Tattoos are often the gateway to the larger world of body modifications. And for most tattoo enthusiasts, they are a way of self-expression, or even experiential art. As a tradition, tattooing has existed for centuries and the roots of the ritual differed from region to region. Some believe that the word “tattoo” originated from the Samoan word “tatau,” meaning to strike or tap. Let’s take a look at five traditional tattoo styles around the world and how they originated.
The ancient tattoo traditions of the Polynesian islands could perhaps be the oldest in the world. Among them, Maori is probably the most well-known. Native to New Zealand, the Maori tribe revers its Maori art and considers the art form sacred.
Ta Moko tattoos were reserved for the face, since the Maori consider the head to be the most important part of the body. Kiri Tuhi, or skin art, is generally tattooed on the arms and the rest of the body. Maori tattoos have particular design elements that have specific meanings, which can represent a number of things like your life, your journey, growth, new beginnings, people and ancestors.
Traditionally, the process of tattooing started at puberty and was almost like a rite of passage for boys turning into men in a sacred ritual. Traditional Maori tattoos were worn by both men and women. In the Maori culture, it was rebellious to not be tattooed.
The process is extremely painful and can render people immobile for days due to swelling, as the tattoos are chiseled into the skin—using bone or shark teeth—rather than the usual puncturing. They also represent the power, status in society and prestige of the person wearing them.
Celtic tattoos likely originated as intimidation tactics for the warriors, together with the big and colourful hair. While there doesn’t exist much in terms of ancient Celtic tattoos, they are referenced in historical texts. According to the Romans, the Picts—meaning “painted”—were a Celtic-speaking group that decorated themselves with blue tattoos.
The blue colour comes from the Woad plant. Woad contains indigotin, a blue pigment that is also present in the indigo plant, albeit much more potent than Woad. A paste is made from the leaves, which is then used as dye: rubbed into the skin after it has been punctured.
The Celtic art is a mixture of styles from different places and times. The symbols most commonly used are knows, animal symbols, swirls, circles, and other things representing natural energy.
Amazigh, or Berber, tattoos were traditionally reserved for women as a mark of beauty, health and well-being. Traditionally north African, these tattoos were prevalent in countries like Tunisia and Morocco, but are now a dying art as the last bearers are aging.
The tattoos replaced make up and jewelry for the women, they adorned their faces and arms with the most intricate Berber symbols. Sometimes, husbands would bring the tattoo artists to have the wives tattooed, and the tattoos also symbolized love.
Amazigh tattoos were also considered magical in nature. They are believed to induce fertility, cure illnesses and protect the wearer from evil spirits. Amazigh girls were tattooed as a rite of passage into womanhood. These tattoos were also status symbols. The tattoos evolved with the change in a woman’s status and if she was widowed, she was tattooed ear-to-ear, symbolizing her husband’s beard.
These Amazigh symbols were drawn from nature and were meaningfully placed to serve a purpose.
Sak Yant is the Thai name for tattooing traditional geometric shapes on the skin. This practice formed as ancient Shamanistic traditions mixed with Buddhism as it spread across Thailand and the rest of Asia. These tattoos are considered magical tattoos and are done by specific Buddhist monks, or Ajarns, who are trained for it.
The Sak Yant tattoos are a mix of Buddhist psalms and prayers, shamanistic spells and sorcery, which govern the five elements of creation: fire, water, wind, earth and the spirit of Buddha. They were worn for protection in battle and the monks often studied their magical properties. The tattoos are supposed to provide the warriors with good luck, strength, courage and protection from evil.
The tattoos are done by piercing the design into the skin using steel rods or bamboos dipped in ink. The ink can be made from anything from charcoal, ash, herbs to even snake venom.
This Japanese artform used to be considered a status symbol, and decorative body art until it took a dark turn as prisoners began being tattooed as part of their punishment. Ever since then, the country has struggled with how to view the rising importance of tattooing as an art form. And younger generations are embracing tattoos, older generations are still wary.
Artists use needles that are attached to long wooden sticks with silk threads to puncture the design into the skin. Today, popular symbols associated with this form of tattooing are samurais, carps, onis, koi fish, dragons, phoenix, snakes and cherry blossoms.