Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review of Taboo (Culture Shocks)

Review of Taboo National Geographic Documentary
(Culture Shocks) S1E1

There are two seasons, with 13 episodes & each episode is 47 minutes long; this is for S1E1--Tattoos
Rated 5 of 5 stars.

Anthropologists seek out special tattoos symbolizing head hunters or killers who have removed the head, but such people are hard to find so many years after the last known head hunting tribe was active (1940-60 or so). One old man is finally found but does not bear the tell tale symbols due to being too young at the time of the killing to safely receive the markings (in their cultural beliefs, to have tattooed him before his manhood ritual would be to cause illness on him and the tattooist).

The name, tattoo, comes from the sound of the sticks being tapped together with one long stick having a sharp needle on it's end, and another stick held perpendicular to it & tapped onto the top of the one with a needle, to make the designs with black ink. Pain is seen as a strengthening of the body & soul, as a ritual for children & boys into adulthood or other milestones of life. Traditional tattoo artists that practice the tribal art, are hard to find, it is a dying culture with those coming from the tribes being embarrassed to be identified as coming from the "woods", longhouses & traditional tribal villages, for they are seen as poor & less educated.

In this episode the tribal uses of scarification are also featured prominently, and I must admit to having to look away as razor sharp cuts by the hundreds are made into both a young boy for his transition to manhood, and to a baby as his mother holds him down, so that the baby will be accepted into their village & not become outcast. They are not allowed to express or show the pain, for that would mean they are not worthy of receiving the marks, or of transitioning into the next step of their life. Because these people have dark skin, tattoos do not show on them, so their culture has substituted scarification instead. All of the village members MUST be scarified, or outcast, never belonging or being accepted. This show goes into great detail on these beliefs, without judging those who practice them, and examines both the morals & ethics of a non-tribal society's view as well as their view of us.

Lastly they cover a tattoo convention in Finland, where for once the tattooed feel they belong, are not judged by society, are not in the minority. Many of those featured speak of being addicted to the tattoo process, or to the pain and the endorphin rushes they receive from facing the pain. On the extreme side are those who provide entertainment at the convention by being suspended from hooks placed in strategic areas of their skin, such as behind the knees, the shoulder blades & lower back, then being hung & swung in circles, to which they receive audience reactions & energy in addition to the endorphin highs their actions bring. [Very similar to the coverage shown in both Modify & Flesh & Blood documentaries on suspension].

All perspectives are examined in turn, questions answered, curiosities satisfied, all without judgement of the participants--which I find very refreshing in this documentary series. One part hard to forget is the man who has tattooed 80% of his body--in his own estimation--with only his hands & face left unmarked. He stated he can NOT stop, he must continue tattooing the rest. My question, which was NOT answered is this, what happens when that 20% is done, what will he do after that, when there is no skin left to ink? Has he even considered that question himself?

Briefly, piercing was also covered but was not in any way the focus of any part of this episode, probably because in later shows it will be covered in much detail. The audio & video were superb & I'd highly recommend this series to anyone interested in various cultural taboos, and within the 2 seasons of episodes, EVERY taboo IS brought into the lime light in the same ways as this episode was, without judgement, and fairly full coverage of all sides or perspectives. I give this a 5 of 5 stars.


  1. thank you for sharing your thoughts. I found the post refreshing on an often-overdone topic…

  2. Thanks for commenting, this is one of my more detailed reviews. Most are limited by the netflix review size, but in series type reviews, since only one review is allowed for the entire series, I am doing those separately here & in full. I need to go back & finish more of the series as the subjects are fascinating & the coverage is so professionally produced.