Profile: Tattoo Anthropologist Lars Krutak
Tattoo Anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak is no stranger here on Needles & Sins. We've linked his articles numerous times, from research on ancient skin sewing rituals to his visiting the oldest tattoo studio in Greece. We've applauded his documentary series for Discovery, Tattoo Hunter, which explores indigenous body modification practices worldwide. And we've listed his latest book, Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal, as a holiday gift guide pick.What was your experience like working on Tattoo Hunter? While the show is seen around the world it didn't seem to be promoted as heavily in the US as compared to say LA Ink. What are your thoughts on that?
What we haven't done is look beyond his work and profile Lars himself. This past weekend, The Borneo Post beat us to it. The article discusses his 15+ years researching tribal tattoo traditions and rituals, a number of which he has experienced himself. It focuses particularly on Lars's work in Borneo, as he was recently in Kuching to give a presentation at the Gathering of the Tribes 2011, a cultural expo that brought together international tattooists and tribal performers from across Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo). It's a great read and includes a touching story on his visit to the last Iban tattoo artist, who was dying.
Inspired by the article, I just interviewed Lars myself for Skin & Ink. Of course his many adventures could not possibly fit in a limited word count, so I'm offering some bonus bits from our talk below.
As a kid, was there any indication that you'd follow the path you're on today? Were you playing archeologist as a child or poured over National Geographics?
Living in Mexico 1979-81, we traveled all over the country and I visited every Maya/Aztec/Zapotec archaeological complex, so I thought I was going to be an archaeologist, especially after "Raiders of the Lost Ark" dropped. It didn't hurt that my parents had a Nat Geo collection with every issue dating back to the early 50s (which I still have), and I took that love of archaeology and anthropology to college. I double majored in anthropology and art history at the University of Colorado at Boulder (1989-1993) and never looked back.
Was your interest in tattoo sparked during your graduate work at Univeristy of Alaska Fairbanks or beforehand?
After undergrad, I chased my (then) girlfriend to San Francisco in 1995 where I landed my first salaried job at Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery that was operated by Paul L. Thiebaud, the son of Pop Artist Wayne Thiebaud. Right around the corner was Don Ed Hardy's Tattoo City in North Beach so I used to peek in the window on my lunch breaks. Also, my good ole buddy Tony Barton (Hell or High Water Tattoos, New Orleans) was starting to tattoo at that time, and this provided the initial awareness and interest in tattoos. I left San Fran in January 1996 to pursue graduate work in Fairbanks, Alaska, and as I was walking across campus during the second week, I met an Inuit woman with tattoos on her chin. I was hooked at that point, wanted to know more, and that's when I became obsessed with documenting tribal tattoos.
What continues to motivate your research after all this time?
The main thing that motivates me is that these traditions are vanishing around the world before being accurately recorded. Time has always been my enemy, and I wish I would have been born 100 years ago.
Tattoo Hunter was really made for Discovery's international networks (the majority of the funding came from there) since many of these channels were rebranded/renamed in 2009-2010. And as you said, the series continues to air across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia where it is quite popular. We shot most of the series before the worldwide economic downtown, and because we were embedded in remote locations for up to three weeks, it was very expensive to make. Discovery (or anyone else for that matter) will not produce another project like this for years to come because logistically and financially it does not make sense. Today, networks may go to a "remote" location for 5 days (max) of filming, but really you can't get to know someone in such a short period of time. These forays are more of a novelty trip if anything else, so that is why the storyline will always be about the host and not so much about the culture or individuals living there. That was the beauty of Tattoo Hunter because it focused on individuals, their life stories, and why tattooing and body modification was important to them in their own words.
What are your thoughts on modern tattoo culture in general and its evolution?
Tattooing has come a long way since it was appropriated from Polynesians by European sailors some 250 years ago. Today, there are so many different genres of tattooing and the artists are taking it in so many new directions, that is has truly evolved into a fine art form. But I think that it is fantastic and significant that artists and friends Keone Nunes, Eddie David, Colin Dale and others have really promoted the traditional methods. So much has been lost in the tribal world of tattoo, but now we are regaining the knowledge and consciousness of those people (and their incredible talents) who were ultimately responsible for creating modern tattoo culture. Obviously, there is much to be learned from that.
Has there been a greater interest in tattooing within academia considering its growing popularity?
There is no doubt that academics are looking into tattooing and its relations to material culture (e.g., museum collections) more closely because it reveals many insights into the prehistory (e.g., religious beliefs, worldview, graphic arts, etc.) of indigenous peoples that are simply not available through studies of other cultural mediums.
For your upcoming chapters on Native American tattooing traditions for the Univ. of Florida/Texas Press book, what do you think are your most interesting finds?
The "Drawing with Great Needles" book, slated to be published in January 2012, will be highly illustrated and is the outcome of one of the first academic conferences in America (2009) to seriously examine prehistoric and contact-era Native American tattooing and body modification from the perspective of archaeologists, rock art specialists, and anthropologists. My chapters focus on the history of tattooing on the Great Plains and the Eastern United States with reference to little known museum collections like "tattooed" war clubs, sacred tattoo bundles, early portrait art and nearly forgotten photography that will reveal new meanings regarding tribal tattoo culture in these regions between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Because you're on the road a great deal, it must be difficult being away from your family. How do you balance work and home life?
It's always a challenge, and now I won't stay away for more than a few weeks at a time because I hate to be apart from my 3-year-old daughter Neena and wife Heidi. In fact, I was in India shooting the final episode of Tattoo Hunter when she was born (she was 5 weeks early), and I will never miss something that important again!
You can read much more on Lars in the upcoming Skin & Ink profile, including his experience receiving 500+ razor cut scars from the Kaningara of Papua New Guinea. Also visit www.larskrutak.com where he posts 2-3 new articles every year related to his recent travels and other tattoo research.
His books Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal (2010) and The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women (2007) are available at Amazon.com, but for signed copies and special book offers you can also contact him direct at: firstname.lastname@example.org.