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Can body art be an effective means to represent social status?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Sharad9, May 26, 2017.

  1. Sharad9

    Sharad9 Scribe

    Body art, or henna, is an important element in this setting. This art is painted on the skin and applied with magic. They are semi-permanent, being removed as needed by other magical items. It is not mandatory to wear, but very popular and widely used by men and women. They are gender specific and applied like makeup to enhance characteristics of the individual. However, rather than just being an accessory, it is also meant to tell a story about the person and there place in the world. Common uses include:
    1.welcoming in the seasons, a new year, or bountiful harvests,
    2. celebrations and festivities, religious holidays 3. wealth and prestige
    4. accomplishments and successes, number of enemies defeated in battle or children birthed into a clan
    5. rites of passage into adulthood, or applied to bodies representing passage into the next life.

    Henna is judged by their beauty and intricacy, as well as the story they tell of the individual or the concepts relevant to this culture that they symbolize. A marking may be pretty to look at, but if there is no meaning behind it, it is meaningless and wasted effort. Important clans may even have unique tattoo specific to their family, and are worn with pride to symbolive their place in the community.

    The society in question is matriarchial, with clan descent traced through the female line. Women often paint their bodies to emphasize female traits, such as wisdom, strength, fertility, intuiton, intelligence, and power. Men, in contrast, use it to emphasize male traits, such as courage, bravery, physical prowess and brawn, honor, victories in battle, etc. Body art can be applied to a number of places, including face, chest, and arms.

    Can this be an effective tool to designate and judge social status among people? What may be some complications that could come of this and how could they be avoided?
    Last edited: May 26, 2017
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    One complication that immediately comes to mind is that some individuals will fake their status or history, applying art that is not appropriate to their station. There would have to penalties of some sort (in my Mora novels, the nobles have tattoos indicative of their rank and heritage — being essentially Polynesians — and the penalty for having the wrong ones is death. Not that anyone ever thinks of breaking the taboo!).
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    As I recall from school, the caste markings that hindu people wear on their foreheads are similar in concept to what you're describing. I'm not sure those marks tell as much of a story as the henna you mention, but they do serve to indicate social standing.

    It's been a long time since I read about it so I don't want to go into any details, but if you're looking for a real-world counterpart that may be worth researching.
  4. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Yes sounds great. It would require a temperate or tropical climate however. Neither cold nor overly dry weather would be suitable for a people who show alot of skin.

    Also if the body art is made of paint as you said then that would likely mean that it would have to be reapplied after every time someone went for a swim. Some interesting anti-swimming habits/rituals might develop among the upperclasses. The lower classes would use simpler designs so they wouldn't have to spend too much time on reapplying the designs.
  5. Sharad9

    Sharad9 Scribe

    This art is applied through magical means and tools. Being washed off isn't a problem. They are permanent unless the wearer wants them to be removed.
  6. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Really, I think this is not much different from using styles of dress as social status, or having status symbols such as expensive cars and Rolex watches. And, it is not much different from the organizations like the military, who use medals and ribbons and patches to be worn and mean something about the individual wearing it. (When I was in, I was infantry blue, and you weren't infantry, you better not be wearing the ribbon).

    It is true that some would choose to wear a medal or insignia they did not earn, but that was greatly frowned upon and got people into trouble. We once had a dude who wore a Ranger patch, but he had washed out of Ranger school, and so did not earn it. When found out, they took his ribbon and busted him down a rank and gave him and article 15. So...it happens.

    So, yeah, I think a society could have such a thing and it could show meaningful things.

    My initial thought is if it is henna, it would wear off and need to be re-applied. But you say it is magic so...I am not sure that comment applies. Perhaps one issue that may arise is people trying to collect meaningful tattoos. 'You mean, I get an extra Tat if I climb that mountain and pull a feather off the thunderbird?" If they are there to get, ppl will want them.

    And perhaps a bit of lording them about like they are Star-belly Sneetches.
  7. Absolutely! Sounds cool. A people that wears their stories on their skin.

    Every culture (I think?) has some kind of symbol like this worn to show status. So it totally works.
  8. Yzjdriel

    Yzjdriel Acolyte

    This is certainly an interesting concept. I think you can bypass the problem of people faking social status by having the people who paint henna being essentially tattoo artists: you have to go to them specifically, and you'll have to pay them more if you want an intricate design or multiple colors (or shades, if what we IRL know as henna is more in line with the setting).

    As a generic "this person has/had money or status", I think it's a decently reliable measure for trying to place someone at a glance. As with anything else, though, it's important to note that every once in a blue moon there will be a person who just doesn't want to adorn themselves with any of that "nonsense", and thus they won't appear to be of the societal class that they are.
  9. C. A. Stanley

    C. A. Stanley Minstrel

    I've always thought this is an interesting idea. There is a certain visual and symbolic appeal.

    If the tattoo is applied by magic, would it not be better to have the design/style of the tattoo determined by the magical method itself? I.e. not controlled by a 'tattoo artist', but the magic naturally draws information from the recipient (their soul, or whatever), and only marks things that are true to that person, and most relevant?

    if this was the case, false tattoos would not be possible. It could also provide some conflict - what if the tattoo reveals something you'd rather not show, or a characteristic you don't want to publicise? If it's a societal 'given' to have a tattoo/tattoos, this last point may become a more frequent concern.

    And if you want them to be semi-permanent, any changes to the tattoo when it 'evolves' would be a nice growth indicator. Maybe even have them 'live' (flowing, constantly changing, if anyone can think of the right synonym here, please let me know (this will bug me for the rest of the day)! If the tattoo changes constantly, or frequently, it could even be used as an indirect form of communication, displaying mood etc.

    So much potential when magic is involved.

    This is something I'd like to incorporate into some writing of my own, but it could be a very complex construct!

    *Edit: I just reread your post, and you did say the tattoos are specifically painted on... My post may now be null and void!

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