It has been estimated that 500 years ago perhaps 1,000 indigenous cultures practiced tattooing. Today, most of these groups have completely vanished from the face of the earth, and only a few continue to persist in the remote hinterlands of Asia, South America, Africa, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Only fragments of this once rich heritage of body art remain in our modern world, but they allow us to gain a glimpse of a culture that connected tattoo, ritual, religion, myth, and nature from which indigenous tattoo culture ultimately sprang.
Why was it important for indigenous tattoo artists to create permanent designs on the body? Were they made for purely aesthetic impact or for other more magical reasons? What deeper significance did these elements have for their makers and owners? And what did they communicate to others?
Shamanism, Sacrifice and Tattoos
For millennia, nearly all indigenous people who tattooed practiced shamanism, the oldest human spiritual religion. Death was the first teacher, the boundary beyond which life ended and wonder began. Shamanistic religion was nurtured by mystery and magic, but it was also born of the hunt and of the harvest and from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that they had to kill that which they most revered: plants, animals, and sometimes other men who competed for resources or whose souls provided magical benefits.
Mythology developed out of these associations as an expression of the covenant between humans, their environment and everything contained within it. But more importantly, it was a means of eliminating the guilt of the hunt and maintaining an essential balance between the living and the spirits of the dead.
Shamanism is animism: the belief that all life – whether animal, vegetable, or human – is endowed with a spiritual life force. Sacrificial offerings, especially those made in blood, were like financial transactions that satisfied spirits because they were essentially “paid off” for lending their services to humankind or to satisfy debts like infractions of a moral code which most indigenous peoples around the world observed.
For example, the heavily tattooed Iban of Borneo respect adat or the accepted code of conduct, manners, and conventions that governs all life. Adat safeguards the state of human and spiritual affairs in which all parts of the universe are healthy and tranquil and in balance. Breaches of adat disturb this state and are visited by “fines” or contributions to the ritual necessary to restore the balance and to allay the wrath of individuals, the community, or of the deities. Traditionally, such rituals included the sacrifice of a chicken, pig, or in special instances even another human – especially when a new longhouse was built.
Perhaps the most common and important blood sacrifice practiced by many tattooing cultures worldwide was headhunting: the taking of human heads for ritual use. Human blood, the fertilizing essence of everything animate, was a highly revered sacred substance believed to appease spiritual powers that controlled the forces of nature. Among the prehistoric and tattooed peoples of ancient Peru like the Moche, Tiwanaku, and Chimü, ritually prepared human heads were perceived as potent sources of power to be harnessed and tapped in order to promote agricultural fertility and relations with the ancestral dead and deities. Analogs drawn from historical headhunting cultures of India, Borneo, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Brazil also support this model, because the ritual taking of human heads in these places was accomplished to ensure both biological and agricultural fertility, among other magical advantages.
Apart from their role as the guardians of tribal religion, some shamans actively participated in tattooing traditions themselves. Among the Paiwan of Taiwan, the Chukchi of Siberia and the Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, female tattoo artists – who were usually shamans – worked via supernatural channels to cure their patients of “soul-loss” which was attributable to disease-bearing spirits that could be either human or animal. Sometimes proper treatments included the application of medicinal tattoos at particular points on the body or “tattoo foils” to disguise the identity of the sufferer from such malevolent entities.
The Chukchi and Yupiget also tattooed fertility stripes on the cheeks of barren women or stick-like anthropomorphic “guardian” markings on the foreheads of men and women to harness ancestral powers. In all cases, Paiwan, Chukchi and Yupiget shamans were proactive in rearticulating the surfaces of their patient’s bodies by multiplying its inscriptions and reinscribing its parts. Although the tattoo pigments used by the Yupiget were considered to be “magical” and evil spirits were afraid of them, the perceived efficacy of these treatments was not only confined to the technical or performative aspects of the tattoo application itself. Rather, the shaman’s power arose from helper and ancestral spirits who communicated their magical and curative powers through her.
Not all tribal tattooists were shamans, however. Some were simply traditional healers with particular specializations (e.g., eyes, ears, throat). In the northern Philippines, tattoo artists tattooed markings on the throats of patients suffering from goiter or other markings on the backs of individuals plagued by skin disorders. Yet many tribal tattooists did work under the guidance and protection of one or more spiritual helpers. In these instances, some tattoo artists were like shamans in that they employed methods of spiritual and physical medicine to “cure” their patients of serious conditions.
The Kayan tattooists of Borneo, who were always female, tattooed a design called lukut or “antique bead” on the wrists of men to prevent the loss of their soul. When a man was ill, it was supposed that his soul had escaped from his body: his recovery showing that his soul had returned to him. To prevent the soul’s departure, the man would “tie it in” by fastening round his wrist a piece of string on which was threaded a lukut within which some magic was considered to reside. Of course, the string could get broken and the bead lost, so the Kayan replaced it with a tattooed bead motif that has come to be regarded as a charm to ward off all disease.
Interestingly, the Kalinga of the Philippines have a related belief. When blood is inadvertently drawn in the village, including that which flows during a tattooing session, a sipat gesture is made. The sipat is similar to an exchange of peace tokens, and begins with the sacrifice of a chicken whose blood is rubbed near the injured body part. A brief chant is given to ward off any evil spirits, and then a red carnelian bead (arugo) on a string is placed around the wrist of the person who was injured. This bead is also a protective device against malevolent spirits; it “pays off” any spirit in the vicinity.
The Mentawai of Siberut Island also wear intricate bead tattoos on the backs of their hands. One man told me that these permanent beads “tied-in” his soul to the body but that they also made him more skillful whenever he needed to use his hands to perform various tasks. It should be noted that the Mentawai people are one the most profusely tattooed people living today. The reason for this, they say, is that their beautifully adorned bodies keep their souls “close” because they are pleased by beautiful things like beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, facial paint, and above all tattoos (titi).
Tattooing Techniques and Magical Referents
Tattooing has always been a creative process and depending on local environmental and cosmological forms and meanings, tattooing techniques were quite varied. In Papua New Guinea and other insular regions of Southeast Asia like the Philippines and Taiwan, lemon or orange thorns were utilized in hand-tapping tools; whereas in Polynesia hand-tappers preferred comb-like instruments forged from animal bones.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, groups like the Makonde practiced skin-cut tattooing by carving designs into the living flesh with iron tools made by the blacksmith and then rubbing-in carbon pigments derived from the castor bean plant. The Native peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, like the Haida and Tlingit, used hand-poking tools probably derived from Japanese sources, although they are much smaller in scale. Each pigment brush was carved with a crest animal that imparted supernatural protection to the design thus created.
Other indigenes like the Ainu of Japan and several Native American groups in California like the Hupa preferred obsidian lancets with which to slice open the skin; afterwards a sooty pigment was rubbed into the raw wounds until the skin felt like it was “on fire.” Both groups practiced medicinal forms of tattooing and also more supernatural forms aimed at blocking evil spirits from entering the orifices of the body. Amazonian groups preferred various varieties of palm thorns to prick-in their tattoos, while the pre-Columbian Chimú seemingly skin-stitched their tattoos with animal bone or conch needles attached to sinew or vegetable threads – such tools have been found in mummy bundles.
The technique of skin-stitching was also practiced by more northerly Arctic peoples like the Yupiget, Chukchi, and Inuit until the early 20th century: a practice believed to be over 2,000 years-old. Tattooing here was always performed by women, and tattooing in the traditional manner required extensive knowledge of animal products, pigments, and natural substances suitable for indelible marking.
In the Yupiget and Chukchi areas, lampblack was the primary pigment used to darken the sinew thread because it was believed to be highly efficacious against “spirits.” However, fine dark graphite (tagneghli) was also used. Tagneghli was a magical substance obtained through barter in Siberia, and it was considered to be the “stone spirit” which “guards” humankind from evil spirits and from the sicknesses brought by them. Traditionally, it was used to protect village children from the possessive spirits that were “awakened” as a result of a recent death in the village. Lampblack or graphite was then mixed with urine (tequq), perhaps because it came from the bladder: an organ believed to be one of the primary seats of the life-giving force of the soul. Some Yupiget elders of St. Lawrence Island told me tequq was poured around the outside of their traditional semi-subterranean houses because: “Many years ago, urine was very special. It scared away the evil spirit.”
Buddhist monks in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos utilize tools that resemble a sharp two-foot long metal skewer split at one end about two inches to form a needle-sharp pronged tip. The space created between the two needle tips acts as a reservoir to hold the tattoo pigment. These tools look much like a shish-kabob used to barbeque meat and vegetables on the grill. In Thailand, each tattoo is created by a master monk called an arjan.
The inks that the monks use are personal recipes, and some are thought to have special “protective” qualities due to their unusual and magical ingredients. For example, some arjans use sandalwood, steeped in herbs or white sesame oil. Oil extracted from wild animals such as elephants in must, galls of tiger, bear, python, and even cobra venom or the chin fat from a corpse are said to be used. Others mentioned that the exfoliated skin of a revered arjan was added to Chinese ink mixed with holy water to make their tattoo pigments. In these cases, it is believed the tattoo created from such an ink would cause people who interact with the wearer to behave in a reverential manner towards him, as if they were actually in the presence of a monk.
The Art of Magical Tattoos
For thousands of years tattooing has been as much of a statement of a world view in which humans, nature, and the supernatural landscape are united, as well as documenting a range of ideas about the sacred geography of the skin – our most natural canvas. Tattooed images reveal a close relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and in the cosmology of the tribal tattooist, humanity was thought of as an integral part of life’s web on every level of existence. In the animistic universe, natural and supernatural forces were propitiated, cajoled and appealed to for the benefit of humankind, because indigenous peoples sought to acquire access to the power of various animals, spirits and their ancestors.
Tattoos established visible links between the spiritual and the natural domains by tapping into them, allowing the body to escape into a world where there was nothing but the magical essence of things, sublimely detached from the here and now.