December 13, 2011

Tattoo Conference at Vatican University

Tattoo conferences are held all the time in a number of different places, but the one recently held at the Vatican University was something no one had ever seen before. The title of the conference, “Into the Skin: Identity, Symbols, and History of Permanent Body Marks,” let’s you know right away that this particular conference will not be covering dragon tattoos and tramp stamps.

The Who

The Christian arts association and Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See were unlikely experts for a couple of reasons. First of all, Judaism completely prohibits tattooing, stating that it defiles the body as a sacred temple and divine creation. Second, the tattooed serial numbers that scar those who were affected by Holocaust, so tattoos of any kind tend to be painful reminders. Ambassador Mordechay Lewy even refers to the tattoos as “death stamps,” but understands that today’s tattoo trends are derived from a long and rich culture of tattooing.

Lewy’s interest in tattoos stemmed from reading and research that he did while on post in Sweden. There he read logs from Swedish travelers who had traveled to the Holy Land during the 17th Century. Each came back with a tattoo that marked the completion of their pilgrimage. While Judaism stands firm on its views of tattooing, Lewy pointed to the conference participants and declared, “there are a lot of tattoos here…they’re just not visible.” He even disclosed the fact that his own back is covered in them.

The Where

This particular conference was the first of its kind, and come together in a very impressive manner. The history and study of tattooing has actually become its own field of research and academics, but is still extremely new. The conference was held at Pontifical Urbaniana University of the Vatican, which sits right up from St. Peter’s Square.

The What

This conference at the Vatican was all about the history behind tattoos, what they were traditionally used for, what they meant, and how far they have come. Every presentation was meant to open people’s eyes to the fact that tattoos had a vast array of uses over time and that they were ever changing throughout history. Some of the presentations included descriptions of mummies that were found in Egypt, each with their achievements tattooed on them. Most of these tattoos had to do with who they were married to; making sure that their rank was known even after death.

Another eye-catching presentation was that of the 11th Century First Crusade Warriors who branded themselves with crosses (usually on their shoulder or forehead), to display support for their mission. Mystics have also used tattoos for religious purposes over time, tattooing themselves with the “stigmata.” These tattoos are created to mimic the wounds that Christ suffered.

The conference set out to show people that tattoos were more than just art or ink; Lewy describes them as, “…a tangible way of expressing the past.” His only disappointment is the fact that so much of the history of tattoos is still so unknown. He claims that once the tattooed skin has been buried, the whole practice just disappears. The goal of this conference was to share what is known, in the hopes that the history will be carried on and not forgotten.

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