Tattoos: The Human Body as a Work of Art
men, ‘[That] you can’t get a wife until you’ve learned to build an igloo!’”.
On the other side of the world, 101-year-old Atayal elder Iwal Kainu of
Taiwan offered similar testimony. Recently she told me: “No man would
marry an Atayal woman without facial tattoos and no woman would
marry a man who did not have facial markings.” She continued, “I do not
regret my tattoos and I am very proud of them because it is an honorable
tradition and the mark of an ideal Atayal woman”.
Apart from these traditional markings, Indigenous tattooists were
often called upon by their clients to apply protective power upon their
bodies via specific kinds of tattoos. Among the Yonkon Naga of Myanmar
and Chang Naga of Nagaland tattoos certainly carried a protective
function. Yonkon women told me their intricate facial patterns were
applied at a very early age to repel evil spirits, with the additional function
that they remained with their soul after death allowing their ancestors to
recognize them. Chang Naga women owned forehead tattoos to protect
them from tigers. The most popular pattern was a lozenge placed on the
forehead near the hairline when a girl was about ten years of age. Chang
women said they wore such a tattoo because it would frighten any tigers
that crossed their path. Obviously the tactic worked, because there are no
memories of tattooed women being attacked by tigers.
Sometimes the dynamic power of the tattoo was instead related to the
use of magical pigments (e.g., Shan of Myanmar), or charms placed into
the pigment itself (e.g., Iban of Borneo). Among the Yupik people of St.
Lawrence Island, Alaska, the Berber of North Africa, and the indigenous
people of the Gran Chaco region of South America, the saliva of the
tattooist was considered to embody supernatural power and was mixed
with tattooing pigment to neutralize, or deter the advances of evil spirits.
But the perceived efficacy of these “treatments” was not only confined
to the technical or performative aspects of the tattoo preparation and
application, because many tattooists were also shamans or healers and
their abilities arose from helper and ancestral spirits that communicated
their magical and curative powers through them.
To a considerable extent, I surmise it is from this socio-moral and