Tattoo History Myths Exposed
Last week, Gizmodo, which is primarily a tech blog, attempted to condense tattoo history, from mummies to Miami Ink, in their blog post "How the Art of Tattoo Has Colored World History." In what seemed to be research primarily conducted on Wikipedia, the author ended up perpetuating many of the myths and misinformation that float around online. So I hit up true experts in the field of tattoo history to set the record straight: Dr. Matt Lodder, Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, and Dr. Lars Krutak.
So, you can take a minute and read the Gizmodo article first. Or not.
I first asked Anna what she thought were some glaring mistakes in the post. Here's what she said:
ANNA: By the third sentence of this "article" I knew it was going to be a doozy. The problem with this statement, "That tradition continues today, just with a much smaller chance of infection" is a) it's incredibly melodramatic and b) it's just not true. Many (if not most?) traditional tattoo practitioners were acutely aware of the possibility of infection, one of the reasons why we perhaps see suspension mediums in traditional tattoo "ink" recipes like alium juice or even one of my favorite rare ones, human breastmilk, both of which contain natural antibacterial agents. Rest periods for people having undergone tattooing are common cross-culturally (presumably to let the body heal and lessen the chance of infection). And with the rise of "tattoo parties" and so much home-tattooing by amateurs untrained in proper safe practices with bloodborne pathogens, there is a huge risk of all sorts of infections in the contemporary era.
Re: the image of the "Pict" "tattoos": had the writer just done a tiny bit of searching re: this image, he might have realized this image is a fantasy and does not represent tattoos. Scholars are still not sure if the descriptions of body art on the Picts were tattoos or just body painting (leaning toward the latter), but they definitely were not 16th century French-inspired floral designs in multi-color (they were described as woad-like, which is blueish in color). The image is also not attributed to the source, and I'm guessing when the owner (Yale University) finds out it's been used without attribution, they will have it pulled. Here are some links to some of my posts on one of the other images from the same book (John White's equally fantastic Pict images), which mention fantasy and have more elucidation of some of these problems: Image 1 (below), Image 2, and Image 3.
Matt also noted the misinformation on Picts and cited "The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth" by Richard Dibon-Smith for reference.
As for the "These days, it's not just sailors and ruffians that get inked" line (and the whole paragraph really), read Matt's attack on tattoo cliches.
Above: Lars Krutak with one of the last tattooed Kalinga warriors Jaime Alos outside of Tabuk, Philippines.
I'm also grateful for the extensive critique of the article that Lars offered:
LARS: Otzi is not the oldest evidence as this article seems to purport. The oldest is a 7000-year-old male mummy of the Chinchorro culture of South America and this man wears a tattooed mustache on his upper-lip, so the earliest evidence is cosmetic. [Actually, the cited Smithsonian article had several glaring errors and I never cite it - period! - even though I work at the Smithsonian! Dr. Fletcher stated that Otzi is the oldest tattoo evidence, but she is no doubt incorrect and I like mythbusting this oft-stated "fact."]
Gizmodo: The Inuit, for example, have been tattooing themselves in the name of beauty and a peaceful afterlife since at least the 13th century.
LARS - The earliest evidence of tattooing in all of North America is a Palaeo-Eskimo ivory maskette from Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada whose face is completely covered with tattoos and it dates to -3500 BP. This object most likely represents a woman. So the practice is much older than the author presumes. For "beauty" is pretty much horseshit - see my comments below. Much circumpolar tattooing aimed to repel the advances of disease-bearing evil spirits and there were multiple forms of medicinal tattooing to relieve painful rheumatism (a la the Iceman), painful swellings, facial paralysis, and even to increase the production of a woman's breast milk.
Gizmodo: Similarly, in the the [sic] Cree tribe, men would often tattoo their entire bodies while the women would wear ornate designs running from mid-torso to pelvis as protective wards for a safe pregnancy.
LARS: I have never heard anything about safe pregnancies in relation to Cree tattoo, although I am aware of tattoos in other parts of North America to promote fertility or ensure that the first thing a newborn saw was a thing of beauty (eg, inner thigh tattoo, Inuit region). Indeed, Cree men (Plains Cree, Wood Cree) were tattooed on their torso, but only for war honors. These tattoos had to be earned so only successful warriors would have worn such tattoos. The author makes it sounds like every man had them, but this is simply not true.
Gizmodo: And along the Pacific coast, the Maidu tribe used tattoos for fashion alone. As Alfred L. Kroeber has pointed out in the Handbook of the Indians of California (1919).
LARS: YIKES! What an understatement! Kroeber didn't know beans about tattooing, but his reputation eclipsed his shortcomings re: Indigenous body modification. Tattooing was not done for fashion's sake among the Maidu, and rarely among Native North American tribes did the people tattoo for beauty's sake - that is a MYTH! Plus, in Native North American societies, the word "tattoo artist" simply did not exist because tattoo was not considered to be an art form: it was a visual language used to communicate various Indigenous concepts, including personal accomplishment, social status, clan or family lineage, and identity, etc.
In fact, among the Maidu - and most other Native Californian tribes - tattoos were tribal identifiers, especially facial tattoos, and they also signified social status within the group. Native people have stated in interviews that dead men killed in combat could be identified by their tattoos, since each group had distinctive ones. Also, Wiyot and other warriors kept tallies of how many men they had killed with tattoos. For women, their facial tattoos furthermore marked passage into womanhood.
Also, nearly every tribe in California practiced therapeutic forms of tattooing. Another longstanding tradition across California, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes to the Eastern Woodlands was tattooing to acquire a guardian spirit. These marks represented in abstract or realistic form one's tutelary spirit, with shamans having the most powerful varieties. A person might have one or more guardians and these Beings communicated with their human counterparts through dreams and visions. These supernatural entities could help a person foretell future events, gain power over animals or enemies, allow a person to control the weather, enhance one's luck in gambling, enchant a future husband or wife, or even render one arrow or bullet proof.
Maidu girls who reached puberty were secluded from the other members of the community before they were to be tattooed in a public ceremony. While in seclusion, they observed a strict vegetarian diet and were usually prohibited from eating meat, fish, and salt products. Fish-bones, pine-needles, or sharpened bird-bones were used for pricking the skin. Interviewed Maidu elders stated "that serious illness, or even death, has followed [the tattooing] in some cases." So it would seem that Maidu tattoo was much more than a fashion statement; it was a sacred ancestral ritual that sometimes killed you! Mascara it was not!
Gizmodo: Re: Borneo >> Known as Kalingai or pantang, these designs were inscribed to protect their bearers from danger.
LARS: Another oversimplification. I could write a book (and will shortly) about the various functions of tattoo in Borneo. By the way, pantang is the Iban word for tattoo and there are dozens and dozens of Indigenous groups that make up the "Dayak," which means inland or interior people. Dayak has been used as an umbrella term to conveniently group the diverse peoples that call Borneo home. I doubt the writer has ever visited Borneo, otherwise he would not have distilled this tradition down to one sentence, which is completely misleading (and false).
Much of the writing shared above can be found in Lar's upcoming book "Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity," which will be published around June 1, 2014 by Foundation LM Publishers and Amsterdam Tattoo Museum. It is the first book to focus on the history of Indigenous tattooing across Native North America as well as contemporary Native tattoo revitalization movements in the United States, Canada, and Nunavut. Approximately 20 Indigenous collaborators representing 13 Native North American societies are featured within its pages. The book will be launched at the Toronto Tattoo Convention (Northern Ink Xposure) in June 2014 and then again the following week in Paris.