Friday, October 16, 2015

Tattoos: Telling Stories in the Flesh. Q&A with Lars Krutak

Q: What is the earliest evidence of tattoos?

Krutak: The most ancient evidence of human tattooing is found on the mummified corpse of the 5,300-year-old Neolithic Iceman who was discovered in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman has a total of 61 tattoos—short lines etched in groups on his lower back and ankles, four lines on the torso above the gall bladder, a cross behind his right knee and two rings around his left wrist.
Interestingly, approximately 80 percent of the Iceman’s tattoos overlap with classical acupuncture points used to treat rheumatism, a medical condition that plagued him. Other tattoos were found to be located on or near acupuncture meridians.

Q: Were these early tattoos purely decorative? Did they serve another purpose?

Krutak: A common myth that continues to be perpetuated in popular and academic peer-reviewed publications is that tribal tattoos were ornamental. Some indigenous peoples did receive tattoos to enhance their physical appearance, but this practice was the exception rather than the rule. Most tattoos identified tribal designation, related the social accomplishments of the individuals who wore them or functioned as medicinal therapy or as apotropaic [evil-repelling] symbols. In short, I see body marking as a kind of biographical language.

Q: What are some traditional methods of tattooing practiced around the world?

Krutak: Skin-stitching or needle-and-thread tattooing was a technique used across the Arctic and Native North America. Hand-poking, where the design is poked into the skin with a sharp pigment-tipped needle, was a more common method of tattoo application. Today, hand-poked tattoos continue to be given across Indochina and Japan.
Hand-tapping is perhaps the most ubiquitous traditional technique and indigenous to Oceania, Southeast Asia, and parts of Melanesia (e.g., Papua New Guinea). In some regions of Africa, North America, and Asia, the method of scar tattooing was employed. Here, skin incisions were made with a lancet (obsidian, iron, etc.) and the tattooing pigment was immediately rubbed into the open wounds.
I would also characterize hand-pricking as yet another tattooing technique. Simple needles, usually two in number obtained from cactus or palm-tree spines, were wound together with cotton thread to prick the skin. The small space between the needle tips acted as a reservoir that held the liquid tattoo pigment in place. However, the needles had to be dabbed into the pigment after a few pricks had been made to keep this reservoir full. This technique was employed in the Middle East, Balkans, Amazon and other regions of South America, Northwest Mexico and the American Southwest.
There is a very rare technique that I call “hand-hammering” that might be ancestral to hand-tapping. It is found only in a small region of Northeast India among the Konyak and Wancho Naga. Female technicians fashioned an adze-like tool with a row of bush thorns and basically hammered the needles into the skin.
However, today, the majority of tattoos are created by an electric tattoo machine.

Q: In your latest book Tattoo Traditions of Native North America, you explore the tattoo culture of indigenous tribes of North America. What surprised you in your research?

Krutak: That nearly every culture indigenous to North America practiced some form of tattooing, and in many cases it had a perceived therapeutic value.

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