Crazy Interesting Tattoo Practices from Indigenous Cultures Around the World
Like everything else in life, trends are constantly evolving when it comes to tattoo designs. For some, perhaps they're rocking the classic heart-tattoo-with-a-name-through-it look. Or maybe they've got a few Japanese kanji characters that mean "strength" or "love." Or some mean-looking barbed-wire spiraling around their bicep.
That is to say, that while tattoos are typically regarded as a symbol of individuality, there comes a point when a specific style catches on (like, say, early 2000s tribal) and soon spreads like wildfire, burning away the original intention of getting the ink done in the first place.
Then there are those that go back thousands of years. Indigenous cultures around the world have a long history of tattooing. Their tattoos were first done to signify a bond between tribe members, or to camouflage flesh during a hunt.
Indigenous tattoos are unique in that they've transcended all of the common trends. Perhaps because the symbolism contained within their art is timeless in and of itself. Something that doesn't belong to any one era, but rather is meant to stand the test of time. Indigenous tattooing exists apart from societal trends. It is purposeful, functional, and less about expressing your individuality than signifying a connection with one's community.
Similarly, indigenous tattoo practices exist apart from modern tattoo studios. Many tattoos in indigenous cultures are still done with traditional methods, some of which may surprise you. Read on to find out more about this time-honored tradition.
Girls Would Get Tattoos at Age 12 in Polynesian TribesPhoto: georgeogoodman / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
In Polynesian tribes, while the men were permitted to be given tattoos anywhere on their bodies, particularly the face, women were only allowed to receive tattoos on their lips, ears, hands, arms, and feet.
It is also believed that girls would receive tattoos at the age of twelve, as this was when they were permitted to take on more responsibilities within their family and tribe.
The Maori Used Caterpillars to Make Ink
Nowadays, tattoo inks have advanced to the point where it's possible to get blacklight embedded in your skin, on top of the thousands of different color shades possible. But thousands of years ago, it was a little harder to come by certain inks to get your colors just right.
In the case of the Maori people (indigenous New Zealanders), they used some ingenious tricks. While darker hues were somewhat easier (a simple burnt wood concoction did the trick), those that were lighter often utilized corpses of caterpillars that were infected with a certain type of fungus.
Indigenous Polynesians Used Tattoos to Honor WarriorsPhoto: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions
While anyone can go into a tattoo parlor and get the design of their choice, indigenous tribes held their art to be much more sacred, and in some cases, they had to be earned before anything was put to flesh.
Specifically, when it came to the warriors of Polynesian tribes, tattoos were used to designate strength and power. The more tattoos one had on display, the more prominent they were within the tribe - which also spoke to their history on the battlefield.
Ancient Indonesian Tribes Used a Process Called 'Hand-Tapping'
Using what is called the "hand-tapping" technique, early Indonesian tribes would often simply attach a needle to a stick and repeatedly tap it against the skin to create the desired design.
While it certainly takes longer, some modern Indonesian tattoo artists have re-adopted this technique as a way to honor their heritage and the practice of their ancestors.
Some Aboriginal Tattoos Were Inspired by the Belief in 'Dreamtime'Photo: Karen Sarkisov / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
While the term "Dreamtime" itself wasn't coined until the early 1900s, Aborigines (indigenous Australians) nonetheless held very strong beliefs about animism, the belief that every creature holds a spiritual essence, which is at the core of Dreamtime.
So... what is it, exactly? Dreamtime is the "understanding of the world, its creation, and its stories." That is, the Dreaming is a place where the souls of every animal and plant existed before there was a proper physical world (i.e., the Earth) for them to inhabit.
Because of this, Aboriginal tribes believed spiritual laws such as rituals, ceremonies, and social behavior were created prior to our existence in the physical world, and have been transferred to the bodies of every living thing.
Thus, many inspirations for tribal art, particularly animal tattoos, came from concepts that originated from the belief in Dreamtime.
Some Polynesian Body Art Was Created by ShamansPhoto: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions
According to Polynesian mythology, tattooing was an art form passed on by the God of Creation. Prior to tattooing a tribe member's skin, the shamans performed a "spiritual cleaning," which was said to prepare the wearer for the tattoo itself.
Once the body was cleansed, the shaman adorned his subject with a design according to the wearer's genealogy or personal achievements within the tribe.