What do your tattoos mean to you?

Samoan tattooing circa 1895. A Samoan tattooist (Tufuga ta tatau, left) and assistant (right), carrying out a traditional tatau on a man's back. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Feature photo: JD | Photography.

I never thought of my tattoos as having meaning that goes beyond my feelings about them.

THEY’RE PERSONAL TO ME, and I’ve always thought of them as being mine.  It’s not fun to think about, but one some level, given my background, my tattoos represent cultural appropriation. 

As modern as they are in method, as personal as they are in meaning, and as far from the designs of indigenous cultures as they may be, they are based on a mode of expression that — in modern times and in the current global culture — was stolen from people who were told their tattooing traditions had to end.

Tattooing in modern Western culture came from Polynesia.  Sailors who visited the South Pacific in the 1700s soon began emulating tattoos they saw there.  While the tradition was being exported and changed, tattoos in the Maori, Bornean, Tongan, Samoan, Indonesian, and far flung First Nations cultures were being suppressed through colonization.  Many long-practiced traditions and rights of passage were wiped out or greatly changed during this time in cultures throughout the world.

As varied as these cultures and their tattoos are in meaning and method, we wind up with terms like “tribal” that are widely accepted to describe black tattoos with bold lines.  So-called tribal tattoos emulate those that are traditional to many distinct cultures.  Lumping all these traditions together under the term “tribal” is insulting when you give it any thought at all.

A detail of one of the author's tattoos done by Mariano Castiglioni at Well Done Tattoos, Buenos Aires.

There are lots of people out there who think these designs are cool and want them on their bodies.  Many don’t consider that rather than an honor, it is beyond insulting to many of these cultures for outsiders to use these traditions as their own — especially when the fact that these tattoos continue to exist represents long, hard fights against the imposition of outside cultures, colonization, and enforced christianity.

It’s not that tattooing didn’t exist in ancient European cultures. Tattoos have existed in different cultures for thousands of years and had a variety of purposes and meanings, but were largely related to pagan beliefs so were stopped along with the rise of christianity. It’s impossible to lay out every tradition in the world, and a few paragraphs are not adequate to describe traditions that span hundreds and thousands of years. The following are just a few of the tattooing traditions that are part of what some would call “tribal tattooing.” I have added links for further reading at the end of each section.

Samoan Tattoos

The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word tatau. There is a tradition in Polynesian cultures of tattooing that goes back at least 2,000 years. In Samoa, future chiefs would begin the process of being tattooed from waist to knees near the onset of puberty. It was a trying process that went on over the course of months and the risk of infection and subsequent death was very real. Lore says that the tradition of tattooing came to Polynesia by way of Fiji.

Pe'a is the traditional Samoan tattoo for men. Photo: Wikipedia user Cloudsurfer.

Tattoos (for men called pe’a) indicated social status, and their application was highly ritualized and sacred. More than 1,000 years ago, people of Samoa had colonized and made contact with most of the islands to the east, and in each of these societies, the cultural rituals and significance of tattooing were adapted to the beliefs and ways of the people. There are a variety of traditions in the Pacific Islands as a result — differing symbols, meanings, and rituals all emanating from Samoan and Tongan cultures.

Traditionally, these tattoos are done with combs made from boar tusks. The pigment was made from the soot of burnt candle nut or lama nut. There are tattoos specific to females that are more delicate and done on the thighs called malu.

Being a tattoo artist is a family tradition passed down from father to son in many cases, the son serving as apprentice, learning and practicing for many years before ever tattooing a person. There is a sacred aspect to the art of tattooing; there are chants and rituals that must be observed in their application.

These days, it’s not mandatory to be tattooed to ascend to a position of status in Samoan cultures, but many of the traditions involved in Samoan tattoos are still practiced today.

Much of the history of Tongan tattooing has been lost, but there has been a recent revival in the culture. The best resource I’ve found online about Tongan tattooing (or Tatatau) is a site maintained by tattoo artist Ni Powell, who I hope will contribute an article to Matador Nights on the subject soon.

Further reading: Lars Krutak’s article South Seas

Tā Moko

When Europeans arrived in what is modern day New Zealand (but until that time was only known as Aotearoa, meaning long, white cloud), the facial tattoos worn by high status Māori men were drawn as signatures on land contracts. The designs are so individualized, their meanings so specific, that no two people could have the same moko (or facial tattoo). The practice of tattooing among Māori peoples’ traditions came from Samoan people and were adapted to the beliefs and environment there.

Barnet Burns was an Englishman who got a full moko in the 1800s, then returned to England with it, using it and his experiences in New Zealand to make his living. He subsequently returned to New Zealand, and what happened to him after that is lost to history. Photo: Wikipedia

The intricate designs carry signifiers of family and history.  In Māori cultures, a person who is ready to get tattooed doesn’t make that decision alone.  It’s a family and clan decision made by consensus and it’s not taken lightly. Though methods today vary between traditional and modern modes of application, the designs include explicit references to genealogy, history, and societal roles. Traditionally, women have fewer tattoos than men. The tattoos are actually carved into the skin when applied by traditional means and pigment is rubbed into the carved areas.

The spirals so often associated with the tā moko are symbols of past and future and called koru. The term moko on its own only refers to facial tattooing.

Over the last several years, many people from outside Māori cultures have developed a fascination with the intricate designs and want them on their own skin.  The practice has become so pervasive that a new form of tattooing has been developed aimed at preventing appropriation of designs with a deep significance within the culture, called kirituhi. Kirituhi are made without using the patterns of deep familial significance.

There are differing schools of thought about whether these tattoos are appropriate for non-Māori people. While many people of Māori cultures attempt to maintain proprietary rights over traditional imagery and symbols, corporations such as New Zealand Air, and fashion designers such as Paco Rabanne and Jean-Paul Gaultier have used them, apparently without thought as to whether of not they had the right to do so. So in considering getting a kirituhi design, it’s worth considering the possible implications, and whether what you imagine is a sign of homage or respect to Māori cultures actually is.

Further reading:
Read about tā moko in the context of Māori art.
Scenes from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion by Peter Shand

Sak Yant

Though tattooing traditions of the Pacific Islands are the longest unbroken ones in the world, there are plenty of traditions of significance in other cultures. For example, Sak-Yant tattoos are sacred amulets worn on the skin. They are protective tattoos, using what translates as “sacred geometry” (yantra in Sanskrit). These tattoos are often seen in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, but originated in Thailand from a melding of Hindu and Buddhist imagery and beliefs.

Sak Yant at Singapore Tattoo Expo, 2009, Photo: williamcho. Click for a full view.

The Sak Yant are traditionally applied by Buddhist monks and magic practitioners. According to Sak-Yant.com, “Sak Yant requires training in Meditation, Concentration and also Khom magical language and kata. A serious practise of Vipassana is normally the way to attainment of the necessary abilities to make Sak Yant magic, and the Katas work effectively.” The magical properties of the Sak Yant are only effective for the wearer if certain modes of conduct are followed which involve clean living and sobriety. The specifics are told to the person getting tattooed at the time of application and vary according to the master doing the tattooing.

There is evidence of these tattoos existing as long as 1,000 years ago. Sak Yant are applied using a bamboo stick sharpened to a point, or with a needle at the end, and each dot is a single perforation of the skin. The tattoos take many forms, including script and images, but are always applied above the waist. During the application the tattoo master must chant to make the protective magic of the tattoo.

Further reading:
An interview at CNNGo with the authors of the book Sacred Skin
Sak-Yant.com

Dayak Tattooing

On my recent trip to Borneo for the Rainforest World Music Festival, people kept telling me I ought to get tattooed with a traditional Bornean design. On Borneo, there are more than 30 distinct ethnic Dayak groups with different dialects and cultures — the largest group is Iban (some other peoples are Kayan, Kenyah, Punan Bah and Penan).

Iban Longhouse Chief in Sarawak Malaysia; Photo: Lauras512

Dayak means “inland people.” On my trip from the airport to the hotel, the guy driving the van noticed my tattoos and told me how headhunters would get tattoos on their fingers that indicated the number of heads they’d taken, called tegulun. Today, seeing this kind of tattoo is super rare. There may still be men around who took the heads of Japanese during invasions that happened in the ’40s who would have these tattoos.

In the Dayak traditions, every living thing carries significance on par with human life, even plants, and tattoos reflect the cyclical nature of life, and protect the wearer from spirits. Many women’s tattoos indicate skills such as weaving. A common tattoo that is a rite if passage for young men is the bunga teruong. Commonly tattooed on the front of the shoulders symmetrically, the design is protective and worn in pairs.

Tattooing traditions that are lost on Borneo are those of the Kayan people, among whom women were the tattooists. An article by Lars Krutak last updated in 2006 says on his last visit to the interior of Sarawak, there were no women under the age of 70 with these tattoos, and that the practice seems to have ended around 1956. The tattooing traditions on Borneo are incredibly diverse for such a small area, though it seems that many of them have come to an end. But there has been an upsurge in interest in tattooing by youth who want to maintain their cultural traditions, and there is more than one Iban tattoo studio in operation in Borneo.

Lars Krutak’s writing on Dayak tattooing in Borneo
Photos of some traditional tattoos of Dayak people on Vanishing Tattoo

Haida tattoos

The Haida tradition is famous for artistic virtuosity. The crafts that the Haida make and their designs were one of their major forms of currency. Their lands in what is now the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia were not rich in resources, so they relied on their high level of craftsmanship and artistic innovation to trade things they made, such as chests and jewelry, for staples unavailable in their region.

Tattooed Haida man of Masset. Photo: Wikipedia.

The rights to certain images were proprietary to families and clans, and were like crests. The animal images and symbols used in the art and tattoos of the Haida people were linked to supernatural events in their history, and individual and clan attributes. According to tattoo expert Lars Krutak, “…the right to a crest and the right to use the emblem, was more valuable than any object or human body that represented it.”

While the practice of Haida tattooing has been lost as a tradition, the designs are appealing and many people who are not of the Haida get these designs tattooed on themselves. But just because the Haida tattooing tradition is a broken one, that doesn’t mean there are no Haida people. While Haida designs are striking, letting Haida people decide whether the traditions should be revived among themselves is the safest bet.

Further reading:
Writing by Lars Krutak about Haida tattooing customs
The beautiful designs of Bill Reid, a Haida artist who died in 1998

Think about it

There are more tattooing traditions than I can count, among them, those of the Ingilit, the Sioux, a variety of traditions in what are now the Philippines, the Cree, and the skin markings, tattoos, and colloidal scarring techniques practiced by the people of Papua New Guinea, Benin, and Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria.

If you want to copy these traditions, it’s worth giving it some deep thought. The people who originated these tattoos have never taken the act lightly. Some of the best thoughts I’ve read on this topic were written by Orrin Lewis of NativeLanguages.org who cautions First Nations people against getting tattooed to honor ancestry saying, “…if you are looking for a tribal identity, and you would maybe like to be accepted as a mixed-blood Indian someday, or at least you don’t want actual Indians to laugh at you when you introduce yourself, please do yourself a favor and hold off on the Native American tattoos until you are actually affiliated with the tribe in question.”

There are other ways to honor the people of this world besides copying their traditions. When asking what your tattoos mean to you, you might also want to ask what they might mean to other people, too.

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  • http://www.ivorypomegranate.com Kirstin

    I think there is some good information in this article, and in general, it’s always good advice to do plenty of research and thinking before getting any kind of tattoo, but I have to disagree with what I perceive as a message that people should pretty much avoid getting a tattoo from a different culture. I have a Sak Yant that I got after much research and consultation with the master; it marked a significant event in my life and it still holds a lot of personal meaning. For me, a tattoo is first and foremost a personal decision. I wasn’t looking to honor or copy a culture, but rather adapt it in a way that fit best for me. 

  • Piratefrankie

    The research done for this article is interesting – tattoos have a fascinating history. However, you yourself say that tattooing as a practice spread from one culture to another in the Pacific – specifically, from the Samoans to the Maori. I think it’s slightly ridiculous to state that adoption of tattooing practices by non-Pacific cultures somehow denigrates its cultural significance in its (many) traditional homes. Should tattooing be limited to the descendants of those who came up with it first?

    Cultural practices shift, change, are adopted elsewhere, and sometimes disappear. Consider something as benign as pasta. I’m Italian, pastasciutta is eaten on an almost daily basis in Italy and has deep cultural significance to us. Recipes are passed down in families and lawsuits have been filed over which town gets to claim the invention of a dish (not kidding). Does the fact that pasta has spread worldwide  somehow take away from Italians’ heritage? Where did pasta even come from? Apocryphal stories suggest it came from China many centuries ago, but we don’t really know.

    Tattoos are not a limited commodity; a tourist getting a traditional tattoo does not somehow impinge on the ability of a local to practice his or her traditions. I’ll agree that it looks ridiculous when a westerner with no attachments to a Pacific culture gets a Maori or Samoan tattoo. But I also think that westerners with tattoos of Chinese or Japanese ideographs look pretty ridiculous, too.

    • Kate_Sedgwick

      I have a lot of tattoos, and I will probably get more.  But I don’t have any “tribal” tattoos.  I’m of the age that that would make sense.  They were a huge fad around the time I started getting tattoos.  Lots of people who just “want a Maori tattoo” have no idea what these tattoos represent.  This piece is more about that.

      I do think there’s a difference between taking spiritual customs from other cultures and pasta – and I’m Italian, too.  No matter that I may have made a quasi-religion out of my family’s recipes, I don’t think there’s a comparison between lifting spiritual customs from other cultures and enjoying certain kinds of cuisines.

      If that’s the message you got from the article, I think you might want to give it a second read.  It’s not right to feel entitled to customs that are deep and traditional to other peoples.

  • chrysser

    I have ink. It’s of significance to me and has nothing to do with anyone’s culture  unless you’re a bird nerd. Page 182 of the National  Geographic Bird Book. Puffin Flying. Has to do with the first friend I made after a cross country move to the Pacific NW a week afetr high school graduation, leaving all “human” friends far behind.  Like everything else in life authenticity is critical when you’re stamping something on your body for a lifetime. Has to be more than a vagabonding fashion statement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Johnson/100001526442445 Joshua Johnson

    My tattoos are sacred to me. They are totems of my life, its path and my intentions.I got my first tattoo with my father while he was fighting the battle he would eventually lose to cancer. We got the ink as a way to bond together in this life and each of my tattoos after have been a part of that intention.

  • teodoravegh

    Thank you for your thorough research, this article is fascinating, especially because you introduce so many different cultures. I enjoyed reading both the article and also some of the further reading you recommended. 
    The issue of appropriation is a delicate one. Obviously one has to pay attention and respect to these traditions but there are many traditional, cultural and religious symbols and designs that have been preserved only because they have been appropriated and started to be used in a different context. Sometimes we tend to think about these forms of art or symbols as if in earlier times they would have been pure and untouched and never abused or changed by outside forces. But it is far from being true.  So if we say we want to preserve (or let the natives preserve) their culture, how far do we need to go back to find “the original”? …I am not a fan of mugs or textiles decorated with “tribal” motives at all, but i believe that sometimes flexibility is equal to survival. And i tell this as a member of an eastern european country which has no relatives in the region and has still kept its culture and language alive for the last thousand years somehow. 

    • A Martin

      I too would like to thank you Kate, the article is interesting and is part of a larger conversation that should be had about appropriation for tattooing. The book, Mau Moko by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, covers some history of Maori Moko she indicates that the motifs were visually recorded in carvings, elderly Maori, gang members and documentation of explorers, curiosity hunters and missionaries. The art was resurrected by a few dedicated people who observed the practices of other Pacific People and relied on snippets of oral history and documented history written by people from other cultures. Some adaptation has occurred because, like any oral history, the retelling has the imprint of the story teller, there are gaps in the documentation available and reinterpretation by other artists changes the representation. I think tattoo must adapt for the imagery to maintain currency with the common language of its use and bearer. I also think that visual or oral documentation is important to ensure context is maintained. But it is something that should be well researched, thought about and discussed with the tattooist, the bearer and their family.

  • http://creatrixtiara.com/ Creatrix Tiara

    I wonder if the loss of the indigenous Malaysian tattoo culture is due to the growing Islamisation of Malaysia, which makes tattoos taboo – as well as a prevailing sentiment that only gangsters and undesirables have tattoos (there’s a lot of this sort of thinking that’s really racist in nature but subtly so). This makes the whole cultural appropriation issue even more poignant – the people who deserve inheritance of these tattoos *can’t* get them because it would limit them (not just my example, but see how Western culture frowns on face tatts) yet people with enough social privilege want access to these tattoos as though they’re entitled to them. Come up with your own style! If you’re so desperate to get an indigenous tribal tatt, then stop blocking their originating peoples from getting them.

  • http://www.world-first.co.uk/ @WFTristan

    i have to be honest and say my Tattoos mean nothing to me at all they are just there, a part of me, i have never attached any particular significance to any of them, i can understand why people do however, for me though its just there, hope that makes sense

    Tristan

  • val.F

    nice article, but try not to be so dramatic and repetitive. I know recognition of the true art of tattoing is important to you, but i dont think its helpful if you seem so hysterical from your writing.