Tuesday 22 September 2015

The Sacred Art of Tattooing - From Rite of Passage to Modern-Day Ritual

Photo by Erin Murphy

Tattooing is one of the most ancient rituals of humanity.
The people of the ancient tribes and civilisations would mark their bodies permanently with symbols representative of rites of passage, defining who they were, what they had achieved, and their relations to their gods, goddesses, and to each other. 

As the Europeans conquered the lands of the Earth one by one, attempting to eradicate most of the Natives and Aborigenes' cultures and beliefs, the meaning of rituals like tattooing became stigmatized. As time went on, tattoos resurfaced (though they seemingly never entirely disappeared, perhaps were only ever very-well hidden), associated at first with the bad and the freaky, and now, in 2015, after many-a cultural revolution, a tattoo may be found on almost every single body out there, all over the world.

Could it be established that tattoos have left the alternative side of culture, officially becoming a part of  pop culture?  Is there any lingering stigma to tattooing, and has its sacredness lost itself, or has been revitalized? These are some of the questions I've recently asked Abdala Kaufmann, owner of Galerie Abyss in Montreal, an art gallery established both to showcase new, cutting edge art from local artists, and serving as one of the hottest tattoo parlours in town (with Kaufmann herself as main tattoo artist).  

Every month, Kaufmann presents a new exhibition in her gallery, each time with a different theme. She reaches out to underexposed Montreal artists, asking them to create a unique piece for the group show, thus developping a strong, beautiful community of underground local artists, united by their fierce mastery of pop surrealism and lowbrow art. After exploring topics such as Comic Books, Fairy Tales, Monsters and Celebrities, Kaufmann chose a theme that hit as close to home as can be for her September show: Tattoos. 

I went to the vernissage and revelled in the many ways each artist interpreted the theme. From paintings that you'd give up everything to get tattooed on yourself to portraits of tattooed men and women, to animals adorning human-shaped tattoos, it was fascinating to see all these completely different creative universes bringing forth their very own shape and colour of the word, and meaning of the word Tattoo, united under the same roof. "Funnily enough, I am the only painter and tattoo artist in the show", Kaufmann observes. "I asked many tattoo artists to participate in the show, but none of them joined in. What you see here are the works of painters interpreting the theme". 

'Eden' - by Abdala Kaufman

Tattooing is a huge part of Abdala Kaufmann's life, and a huge part of her art. She presents herself as a painter, tattoo artist, and gallery owner, wearing all these hats with a perfect balance of pride and humility. Galerie Abyss allows her to hold a space for the underground art community she is a part of, and believes in, and provides an inviting, and inspiring environment for her to create body art with and for her clients. I asked Kaufmann what it meant to her to be a tattoo artist, how she experienced the sacredness of this oldest of rituals, both from her perspective as an artist, and as a person who's been tattooed, and what tattoos mean in our culture, in 2015.  

Kaufmann laughed with me at first, saying she's so busy taking care of all the aspects of her business, making her pieces for the next show, and booking her next client's appointment, she doesn't have time to sit down and think about the sacredness of tattooing -very typical of me indeed to bring such points out in conversation! We laughed a bit more, and then she went on saying that she does recognize the meaning behind tattooing someone, to the point where if you think about it too much, it can get a bit overwhelming. A tattoo artist indeed will permanently mark someone's body, and there's blood that comes out of everyone, in every session. People get tattooed for very specific reasons, and each individual will experience the session in accordance to the reason why they're there, getting this particular design inked upon their body forever at that specific time in their lives. A tattoo session is a very intense and intimate moment shared between the artist and the client. As any other art form, it can become a therapeutic experience, holding both a good, cathartic side, and a draining, painful side. People may or may not even be aware of what they're doing in this moment, the ritual that they're putting themselves through. They might be going through grief, or heartbreak, and getting tattooed is this way of them going from one place to the next within themselves, and outside themselves. Kaufmann holds a deep respect for each client she gets, and does her utmost to make the client's experience a positive one. The sessions she appreciates the most are those where she'll be fixing someone's tattoo. She always feels very honoured, and humbled, when a client asks her to fix a tattoo that either faded too quickly in time, wasn't executed properly, or that needs to be revamped so as to give it meaning again. "It's huge for me to have someone put their trust in me to fix up their tattoo, I'm turning this bad previous experience into a good one, into something they can enjoy again, and be proud to show off." 

To Abdala Kaufmann, the wider acceptance tattoos are getting more and more, say, for the last 20 years, is a very good thing. Amidst all the various types of clients she can get, Kaufmann says she holds a soft spot for the older ladies she'll get to ink up. "I've tattooed women between 60 to 80 years old, women who had always wanted to get a tattoo their whole lives, but couldn't when they were younger because of the stigma it would entail. These ladies' daughters and grand-daughters all have tattoos, so they're feeling like now, they can go ahead and get this tattoo they've been wanting for 40 years, and wear it with pride."

Though one can argue as to whether our society really wants to recognize spirituality in its many modern-day versions of rituals, getting a tattoo is definitely one of the most meaningful experiences one can go through -and people do recognize it, showing thus that beneath the ever-changing fads of pop culture lies this intrinsic, collective consciousness, and understanding, of the sacredness of rituals as old as time. 

For each and everyone of us is a part of a tribe.   

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