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Global 21 fourth quarter 2015

Arena Arts Skin deep: the ancient art of body decoration From large, dramatic tattoos that signify status or coming-of-age, to face painting for war or ceremony, people have been decorating their bodies for thousands of years Kate Bystrova A Chin woman in Myanmar with a facial tattoo. The tribe used to tattoo girls as young as nine in accordance with ancient custom to prevent them being kidnapped by invaders in adulthood. The practice, which saw tattoos vary from one region to another, has now died out How we dress and decorate our bodies is a reflection of our identity, our personality and cultural history. All around the world people are using their bodies as a canvas to document experiences and beliefs – but this is by no means a new practice. Evidence of permanent body painting dates back to the Neolithic Era – 9500 BC – in Eurasia. Ancient tattoos have been found scored into the flesh of Ötzi the Iceman, who dates back to 3300 BC; mummies such as those found in the permafrost of Altaï, dating back to 300 BC; and the Ukok Princess and warrior, both believed to have been Pazyryk, a nomadic group described in the works of Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC. Their colourful body art was the best preserved and most elaborate ancient tattooing ever found. © Tonnaja Anan Charoenkal / Shutterstock.com “A man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods,” reads one Iban proverb from Borneo. While there are still people all around the world carrying on the body-painting traditions of their ancestors, many of these cultural customs are vanishing in favour of modern trends. For Borneo’s Dayak peoples, tattoos are a way to draw on the spirits present in plants, people and animals for power and protection, their artists consulting with spirit guides in the creation of every design. The practice diminished in the 1950s when many Borneans converted to Christianity and a lot of tattoo designs were lost, but there was a resurgent interest in such traditions ten years ago. Among the Kayan, tattoo artists are always women, the role being passed from mother to daughter; among the Iban, the largest indigenous group in Borneo, it is the men. Their tattoos are blue- www.global global four th quar ter 2015 -br ief ing.org l 49


Global 21 fourth quarter 2015
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