Tattoo Taboo in Latino Culture

sugar skull tat

Tattoos have long been a controversial subject, and often a social taboo. The reasons for their negative image are many, but mostly they stem from their historical association with criminal activity. They were oftentimes used to brand criminals, and sailors utilized them as well as a means of identification in case they were drowned and washed ashore somewhere. In more recent history, and nowadays, tattoos are intimately associated with gangs who use them to pledge loyalty by permanently imprinting gang symbols on their bodies.

In the US and parts of Latin America, however, this trend is changing as more and more young people are choosing to get tattoos for personal reasons. A poll conducted in 2012 by The Harris Poll showed that 1 in 5 American adults possess at least one tattoo. Approximately 15-20% percent of those tattooing are Hispanic. The majority of those interviewed in the poll were not gang members or criminals but rather chose to tattoo because they wanted to express a facet of their identity through body art.

Nonetheless, tattoos are still regarded negatively within the Latino culture. Parents of tattooed young people often react to their offspring’s decision with anger or even horror. Daphne, 23, a Mexican-American of immigrant parents, recalls the day her parents discovered a large tattoo on her ribcage. While her father was disappointed in her so-called “foolish choice” her mother was especially upset. “She was screaming and cursing and crying,” Daphne says. “She didn’t speak to me for months after that. She said this wasn’t how she raised me and I looked like I belonged in gang.” She and her mother finally reconciled, though her mother still can’t stand to see her tattoo. She believes her mother overreacted, but admits that after speaking to her mother about the issue she has come to understand a little better her reasons. Daphne’s mother is from Mexico, where currently gangs involved in drug cartels terrorize the country. The gangs are often recognizable by their symbolic tattoos, and for many who live in fear of gang violence they often try to spot danger by scanning questionable-looking individuals for their telltale tattoos.

Throughout Central America the attitude towards tattoos is based in similar realities. Candi, 26, grew up in Honduras and says that in her home country tattoos are also deeply connected to violent gangs that the people greatly fear. Having lived in the United States for a decade now she has one small tattoo on her wrist. “The attitude here is so different. Most people don’t have the same fear of gang violence so tattoos have a different meaning. They’re just art.”

So, because of the differences in ways of life in parts of Latin America versus in the United States, older-generation Latinos are often more wary of tattoos than cultures not currently entrenched in gang warfare. As shown by Daphne’s and Candi’s anecdotes tattoos often make them think immediately of dangerous gangs, while for those raised outside such fears tattoos are not so instantly threatening. Latinos raised in the US, while sometime having encountered gang activity, do not endure the national fear of violence by drug cartels, so their view of tattoos is not as extreme. It is easier for them to view tattoos as innocent works of art and self-expression. These differing experiences, however, have caused some disagreement between generations about the nature of tattoos. In the end it is important for those for and against tattoos to understand one another’s point of view. As far as the art of tattooing is concerned, its stigma will likely never disappear as long as gangs and criminals continue to use them for their own purposes.

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