In 2013, Project Semicolon was founded to present, “hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury.” The purpose of the US-based project is, they say, to, “encourage, love and inspire.” Following her father’s suicide, founder Amy Bleuel got a semicolon tattoo on her wrist as a tribute to him and soon realised just how powerful that symbol was: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
The project has gained a massive following online and earlier this year, Heather Parrie wrote a beautiful blog about her battle with depression and subsequent decision to get said ink. “I expected the same 60-100 people who read all of my social media postings to interact with me about it,” she tells BuzzFeed after the post had achieved over seven million views. “Knowing that I’ve gotten to be a part of something bigger than myself is so motivating to keep working to make the world a better place.”
“I believe the semicolon tattoo is a huge inspiration to others as they know they are not alone,” adds Bleuel. The movement has reached these shores too. In July the Herald reported of Emma Jenkins’ generosity — donating all profits made from inking semicolons at her Red Cherry tattoo parlour in Rotorua to support those suffering from depression. The fact that so many people are now willing to have their bodies permanently — and briefly, painfully — stained for a cause is further proof of just how much more accepted tattooing has become in mainstream society. Once the preserve of bikers and convicts, now everyone from professionals to pop stars proudly display their ink.
“Our bodies have become the refrigerator magnets of quotes, sayings and reminders,” writes Reef Karim, Founder and Director of the Beverly Hills Control Center and Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA, in the Huffington Post. New Zealand is, of course, no stranger to the art. A 2009 UMR Research poll concluded that, per capita, we’re the most tattooed nation on earth with one in five Kiwis sporting some kind of body ink. In 2013, the Lonely Planet even named New Zealand as the second best place in the world to get tattooed. Archaeological evidence suggests that tattooing was established in New Zealand with the arrival of Polynesian culture with bone chisels and mallets — an early ‘tattoo gun’ — found at various ancient sites. Tā moko is the name given to the sacred Maori tattoo, often of the face, which traditionally signifies the highest ranking members of a population.
“Our bodies have become the refrigerator magnets of quotes, sayings and reminders.”
– Reef Karim –
Tattooing has in fact been practiced since at least Neolithic times, and, interestingly, across a vast spectrum of countries and cultures. The oldest example of tattooed human skin was found on a South American mummy dated 6,000BC whilst the oldest known European tattoo was found on the mummy of Ötzi the Iceman, currently on display in Italy. He’s thought to be around 6,000 years old. Others have been found in Egypt and Russia, proof, surely, that there is some deep-seated primeval urge to stain our skins. Dr Kirby Farrell is an author and University of Massachusetts professor specialising in anthropology, psychology and history as it relates to human behaviour. Speaking to Vice, he says that it’s at least partly due to the fact that the human race is regularly on the edge of an existential panic. “[Ernest] Becker said that if you were to see the world realistically; just how vulnerable and totally insignificant you are, in terms of the cosmos, you’d go crazy,” he adds. “So you constantly need stories that build up your self-esteem and make you feel significant, which is, of course, what culture provides.”
“Our current society craves individuality and self-expression,” says Karim. “And now many people wear their artistic expression. We are having more trouble communicating with each other than ever before, as electronic communication will never replace face-to-face human contact. So it’s not surprising that there’s a growing trend toward communication via body ink. We don’t have to talk, we just have to look.”
It certainly wasn’t always about communication, trends or causes. Throughout history, tattoos have also been used as a form of punishment. In China, convicts’ faces were once branded with ink, while in 17th century Japan, symbols were applied to whichever part of a criminals’ body committed the crime. The Ancient Brits saw them as badges of honour and inspired the Roman soldiers to look upon them the same. While for others, it was a holy endeavour. During the Crusades, warriors would mark themselves with a cross so should they die in battle they would be given a traditional Christian burial. For over a thousand years, tattooing was a traditional part of the culture of Myanmar until it was annexed by the British (then named Burma) which is also home to the Chin tribe where women’s face were traditionally tattooed to enhance their beauty. Last March, thousands of Buddhist devotees descended upon Thailand’s Wat Bang temple for the annual Sak Yant Festival. It sees monks tattoo ‘magical’ designs of animals and religious scripts on to recipients who are then said to be protected from harm. The ink is concocted from ingredients such as ash and snake venom, and, once finished, the monk will breathe onto the tattoo to infuse it with mystical powers.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
BODY ART DOESN’T STOP WITH TATTOOS
- Since the dawn of civilisation bodies have been pierced to signify everything from prostitution, wealth and protection from demons.
- The oldest mummified remains were found with pierced ears. Ear stretching has been practiced for millennia by tribes in Africa, Asia and America. Materials used to carry out the ritual include bone, horn, wood and stone. Famous figures with stretched lobes include the statues of Easter Island and Buddha.
- The Aztecs and the Mayans pierced their tongues with thorns as a sign of status. Blood was collected, burned and offered to the gods.
- The Apatani women of Arunachal Predesh in India sport large black nose plugs (and facial tattoos), a tradition that stems from time when the women were kidnapped during inter-tribal raids. It was believed the large nasal discs would deter would-be marauders and are inserted once the women have their first period.
- Lip plates have been in existence for around 10,000 years in both Africa and Mesoamerica, but today, the tradition is upheld only in the former. The enormous discs donned by the Suri tribe of Ethiopia are regarded as a sign of beauty.
- Some cultures believe stretching necks enhances beauty. The practice, which involves gradually increasing the amount of rings around a female’s neck from childhood, is still conducted in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, notably the Kayan’s of Myanmar where they are known as ‘giraffe women’. There are concerns the practice is encouraged to attract tourism.