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Tattoos and Incarceration: The Needle Points to Colonisation

When my great-grandmother was 13 in colonial Malaya, she was tattooed by “gypsies” using rose thorns, soot and animal fat. I say “gypsies” following my grandmother’s loose translation of this bit of my family history from Tamil. Until the day she died, my great-grandmother remained defined by a faded, wrinkled lizard tattoo– its backstory making her much cooler than anyone I will ever know. She was a badass but not everyone in the family thought so.

Four generations of women in my family have tattoos from my great-grandmother’s hand-poked lizard to the uncountable pieces that decorate me. Despite being so common to me and the women around me, the rhetoric surrounding tattoos, especially in Southeast Asia, is not one of acceptance. Half of my family are devout Catholics and the other half are relatively religious Hindus, with both sides either silently judging the snake on my back or explicitly detesting the line drawing of a face permanently etched into my ankle. They say I look like I’ve been scribbled on with permanent marker, seemingly forgetting that my great-grandmother –or Ammachi as my family called her– was a tattooed woman too. It baffles me that the piece of family history that has been the most impactful on me is the bit that everyone else seems to forget.

Tattooing and body modification have had a tricky history in becoming as common as the practice exists now. In current day Malaysia, tattoos are still heavily associated with deviance and gangsterism, with tattooed Malaysian-Indian individuals receiving the majority of societal judgement brought about by the criminal implications of tattoos, and, of being Malaysian-Indian.

Under British colonialism, Indian convicts were forcibly transported predominantly from Tamil Nadu to Malaya as slave labourers working on the Straits Settlements (Malacca, Penang and what is now Singapore). Many Indian workers were distinguished as convicts by adorning spiritual tattoos which were -in Tamil Nadu- seen as sacred, devotional, and capable of capturing evil spirits, trapping them within certain tattoos, preventing their escape. Tattoos and their ability to distinguish convict workers inherently defined tattoos as a demarcation of incarceration in Malaysia. Body modification signified the separation of coloniser and colonised.

Traditional tattooing practices in East Malaysia and Borneo were carried out using hand crafted wooden tools, hand tapping symbolic artwork into skin, only performed by respected tattoo masters. They were not signifiers of criminality but instead delineated significant events in an individual’s life, with many designs only being tattooed once achieving certain milestones such as being an undefeated warrior or highly valued shaman. They denoted importance and status. Each tattoo in its design and placement represented sentimental meaning and signified importance to the individual. The more tattoos a person collected, the more respect they gained. It was also believed that tattoos had the power to ward off evil spirits, making them even more culturally significant. These practices, however, gradually lost significance with the spread of Christianity and colonial attitudes condemning these cultural rituals.

The concept of tattooing as a sacred ritual has existed long before colonisation and its definitions of tattooing. Tattoos and body modification during colonisation were observed by early anthropologists as ‘primitive practices’, equated with skin diseases and cannibalism. Tattoos and tattooing were considered a form of ‘primitivism’, once again under colonisation, distinguishing the coloniser from the colonised– the civilized from the savage.

As colonisation and its ideologies of othering became the grassroots of understanding cultural rituals, tattoos came to be signified by the people having them. Tattoos encompassed criminality, enslavement, primitivism, and savagery. The discourse Western imperialism and colonisation has created surrounding tattoos very much remains the same attitude towards body modification today.

Malaysian attitudes towards tattoos are predominantly defined by the aftermath of colonisation and Western imperialist ideologies. Tattooed individuals are perceived as being criminals, dangerous or, more commonly, ‘improper’ for deviating from Malaysian society’s highly conservative norms. This follows colonial definitions of tattoos as representative of savagery and the path to incarceration. As a visibly tattooed Malaysian-Indian woman, it has become routine to receive judgemental stares from older Malaysians. I still question if they stare because I am a minority or because I am a tattooed minority, a visible delinquent. Tattoos on Malaysian-Indian individuals are arguably the most scrutinized in Malaysia as Malaysian-Indians continue to be underpinned and defined by ancestral connections to crime and deviance. Malaysian-Indians also comprise the majority of the ethnic population of gangs in Malaysia, fostering negative stereotypes and blatant racism from non-Indian Malaysians. Tattoos, gangsterism and, inherently, incarceration do not exist separately in Malaysia. People who were once convicts were tattooed, and therefore all people who are tattooed are convicts too.

Tattooing and incarceration have become inextricably linked with this form of body modification, being so heavily associated with crime and savagery across cultures at the hands of colonisation. The meaning of tattoos has transcended historical cultural rituals into gang symbols, with prison tattooing emerging as an artform in its own respect. Gang symbols as prison tattoos arguably denote similar concepts as ritual tattooing, in that receiving certain symbols represent certain achievements, displaying the transformation of tattooing in wider society brought about by colonisation. In some cases such as gangsterism, tattoos are defined by savagery, giving into its colonial definition. Colonial discourse has narrated an inherent association of tattoos with deviance and incarceration, leaving those deemed deviant or those incarcerated symbolising this perceived deviance or history of incarceration with tattoos. Tattooing after colonisation remains a cycle displaying the artform as embracing its colonial definition, retaining its symbolic meanings, often within a criminal context.

A lot of my family did not think of Ammachi’s tattoo as particularly respectable. She was a rascal according to my grandmother, never sitting still and constantly yelling. My family liked to ignore her tattoo because Ammachi was always so unlike anyone else. She never listened to anyone. She was stubborn, fiery and fearless. These traits could not be associated with a tattoo. It was unthinkable. There was no room for a deviant in our family.

When my grandfather reminds me that I look like a human sticker book, that tattoos have no place on a “good Catholic girl”, or when an old lady on the tram scoffs at the butterfly on my shin, I remind myself of a 13-year-old Ammachi, getting tattooed with soot during British rule. I remind myself that tattoos signify more than their colonial associations. They remain subjective to the individual and are by no means indicators of criminality. Ammachi may have been defiant by getting that lizard on her arm but her tattoo will always mean more to me than the colonial definitions that have overshadowed the impact tattoos can possess.