Am I a dick for getting a tattoo of a cave painting?
August 17, 2015 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I would like to get a tattoo of a cave painting. It would go well with my trilobite and archaeopteryx, I reckon. Is this appropriative or uncool in any way that I'm overlooking?

Here's the mammoth in question. It's from the Chauvet cave in France. I am an American. Cis, male, white, and privileged if that matters. My thinking is that it's 30,000-years-old and I reckon that's as much shared heritage as any of us have outside of Lucy.

However, please let me know if I'm missing something. Once I get this tattoo done it's pretty much going to stick with me. Please give me your feedback.
posted by stet to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's a 30,000-year-old cave painting of a mammoth. From France. Don't worry about it. Anybody who'd give you grief about that is somebody you really don't want to know.

Be prepared to answer a lot of questions about your elephant's ball-feet though.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:57 PM on August 17, 2015 [32 favorites]

Are you kidding? That tattoo would kick ass. If I knew you, I'd keep asking you to show it to me.

(Just don't be like the author of the YA book I read and constantly refer to cavemen making all the cave art. Because that may not be true.)
posted by thetortoise at 9:58 PM on August 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I... cannot think of anything wrong with this. However, not gonna lie, there are probably going to be random people out there who will somehow think it is fucked up, or something, who the fuck knows. But seriously this is like outside of identity politics, if it's meaningful to you I think you should do it up.
posted by easter queen at 10:00 PM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

My thinking is that it's 30,000-years-old and I reckon that's as much shared heritage as any of us have outside of Lucy.

I think that is solid thinking. Appropriation is not at all awesome, but that is usually a situation where members of a larger culture with a historical (or more likely) currently oppressive or relationship to a smaller or less powerful one unthinkingly use elements of culture without understanding their context and without being respectful of the original meaning of it, often in a very surface level way.

I don't think that applies here at all. I say go for it.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 10:00 PM on August 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: The ball feet are clearly because it is a racing mammoth.
posted by stet at 10:08 PM on August 17, 2015 [60 favorites]

I don't think so. The paintings are a products of ancient cultures, not cultures that people are connected to and identify as part of today, which is where issues of cultural appropriation begin. I kind of like how it's an expression of our shared history as humans, actually.
posted by sevenofspades at 10:08 PM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

30K years old? From a cave in France?
I saw your picture in your profile: those are *your* ancestors.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:11 PM on August 17, 2015 [15 favorites]

I also can't see any issues with appropriation. Not knowing its provenance, though, the ball feet and unusual proportions would definitely inspire questions. Or more likely, silent judgement, because I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable sharing those questions with you, honestly :/ (You asked!)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:42 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't even like tattoos and LOVE this idea. I'll never forget the visceral tingle of delight and deep recognition when we lucked into seeing the cave paintings of Rouffignac.
posted by bearwife at 11:07 PM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

We don't know who created those cave paintings or what they meant. No one has standing to complain about cultural appropriation in this case. Even if they did art is not some form of intellectual property that can be hoarded by one culture.
posted by rdr at 1:06 AM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Knowing me, I would mistake it for a bearded, trimmed poodle. I think this looks fine.
posted by yueliang at 1:27 AM on August 18, 2015

Best answer: I'm an anthropological archaeologist, super sensitive to cultural appropriation, a WOC, and I see nothing wrong with this at all. (Actually I am super jealous and want this tattoo for myself).
posted by thebots at 1:27 AM on August 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A really interesting question is whether the artists who came up with the design might have been tattooed themselves. There is some good evidence that they might have been (the earliest tattooed body known is a mummy from about 6000BC).

As for the big ball feet: the Chauvet cave has high levels of carbon dioxide and radon in it - meaning that it is only possible to stay there for a few hours (see article about Verner Herzog's visit - clip from his film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams") - anybody who dared to go in there 30,000 years ago could damn well put trippy ball feet on their mammoth if they wanted to. Remember that the torches held by the artists - combined with the curves of the walls - would have made the animals appear to animate as they explored the place - some bison are depicted with 8 legs.
posted by rongorongo at 1:41 AM on August 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Great idea!!! Most original tat idea I've heard of in a while. Go for it!!
posted by pearlybob at 4:44 AM on August 18, 2015

A friend of mine has a cave painting tattoo and it looks ace!
posted by ozgirlabroad at 4:54 AM on August 18, 2015

I think it is a cool idea for a tattoo
posted by Flood at 5:10 AM on August 18, 2015

Please, please, please post a picture of your tattoo! I was fortunate enough to visit Lascaux a couple of times when I was a kid in the 1950s and it's stayed with me as one of the greatest experiences of my life.
posted by mareli at 5:55 AM on August 18, 2015

Best answer: OK, I'll play ancestor's advocate.

I think the argument would be that you're taking something which had significance in a culture you don't understand and using it out of any serious context, for merely decorative purposes - which might show some disrespect to the original culture: or worse, to boast a sophistication and familiarity with the ancient culture which you don't actually have - which would be a little dickish.

If the mammoth were feeding seriously into a creative or cultural project of your own, that would probably pass muster. Ripping it off 'cos it's cool, not so sure.

I don't see that the fact that the creators are long gone, or possibly your genetic forebears, has anything much to do with it. You're not a member of their culture and you know virtually nothing about it.

Your mammoths may vary.
posted by Segundus at 5:58 AM on August 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

The problem with cultural appropriation is that it does harm. Specifically, to those whose culture is being appropriated (and they are usually oppressed or harmed in other ways in the first place).

Your proposed tattoo would harm no one. Not least of all because there is no one alive to harm, but also because, as you rightly point out, this is part of the shared heritage of humanity. You are not appropriating in the first place.

Enjoy your new tattoo.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:14 AM on August 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Is this appropriative or uncool in any way that I'm overlooking?

The only tattoo that will please all crowds is no tattoo at all.

Your idea of what is cool or appropriate may be different in 25 years. The tattoo will still be there.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:06 AM on August 18, 2015

My only thought is that it might be harder than expected to find someone willing to do a "bad" drawing as a tattoo.
posted by smackfu at 8:37 AM on August 18, 2015

I think it's an awesome idea, and is not appropriative or uncool.

However, it's possible, even likely, that occasionally people will see it and think that it is inspired by or copied from Native American petroglyphs (or art by another indigenous group). Those people might then assume that it is cultural appropriation and think less of you for it, but not say anything. This may bother you or it may not - just something to consider.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:40 AM on August 18, 2015

smackfu: My only thought is that it might be harder than expected to find someone willing to do a "bad" drawing as a tattoo.

I wouldn't consider the piece in question "bad," as much as "rough" - lots of tattoo artists are good at copying whatever they are given, without regard for their own judgement of the piece being "good" or "bad." I would instead focus on tattoo artists with specific skills and techniques. I imagine you want a close copy of this style, rough edges and all. That is where it gets tricky.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:37 AM on August 18, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks all! I will mark best answers on either yes/no sides of the question. I'll also be keeping an eye on the thread until it closes. And probably past then.
posted by stet at 1:16 PM on August 18, 2015

There could always be someone who will find something to complain about, but what everyone else has already said about your mammoth - it doesn't seem like it should be a problem.

FWIW, though, I don't think those are "ball" feet. It looks like they were originally meant to feathered, like a Clydesdale's, but have faded and lost some definition.
posted by dilettante at 1:29 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd recommend this BBC documentary about the Origins of cave art, if you are trying to get a better handle on where your image comes from. It tackles the issue about how 2d artistic depictions of the world suddenly appear in human history only about 35,000 years ago and about why they were made where they were. A quick spoiler: it was originally believed that the animals where most likely to have been images connected with hunting - but it was noted as strange that only certain animals were depicted - not all animals which were eaten were also drawn. It took the scholar David Lewis Williams to look at the images made by the San people on caves in South Africa - they only stopped doing this about 200 years ago and a number of those who remembered the practice were interviewed by Victorian researchers.

The evidence for the San - and for other cave art is that it is shamanic in origin. Its form is also dictated by the type of 'entopic' visual hallucination that one gets if deprived of light for a long period of time. This can sometimes take the form of dots and grids - and sometimes it can take the form of images which are particularly emotionally resonant: Eland for the Shan, mammoths for the people of Chauvet cave (and I bet anybody who ever came across a wild mammoth would count that as as an emotionally resonant experience). The theory is that the artists drew not what they knew - or what they had previously sketched - or even what they had dreamt- but rather the images that they were seeing in their sense-deprived hallucinogenic state.

The first take home message from all this is that the image you see was, at least according to Lewis Williams' theory, made by a shaman trying to contact the spirit world to ask for assistance - who opted to try to make a permanent record of his own personal vision. This was, most probably, so that it could be shared with others. This spirit of sharing would, perhaps, extend to whoever might view the tattoo on your arm 30 odd millennia later - or indeed those of us looking at this post.

The second message is that you can re-create your own personal Chauvet-inspired image by going into a pitch dark cave for a day or two - waiting until you start to hallucinate, lighting a torch and then sketching what you see. You might take some friends in their with drums - and maybe a few magic mushrooms. It would be uncomfortable as hell - and maybe a bit dangerous - but it would then be completely your own image. Or maybe ask your tattoo artist if they are interested in that experience.

For yet more reading I'd recommend this academic article by Eva Hopman
posted by rongorongo at 8:58 AM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

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