Friday, August 5, 2011

The body as an open book on life (Part 1)

The word Tattoo comes from Tahitian Tatau. In Tahitian it means to mark, to draw or to hit. It was introduced in Europe through sailors coming back from Polynesia and appeared written for one of the first time in the journal of Joseph Banks, the naturalist aboard Captain Cook's ship the HMS Endeavour in 1769: "I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition" (wikipedia)

Of course the practice has existed around the globe for many years, transmitted from generation to generation. I really understood this tradition and its role and importance when I met Tihoti in his studio on Huahine (French Polynesia Island) a few years ago. Tihoti was covered with tattoos.  Most of them he made himself, some made by his tattoo artists friends. All of them telling the story of his life, an event that happened to him, the symbol of a belief or a value. He was writing his own story or the story of his ancestors on his body.

He was still working on finishing off his torso and his back. He told me that the only place he will not cover with tattoos was the right side of his face in respect for his son. So that he can still recognized him.
  Here is a more recent picture of Tihoti. Apparently he finished his torso, added a couple of tattoos also on his neck but has still preserved half of his face as he told me he would.
Photo by Norm Heke
 What this encounter revealed to me was the power of traditions, the respect for ancestors and History, the memory of generations.
When I arrived in the States a few months ago, it amazed me to see that many people are ‘wearing tattoos’. It seems the art of tattoo is more accepted and respected here than in France where tattoos have some kind of ‘bad guy’ reputation. I’m wondering what it says about our society and the cultural differences between France and the US (or maybe between Paris and San Francisco as a matter of fact)
Anyway I have decided to explore here a selection of portraits that question our sense of tradition and our relationship to our own body… Through these series I have tried to understand the sense and the role of tattoos for people around the world, from the perpetuation of a tradition to the need for a certain aesthetic. Tattoos can be a lot of things. A beautiful decoration, a form of art, a sign of belonging to a certain group, a statement, a personal meditation on life, a means of differentiation, a tradition, an addiction…It is said that when you start, you always want one more…
Jake Verzosa: The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga
Jake Verzosa is a freelance photographer working from the Philippines.
He photographed an indigenous group called the Kalingas living up in the rice terraces of the Cordillera Mountains in the Philippines. His portraits are emotional representations of the flow of life. These women are the last living generation to honor a dying tradition, considered as too painful and unnecessary by a young generation of Kalingas influenced by Western trends and new perceptions of beauty. Their bodies and their eyes speak for them, transmitting a sense of proud melancholy.  With respect and empathy these portraits seem to tell us the stories of these women. In their eyes we can read the accomplishment of a hard life well lived, the sadness of the end of a time with maybe a form of resignation. It’s a testimony to the past and to the future, beautiful and touching. 
  More on Jake Verzosa and his project:
Cedric Arnold, Sacred Ink
Cedric Arnold takes us through the traditions of Thailand . His images are intense and powerful. The strong black and white contrasts make the ink pop up on the skins. We feel the power of the men who endured traditional tattoo techniques to paint their bodies with stories, superstitions and symbols. Here ancient traditions have discovered a new future while spiritual ‘ink’ experiences grow across many categories and generations of the Thai society.
‘A body, used as a canvas, every inch of skin filled with sacred text and figures of mythical creatures, all forming a protective shield. A boxer, a monk, a construction worker, a policeman, a soldier, a taxi driver, a shipyard worker, a shaman, a tattoo master; men, women and their inked protection from evil spirits and bad luck. Enter the world of Thailand’s spiritual ‘Yantra’ tattoo tradition.”
More on Cedric Arnold and his project:
And a nice article on Wayne Ford’s blog:

Carlos Alvarez Montero: Scars
In his series Carlos Alvarez Montero shows the Scars of a selection of Mexico city residents. An indelible mark on the skin, a desire to be different and to never forget and to be able to forgive. When the mark is on the face, the most visible part of the body, it becomes a way of life. His powerful but sensitive portraits express the surface of probably deeper wounds. They push us to want to know more and maybe to try to read and imagine the stories of their lives in their eyes and their ink…
‘This series is composed of 20 portraits of residents of Mexico City that decided to engrave ink marks on their neck/face as a statement of their life experiences. This allows them to step out of the crowd, define themselves as unique, and by no means look back. Just forward.’
More photos and more series from Carlos Alvarez Montero:

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