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Tattooing at a temple in Thailand - © Lars Krutak

Sacred Ink: The Magical Power of Tattoos

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.

Here’s Krutak discussing the project:

On his website you can also find a number of fascinating articles relating to his fieldwork. The essay “Shamanic Skin: The Art of Magical Tattoos” offers a fantastic introduction to the topic with its survey of the many tattooing practices found in shamanistic societies:

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).

For those fascinated by tattoos, or shamanism (or both!), I highly recommend taking the time to sit down and browse Lars Krutak’s website, and pick up a copy of his book on the topic, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification.

Link: Lars Krutak – Tattoo Anthropologist

Link: Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification on Amazon.com

Editor
  1. Magical Power of Tattoos….
    The main magical power of tattoos is to make the majority of the inked appear both laughably vain and incredibly stupid, while at the same time very confused about the meaning of the concept of “the rest of your life”.

  2. Magical ink roll call!
    Who else here had tattoos done specifically for magical purposes?

    I have 4 pieces (one of which is over an earlier piece) -I performed internal rituals when getting inked, all has magical purposes, and some I enhanced with later rituals. All done in British tatt parlours, where the artist wasn’t part of the working. I’d like a collaborative one some day.

    1. No ink
      [quote=Cat Vincent]Who else here had tattoos done specifically for magical purposes?[/quote]

      I have no ink at all…sad to say, I’ve never been able to commit to it. I know that my tastes and thinking varies widely over the course of just a couple of years, so there is very little art that I feel ready to attach to myself. If I was to get a tattoo, it would probably be family-related in some way, as that feels like a constant.

      Says more about me personally, I’m certainly not against others getting tattooed – I love to see other people’s work!

      1. Tat Virgin
        I’m also quite the virgin in that department. Though one of my cousins is thoroughly addicted to them –he looks like a member of La Mara by now :P– and is grilling me constantly to accompany him next time he goes to the parlor.

        I might get my ‘Morpheus hand’ icon on one of my shoulders 😉

    2. not me personally
      but a close friend and professor actually do get tattoos based on “magical purposes” or rather to connect more with their beliefs and the places they’ve been. They’re not covered head to toe and they are aware it’s permanent. I think people need to stop to be quick to judge those with tattoos as stupid or crazy or even criminal. In my opinion that’s no different for judging someone by the color of their skin.

      I recommend for anyone who wants to read more: The History of Tattooing

      And now I leave you with quotes from my friend:

      “This is what I love,” he says. “I stop whenever I see a student writing in their book, making notes.” [Speaking to a student] He tells me that his own tattoos are “Signals for himself”. They are “acupuncture memories”, “bookmarks.”

      This article brought back many memories…Cheers.

      1. When I was in college in the
        When I was in college in the early 70’s an occupational hazard of taking LSD, peyote and mushrooms was that one might in a fit of sublimity go and get a tattoo, and then live to regret it after the trip wore off. The general rule was that you got one on your butt cheek, so that if you regretted it later it wouldn’t be too much out in the open. There are quite a few day trippers out there now in early old age who have a mushroom tatted on their ass – a trophy of wilder days. I don’t have any, but I have always admired the resolve and commitment that goes into getting a tattoo. It speaks to not taking one’s mortal coil too seriously.

  3. Tattoos
    I have a quite simple-looking but original tattoo that I created following some months of meditation and with the magickal aim directed towards protection and guidance. I’ll send an image in due course however I find this subject really interesting to read about in terms of the long established history of the practice. For me it was quite intuitive and I worked on it with that approach.

    I don’t know what to make of this but I was very much directed by the Egyption Goddess Isis (this was years prior to recent events). I hope I didn’t unleash anything due to my selfish magickal creation for protection…

        1. Photo-sharing…
          Hi RPJ – I’m not on flicker etc (have I even spelled that correctly?) at the moment. I thought there would be a means on this site (obviously with a possible delay for moderation purposes) to post images. Any suggestions? Is it even worth it?

          1. My tattoo
            Anyway I can attempt to describe it. Essentially it is a sacred scareb but drawn, I guess you could say, in an economical fashion and almost “tribal”. As I’m sure most will be aware, the scareb was considered an earthly representation of the forces that (from a certain perspective) appeared to raise the sun in the morning and carry it through the sky, daily and without fail. Therefore, it was most apparent to me that I could not choose a more fitting symbol for rebirth, reinvigoration, rejuvenation and hope at a time in my life when I required and called for this. Not with a sense of abandon or laziness you understand but in accord with the dedicated practices I was incorporating daily in my life including meditation, fasting, study and trying to act in compassion. I sacrificed everything in my life at the time to pursue this because I simply could not do otherwise. The experiences leading up to this, encompassing about 18 months, is something I would like to explain one day. As an artist though I feel it must be visual, at least to a certain extent.

          2. photos posting
            What I did is I joined a free site like Imageshack
            https://imageshack.com/

            This is what I do:
            Upload image to Imageshack, once you have made an account (you can choose to make them private to the website too later).

            Hit Quote adjacent to Add New Comment under Gregs blog post and copy/paste the text you see at the top that appears in the text box you normally type in. It starts and ends with < center >

            Where he typed the image source (img src) link you paste the DIRECT LINK TO YOUR PHOTO, not the page, the link that shows just the image. Then where he wrote Tattooing at a temple in Thailand – © Lars Krutak just type in something like “link to my tattoo” and that’s what will link to the image. If done right the image should appear in the text box. Otherwise you could just upload it into a photo sharing site of your choice and paste the link to the image to click on but the image won’t appear in the text box. Hope this isn’t confusing.

            As RPJ will tell you mine never come out right 😛

          3. Not confusing (I’ll try)
            Thanks LastLoup. I’m quite sure RPJ will be shaking his head in due course at my inabilty to post a simple image (and then he’ll help me out cause he’s cool).

            Anyway, it is my scareb (as mentioned) but it’ll probably end up looking like two sheds in the back yard of a home in Surbiton or Esher… And then the Bishop will come after me…

          4. worth it
            Well, that depends. Like everything, it has both its advantages and disadvantages. If you’re only thinking of using it to post this one image, then perhaps it’s not worth the trouble :-/

          5. worth it?
            Hey RPJ, I hope my last message didn’t come across negatively. Sometimes I feel really passionate about getting involved in a discussion here but, as a flawed individual, I often use the wrong wording and then I feel like pulling away cause I can’t contribute what I would like to. Anyway – I’ll jump of the couch now…

  4. My personal 2 cents
    I’ll say this: having gotten tattoos at a young age I’ve learned to view tattoos more as personal artwork than anything with vehemently strong meaning, that is to say, creating a piece that is both artistic and meaningful. Hopefully we all grow spiritually and mentally as we age and through experience I can say that the first tattoo you think is so meaningful, usually looks like crap and no longer carries any meaning.

    My earlier tattoos are a tragedy as I got cheap tattoos that were purely for meaning; whereas today, I’ve created full pieces of artwork. I feel if one views tattoos as works of art, they will be able to create a piece that has power and intent to the viewer.

    It’s strange because in some way people with tattoos are artists in their own right and just like all artists, your craft gets better with age, which is how you’re able to determine good work from bad.

    but if I can leave one last piece of advice for those thinking of getting inked. DO NOT SCRIMP ON AN ARTIST. If you want truly good work that you’ll be able to look at 30, 40, 50 years from now, look at peoples work on Instagram and find an artist whose work truly blows you away! The best guys in the world will run you $250+/hr but trust me when I say it’s worth it; cover-ups never look as good and they’re expensive as hell.

    1. Also
      I think traditional tattooing is a different experience; when you get a tattoo with images and techniques that are thousands of years old, the work isn’t necessarily about art, but the meaning behind the images and the experience you went through obtaining the tattoo (most of us are acquainted with the magickal power of symbols). From what I’ve heard, certain forms of traditional tattooing are vastly more painful than the modern methods of today, which are painful enough. Having said that, while I enjoy giving my opinion, it’s just an opinion and isn’t intended to oppose or deny another’s point of view.

      1. The there was that woman I
        Then there was that woman I know who as a teenager got a little spiraling inward worm tattooed on her forehead. Now in middle age you still can’t take your eyes off that little worm boring into her forehead while you are talking to her. You want to hit her in the forehead with a fly swatter. That tat was a mistake.

    1. A tattoo is like a marriage –
      A tattoo is like a marriage – once you commit it is very difficult to go back on your word, so a tattoo is really an expression of resolve and faith in your life and all the decisions that you make without regret. That is in itself a “magical” act.

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