VATICAN CITY (AP) — Tattooed mummies in ancient Egypt, Crusaders who branded their foreheads with crosses, and New Zealand's inked Maori warriors were fodder for an unusual conference at a Vatican university Tuesday on the role of tattoos in shaping identity.Related post:
"Into the Skin: identity, symbols and history of permanent body marks" was the brainchild of a Christian arts association and Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, an unlikely expert in the field given Judaism's prohibition of tattooing and the painful role that tattooed serial numbers played in the Holocaust.
Ambassador Mordechay Lewy acknowledged the paradox, saying the living memory of Auschwitz's blue death stamps added another layer to Jewish aversion to tattooing, which many orthodox rabbis forbid because it alters the human body as a divine creation.
Yet Lewy is a respected expert within the field — and a fierce critic of what he calls today's "commercialization" of an important aspect of cultural history that stretches from Jerusalem to Japan.
Tattoos "can symbolize a social rank, identify ethnic affiliation, indicate experience of religious pilgrimage or of a rite of passage," he told the two-day conference that ended Tuesday. "They can also be a sign of rebellion or diversity."
The conference, held at the Vatican's Pontifical Urbaniana University, just up the hill from St. Peter's Square, marked the first of its kind and participants marveled that it came together at all given that the study of tattooing is a relatively new field of serious academic research.
"I was gobsmacked," said Oxford historian Jane Caplan, who wrote a seminal anthology on tattoos in U.S. and European history. "It seemed so unlikely," particularly Levy's guiding hand in helping organize a tattoo conference at the Vatican.
**Is Getting A Tattoo Wrong?