The Tattoo Culture in Asia
Tattooing is an ancient art form, many cultures around the world were tattooing long before there were electric tattoo machines. Though no one place can be identified as having originated this form of body art, tattoos have been discovered on mummies and in art from ancient cultures across the world with the oldest physical example of a tattoo found on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, who was found frozen in Otztal Alps between Italy and Austria, which dates from at least 3100 BC.
Tattooing has been practiced throughout Asia for thousands of years for reasons as varied as religious practices, beauty, rites of passage and for spiritual protection. Famous Polynesian tribal tattoo motifs are called Tatau, Thailand’s religious script tattoos go by Sak Yant and tattooing by hand in Japan is known as Tebori.
Today, more and more people accept and even embrace tattooing as body art, a form of self-expression and personal identity. Many of the traditional styles and practices remain and may even be open to travellers with cultural respect and understanding to explore. For many societies, tattooing has left its mark more than skin deep on the history and culture of diverse and different civilizations throughout the ages. In this week’s newsletter let’s take a look at five unique tattoo styles from across Asia.
Dayak ‘Tutang’ Tattoos
One of Asia’s most renowned traditional tattoos comes from Indonesia. The island of Borneo is home to the forest dwelling Dayak people. This tribal group has a long-celebrated tattoo tradition.
For the Dayak tribe, a tattoo is a sacred thing. A tattoo for the Dayak is a message to their God that identifies them and the deeds of their life, and if all’s well with the stories told by their tattoos they are the key to the afterlife. Each tattoo design has a meaning directly based on their experience and their life’s journey. Known as a ‘Tutang’, the placement of each mark is carefully considered and planned. As is their belief, the black colored tattoo will turn to gold when they pass away and is considered as their key to the path of eternity. The traditional tattoo designs employed by the Dayak are blessed with magical powers of protection, protecting the wearer from the influence or effects of bad spirits. Tattoos are also an indication of the wearers’ prowess as a fighter in the traditional Dayak martial art of ‘Kinyah’.
The traditional tattoo motif ideas usually come from animals and plants. The noblemen of the tribe usually have the hornbill bird to represent heaven, a spiral motif of frogs, or perhaps a rosette or tree branch and others. The tattoos are created in the traditional way by pricking the skin with a sharply pointed sago thorn or spine from a fish held in a wooden stick and repeatedly tapped into the skin. Traditional inks were made from a mix of ash and tree sap.
The Chinese art of ‘Chi Shen’ or ‘puncturing the body’ is an ancient one. The oldest Asian tattoos have been discovered on the Tarim mummies from Xinjian, Western China and the Pazyryk mummies from the Ukok Plateau in Siberia. These early tattoos are considered to be a symbol of social status in most instances, but some tattoos were also likely designed to be spiritual and magical in nature with designs drawing inspiration from nature and tribal mythology.
Some tribes, such as the Dai and Dulong, used to tattoo their women’s faces to make them less desirable to attackers from outside. The women of these tribes still continue to wear their tattoos today, although ironically they are celebrated and worn now as a symbol of female beauty and strength.
Among the Dai, tattoos are used for a wide range of reasons and are quite visible all over the body. These tattoos are considered a rite of passage, so the people of these tribes get their tattoos quite young, usually in their teens.
In modern Chinese society however, there is a stigma attached to tattooing, as it is seen as ‘defacing the body’ and perhaps an indication of loose morals. Tattoos were also used as ‘brands’ at some points in Chinese history, with tattoos used to mark criminals for life being called ‘Ci Pei’, a term that translates to both ‘tattoo’ and ‘exile’. Tattoos, thus, came to be associated with criminal activity, a perception that persists even in modern China.
Warning! — if you’re getting a Chinese character inked, do your research well so you don’t end up with the symbol for ‘noodle soup’, or worse, tattooed across your chest!
Irezumi are Japanese tattoos, the roots of which can be traced back centuries. Scholars have argued for their evidence as far back as the Jōmon period (14,000 – 300 BCE), with the practice growing in popularity during the Edo Period (1603 – 1867). Japanese tattoos often use imagery that is quite terrifying, such as roaring tigers and dragons, as they are also meant to provide the wearer with protection. These tattoos also feature a backdrop made out of waves, smoke, or similarly fluid designs, and will also incorporate floral patterns into the design which adds a delicate look to these tattoos. When tied together, the patterns in an Irezumi are truly a beautiful and intricate sight to behold!
The art form eventually took on a negative reputation however, due to the practice of criminals being marked as a form of punishment and the association of tattoos with criminality as a result. Japanese criminal gangs such as the Yakuza then adapted their tattoos into works of art and celebrations of their outlaw status typically with full sleeve, back, chest and leg tattoos. The association with criminal activity led to Irezumi being banned from law abiding society in Japan, and the art form was preserved in the underworld by the tattoo artists decorating the Yakuza gangsters and their associates.
While younger generations in Japan are embracing tattoos more and more, traditional Japan still struggles to shake the art form’s association with criminality, and many onsen will not allow you to enter with uncovered tattoos, although there are websites and resources that share information to help tattooed travellers find tattoo-friendly baths and onsen.
Thailand’s famous hand-tapped tattoos have become highly sought after by backpackers and celebrities alike, many of whom travel to the country specifically to get one. But the ancient tradition has deep roots that run throughout the history of Southeast Asia.
The art form is also practiced in Laos and Cambodia and usually sees a Buddhist monk or Ajarn creating a freehand design that incorporates geometry, symbols, deities and animal figures. The long-held belief is that these tattoos bestow magical protection onto the wearer, depending on how the monk creates it and what spells the artwork is charged with, and different designs are made for different types of protection and luck.
The tattoos come with a set of guidelines to live by that help keep the magic working. Some may be easier for most to follow (refraining from violence, for instance) while other, more idiosyncratic ones passed down from Buddhist teachers (do not eat pumpkin or any other gourd-like vegetable or do not duck under a banana tree) may seem curious to travellers.
The Sak Yant tattoos are an important part of the Muay Thai culture as well. Fighters get these tattoos from Buddhist monks using traditional bamboo tools. These tattoos are considered sacred as they are thought to bestow protection, strength, and luck to the wearer. Be careful though, as getting a Sak Yant Muay Thai tattoo from anyone other than a Buddhist monk, using traditional tools, is thought to be wholly unlucky.
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Indian Tribal Tattoos
Indian tribal tattoos predominantly use geometric patterns in their designs. These patterns are also very evident in their traditional embroidery and art. Tattooing among women in Indian tribes was very common, while tattoos for men were usually earned through some manly accomplishment, such as their hunting skill or warrior prowess.
While in many parts of India tribal tattoos have various purposes including spiritual and decorative, in some tribes such as the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, it was a way to protect women from being abducted or raped by the men from rival tribes, much like the early tribal tattoos from the Middle East and China. The women of the Rabari group, an ethnic group of India and Pakistan, wear tattoos on their necks, breasts, and arms to symbolize their faith in magic.
The women of the Khond tribe of Orissa, referred to as ‘the people of the spirit world‘, wear geometric tribal tattoos on their face as they believe this will allow them to recognize each other in the spirit world.
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