Humbled to have been invited to present the opening tattoo section chapter in the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Body Modification.

This is an ambitious and loaded book with contributions by leading Indigenous tattoo practitioners, tattoo archaeologists, physical scientists, and others and is a landmark publication encompassing numerous forms of body modification practiced from prehistoric times  to the present.

My contribution is a survey of the existing ethnographic  literature that includes the work of contemporary Indigenous tattoo scholars. My hope it that it will stimulate readers to think more deeply about this pan-human practice and pick up the mantle and move the research (and practice) forward. Enjoy!


One Mark at a Time: Ethnographic Notes on Tattooing


For millennia tattooing practices, the embodied process of inserting indelible pigments beneath the skin, have been commonplace among many Indigenous peoples. As a visual system of knowledge transmission, these enduring cultural expressions were invented to communicate where human groups came from, what territory they belonged to, and who their ancestors were. Tattooing also conveyed personal and ontological information regarding social status, achievement, medicine, and relationships with nonhuman beings. Based on ethnographic records spanning the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries and fieldwork conducted over the past two decades, this chapter offers a primer on Indigenous tattooing practices, reviewing their significance and meanings. Methods, tools, tattoo products, practitioners, and the religious implications of Indigenous skin marking are addressed to elucidate the meaning behind tattoos, the status of Indigenous tattooists in their respective communities, and the role that nonhuman entities (i.e. spirits, ancestors) played in shaping a tattooed person’s sense of self.