This is part two in a three-part series of articles. Read part one.

Tattooing in Ancient China and Asia

In ancient China, prominent facial tattooing was a form of extreme punishment. According to Han Shu, a codebook of the period, there were more than 500 crimes for which a tattoo punishment was meted out ‒ these punishments were called ‘mo zui’, or ink crimes.

A painting of Captain James Cook in his naval uniform from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Photo: National Maritime MuseumA painting of Captain James Cook in his naval uniform from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Photo: National Maritime Museum

Confucius also wrote about this matter, suggesting that it is “honourable to preserve the body in the form created by the parents”  and that it is detrimental to have the human body ‘defamed’ by tattoos (Reed, 2000, p. 364).

However, other Chinese minorities took up the art of tattooing quite avidly, including minorities such as the small Dulong tribe, who lived along the banks of the river Dulong, as well as the Dai tribes and the Li people of Hainan Island, who practised tattooing as a form of defence for their own survival (Belden, 2016).

The Dulong tribe used to tattoo the faces of their women in order to protect them from being raped or carried away as slaves and when girls reached the age of 12 to 13 years, it was almost considered as a rite of passage to womanhood. The men, on the other hand, used to tattoo their muscles in order to draw attention to them.

The Li Tribe generally reserved tattooing only for women, with the men using it as a medical treatment. The Dai tribes, on the other hand, usually tattooed only across the arms, between the eyebrows and a small dot across the back of the hands, with the young women usually tattooed in a four-day ritual on the arms and legs, with the hands remaining free of tattoos until they married. These ethnic minorities were deemed to be uncultured people and were not easily accepted by wider Chinese society (Belden, 2016).

A vintage engraved illustration of a Tahitian family from 1841.A vintage engraved illustration of a Tahitian family from 1841.

Japanese tattoos dating back to the Palaeolithic period

While in Europe, Ötzi is the first actual tattooed body to be found intact, tattooing in Japan is thought to go back to the Paleo­lithic era, some 10,000 years ago (Mitchell, 2014).

In Japan, the oldest discovered tattoos were found on clay figurines (similar to the Egypt­ians), which were recovered from tombs dating back to the second and third millennium BC. These figurines represented the deceased people in the sepulchres in the manner of their likeness and this practice is believed to have served a religious, spiritual or mystical function (Yamada, n.d.).

A tattooed tribal elder in Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock.comA tattooed tribal elder in Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock.com

While these figures do not constitute undeniable proof that the Japanese actually tattooed their bodies, they strongly suggest this possibility. Besides these figurines, the earliest acknowledged tattoo on the skin is dated to about 297BC and this seemed to have been placed on the body for decorative purposes only (Mitchell, 2014).

As in Chinese culture, in Japan, tattoos were also used as a form of criminal punishment and were associated with samurai warriors (Mitchell, 2014). The samurai bodyguards, who used to protect the lives of noblemen and the political class, were also called “men of weapons”. Japanese tattoo artists were known as horis and were acknowledged as masters who created the concept of full body suit tattooing (A Brief History of Tattoos, 2013).

Tribal tattoos of the Pacific Ocean and Polynesia

Although Australia is the smallest continent and, subsequently, the last one to be discovered, it is also the world’s largest island. The native indigenous populations have practised the culture of tattooing dots across their faces and bodies for millennia, thousands of years before Europeans ever set foot on their land and explored the South Pacific (Benj, 2019).

Tattooed human skin with a heart pierced with a dagger, symbolising betrayal or loss, and the initials P.V.W., dated circa 1850-1900. Retrieved from: https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/ real-life/news-life/marked-men-the-secret-codes-and-hidden-symbols-of-australian-convict-tattoos/news-story/0b140e2d75166c4d30cdc193f31523feTattooed human skin with a heart pierced with a dagger, symbolising betrayal or loss, and the initials P.V.W., dated circa 1850-1900. Retrieved from: https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/ real-life/news-life/marked-men-the-secret-codes-and-hidden-symbols-of-australian-convict-tattoos/news-story/0b140e2d75166c4d30cdc193f31523fe

Ancient tribal tattoos were found among the Maoris, natives of New Zealand, and the Polynesian islands of Haiti, Samoa and the Philippines and all their tattoos differed from tattoos elsewhere in the world.

Tattooing in the Polynesian islands was mainly monochromatic, produced by using dif­ferent shades of black and grey ink. These designs normally consisted of abstract patterns and narrated the story of a warrior’s life – yet another reason why tattoos have been used historically.

In the Pacific Ocean countries, tattooing historically became ingrained in the life of communities, not just as a form of art but as a way of life. Tattoos allow one to become an adult, to own land, to marry and to be able to assume a place in the community – yet another reason underlying their use.

Li Wenshi, a 75-year-old woman of Dulong ethnic group, has her face tattooed as part of their ethnic minority tradition in the southwestern province of Yunnan, China. Photo: Jiang Wenyao/XinhuaLi Wenshi, a 75-year-old woman of Dulong ethnic group, has her face tattooed as part of their ethnic minority tradition in the southwestern province of Yunnan, China. Photo: Jiang Wenyao/Xinhua

This legacy of Polynesian tattoos started more than 2,000 years ago (Gemori, 2018). Of interest is the fact that the word ‘tattoo’ probably stems from the Polynesian word ‘tatau’, described by Captain James Cook following his discovery of the islands in 1771.

During his return voyage, Captain Cook took on board his exploration ship, HMS Endeavour, a native Tahitian named Ma’I who was heavily inked with tattoos. On their arrival in England, Ma’I was paraded at the royal court in front of the ruling sovereign.

From then onwards, sailors became fond of Polynesian tattoos and this custom spread fast among maritime communities as they believed that tattoos emblazoned and protected their own bodies, given that tattooing was a way of life to the Polynesians (Benj, 2019).

This incident was important in popularising tattoos in the Western world, in particular among certain social categories such as, in this case, sailors and maritime personnel.

At a much later stage, between 1788 and 1868, over 160,000 convicts were transported from the UK to various colonial islands around Australia and, as soon as these convicts disembarked the ships, the colonial authorities would register their physical appearance, along with their vocation, date and place of birth, next of kin, crimes and tattoos. These registries comprise 10,000 entries (Barnard, 2016) recorded in the so-called Black Books, which are still archived in Australia.

Birds of prey are being commonly tattooed by the hunting fraternity, as a remembrance of their pastime. Photos courtesy of Duncan Ishmael of Inkskin Studio-Fgura.Birds of prey are being commonly tattooed by the hunting fraternity, as a remembrance of their pastime. Photos courtesy of Duncan Ishmael of Inkskin Studio-Fgura.

This is another example of the detailed documentation of tattoos being used to define membership of a particular social group or category, in this case those considered deviant in mainstream society – a situation which has some parallels with the modern-day tattooing community.

A common feature of inking of tattoos may constitute an achievement in life, a specific sportsman or football club fan. Also, a common feature is to ink a remembrance pertaining to a political affiliation, a religious community, a hunting fraternity and also family icons.

Lionel Cassola is a Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts.

This is part two in a three-part series. Read part one. The third and last part of the article will be published next week.

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