, or "Heil Hitler"), S.S. bolts, Odin's crosses, 14s (a reference to 14 words associated with white supremacists: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children"), or A.B. tattoos (referencing the Aryan Brotherhood). Smith has personally done cover-ups on ex-skinheads, he says, provided they're trying to turn over a new leaf.
"Years and years ago, I worked at a shop, and everyone probably did 10 Tasmanian Devil tattoos a week. There was a whole thing among tattooers in the community about how no one was gonna do Taz again," says Debi Obregon, owner of Mom's Tattoos. "So a couple of days later"—after the staff instituted an informal boycott on what they saw as a stupid, cliched cartoon not worthy of their time—"in comes a guy. He wants a Taz. There were six artists in the shop, including me." Since no one else would take the job, Obregon agreed to do it.
"So I'm tattooing the guy and I ask, 'What made you decide to get a Taz today?' And he said, 'Well, my dad just died, and he had a Tasmanian devil tattoo, and he got it when his dad died,'" she recalls. "And it just really brought home: Who am I to judge what somebody gets on their body? It's not just a stupid cartoon to this guy, you know…Even something that seems as silly as a Taz can hold a deep meaning—and who are we, the police, the government?"
As an outsider, you can never tell what someone's story is. You don't even know for sure what ethnicity people are.
"What greater honor can you give to anyone [than] to put something permanent on your body?" asks Obregon. "It's not up to us to police the motives behind that—whether it's an infinity, or whether it's a kanji, or whether it's a Maori design, or whatever."
"Lots of ink is commemorative and timeless," says Bijou's Smith. "Lots of ink tells a story: where you've been, what you've seen, what you're into."
My own Japanese-style tattoo, created by Smith, runs down my hip and the top of my leg. It's covered except when I'm wearing shorts. Since other people rarely see it, the harm can't be very far-reaching. But even when it's exposed, is it a minor annoyance or a major transgression?
To me, the image—of a tiger slinking through flowers—is a symbol of strength and fierceness, and an homage to a tradition of tattooing that I find beautiful and want to survive. My blue eyes and blonde hair don't come into it, and they shouldn't be a reason for me to turn my back on this art form and cultural mode of expression.
"If being interested in a Maori tattoo or a Japanese tattoo sparks you to learn more about that culture," asks Obregon, "how could it be a bad thing?"