Today people are appropriating these ancient practices, Rainier believes, because they want to carve out an identity in a chaotic postindustrial age by inscribing shoulders and shins with symbols of love, death and belonging.
Even if a design has no literal significance, the act of tattooing is an initiation rite in itself. “A tattoo stood—and among many peoples still stands—for many things, including the ability to tolerate pain,” says Nina Jablonski, a Pennsylvania State University anthropologist and author of Skin: A Natural History. Sometimes, physical loveliness becomes inseparable from personal suffering. In West African nations like Togo and Burkina Faso, where scarification is common, Rainier would often ask to photograph the most beautiful man and woman in a given village. “Inevitably they would be the most scarred,” Rainier says. “You didn’t gain your beauty until you were scarred.”
Taken as art, tattoos unite disparate cultures, says Skip Pahl, who displayed Rainier’s photographs at California’s Oceanside Museum of Art. The images attracted an unusually diverse group of museumgoers: Samoan immigrants, surfers, gang members, U.S. Marines and devout Latinos, all of whom have their own tattoo aesthetic. The exhibition was accompanied by a runway show in which tattoo artists paraded their most exquisitely inked customers.
After visiting the Mentawai last year—a trip previously thwarted by security concerns after September 11, 2001, and by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—Rainier says his tattoo portfolio is at last complete. His own epidermis remains thus far unimproved, but that’s about to change: “I said to myself once the project is over and done that I will pick an artist and a design,” he says. “I’m at that point now.”
Having spent 20 years exploring the power and permanence of tattoos, however, he’s finding the selection very difficult: “We live in a culture where everything is disposable, and it’s like, ‘wow, that’s forever.’ ”
Abigail Tucker is the magazine’s staff writer. Photographer Chris Rainier is working on a book about traditional masks.