Tattoo Art 101 with Madame Lazonga: Modern-day Tattoo Rituals
By Vyvyn Lazonga
“One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Over many years as a tattooist, I have found Joseph Campbell’s ideas profoundly accurate. Our lives are becoming faster and faster, and people are becoming more connected to their technology than their families or their inner selves. Hopefully, this new technological culture is beginning to search more and more for connection and meaning.I’ve been noticing that people are beginning to take tattoos very seriously. I usually don’t watch those tattoo shows on television, but the other day I caught a glimpse of “Inked,” and it seemed like the whole show dealt with people coming in to commemorate a loved one, usually one that had passed away. It was very encouraging to see the tattooers showing a great deal of compassion and mindfulness in doing their absolute best. I’m encouraged by how much this profession has grown, not only technically but psychologically.
In a previous column, I discussed myth and how people are recapturing the stories of their lives by utilizing mythological ideals in their subject matter. Alongside this idea is the recapturing of ritual and how some are using the tattoo to bring another level of ritual into their lives. Many people that I talk to are becoming more and more disconnected from the deep rituals that filter throughout every religion. Of course there are many for whom the religious ceremony of church, synagogue and mosque are very satisfying, yet there is the other side of our modern culture that I believe is turning to Eastern as well as Western culture.
I speak of ritual in the sense of the sociological need of humans to connect to a spirit within. It is well documented in sociology and anthropology that ritual is one of the basic human needs, the need to connect to something greater than oneself. This “something greater” is what has brought humanity out of barbarism, destruction and separateness and into creativity and compassion. This need can often be met through physical suffering, meditation, fasting and prayer. Rituals have also been used for centuries to mark great changes in the human condition, such as rites of passage, sacrifice for the good of the tribe, luck in battle, birth and death. Historically, tattooing has been a large part of this ritual history.
For example, the Maori of New Zealand are intimately connected to the rituals that surround their tattooing. The women tattoo their chins and lips, as a sign of maturity. Both men and women were tattooed as a way to attract the opposite sex, as well as to identify their family and tribe. Japan has a long history of tattooing, dating back to the Jomon period in Paleolithic Japan (10,000 B.C.—300 B.C.). These cultures utilized tattooing in ritual, and as a part of their daily life.
Many people in Western cultures believe tattooing arrived along with the colonial reaches of Europe. This was really the rediscovery of the tattoo, and took place during the period of exploration, when adventurers like William Dampier and Captain Cook returned with tribal people who were often heavily tattooed. The tribal men made such a mark on British society that the British, and often nobles, began discretely to tattoo themselves. But long before that, even the goddesses of old, such as the Morrigan of Ireland, were tattooed. Warriors from Celtic, Nordic, Viking and Germanic tribes all practiced tattooing in ritualistic ways, usually as part of preparation for war, rites of passage or religious ceremonies. The resurgence in the late 1600s brought the people back to their heritage, once again allowing them to connect, even in some small way, with ritual and tattoos.
In the last few decades, I have seen several tattoo resurgences. The first was when I began to tattoo in l972. At that time, there were so many bikers getting tattooed. I can’t tell you how many times I tattooed “Harley Davidson” on people’s arms. It was the time of the women’s movement and there were flocks of females coming in to get tattooed. And there were a lot of military boys coming in at the end of the Vietnam War. The designs were not as sophisticated as we have today, but the feeling was very intense. I think their celebration of just being alive and being able to document it on their skin was enough.
The second resurgence was in the early 1980s, when tribal style and fine-line techniques became popular, thanks in large part to Don Ed Hardy, who published TattooTime, put on tattoo shows and promoted a myriad of talented artists like Leo Zulueta. Then in the early ’90s, the industry began to snowball into another renaissance of experimental designs and painterly styles. More and more artists started to discover tattooing as a means of expression. Now, at the beginning of the next century, tattooing has evolved to a level not recognized before.
When I say my clients are beginning to take tattooing more seriously, I mean they are choosing their artist and subject matter more carefully, along with respecting the procedures. They are using their tattoos to connect with the deep-seated rituals that are missing in their current lives. Even if the tattoo is only decorative, it is still an affirmation of the person’s life. For me as an artist, the whole process of creating is one of ritual. There is the consultation with the client, the time to create, the setting up of the tattoo machines and area, the actual tattoo time, the breaking down of equipment once the session is over, the healing time for the client and, finally, the taking of photographs. This is my tattoo ritual, and I have several clients who, in their own way, treat their time with me with great, ritual respect. They have their own ways of engaging in the process. One always brings water and lemon drops. Of course, it’s such a subliminal thing,
but most of my clients are very quiet and meditative. Maybe because I’m fairly quiet when I’m tattooing and am partly deaf from decades of listening to the tattoo machine in my ear. Sometimes when I’m tattooing, I catch my mind wandering, as minds like to do, and I’ll remember what one Tibetan Rimpoche said: “The mind is like a monkey hopping from tree limb to tree limb, endlessly hopping.” If this happens, I’ll remember and just let it be, or sometimes I’ll redirect it to some positive affirmations.
I am truly grateful to be alive and see all of these changes that are taking place. And grateful to share this and write about it. As usual, I’m curious to know what others do in their own practice, and what your experiences have been.
Your sister in tattooing,
Madame Lazonga, (Madame Lazonga Tattoo, Seattle, Washington)