Somewhere between the three in ten Americans that have at least one tattoo and the one in eight that consume cannabis on a daily basis lies an overlap of people who partake in both ancient rituals. Whether or not tattoo and/or marijuana enthusiasts consider themselves a part of tattoo or cannabis culture, know that such culture exists, or self-identify themselves as belonging to one or both of these cultures is irrelevant. For a certain number of Americans, there is cross-section of these cultures and with that overlap it makes sense to take a broad view of some of the commonalities shared between them, flesh out the threads that tie them together and present them for examination. If nothing else, we dive deeper into the inquiry around ancient ritualistic practices and our own anthropology.
A Labor of Love
Tattooing in America was heavily stigmatized throughout the last 100 years, with many eras of prohibition and stigmatization against the art. Long time tattoo artist and activist Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand claims that due to the high income potential and nature of the work tax collecting on artists is challenging and this has lead to several myths and stigmas laid on the industry over the years. Daring artists who believe in the practice, didn’t stop tattooing during prohibition times, they just moved into the shadows and fought in the courts to create the industry we have today.
America’s “War on Drugs,” a war against it’s own people was started to end cannabis cultivation in the 1980’s as the Government sought to control all drug production in the United States with Draconian laws and the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing. As with tattooing, the prohibition didn’t stop the profession, merely moved it into the shadows, and today we see a trend developing with eight states plus Washington D.C. allowing the cultivation of the plant. The main issue being around taxation and regulation and once Uncle Sam is satisfied that it can collect, the safety protocols in place for society, much like tattooing, we will see this industry explode much like tattooing has over the last thirty years.
Despite oppression the trade of tattoo artistry, cannabis cultivation, processing, and sale fought through the jaws of the state, these industries and trades have been earned and not given. Those, like Shanghai Kate, Sailor Jerry, Paul Booth, and many more fought so that today practitioners of their craft can operate free of punitive government intervention. Sadly, the modern tattoo artist and cannabis business owner, largely pays little homage to the history of those who sacrificed to lay this foundation. In the cannabis industry, very few cannabis business give to associations or non-profits who advocate for the underserved despite the millions flowing through these states. In tattooing very little homage is paid to the activists who fought for the industry to exist. History, is quickly becoming a mystery.
The stigmas that shroud those within the tattoo and cannabis culture can be truly impactful to the individual’s ability to thrive in society. From pre-employment “urine analysis” to having to wear band-aid cover-ups or long sleeve shirts; the hoops that members of these cultures have to jump through in order to fit in at certain positions are well documented and discriminatory. From awkward meetings with an ultra conservative parent of a new love interest to a judge pulling up a Google image of a mother smoking a joint at legalization rally to justify awarding custody rights to jobless, lazy, and disengaged father, the stigmas loom large when discussing the impact of ink and medicine on the real world of these subcultures.
For members of both the tattoo and cannabis culture's, someone who uses cannabis daily and is covered in tattoos can be heavily stigmatized and discriminated against despite the fact their tattoos and cannabis consumption may provide them with joy, may honor their spiritual beliefs, help improve their mental and emotional well-being and does no harm to the outside world.
The Social Science Journal looked at tattoo behavior and bias. Some of the findings are pretty obvious: For instance, if you're surrounded by friends or family members who have tattoos, you are more likely to think getting tattoos are no big deal. But researchers also found that the more tattoos a person had the more they felt on the receiving end of stigmatization. And the more stigmatized a tattooed person feels, the more likely they are to cover them up or have them removed.
America’s political establishment has spent decades delegitimizing these two ancient traditional rituals in media, politics, and business despite legitimate applications for medical, spiritual, and recreational use making a mockery of critically important and popular tenets of human life.
The way members of these communities can best fight these stigmas is by rising above them, joining together in unity, and educating society on how wonderful, safe, and useful these practices are. This is where history becomes so important. By learning how tattooing and cannabis was used in ancient times and how that is now being modernized and advanced with modern technology in the present, we can hope to tell the story of the potential of these industries in modern times.
Perhaps we can start to help people think about how tattoos join people in unity around a cause or bind them to a community or how the cultivation of cannabis can bring people back into a daily commune with the natural world by reconnecting man with plants. The potential of these possibilities and how they can impact our society in a positive way are limitless.
Entrenched in Spirituality
Religious tattoos are one of the most common types of tattoos. Bible passages, pictures of Jesus, and Holy Cross are found on almost street in America. However the spiritual use of tattoos dates back hundreds of years into ancient times as tribal nations used tattoos as rights of passage into adulthood, as a part of burial rights, and sometimes it was believed the soul could not pass into the heavens without tattoo markings. Today there are many indigenous cultures that still depend on tattoos as part of their sacred traditions, but that number is shrinking due to the adaptation of Western civilization into even the darkest corners of the Earth.
In modern times, we still see the regular use of henna tattoos amongst Arab cultures, a tradition dating back to antiquity. Historically, henna was used in the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia parts of Southeast Asia, Carthage, parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Henna is different from standard tattoo industry pigment in that it is temporary and limited in color selection due to the type of ink used. Henna is a derived from a plant from the same name, although in antiquity henna was originally made from the feces of the dromedary, or one-humped camel, which inhabits the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Henna, when used spiritually is used by women during marriage rituals in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Algeria, Morocco, and India.
Cannabis is classified by botanists as an “entheogen” is a consciousness altering chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context that may synthesize or obtained from a natural species. Other known entheogens are peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, iboga, and salvia divinorum. There are many more.
Ritualistic use of cannabis as a sacrament has had prominent use in ancient times, as it’s Hebrew name, kaneh-bosm was one of the ingredients for the Holy Anointing Oil, integral to the anointing of priesthood in as written in the Old Testament. Etymologist Sula Benet is credited for the translation of the formerly mysterious ingredient which in ancient Hebrew “kaneh” means “reed” or “hemp” and “bosm” means “aromatic.” In the present, spiritual use of cannabis is best known by use from the Rastafarians, who were believed to have learned of cannabis’ spiritual use from the Sadu’s of India, intense worshipers of the Hindu God Shiva who fashioned cannabis as the most high herb. In America today, use of cannabis as a sacrament is making somewhat of a comeback in certain Christian circles, with churches forming in Rhode Island, Georgia, Indiana, and Colorado all claiming their sacred right to use cannabis in their spiritual practice.
Legitimate Medical Use
The history of tattoos and cannabis cultures goes back thousands of years, in fact Pazyrk people of Siberia were found to possess burning cannabis and covered in tattoos. The famed “Ötzi the Iceman” a nickname given to the well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 BCE has fascinated scientists for years, due to the vibrant presentation of his 61 well preserved tattoos, most notable for the belief that the tattoos were used as pain treatments similar to acupressure or acupuncture. Over 80% of Ötzi’s tattoos were overlapping with Chinese acupuncture points. The mummy, found in 1991, is now located with his belongings (most raided over the years) displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.
It turns out that tattooing is one of the oldest arthritis medicines in the world. In addition to the physical pain management benefits of tattooing there are the obvious chemical responses, for starters: You’re going to have a rush of adrenaline, because someone is coming at you with a needle. And you’re going to release endorphins – your body’s chemical response to pain – which can make you sort of high. Getting tattooed can become a trade for people with mental or emotional pain, for a short time they can trade that for physical pain and perhaps be left with something personal and permanent to give them some internal relief.
Cosmetic tattooing is one example of how people often receive mental or emotional relief, physical scars from abuse, fires, or other traumatic skin conditions or injuries can leave people with something beautiful in its place that helps the memory of something terrible in the past fade faster. Another way that we people deal with emotional distress with tattoos is memorial tattoos, a fashionable way to mourn a loss of someone close or a family member. Recently there has been a trend with women who've lost their natural breast due to cancer, replacing them with tattoos. In some cases the women have reported drastic improvements in self-confidence in just being able to see themselves restored physically in the mirror.
“Ötzi the Iceman” was also found to have “medical marijuana” in his possession. Found in a stash of shamanic herbs, cannabis resin was tested to be present. In modern times, we know that cannabis is a powerful pain reliever and has medical potential to reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic that has ripped America apart. With the mummy’s tattoo’s believed to be pain relieving, it makes sense that “Ötzi” would have some medicine to help with pain.
The uses of medical cannabis are well documented at this point, from reduction of seizures, pain management, as an anti-inflammatory, sleep aid, and more. An entire multi-billion dollar industry has formed around a plant species and its myriad of uses. Despite the thousands of testimonials from patients, push back from most of the world exists on an open tax and regulated system that allows patients to grow and sell their own medicine. In this regard, the fight wages on to legalize cannabis for medical use and we can look to the success tattoo activists have had in lobbying for their industry to break through and have hope.
The most common applications for cannabis and tattooing in America are recreational use. People get tattoos and use cannabis, simply because they want to. In the book, “Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of Body Art” author Michael Atkinson proclaims that it is human nature to want to alter our bodies that “our hunger for altering our corporeal only frustrated by the limits imposed by our imaginations, financial resources, products at our disposal, and scientific-medical technologies.”
The use of drugs is also human nature according to Dr. Andrew Weil in the book “The Botany of Desire” by author Michael Pollan. "In every culture and in every age of history, an enormous amount of human energy has gone into the production, distribution and consumption of psychoactive plants."
Prohibitionist laws that withhold people from doing things which come natural to our species and hold us accountable punitively as a crime is an inhumane to govern. It places unreasonable expectation on people to operate outside of our ancient history and needs to be examined and reformed. Our society is supposed to be advanced in intelligence, but the fact we have ever allowed our government to withhold us natural behaviors that are not proven to be cost society anymore than other behaviors like eating unhealthy/unnatural foods and sugars along with alcohol and tobacco consumption is not only troubling but a discriminatory that must change if we are to be a fair and balanced society.
There are costs involved with ritualistic practices used recreationally for the tattoo enthusiast and cannabis enthusiast. There could be negative impacts on their life, the way are perceived, or possibly some health impacts. The use of unsanitary needles in tattooing could lead to infection or possibly allergies related to certain pigments or even bacteria in the pigment. Cannabis users can slow their brain function and lead to weight gain due to the appetite stimulation effects of THC. These are some of the things to be considered and aware of when considering making recreational use of these practices. The more you get tattooed and consume cannabis, the more the user exposes themselves to these risks. These risks are well documented and perhaps the courage and willingness to deal with these potential issues, is the final element that binds these cultures together.
Fortunately, tattooing has already broken through and laid a foundation in America for how other stigmatized, natural human pleasures and practices can become a mainstream lifestyle. Now cannabis is following in that path. Eventually, other psychedelic entheogens and plant medicines such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, and peyote will follow.
We’ve seen with both industries a great strategy is to develop strong public relations, advocacy, and activism in states that allow ballot initiatives or voter referendums. Then work with policy writers to develop a strategy around the taxation and regulation of the industry, and finally to hire lobbyists to help convince state representatives to push the legislation through the state houses. Ultimately, once enough states (at least half) have agreed to make a legitimate taxed and regulated industry, enough evidence exists to lobby to the Federal Government to make legalization the law of the land.