When the preserved 5000-year-old body of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ was recovered from the ice of the Italian Alps in 1991, it was found be covered with over 50 tattoos. Earlier this year, a CAT scan of a 1300-year-old Sudanese mummy discovered what appears to be a tattoo of an angel on the inner thigh. The list of similar discoveries goes on: in fact, it has been estimated that around the time of Columbus, a thousand or more indigenous societies practiced tattooing.
Taken from the Polynesian tatau, the word ‘tattoo’ refers to (usually permanent) markings on human skin, sometimes created through scarification, but more often known as the process of inserting ink into the dermis layer of the skin. In recent decades, tattooing has become extremely popular (some 25% of Australians under 30 now have a tattoo). The reasons for getting a tattoo in the modern world are many – from simple decoration through to professions of eternal love – but a lesser known reason, still seen in many tribal societies, is for magical reasons.
Lars Krutak, an anthropologist with a fascination for tattoos, has spent 10 years traveling the world surveying “how people have used tattoos, scarification and body modification to channel supernatural power into their bodies”. He documented this journey, along with sumptuous images, in his book Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification:
Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification is a photographic masterwork in two parts exploring the secret world of magical tattooing and scarification across the tribal world. Based on one decade of tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak’s fieldwork among animistic and shamanic societies of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Melanesia, Spiritual Skin journeys into highly sacred territory to reveal how people utilize ritual body modification to enhance their access to the supernatural.
The first part delves into the ancient art of Thai tattooing or sak yant that is administered by holy monks who harness the energy and power of the Buddha himself. Emblazoned with numerous images of dramatically tattooed bodies, this chapter provides tattoo enthusiasts with a passport into the esoteric world of sak yank symbols and their meanings. Also included is an in-depth study into the tattooing worlds of the Amerindians. From Woodlands warriors to Amazonian shamans, tattoos were worn as enchanted symbols embodied with tutelary and protective spirit power. The discussion of talismanic tattooing is concluded with a detailed look at the individuals who created magical tattoos and the various techniques they used.
For millennia, nearly all indigenous people who tattooed practiced shamanism, the oldest human spiritual religion. Death was the first teacher, the boundary beyond which life ended and wonder began. Shamanistic religion was nurtured by mystery and magic, but it was also born of the hunt and of the harvest and from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that they had to kill that which they most revered: plants, animals, and sometimes other men who competed for resources or whose souls provided magical benefits.
…Shamanism is animism: the belief that all life – whether animal, vegetable, or human – is endowed with a spiritual life force. Sacrificial offerings, especially those made in blood, were like financial transactions that satisfied spirits because they were essentially “paid off” for lending their services to humankind or to satisfy debts like infractions of a moral code which most indigenous peoples around the world observed.
For example, the heavily tattooed Iban of Borneo respect adat or the accepted code of conduct, manners, and conventions that governs all life. Adat safeguards the state of human and spiritual affairs in which all parts of the universe are healthy and tranquil and in balance. Breaches of adat disturb this state and are visited by “fines” or contributions to the ritual necessary to restore the balance and to allay the wrath of individuals, the community, or of the deities. Traditionally, such rituals included the sacrifice of a chicken, pig, or in special instances even another human – especially when a new longhouse was built.
…Apart from their role as the guardians of tribal religion, some shamans actively participated in tattooing traditions themselves. Among the Paiwan of Taiwan, the Chukchi of Siberia and the Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, female tattoo artists – who were usually shamans – worked via supernatural channels to cure their patients of “soul-loss” which was attributable to disease-bearing spirits that could be either human or animal. Sometimes proper treatments included the application of medicinal tattoos at particular points on the body or “tattoo foils” to disguise the identity of the sufferer from such malevolent entities.
…The Kayan tattooists of Borneo, who were always female, tattooed a design called lukut or “antique bead” on the wrists of men to prevent the loss of their soul. When a man was ill, it was supposed that his soul had escaped from his body: his recovery showing that his soul had returned to him. To prevent the soul’s departure, the man would “tie it in” by fastening round his wrist a piece of string on which was threaded a lukut within which some magic was considered to reside. Of course, the string could get broken and the bead lost, so the Kayan replaced it with a tattooed bead motif that has come to be regarded as a charm to ward off all disease.
…The Mentawai of Siberut Island also wear intricate bead tattoos on the backs of their hands. One man told me that these permanent beads “tied-in” his soul to the body but that they also made him more skillful whenever he needed to use his hands to perform various tasks. It should be noted that the Mentawai people are one the most profusely tattooed people living today. The reason for this, they say, is that their beautifully adorned bodies keep their souls “close” because they are pleased by beautiful things like beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, facial paint, and above all tattoos (titi).