Learn from my Motherfucking Mistakes (An Occasional Series) 

Got a question for me? Ask it here. I see only what you put in the textbox so it can be totally anonymous.

I am considering getting a tattoo. The design will be composed mostly of elements from a culture other than the one I was born into. Is this still appropriation, even though done with respect toward and with the approval of a family member who is of that culture?

I mean, I am not sure I can really answer that since I’m probably also not of that culture.

The whole thing about appropriation is a bit tricky and knotty. I don’t much like the idea of never being able to borrow from other cultures, other stories, other worldviews, because I think part of what makes humans interesting is that we do this. We take elements of things and blend and combine them to make new things. I think that’s a positive. I mean, I am a total nut for retold fairytales.

But where there are major power imbalances and histories of oppression this can become super problematic, when the oppressors take the bits they dig and adopt them while ignoring or actively denigrating other parts of the culture they’re borrowing from.

The short answer is, I think that doing this means there is always going to be the chance that people indigenous to the culture from which you are borrowing are going to roll their eyes and go, “Yeah, nice try, that ain’t your shit”, and they may be justified in that (not knowing your own background) and that is something you need to be cognizant of if you’re going to go down that route.

At the same time, it’s your body, so, you know, maybe do what you want?

This is not super helpful, I realise. It’s even problematic to say that your relation approves because it’s not totally cool to expect one member of any group to speak for everyone in that group. I guess the best I can offer is that you weigh your desire for this particular piece and what it means to you beside the potential eye rolling you may encounter and have to suck up and then make a decision.

Personally, speaking only for myself, I would probably steer clear. There are so many things in the world you can use to express things without having to deal with all of this, that I think there are probably better, more creative ways to do it. My tattoos are all kind of original and specific to me (with the exception of the theatre masks, but those are definitely from my own cultural heritage). The older I get, the more inclined I am to stick to creating my own iconography rather than taking from other cultures.

But, ultimately, it’s your body. So, you know, do as you will. Just prepare for possible consequences.

Ask me something!