Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
History
Role of Tattoo
Artists
Gallery
Postcards
Discussion
Tattoo Stories
Glossary

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Maori carving showing tattoo styles.


 
A Private Tattoo

I have really only had tattoo work that goes underneath my clothing. It doesn't show in any fashion that would affect me at work. And that's very important to me. The kind of work that I do, I represent other people, and I represent other people in front of judges and juries. And it's my responsibility to advocate on somebody else's behalf. And it wouldn't be right to in any way affect people's perception of my clients by affecting their perception of me. And while I agree that tattoo is becoming a more acceptable artform, I think that there are still many people who don't understand it, and who don't feel real comfortable with it, and who may not feel real good about seeing it in a court room environment. So I've been very careful to make sure that the artwork that I have doesn't show in any kind of a professional capacity. And that's something that's very important to me. Now, I scuba dive a lot, and the tattoo work does show in many different aspects of that particular activity. So it's not that the artwork is just private artwork that would only be seen in more private settings, but it's artwork that would not be seen, appropriately so, in a court room environment or in an office environment.

I've been very careful to make sure that the artwork that I have doesn't show in any kind of a professional capacity.
Very few of my friends have tattoos. Very, very few. Most of them have been very supportive and very understanding of me getting my tattoos. I'm sure that there are a number of them who probably wonder what has gotten into Mary Lynn, but they indulge me and they don't seem to hold it against me, and they're very supportive when I talk to them about the process. But I don't have many friends who have tattoos. Now, I don't know if this will change, but I also recognize that I'm a little older; I'm forty-five years old. And I don't know that there are many, at least professional women I'm aware of who are getting tattoos at this point in their life. Although I'm sure it's not as unusual as one would probably think. For in many ways, for me the transformative stage that I'm going through is that into a more mature woman. And I think it's something that — at least in our culture — in the past, has been ignored or not spoken about, or downplayed, or it's been given sort of a negative spin. And I feel quite the contrary about it.

More Tattoos?

tattoo on Mary Lynn's backI think I probably will have more work done. I already have some ideas sort of rumbling around, percolating in my consciousness. Again, it will be work that I hope will be very painterly and abstract and evocative of the ocean environment, because that's something that's so important to me, and evocative of life force. I see the tattoo work that I've had done so far, and what I want done if I continue with more, as really relating to life force and the creative process. And so I think that something that's relatively abstract, but with a lot of energy and motion and color is sort of the direction that I'm leaning.

[People] ask, "Well, why did you get a tattoo," and then we'll give reasons. I think reasons tend to be the more superficial explanation, after the fact. There's something deeper going on. There's something far more profound and primal, and deeper to the motivation, to have one's skin, one's body [become] an artistic canvas, so to speak. And I think that that's very present, even for the young Navy personnel who might be getting that rite of passage tattoo of the little anchor, or the Marine who gets the little bulldog. I still think that there's something deeper there that's going on, that maybe isn't readily accessible by the individuals involved. Maybe they haven't thought about it. But certainly, looking at what they're doing with their lives at that point when they get those tattoos, for many of these young people it was the first time went out and realized that it's them, and then this great big world. And many of them were going off to very dangerous situations, and coming face-to-face with mortality may have something to do with feeling the desire to mark the vessel that's part of that journey.

Many times when people first see my tattoo art, the first thing that they will say is, "Whoa, did that hurt?" And oddly enough, I didn't really experience pain when I got the tattoo.
The area where I had the scar before was always something that I was very conscious of, whether I was looking at it or not, I knew it was there. It was almost this blemish, this reminder of a very traumatic experience. And interestingly enough, it has been truly transformed into this incredibly beautiful artwork. You can't see the scar anymore, because it's part of this arching wing work between two herons. And then these two magnificent heron heads on either side ... there's no scar visible. And in its place is something that is beautiful and evocative of again, magnificence and empowerment, and mystery. So it was transformative, more than in just the sense of now when I look at my body, I don't see a scar. But I see something that's very beautiful and very magic.

The Tattoo Process

In many ways, [my thoughts while getting the tattoo] weren't formed thoughts of like running sentences, if you will. They were more musical thoughts. It was a more meditative experience. And perhaps that was because [I was] at ease when I was receiving the tattoo work. I didn't find it [to] be really a painful process. I think that can have a lot to do with the technique of the artist. And in my particular case, I was very fortunate to have a master tattoo artist with a very light touch. But I didn't find it to be painful, sometimes annoying. But for the most part, I worked on centering and just being sort of receptive to the experience. And so the thoughts that would sort of flow in and out of my consciousness were more like stream of consciousness and musical thoughts, and I would listen to little snippets of the music that was playing in the background, and sometimes I would remember things and I can't think of anything specifically right now. But I remember having just little flashes of memory of things I hadn't thought about for a long time. Little reveries and all in all, it was not an unpleasant experience.

Many times when people first see my tattoo art, the first thing that they will say is, "Whoa, did that hurt?" And oddly enough, I didn't really experience pain when I got the tattoo. I mean, it was aggravating at times and somewhat annoying at times. But I certainly didn't think about, "oh, this is going to be painful," when I was thinking about doing it. And when I look at the artwork of other people, it never even occurred to me, "Oh, that must have hurt." It was more on the level of, "God, that's beautiful". Or, "Why did you pick that subject for your tattoo art?" It was a reaction more to the piece as a work of art, or as a work of personal choice. I think that perhaps maybe one of the differences between those who choose to get tattoo art, and those who couldn't imagine getting tattoo art, may have something to do with how it's perceived and how they perceive it.