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.
Whenever someone tells me that tattoos are a "trend," I tell them that it's probably the longest trend known to mankind. Generally, people who spout dumb tattoo cliches are not the type of people who subscribe to the Smithsonian. [If they did, they probably would have come across the many articles by anthropologist Lars Krutak on tattoos in antiquity.]
Ancient tattoos are the focus of this interesting piece published last weekend: The Tattooed Priestess of Hathor. Author Margaret Moose begins by discussing Hathor, whom she describes as "one of the most important gods in early Egypt," and the role women once held as priestesses. She then links the priestesses to the female mummies discovered in the late 19th century, who wore the tattoos only previously found in images on pottery, figurines and other arts.
What's particularly interesting is how she explores the way the tattoos were first interpreted upon discovery. She writes:
When the tattooed women were discovered most academics dismissed them as women of low status, probably prostitutes, 'dancing girls' or maybe royal concubines because the area where the bodies were found, Deir el-Bahari, was the site of royal and high status burials. The most famous of these tattooed mummies is Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor. The mummy of Amunet was discovered in 1891 by the French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut and from all accounts the tattoos were seen as quite sensual, of course at this time curved table legs were also considered sensual so one must view their reaction in context to their Victorian mores. [...]Moose then goes on to ask questions about the medicinal value of these tattoos, such as for acupressure and pain management.
They're interesting questions, and ones that have been explored by Lars Krutak as noted earlier. For further reading, check this Smithsonian blog post featuring Lar's work, which asked the very question, "Can tattoos be medicinal?"
Whether artful or medical, the power of tattoos span millenia. So when you hear about "tattoo trends," throw some knowledge down about these priestesses.
[Thanks to Miss Mikki of Fortune Tattoo for the link!]
In this second post on upcoming titles by Edition Reuss, we share our great excitement over Dr. Lars Krutak's new book "Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification."
The 400-page, large format hardcover looks at healing, protective and shamanic tattooing and scarification across the tribal world -- a world that Lars has explored in his 15+ years researching tattoo traditions and rituals (a number of which he has experienced himself). [Read our profile on Lars here.]
More on the book from Edition Reuss:
[...] "Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoo & Scarification" journeys into highly sacred territory to reveal how people utilize ritual body modification to enhance their access to the supernatural.
The book will also be out in September, and can be purchased for 98 Euros. You can pre-order the book in the US on Amazon for $150 or contact Lars directly for signed copies and special offers at email@example.com.
The radio station WNYC -- which I stream online here -- is on almost all the time in our place, if only so I can feel like I'm getting smarter. Well, I just learned that I have a chance to actually get smarter about something I particularly love: the history of tattoos and body decoration as discussed by the ultra-awesome tattoo anthropoligist Lars Krutak, who has been featured here before.
Lars will be on in a half-hour on The Leonard Lopate Show, along with tattooist Scott Campbell, who will be talking about the mechanics, art and removal of contemporary tattoos.
Listen to it live or catch it in the archives after it airs.
As a follow up to our mention of tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak in the earlier post, I wanted to let you know that Sacred Gallery in NYC is hosting the photographic exhibit Shamanic Skin: The Art of Magical Tattooing, which features thirty selected works from Lars' portfolio. The opening is Saturday, February 4th from 7 to 10PM and runs until February 29th.Here's more:
In 1777, the word 'tattoo' was defined as 'an indelible mark or figure fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin or by the production of scars.' For thousands of years before that date, however, indigenous peoples practiced various forms of tattooing and scarification not only to beautify themselves or mark significant life achievements, but also to please or seek protection from particular spirits which inhabited their world.For a copy of the show catalog, email Kevin@SacredGalleryNYC.com. Lars' books "The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women" (2007) and "Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal" (2010) will be available for signing at the opening as well.
Sacred Gallery is located at 424 Broadway 2nd Fl (between Canal and Howard) in NYC.
There's an interesting article in The Hindu called "Tweaking Traditions," which looks at how the ancient tribal art of tattooing among the women of the Gond and Kolam tribes is fading as the younger generations "adopt modernity" and follow clothing fashions rather than decorate themselves permanently.
Reporter and photographer S. Harpal Singh says, "Traditionally, Gond and Kolam women wore meagre clothes which left a good part of their body exposed to sun. Much of bare skin used to be covered with tattoos, or 'kohkana' in Gondi, which gave the individual a decent look." Singh then quotes expert Guruji Ravinder Sharma: "Tattooing on the back, waist, arms and face was done during infancy of the girl child. The practice continues to this day but the size of the tattoo is much smaller."
Tattooing was also practiced for curing illness according to the article; for example, severe headaches were treated with tattoos on the temples and forehead.
While the article is a quick and easy read, it inspired me to look into India's tattooing traditions, and naturally, I came upon a more in-depth discussion by our favorite tattoo anthropologist Lar Krutak on The Vanishing Tattoo.
Read Lars' "India: Land of Eternal Ink" for a history lesson along with images of some beautiful tribal art.
All Images Copyright Lars Krutak
Tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak is no stranger to Needles & Sins. In February, we profiled the tattoo hunter, discussing his research into indigenous body modification practices worldwide. We also love his Kalinga Tattoo book on the vanishing tattoo practices of the Kalinga people in the Philippines.
This Saturday, July 30th, Lars will be giving a lecture at Sacred Gallery on his research and displaying photos and video from his journeys. Here's what Sacred says of the event:
Unimax is proud to present Dr. Krutak, on July 30th at 3PM, at Sacred Tattoo, 424 Broadway, N.Y.C., who will spend an hour revealing tattoo as a statement of worldviews, where humans, nature, and the supernatural are united. He will show where and how tattoo still represents the reenactment of ancient myths, ancestral traditions, and the actions of deities and cultural heroes. Video clips from his documentary series "Tattoo Hunter," seen on the Discovery Channel supplement the presentation as well as some large format on-location photos by Krutak, from the collection of Wes Wood.It promises to be a fascinating talk. Highly recommend it.
For those of you in and around D.C., this Wednesday, July 27th, from 6:45 to 8:45 PM, Lars will also share his work in "Skin Deep: The History and Art of Indigenous Tattooing." His books will be available for signing as well.
If you can't make it, check out some of his writings and images online at LarsKrutak.com and The Vanishing Tattoo.
In 2005, tattoo anthropologist, Lars Krutak wrote about the tattoo practices of the Yupik women in "The Last Tattoos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska." In the article, he speaks of how their skin-stitched tattoos were disappearing as the last generation of women who proudly wore tribal art on their faces and bodies succumbed to old age. He explains why the practice had largely left with these women:
Tattooing ultimately began to fade when missionaries and modernity arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, as new medical advances became known, tattoos of the medicinal kind were no longer believed to "hold power" or to cure. Chris Koonooka (Petuwaq), a local teacher at the Gambell School stated, "It seems like those folks who were born after 1915 stopped getting tattoos. Some were actually feeling fortunate for not being tattooed and some were feeling ashamed for being tattooed. Perhaps some were embarrassed about their tattoos, as some may have been influenced by the Christianity of those times."
But Lars was also hopeful that the younger generations of Yupik women would revitalize their tattoo traditions. It seems that this hope is being realized.
Last week, the Anchorage Daily News featured Yaari Kingeekuk (shown above), an artist and educator who wears the tattoos of her ancestors and also teaches native Alaskan songs and dances. While her tattoos were done by machine, not sewn, they still hold their original meanings:
Yaari credits her grandparents Jimmy and Mable Toolie for her interest in reviving St. Lawrence Island arts. Mable was one of the women Lars interviewed for his research into Yupik tattooing, and the first photo in his article.
Also reviving the skin sewing practices is Colin Dale of Skin & Bone Tattoo in Copenhagen. We got to see Colin stitching first hand at the Traditional Tattoo & World Culture Fest this past summer, and Brian posted a video of it here. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend you check it out to watch the intricate (and painful) process.
Even more on skin sewing can be found in "Tattoos of the Hunter-Gatherers of the Arctic."
This past weekend, the AFP reported on ancient tattoo practices having a contemporary appeal in Rob Bryan's article "Myanmar's tattooed women lure tourists."
In it, you'll read stories of the few remaining Chin women who bear the facial tattoos of their ancestors, a rite of passage and act of beautification for young women that is vanishing as the new generation of Chin have not see its aesthetic appeal. They are, however, seeing how it could prove lucrative. As Rob Bryan reports:
The article also discusses the ethical debate on "human zoos" -- exploitation or education/documentation?
When one of the Chin woman is asked how she feels about the tourists, she says that she welcomes those wishing to learn more about her and her heritage, adding "Sometimes I feel like my parents' spirits are coming back to me through the visitors."
I recommend a full read of the article.
For a related look at the traditional tattoos of that region, read Lars Krutak's article for the Vanishing Tattoo: "Tattoos of Indochina: Supernatural Mysteries of the Flesh."
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 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 anthropologist Lars Krutak, of Discovery's Tattoo Hunter series, has authored a gorgeous 424-page, 8-pound hardcover on indigenous tattooing in the Philippines:
Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal
The book is the first to explore the vanishing tattoo practices of the Kalinga people (whose ancestors also practiced headhunting). It also looks at today's revival of the art, particularly by the Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon Tribe, who are a growing organization of Filipino-Americans dedicated to studying and sharing these tattoo traditions. [I've been a long-time fan of the Tribe and encourage you to read more on their work here & check their YouTube page.]
Here's more on what's inside the book:
KALINGA TATTOO: ANCIENT AND MODERN EXPRESSIONS OF THE TRIBAL is a photographic masterwork that explores the vanishing art of Kalinga tribal tattooing in the remote mountains of the northern Philippines. Combining the visionary talents of numerous international photographers and the words and stories of nearly fifty Kalinga elders, Kalinga Tattoo is the first book to tell the story of this incredibly rich tradition of indigenous body art that is believed to be 1,000 years old.
Read more here.
Kalinga Tattoo is published by Edition Reuss, the same publishers of my Black Tattoo Art and Black & Grey Tattoo books, and so the crafting of this large-format tome is of the exceptional quality Edition Reuss is known for.
For North American orders, signed copies, and other special offers contact Lars Krutak directly. The books are also available on Amazon.com and LastGasp.com.
While I'm writing my monster redux of the Traditional Tattoo & World Culture Fest, I thought I'd give ya a preview of a wonderful experience we had: watching the skin sewing method of tattooing done by the always awesome Colin Dale of Skin & Bone in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Brian entered Colin's tattoo tent just as a reporter from Bizarre Magazine had begun to interview him, and so Brian was able to capture a part of that discussion (about three minutes) where Colin talks about the history of skin sewing. There are also close-ups of the procedure in the video that will make you feel that phantom pain while watching. [FYI: the video starts off with a quick line where Colin makes fun of my NY accent.]
Skin sewing was practiced by the Inuit people of the Arctic. Dr. Lars Krutak, our favorite anthropologist and Tattoo Hunter, wrote an article called Tattoos of the Hunter-Gatherers of the Arctic, which examines the ancient art. Here's a bit from that article:
"As a general rule, expert tattoo artists were respected elderly women. Their extensive training as skin seamstresses (parkas, pants, boots, hide boat covers, etc.) facilitated the need for precision when 'stitching the human skin' with tattoos. Tattoo designs were usually made freehand but in some instances a rough outline was first sketched upon the area of application."
Read more on skin sewing here. And check Colin's stellar tattoo work in its many forms here.
More on the tattoo fest to come!
Skin stitching by Colin Dale. Photo by Claire Artemyz.
There's been some buzz over the break-up between Skin & Ink magazine and its long-time editor Bob Baxter--who now has his own tattoo blog. Ignoring the gossip and focusing on the content, it seems Bob has rallied his old team of writers and photographers to contribute to his new site. Yesterday, he featured a profile of one of my favorite artists by one of my favorite writers:
Check out Lars Krutak's Colin Dale and the "Forbidden Tattoo."
The article discusses Colin's signature Neo-Nordic tattoo style and intricate dotwork, his hand-poked techniques and skin-stitching (as seen above), and his new studio Skin & Bone in Copenhagen, Denmark. [The article was written before the studio officially opened. Today it is thriving with art exhibits and guests artists as well as Colin's own stellar tattooing.]
The central focus of the article, however, is how Colin fulfilled the wish of Julia Machindano by giving her the facial tattoo worn by her Makonde ancestors called the dinembo. Lars offers more on the history behind these tattoos:
Traditionally, Makonde men and women received facial tattoos at puberty and before marriage. Often times these designs consisted of a series of stacked chevrons called lichumba or "deep angles." Incisions were made with a knife-like iron instrument called a chipopo and vegetable carbon from the castor bean plant was rubbed into the incisions, producing a dark blue color. When the extremely painful facial tattooing was executed, boys and girls were sometimes buried up to their necks in the earth so that they would not flinch as the tattooist cut open their living flesh. For the Makonde, facial tattoos were not only symbols of great courage; they were also the truest expressions of Makonde tribal identity itself.
Read more of this fascinating story here.
As a side note: Lars will soon be releasing his new book, Kalinga Tattoo, published by Edition Reuss--the publishers of my Black Tattoo Art book (in which Colin Dale's work is featured--it's all very incestuous).
Lars, Colin and I will be working at the London Tattoo Convention in September. Colin will be hand-tattooing. Lars will be presenting his book and exhibiting photos of the vanishing tattoos of this Filipino tribe. And I will be releasing my new Black & Grey Tattoo book with my co-author Edgar Hoill. And drinking cider.
But in a few weeks, July 10th and 11th, Brian and I will be meeting up with Colin for the Traditional Tattoo and World Festival, an intimate gathering of tattoo artists and collectors in Cork, Ireland. Join us for a fun tattoo vacation.
In case you missed my last Needled entry on tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak, I'm posting info on his new, wonderful show Tattoo Hunter, which airs on the Discovery Channel.
Check this week's episode, Saturday at 1PM, where Lars "treks deep into the jungles of Indonesia in search of the spirit tattoo of the Mentawai tribe."
Read about his fascinating experience online. Here's a taste:
[...] another way the Mentawaians keep their souls "close" is by beautifying the body. Individuals, be they male or female, who neglect their bodies by not keeping them beautiful with beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, and especially tattoos will cease to be attractive to their souls. In such cases, the soul may decide to leave its human host and roam about the body free. But if the soul does not return to its home, it may decide to withdraw to the ancestral world at which point that person must die.The following episode airs March 21st at 1PM and finds Lars in the remote mountains of the Philippines in search of the tattoo of the Kalinga head hunters. A must see!
Tattoo Hunter is not the only tattoo travel show. Coming this Spring ... Tattoo Highway.
Ok, I know it's unfair to juxtapose a show that has a tattoo scholar offering culture, history and adventure against one where a "reality tv star" travels across America in his mobile tattoo parlor called "Ministry of Ink." But it has potential to be the fruity dessert to a meaty dish. Here's a taste of what you'll find there:
The tattoos viewers will see Pendelton create this season include a memorial portrait created from the ashes of a man's wife mixed with ink; a tattoo that can only be seen under a black light; a giant gorilla riding a scooter, and a pair of matching eggplants.
They had me at the memorial done with ashes but, yeah, lost me at the gorilla and eggplants. Really?