The most ancient and widely employed form of permanent body alteration is
tattooing. Archeological eVidence indicates that tattooing was probably
practiced among peoples living during the late Stone Age. Carved figures from
European sites dated 6,000 years B.C. and Egyptian figurines created some 2,000
years later show facial and body markings thought to represent tattoos. Proof
of the antiquity of the practice is derived from the mummified body of a
priestess of Hathor (dated 2.000 B.C.) that bears parallel line markings on the
stomach thought to have had medicinal or fertility functions.
Tattooing in ancient Egypt was confined
to women. especially concubines, dancers. and priestesses. Mummified remains
bear series of dots and geometric line patterns. Singers and other female
entertainers were decorated with the symbol of the goddess Bes. the protectress
of women in these roles.
In 1948 archeologists working at Pazyrykin in Siberia discovered a burial
mound constructed by Sythian nomads in the fifth century B.C. A number of
well-preserved human remains were found encased by ice, some of which bore
intricate black line markings on the arms. legs, and torso. The tattoos were
sophisticated animal designs-fish, cats. goats. and sheep-and probably held
As early as 2,000 B.C. tattooing spread from the Mideast to the Pacific
Islands by way of India, China. and Japan. Theories of how the diffusion of
tattooing into Pacific Island cultures took place vary. It is most probable
that the practice was carried by the Ainu. a nomadic caucasian group that now
inhabits the northern island of Japan. Samoan explorers may have adopted
tattooing after encountering it in their western travels. and introduced it
into Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, and the Hawaiian Islands. An alternative
explanation of the diffusion holds that the practice was carried to Polynesia
and New Zealand by South American explorers in their western travels. It is
certain that tattooing was a feature of Aztec. Inca. and Mayan culture.
Extensively tattooed mummified remains dating from the first century A.D.
have been found in Peruvian excavations. Whatever its route of diffusion.
tattooing was a well-established decorative form by 1,000 B.C. Arguably. the
most sophisticated. decorative. and rank-symbolizing tattooing in tribal
societies was (and, to a limited degree, still is) practiced by the Maoris of
New Zealand. Both males and females were tattooed, but with different designs
and in different degrees.
Maori women usually received limited moko markings on the lip and chin area.
while men carried extensive facial and body tattoos consisting primarily of
whorls, geometric patterns. and other non-representational, ornamental designs.
The designs were so individual that, following contact with Europeans, they
were often used by members of the nobility as signatures on legal documents
(see Simmons, 1986).
Moko designs were inscribed with a serrated bone or shell adze dipped in
pigment made from the oily smoke of burning nut kernels. The design was
literally chiseled one-eighth of an inch into the skin as the adze was struck
with a mallet. The moko process was extremely painful and surrounded by
extensive ritual. The recipient's social contact was severely limited and he or
she was forbidden to touch food or items used for food preparation during the
course of the process, which commonly lasted several days. Typically, one side
of a man's face was decorated when he was young and completed a number of years
later. Considerable status was attached to those who were most heavily
tattooed. Maori males routinely used mussel shells to shave and tweeze facial
hair in order not to cover the moko deSigns. The tattooed heads («pakipaki») of
enemies killed in battle were removed, preserved, and proudly displayed by
victorious warriors. while heads that did not carry moko were rudely discarded
as «papateas» or «plain-faced ones».
The dominant function of tattooing in all tribal societies was to denote the
bearer's status or social identity. Commonly, the painful tattoo process was
part of the rite of passage to adult status. By stoically undergoing the tattoo
ritual, recipients could demonstrate their bravery to the other members of the
group. In Borneo. Kayan women were given ornate leg and arm tattoos often
depicting traditional, stylized dog designs. Covering the arm below the elbow
was particularly important since an undecorated arm was seen as a sign of
cowardice-the indiVidual was unable to endure pain. Among the Shan of the
Society Islands, untattooed young men were regarded as immature since they did
not yet have the courage to withstand the painful process. Tattooists
encouraged the young recipient to be brave with the admonition, «If you wriggle
too much people will think you are only a little boy»
Tattooing typically also had religious or magical purposes, often proViding
a means of identification or protection in the afterlife. In Fiji, women who
died without tattoos were believed to be beaten by spirits of other women and
served as food for the gods. The spirits of women of Long Glat in Borneo were
assigned tasks after death based on the extensiveness of their tattооing. The
most heavily tattooed could gather pearls in the heavenly river, while those
who died with partial decorations could watch, and those who were untattooed
were excluded altogether. In addition to assuring immortality or improVing
one's chances of enjoying a pleasant afterlife, tattооing in tribal cultures
was often believed to insure the bearer's good luck; to help charm members of
the opposite sex; to protect one from accident; to preserve youth; and to bring
Women of nomadic tribes in Yemen and the Maghreb, for example.
still practice facial and hand tattooing intended to have prophylactic or
therapeutic functions. The markings protect the bearer from eye diseases,
insure fertility, and bring good fortune. As a decorative art form. tattooing
was, and continues to be. practiced most beautifully and with greatest skill in
Japan. Clay figurines (haniwa) found in a grave mound near Osaka and dated from
the fifth century B.C. show clear facial marks believed to be tattoos that
performed decorative, religious. or status-display functions. This early form
of tattooing appears to have died out by the fifth century A.D. The practice
revived in thirteenth century Japan largely as a means of marking criminals and
other social undeSirables. Criminals were tattooed with symbols
indicating the nature and geographic location of their crime.
Members of outcast groups-principally hinin who were entertainers or dealt
with criminals, and eta who slaughtered animals and tanned leather-were also
marked with stigmatizing tattoos. By the early seventeenth century a form of
tattooing called irebokuro (from «ire» meaning «to inject» and «bokuro» meaning
«beauty spot») enjoyed wide popularity. This form of non-pictorial tattooing
demonstrated pledges of undying loyalty and love. It was common for people to
have a loved one's name or a vow to Buddah inscribed on their skin. Irebokuro
eventually died out as a decorative practice largely due to government
suppression. In the mid-eighteenth century (during the Edo period) a Chinese
novel called the SUikoden became immensely popular among Japanese from all
social strata. The SUikoden told of the adventures of a band of 108 brigands
who, like Robin Hood and his merry men, devoted themselves to fighting against
the wealthy and corrupt government bureaucrats.
The most popular versions were heavily illustrated with ukiyo-e (wood block)
prints by wellknown artists of the time, especially the famed Kuniyosh1. Some
of the most popular outlaw characters, such as Shishin, «the nine-dragon man,»
and Basho, who wore the image of a fierce tiger on his back, bore extensive
full-body tattoos. Soon Japanese from all walks of life were patronizing
ukiyo-e artists, who now specialized in tattооing, receiving ornate designs
(now called irezumt) displaying heroic figures, gods, mythical creatures, and
other traditional and popular images.
Irezumi flourished until the mid-nineteenth century when it was forbidden by
the Emperor Meiji; he saw it as an immoral practice and was concerned that
newly admitted western visitors might see it as a sign of barbarism. However,
westerners were fascinated by Japanese tattooing; skilled artists-now called
hori after the word meaning «to engrave»-decorated the bodies of European and
American sailors, merchants, and visiting dignitaries.
It is in Japan that non-western tattooing developed to its most ornate,
complex, and colorful. Although it fell into official disfavor and is currently
a stigmatized practice, the art of the Japanese hori is still practiced and a
sizeable and active tattoo subculture flourishes. In addition to its importance
as a traditional art form, Japanese tattooing is a significant modern
phenomenon because of its major impact on the form and content of contemporary
western body art.