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Updated on April 22, 2010
Photo by Fabio Pereira
Photo by Fabio Pereira

Tattooing is the production of patterns on the face and body by inserting dye under the skin. Some anthropologists think the practice developed from painting the face and body. It may be done for decoration, as an indication of status, or as a means of obtaining magical protection.

Photo by Karen Andrews
Photo by Karen Andrews

Tattooing Methods

There are several methods of tattooing. In the Pacific islands, tattooers use a dark pigment made of soot mixed with water or oil and sometimes vegetable juice. The tattooer follows an outline traced on the skin, tapping the back of a comblike arrangement of thorns or bone to force the row of points repeatedly through the skin. The comb may be dipped into the dye before tapping, or the coloring matter may be rubbed into the freshly made wounds. Since the points do not penetrate deeply, the pain caused is not severe. Once applied, the designs are permanent, and mistakes cannot be corrected.

The operation is sometimes performed to the accompaniment of group chanting and dancing, which are intended to encourage the patient. An experienced tattooer is usually a man of high rank and is well paid for his skill.

In New Zealand a unique process was formerly used in tattooing Maori warriors. Special artists, called tohunga, marked the warriors' faces with individual, combinations of curves and spirals, with the dye laid into grooved lines cut into the skin rather than into punctures. The design became an important mark of a man's identity.

Eskimo women of the Canadian Arctic used a kind of sewing as a method of tattooing. Lines on the chin to denote marriageable age were produced by drawing a blackened thread through the skin with a bone needle. Similar effects— though produced by other methods—have been observed in members of the Yakut tribe of Siberia. Two young people of this tribe were shown to the Russian court in 1733 and were described as having "sewn faces," because the designs resembled stitching.

Photo by Mark Designs
Photo by Mark Designs

Worldwide Extent of the Custom

Tattooing is an old custom that is distributed around the world. It was practiced in Egypt before 1300 B.C., evidence of tattooing was found in burial remains in Siberia dating from 300 B.C., and Julius Caesar reported that the natives of Britain were tattooed when he invaded their island in 54 B.C.

The most complex decorations were made on the Marquesas islands in Polynesia. In fact, the word "tattoo" comes from the Tahitian tatu. Both men and women were tattooed, especially those of high social status. Sometimes a man's entire body was covered with a network of designs. Even the scalp, eyelids, and the inside of the lips might be ornamented. Marquesan designs were abstractions based on the human figure and objects in everyday use.

Some tribes of South America use an arrow or a tooth in their designs in the belief that man can intimidate evil spirits with the picture of a sharp implement. Burmese males were once tattooed from the waist to the knee with repeated inidvidual figures in patterns. Demon figures were expected to protect against snake bites, and cats were believed to increase the wearer's agility. All the non-Muslim tribes in Borneo used tattoos, with different decorations for men and women. One of the men's tattoo devices showed that the individual had taken a head and was therefore mature and entitled to marry. Up to the middle of the 20th century many people in Iran were tattooed to beautify themselves, to cure sickness, or to protect against the evil eye.

Tattoo decoration had never been really popular in American or European society. Studies suggested that the practice has been found more frequently among criminals than in the population at large. On the other hand, merchant seamen and members of the armed forces have experimented with it, especially in foreign ports. "Tattooed ladies"—or men—used to be sideshow attractions at fairs and circuses.

That opinion, and the taste of the general population at large, has changed in recent years, with tattoos showing up on the 'type' of people who would have previously shunned them and avoided tattoo parlors completely.

In some parts of Africa, Australia, and New Guinea, where the people's skin is too dark to contrast effectively with the pigments used in tattooing, a permanent patterning is achieved by producing artificially raised scars, or keloids. In some cases these marks are used for clan or tribal identification. They are a feature of some types of initiation and are sometimes considered to enhance a person's beauty.

Photo by Kat Kotrla
Photo by Kat Kotrla


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