Becoming heavily tattooed in the postmodern West: sacred rite, 'Modern Primitivism', or profane simulation?

The publication Modern Primitives: an investigation of contemporary adornment & ritual (Vale & Juno 1989) introduced Western audiences to niche body modification practices, aesthetics, and philosophies, through interviews with a variety of American practitioners and enthusiasts of tattoo and body modification. The text’s dominant voice, Fakir Musafar, interpreted Western body modification and tattoo within a frame of primitivism, in an attempt to harness its sacredness and potential transformative power. The influence of the text was such that it was claimed to have started a movement, also referred to as ‘New Tribalism’. Since then, academic and popular discourse surrounding spirituality or transformation and tattoo has become synonymous with this ‘movement’. This thesis critically examines Modern Primitives by investigating the origin of its ideas, the epistemological climate in which it developed, and its influence on contemporary ideas about tattoo. Then, through an analysis of contemporary qualitative studies, it asks whether becoming heavily tattooed in the postmodern West can still be sacred or transformative when divorced from Modern Primitivist philosophies. In so doing, it explores: tattoo as profane simulation, tattoo as a means of constructing and manifesting identity, and the function of pain in encountering the sacred through tattoo.

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