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Marks of Life: The Visual Language of Tattooing

Lars Krutak

“A tattoo... is always more than meets the eye.” (V. Vale)

In 1888, British writer

,

Anne Walbank Buckland, a longstanding Fellow of

the prestigious Royal Anthropological Institute and one of its first female

members, penned a pioneering paper entitled “On Tattooing” wherein

she outlined, perhaps for the first time in history, the wide geographical

distribution of female facial tattooing across the Indigenous world.

1

She

argued, contrary to prevailing Victorian Age sensibilities, that tattoo was

more than mere ornament, and after providing an astonishing range of

cultural meanings articulated that these permanent body marks spoke

volumes about what it meant to be human. She also opined that tattooing,

which was an almost universal human tradition, had received little

attention from anthropologists although the antiquity of the practice was

unquestionable.

Until recent decades, the subject of tattooing in anthropological and art

historical discourse continued to receive inattention. So much so it would

be until 1988, a full century after Buckland’s essay, that the first systematic,

cross-cultural and interdisciplinary attempt to assess the significance and

meanings of tattoo was published in Arnold Rubin’s landmark volume

Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body

.

2

Across the Indigenous world, however, the tribal peoples I have worked

with for over twenty years have rarely described tattooing as an “artistic”

practice as Rubin was wont to do. That is because there are no terms for

Dr. Lars Krutak

is a tattoo anthropologist, photographer, and writer. He is known for his

research and books on the history and culture of the tattooed indigenous body. He produced

and hosted

Discovery Channel’s

documentary series “Tattoo Hunter”, which explored

vanishing tattoo cultures. His works are showcased in exhibitions around the world.

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