Skin deep: the ancient art of body decoration

Kate Bystrova

Arena Culture

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


© Tonnaja Anan Charoenkal /

© Tonnaja Anan Charoenkal /

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.

“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-black, ground charcoal and soot that is forced under the skin using bundles of bamboo splinters or needles, and a mallet; small shards of animal bone or crushed meteorite can accompany the pigment to imbue the tattoo with more power.

Tattooing is used for coming-of-age ceremonies and initiations, symbolising both death and birth – the passing of the old and the start of the new. For many Dayak tribes, tattooing is performed as part of a sacred ritual that is accompanied by the sacrifice of fowl and the donning of special clothes made from the bark of the mulberry tree, a cloth normally reserved for widows and the dead. The excruciating tattooing process takes hours and may be completed over many weeks. Traditionally, the first tattoo a man receives is the Bunga Terung, or eggplant flower, to mark his passage into manhood and symbolise new life. Others follow over the course of his life, marking where he has been and what he has done – the Entegulun, for example, is an Iban mark created on the palms of those who have taken heads, while the Ukir Rekong, a tattoo made across the throat, is meant to strengthen the skin there and so protect against decapitation. Similarly, Kayan women are tattooed at puberty to show that they have become adults, while Iban women are marked in recognition of their accomplishments in singing, dancing and weaving where men would be recognised for triumphs in hunting and warfare.

For the Ngaju people, who were recognised as a group separate from the Dayak in the 2000 census, men that have earned a certain amount of wealth and status are rewarded with a star tattoo across the shoulders, rooster wings and plant patterns along the arms. Traditionally, older men who have distinguished themselves by living in accordance with ceremonial law, participating in head-hunting expeditions (historically a common practice among the Dayak) and offering a human sacrifice were allowed to get the ‘complete’ Ngaju tattoo: the tree of life would adorn his torso as a symbol of strength and divinity, offering protection from his enemies and imagery derived from palm fronds would grace his arms. He was then considered deific and perfect, ready to receive a golden body in the next world.

Tā moko is a form of permanent marking practised by New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori. The skin is carved using uhi, a set of chisels, rather than punctured, leaving the skin grooved and raised. According to Maori mythology, there was once a young man by the name of Mataora, or ‘Face of Vitality’, who was in love with Niwareka, a princess of Uetonga, the underworld. One day, Mataora beat his lover and she left him, travelling back to her father’s realm. Overcome with guilt, the lovesick Mataora went in pursuit of the princess, overcoming many trials and obstacles. Finally reaching Uetonga, Mataora, bedraggled and covered with dirt, humbly begged Niwareka for forgiveness, which she eventually gave him. Taunting Mataora for his unkempt appearance, Niwareka’s father offered to teach him tā moko, the art of tattooing, and tāniko, a colourful style of weaving. When Mataora and Niwareka returned to the overworld, they brought these arts with them.

The Adivasi, India’s indigenous people, are a minority group, making up approximately 8.6 per cent of the population, or 104 million people, according to a 2011 census. In Arunachal Pradesh, however, they are a majority, making up about 90 per cent of the province. The Apatani, a tribal group of about 60,000 people living in Arunachal Pradesh’s Ziro valley, are known for their exceptionally efficient method of agriculture, which uses neither machines nor animals. Although the practice largely died out in the 1970s, it was tradition that women should tattoo a line from their forehead to the tip of their nose as well as several lines on the chin, adding to this a pair of plugs, or yapiñ hullo, that were inserted into the holes made in the sides of the nostrils. Apatani men would tattoo their chins with a ‘T’ shape.

In Japan the practice of full-body tattoos is often associated with the yakuza, one of the most powerful organised crime syndicates in the world, although since the 1990s it has become increasingly common for ordinary people to get tattooed and, whether due to this or to dwindling finances, the practice of tattooing among yakuza is on the decline. Estimated to have 103,000 members and a strong presence in Japanese media, the yakuza can be traced back to the Edo Period (1603–1868) and two social groups: tekiya, who were mainly peddlers of stolen goods, and bakuto, gamblers – the name ‘yakuza’ actually means 8-9-3, or ya-ku-za, a losing hand in Oicho-Kabu, a form of blackjack. The link between tattoos and criminality also stems back to around this time, when criminals were branded with bands on the arms or kanji on the forehead – marks that could later be disguised under large, decorative tattoos. The full-body tattoos sported by many yakuza members are known as irezumi and are still formed using traditional tools of sharpened bamboo or steel, making for an expensive and painful procedure than can take years to complete, with designs often drawing on nature, religion and folklore.

Tattoos have become less common among the yakuza in recent years as they are rather conspicuous markers for a crime syndicate hoping to avoid the attention of the authorities. Today, while the prevailing attitude towards tattoos in Japan is not a positive one, those with impressive body tattoos – yakuza or otherwise – can openly display these to appreciative crowds at Sanja Matsuri, a Shinto festival held each spring at the Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo.

While many cultures practise the ancient custom of tattooing, others use less permanent methods of body painting. Mehndi is the traditional art of drawing with henna practised during wedding rituals in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and it remains in use to this day, with the bride’s hands and feet being covered in intricate patterns prior to the ceremony.

The henna paste is made predominantly of ground henna leaves and the designs, which vary in style and complexity, are said to ward off evil, attract good energy and promote fertility. The earliest evidence of the use of henna as a dye lies with the mummies of ancient Egypt, whose hair and nails were often dyed a reddish-brown. Botanists believe that the henna plant came to India from Egypt, where it was also used as a dye from around 700 AD to colour cloths and animals.

Even less permanent, but no less sacred and enduring, is the practice of painting the skin with pigments derived from the earth for protection and as a display of social standing. It is said that native Americans were dubbed ‘Red Indians’ by the first white settlers in North America because of their tradition of painting themselves with ochre, a yellow-red earth pigment that has been considered sacred by many cultures around the world. The red paint was meant to shield against evil forces and insects alike, and was part of a tradition that reflected the wearer’s cultural heritage and social status. Alongside clays of different hues, roots, berries and tree barks are ground and made into a paste that is then used as face paint.

While different tribes have their own unique methods of body painting, the paint is traditionally applied in accordance with a ritualistic order, beginning with the nose, using only the index finger and middle finger for application, and then spanning out to the forehead, chin and eyes. Sometimes the whole face would be plastered with mud, leaving holes for the eyes and mouth, while warriors tended to use coloured clay, with each tribe displaying its own designs for ceremonies and battle.

Even as the traditional practices of tattooing are dwindling, a new and popular type of tattooing is taking their place. Particularly in the West, tattoos are becoming increasingly commonplace expressions of identity, personal rather than cultural, reflecting favourite bands and television characters as well as lovers’ names. The world is modernising and taking the practice with it; one thing that seems certain is that, while ancient practices might die out, tattooing itself will not be left behind.


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