Sometimes the meaning of a tattoo is not easily understood by the viewer. Other times, the tattoo’s meaning is all too apparent and can influence the viewer to see the marked person in a very negative light.
According to “Skin Stories” on the PBS website, having an armband tattoo based on an ocean-inspired design is a symbol of aboriginal pride for Hawaiians. This tattoo came into use as a cultural symbol in the 1970s so it is extremely modern and is not directly related to the ancient tradition of kakau. Historically, kakau was the process of marking your body with a tattoo to express sorrow over the loss of a loved one.
Barbed Wire Armband
According to “Ethos Magazine,” seeing a barbed wire tattoo used to be a fast way to identify a member of the Russian mafia who had been pinched. The barbed wire was symbolic of the barbed wire that surrounded the prisons. Where the tattoo was located on the body explained the severity of the crime. A barbed wire arm band was not nearly as chilling as a barbed wire tattoo on the forehead, which meant that the person was serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Solid Black Armband
In Japan, a solid black ring around a person’s arm can inspire fear and discomfort. The reason, according to the Aichi Center for Japanese Studies, is that a solid black band has historically meant that the person is a Yakuza member. David Kaplan and Alec Dubro, the authors of “Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld,” point out that Yakuza is similar in some ways to the mafia in America, but the Yakuza is larger, more structured, and able to operate out in the open. Even though Yakuza has gained some respect in the public sphere, the tattoos still carry the stigma of criminal activity.
References and ResourcesPBS: Skin Stories--The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo
Ethos Magazine: The Code of Thieves
Aichi Center for Japanese Studies: Things Japanese - Yakuza
"Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld"; David E. Kaplan & Alec Dubro; 2003;