Above ordinary, or just normative?

What determines our reaction toward tattoos? 

Above Ordinary Hawaii, a concert featuring AOMG (Above Ordinary Music Group) affiliated artists Hoody (후디), Ph-1, and the label’s co-founder Mr. Jay Park (박재범), is hitting the stage of the Blaisdell Concert Hall on April 1st. Jay is a businessman, an entertainer, and a creative. However, when he appears on Korean television, some of his creativity tends to be covered up; Jay has tattoos which aren’t included in the proverbial “professional image” style guide of Korea nor the United States. Park and his tattoos open a cultural conversation that extends to our islands. Should we or should we not hide our tattoos for the sake of being professional, or normal?

Despite cultural ties, historic ties, or personal resonance, tattoos are not often seen as evoking a sense of “professionalism”. University of Mississippi hospitality management professor Tanya Ruetzler et al. writes, “apparent tattoos are not desirable for indicating professionalism.” She continues, “people with tattoos are often assumed to be more likely to engage in violence, heavy drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, or mental illness.” Further, “tattooing leads to negative perceptions involving such personality characteristics as lack of competence, character, social ability, honesty, intelligence, artistic ability, generosity, motivation, and responsibility.”

In the Korean context, Mushin/문신(tattoos) have been associated with lowly statuses. Judy Park of Seoul National University writes, “records show that munshins were used as a form of punishment in the early Joseon Dynasty. Some yangbans, or nobles of dynastic Korea, used munshins to make a mark on their servants so they could not run away.” Park states that in contemporary Korea tattoos have, “developed into a sign of membership among criminals or gangs in Korea, taking after the customs of the yakuza, in Japan.” Due in part to this association, some Korean media programs require guests with tattoos, like Jay, to cover their tattoos when appearing on these programs.  

Tattoos are seen in Hawai’i on locals and visitors, across genders and ages alike. Scholars Paul Sweetman and Mie Hiramoto summarize why tattoos are common in Hawai’i, “being the indigenous practice of Polynesia, tattoos have long been a tradition in Hawaii, and native Hawaiian motifs have become popular among tattooees in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.” Hiramoto adds, “[L]ocal tattooees symbolise their often multi-layered local identity through local tattoos which, though they have more predictable content and style, serve to link them to the broader pan-Asian culture found in Hawaii.”

Tattoos in a local Hawaiian context, are cultural artifacts that carry identity within them. Yet, that identity might not always be so profound or deeply historical; tattoos of the Disney characters: Stitch, Moana, and Maui (not to be confused with a tattoo of our neighboring island nor its county) do also exist, as well as tattoos of sometimes obscure pop culture references. I have a pop culture tattoo on my body; for over 20 years I have resonated deeply with Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise, and got a related tattoo done in Kaka’ako for my 30th birthday, yet it is clearly not historically significant.     

This brings the argument back to Jay Park; he may not be perfect, and his musical imagery does play up a number of the aforementioned assumptions, but, he is an example of a successful Asian-American global entertainer with artistic ability, a businessman with character, an entrepreneur with motivation, a brand ambassador, and TV personality who has tattoos. It is important to ask, should accomplished individuals such as Park be ashamed of their tattoos and told to hide them? Are we, through the promulgation of this widely accepted “professional image” and company appearance policies, devaluing cultures such as Polynesians, local Hawaiians, and native Hawaiians? If more companies relax or rework their policies, will a moral malaise occur?

So, are our thoughts on tattoos above ordinary, or just normative in not questioning the validity nor consequences of the arguments handed down to us by society, our parents, community leaders, and etc.?