December 19, 2011

Tattoos as Rites of Passage

Rites of passage differ between cultures; they traditionally mark the transition of a person from one state of being to another.  Often marking out life’s milestones like puberty and marriage, such rites illustrate the values and beliefs that are held as important within a culture.  The tattoo has been used throughout history to mark such life changing occasions.  Mummified remains have been discovered all over the world with still visible, highly detailed tattoos which have enabled anthropologists to map out social hierarchies and tribal life across the centuries.

Filipino Tattoos

When Spanish explorers discovered the Philippine Islands they named them “La Isla de Los Pintados”, which means the “Islands of the Painted Ones”.  In the Philippines tattoos were seen as marks of status and high rank.  The ink on the chests and heads of the tribesmen marked their standing as great warriors.  The women wore intricate tattoos on their arms and wrists, others on their chests as marks of beautification.  In both sexes though tattoos were earned for accomplishments and marked the passage of their lives from one state of existence to the next.

Maori Tattoos

As tattooing of the head caused the run of blood towards the tattooist, it was considered to be the most sacred part of the body.  Those who went through their lives without a tattoo were considered to lack any form of social standing and all high ranking tribesmen were heavily tattooed.  Beginning during puberty when the young men would be developing their hunting skills, tattooing accompanied many rituals and ceremonies that marked the occasion.  It was also a widely held belief that being tattooed made you more attractive to the opposite sex.

Women were traditionally not as heavily tattooed as the men, though they would usually have their upper lips outlined in a deep blue.  The most popular tattoo amongst the women was the chin moko which served a purpose much like an identity card, making their status and role within the tribe easily identifiable.  The male facial moko covered the entire face and was split into eight distinct areas signifying their ancestry and rank.

The Rikbaktsa People

Also known as ‘canoe-people’ the Rikbaktsa live in the Amazon Rain Forest.  Whilst the men of the tribe traditionally marked their passage with piercings; the nose at age 12 and the ears at 15 to signify their passage from child to adult, the women of the tribe were traditionally give facial tattoos to signify their transition into womanhood and their availability for marriage.

Traditional Tattooing Methods

Traditionally tattooing implements were made from animal horn, bone or wood, delicately carved to measure about 10cm in length and an unbelievable 2mm thickness.  Needles were then attached to this tool and the tattoo was made by tapping the needle into the skin with the aid of a small wooden hammer.  The ink used was made from a mixture of soot and tree resin and was rubbed into the wounds left by the needle.


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