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Marks of Life: The Visual Language of Tattooing

“art” or “artist” in the majority of Indigenous languages. Instead, tattooing

is integrated into the social fabric of community and religious life, and

typically speaking, it is a cultural, clan-or family-mandated practice that

anchors societal values on the skin for most everyone to see. Seen from this

light, tattooing is a system of knowledge transmission that has been and

continues to be a visual language of the skin whereby culture is inscribed,

experienced, and preserved in a myriad of culturally specific ways.


Marks of Civilization

numerous edited volumes and monographs

focusing on Indigenous tattooing have been published. These works have

begun to fill the void in tattoo studies and have resulted in new insights

concerning the roles, functions, and cultural significance of tattooing in

relation to the reproduction of Indigenous cultures worldwide.



skin is a potent source of cultural pride, precisely because it reenacts the

actions and performances of gods, spirits, culture heroes, and ancestors

who marked their own skins.


Wrapped in images of these beings or

imprinted with iconography derived from them, tattoos have become

venerated in many cultures as symbols and instruments of tribal unity,

genealogy, and identity.

Mark My Face | Spiritual Tattoos

Across Indigenous cultures, the face was often the primary location for

tattooing. This is so because the human face is a vehicle for perception

and self-image, and the usual location we look to before making our

initial impressions of the people we interact with. Cross-culturally facial

tattooing functioned as an interface where many kinds of information

could be communicated, including concepts that embodied strength,

affiliation, and accomplishment that could never be taken away. Moreover,

the receipt of facial tattoos typically signified that an individual had been

properly enculturated into their respective community and had mastered

the necessary skills to become an adult, husband, or wife. In the Canadian

Arctic, Inuit elder Jacob Peterloosie remembered: “They said you weren’t a

real woman until you had [facial] tattoos! Just like the saying [we had] for