A few days after a close Super Bowl loss, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick added a new tattoo to his already highly tattooed skin. Tribal designs added to Kaepernick’s chest area around a pre-existing tattoo that reads:  “Against All Odds.” Shortly after finishing his work the tattoo artist, Orly, Locquioa, posted pictures of Kaepernick’s tattoos on Instagram commenting that it represented “inner strength, spiritual growth, and humility.” The use of abstract tattoos to express an idea or the spirit of the wearer derives traditional Polynesian tattoo practice. US tribal tattoos no longer directly refer to Polynesian or South Pacific tradition. Kaepernick’s most recent tattoo is an example of three significant differences that define the American tribal tattoo style.  

Credit: Colin Kaepernick via Instagram

Traditional Tattooing Process

South Pacific cultures, particularly Samoan and Māori, place great emphasis on the process and experience of tattooing. Tattoos are not just designs on skin but permanent, unique marks inscribing the body. Each tattoo consists of patterns that derive meaning from the personal history and spirit of the wearer, the tattooist and the process of creation. Traditional technique involves chisels tap into the skin surface and make blood mingle with ink. Chiseling also changes the topography of the body, incising and puncturing skin for distinctive texture and motif.

 Along with choice of design and placement on the body enduring and managing the pain of tattooing is important in physically and spiritually transforming the body. The ability to withstand the pain of tattooing shows courage, resilience, commitment and a high threshold for pain. Through interpreted differently, pain is a common element of Western and Māori tattoo practice. While Māori embrace tattoing as a painful, spiritual ceremony which celebrates unification of soul and beauty, Westerners resist and endure pain and use the tattooed image as a mark of physical strength and resilience.

Maori Man with Facial Tattoo
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Modern US Tattooing Process

The modern tattoo machine, used almost exclusively in the US, uses needles and sometimes skin anesthesia, giving the option to dull or eliminate the pain tattooing. After healing, tattoos applied with needle machines leave the skin smooth. Without carving into the skin which changes skin’s texture which lessens the transformative nature of tattoo. When chiseling different tools match different areas of skin where it is sensitive and changing depending on how bony or fleshy the area. The modern needle machine uses the same tool for all areas of the body so designs do not necessarily conform to the contours of the body making tattoos less about each body and the relationship between artist and wearer. A tattoo artist can use the same design on different people making it a mark on skin and not unification of skin and blood, inner and outer life. Tribal tattoos are an art form not an intimate experience that results in an emblem of spirit. US tribal tattoos look like and are recognized as traditional South Pacific tattoos with a different, Western meaning.

Tattoo Machine(129285)
Credit: geishaboy500 via Flickr

Meaning of Tattoo

Tattoo styles thought of originating the US, like eagles and “girlie” figures, developed around WWII and ideas wartime masculinity. They are literal, easily understood and generally placed on the body without relationship to each other, unrelated images that do not follow a personal narrative. These tattoos became less popular after WWII and tattoos dropped from mainstream culture and into the world of bikers and “freaks.” In the 1970s and 1980s a few talented and influential American tattoo artists revived the art by appropriating Japanese imagery associated with spirituality and personal history. Skin became viewed as a canvas, infusing a formerly unsophisticated set of images with ideas of fine art. While technique evolved American tattoos continue as badges on the skin each with a particular, but not necessarily related messages about the wearer. When tribal tattoos entered US tattoo catalogues they became like other designs, isolated image expressing something chosen by the wearer.

American tattooists appropriated from and general meaning of South Pacific tattoos but did not adopt traditional technique. Americans choose from a catalogue of images but wearers of traditional Māori tattoo cannot choose design and meaning. In this context, tattoos are unique records and expressions of an individual that are more like signatures than badges applied to skin. Designs are unique but cannot be read like writing because they cannot be separated from the individual, gaining meaning from the process of tattooing which involves the bearer and his/her history and spirit and the artist who chisels the skin uniting ink and skin. Instead of being transferred from designs stenciled on to skin, Māori tattoos follow the contours of body. Neither the artist nor the creator can determine the meaning of the tattoo because it reflects personal history and spirituality. Tattoo placement also carries meaning: facial tattoos expressed power and origins and were most elaborate on the most powerful men. Rather than a mark of respect facial tattoos are taboo in America.

Tattooed US Navy Soldier in WWII
Credit: Public Domain Files

US Tribal Tattoo Style

Since the West’s first encounter with Polynesians in the late 18th century tattoos were a part of the idea of South Pacific peoples as “primitive,” fierce, virile and war-like. Tattoos entered American culture when Samoans and Māori traveled with circuses as captured warriors and “freaks.” Today, tattooed people are no longer in sideshows, but the idea of a primitive masculinity remains attached to tribal tattoo design. With a more sophisticated understanding of South Pacific culture Americans also appropriated the use of these types as tattoos as expressions of qualities and not being directly representational refer to South Pacific tradition.

American tattoo artists have not claimed the title traditional Māori of South Pacific tattooists but rather appropriated elements into their work. Over time, an US tribal tattoo style has emerged of which Colin Kaepernick’s most recent tattoo is an excellent example. During the 2012 NFL season Kaepernick’s tattoos became an item of media interest. The debate was about appropriateness of his tattoos as marks on a high-profile representative of his team and the league and as records of his personal beliefs and history. In response to the articles, Kaepernick began kissing his tattoo-covered bicep after scoring touchdowns demonstrating that his tattoos were a part of him that went with him into his successful career.

A few days after losing in the Super Bowl he added a tribal tattoo to chest. It surrounds an existing tattoo, following the contours of the marks on his skin and expresses qualities he sees in himself and aspires to. His chest is now marked with the words “Against All Odds” and a tribal designs meant as a marker of humility, spiritual growth, and inner strength. Enduring the pain of these large tattoos, his job in a violent sport native to the US and his strong and public defiance of media criticism tie him to an idea of strong, virile, American masculinity.  While rooted in South Pacific tattoo design meaning the use of tribal design with meaning chosen by the wearer, worn as a badge of masculinity and placed on the skin rather than conforming to it is uniquely American. 

US Tribal Tattoo
Credit: esophie via Deviantart.com
Maori Facial Tattoo, 2009
Credit: Stuartyeates via Wikipedia Commons