Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Contemporary Perceptions of Body Modifications and Its Acceptability in the Asian Society: A Case of Tattoos and Body Piercings

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Contemporary Perceptions of Body Modifications and Its Acceptability in the Asian Society: A Case of Tattoos and Body Piercings

Article excerpt


Radical body modification in the form of tattooing and body piercings has experienced expanded expression, appropriation and visibility within the last several decades and has become a part of everyday life for large sections of the population. Most scholarly interest has documented the perceptual trajectories of these practices across a wide range of societal context across time. Nonetheless, observations show that most of these studies were conducted in the American and European context and a scarcity of perceptual insights on this phenomenon remains in the Asian context. Contemporary perceptions on individuals who obtain tattoos and body piercings are examined among a sample of individuals in a multi-racial Asian country - Malaysia. The present study is exploratory in nature and adopts a qualitative approach using in-depth interviews. Overall, evidence suggests that the society perceives tattooing and body piercing practices as a form of art, spirituality, immortalizing significant moment memories, self-expression and representation of the dark. Nonetheless, a degree of uncomfortableness exists among most individuals in the current study when being around with individuals with tattoos and body piercing. Further, employment opportunities are also perceived to be negatively affected. Implications and recommendations from the research findings are also presented.

Keywords: body modification, tattooing, body piercing, perception, acceptance, contemporary, society

1. Introduction

The act of body modification, such as tattooing and body piercing (Featherstone, 1999), has had a long history across various cultures, including Asia, Africa, America, Europe and Oceania (Caplan, 2000; DeMello, 1995; Dorfer & Moser, 1998; Rubin, 1988). These practices have been documented in nearly every culture and were evidently used to communicate a number of messages, including group identity, religious commitment and individuality (Armstrong, Owen, Roberts & Koch, 2002). The work of Wohlrab, Stahl & Kappeler (2007) suggests that piercings were often used in initiation rites, assigning their bearer to a certain social or age group (Gritton, 1988; Jonaitis, 1988) while the use of tattoos represented a signal to religious affiliations, strength or social status (Gathercole, 1988; Gilbert, 2001; Schildkrout, 2004).

Contemporary perceptions about individuals who have tattoos and piercings abound in the literature (Greif, Hewitt & Armstrong, 1999). More specifically, many stereotypes and judgments remain surrounding these two forms of body modification. Recent studies in the Western context have suggests that social leaders are continuing to associate the practice of piercing and tattooing with rebellious, criminals and sociopaths while other members in the society perceive such practices as a form of fashion statement (DeMello, 1993; Firmin, Tse, Foster & Angelini, 2008), as seen among popular models and celebrities (Brown, Perlmutter & McDermott, 2000).

These modern-day findings, however, are often confined to understandings from the American and European contexts. In particular, while the body of literature has expanded to provide a better understanding on the trajectories of societal perceptions and motivations towards tattooing and body piercing in Western civilizations, there seems to be a lack of understanding on the perceptual changes of these body modifications in the other parts of the world.

The present study attempts to fill in this gap. In particular, this study explores the contemporary societal perceptions of tattoo and body piercing and its acceptability in an Asian country - Malaysia. While a number of investigation strategies were plausible, Firmin, Tse, Foster and Angelini (2008) and Maxwell (2005) argues that qualitative research is often the method of choice when exploring terrain where relatively few studies previously have been conducted. A qualitative approach is, therefore, employed through the use of in-depth interviews to investigate the current research phenomenon. …

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