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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