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Body Art

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The practice of body adornment has roots reaching back at least 30,000 years. Evidence at archaelogical sites in Africa has uncovered forms of body modification, including flesh permanently marked either by a knife or tattoo needle and elongated earlobes and necks. These and many other practices have fascinated the Western world for years; the body decorations are seen as exotic distortions which served numerous purposes in various cultures.

Cultures cite different reasons for body adornment and celebrate the the body as "a ground on which all cultures inscribe significant meaning." Hewitt explains that body mutilation has long been part of non-Christian cultures as a positive mark of identity, while in many modern Western cultures permanently marking the body has been considered degrading or deviant. While discussing the role that body art plays in today's Western society, it is imperative to realize the influence it has in every other culture. The history of body art is rich in older civilizations, as illustrated by the Burmese women who traditionally wear brass rings to elongate their necks (see picture above). The longer the neck, the wiser and more beautiful the woman, so tradition says. Not only did cultural traditions influence people, but religious institutions had an even stronger bearing.

Many people illustrate confirmation of and devotion to their religions by marking their bodies. A prominent example of this is the Judaic custom of circumcision. Pilgrims of Coptic, Armenian, Abyssinian, Syrian and Russian descent received tattoos to observe their journey to the Holy Land. Tattoos also were used as symbols of passage to a new level of spiritual existence.

While many cultures and religions embraced body art as statements of devotion or status, some forbid it. For instance, the Koran, the holy book of Islam, forbids marking the body and the Christian Bible associates body markings with sin, as shown in the story of Cain. Attempts to eradicate body marking practices were numerous. Pope Hadrian I decreed a ban on tattooing in 787 A.D. and Constantine prohibited tattooing, for it was seen as altering God's work. The Puritans of the New England colonies associated body markings with witchcraft.

While the focus of body art in today's society may not be as extreme as former practices, the degree of body mutilation remains controversial. Humanity seems unlikely to discontinue



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