The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan is found in the form of clay figurines that have faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks. The oldest figures of this kind have been recovered from tombs dated to 5,000 BC or older. In 297AD, the first written record of Japanese tattooing was discovered when a Chinese dynastic history was compiled, and although the Chinese considered tattooing to be a sign of barbarism and used it only as punishment, it is said that Japanese "men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs”. However, by the time of early seventh century, the rulers of Japan had adopted much of the same culture, style and attitude of the Chinese, and as a result decorative tattooing fell into official disfavour.
Japanese Criminals were marked with a variety of symbols that designated the places where the crimes were committed. In one region, the pictograph for "dog" was tattooed on the criminal's forehead. Other marks included patterns which included bars, crosses, double lines, and circles on the face and arms. Tattooing was reserved for those who committed serious crimes, and individuals bearing tattoo marks were ostracized by their families and denied all participation in community life. For the Japanese, tattooing was a very severe and terrible form of punishment. However, tattooing someone for their crimes fell out of practice mostly to to the rise of decorative tattooing being used to cover their criminal tattoos around the 17th century. The Japanese focused in on the aesthetic and ornamental purposes of tattooing in the culture, contrasting the early spiritual significance, and often involved a full body suit.
1805 marks the year that the Japanese had made a translation of the Chinese novel Suikoden. This novel was illustrated with beautifully colored woodblock prints depicting heroes who were adorned with tattoos. These tattoos ranged from elaborate motifs of flowers, animals and mythical figures. The novel had a large success which had spurred a demand for similar tattoo work within the region. Despite the boom surrounding the novel, tattooing had become officially illegal for being deleterious to public standards. This was enforced throughout the Meiji era. Although being outlawed tattooing still thrived throughout underground parlors, and the art had become associated with the Yakuza. The Yakuza believed that receiving a large and painful tattoo was considered evidence of one’s courage and loyalty to the criminal lifestyle.
In India a long standing traditional tattoo is the Hanuman symbol. This symbol represents strength and would typically be located on the arms and legs. This mythical monk symbol is still very popular today throughout Asia. Monks would tattoo this piece on ones body and would use their spiritual connection to incorporate magical powers into the design itself. Women are not allowed bearing these tattoos as monks are forbidden from making contact with them. It is also believed that women do not need to obtain more magic as they are already powerful beings. The tradition of tattooing was revered across the agrarian and forested landscapes of India. Here ancient complex carvings found on prehistoric rocks were copied and tattooed on members of the tribal community. Tattooing these maze like patterns was called Gudna and were worn with pride, and flaunted like jewelry. This Hindu term means burying the needle. Most of the known tribal communities which practiced tattooing resided in the remote hinterlands of the country. Another style of tattooing that existed in India is Apatani tattooing. This involved using thorns to cut the skin and using soot combined with animal fat to fill with a dark blue colour. These tattoos were allowed to get infected in order to encourage the tattoo to become larger, clearer and darker.
In the 1970’s the government of India enacted a ban on tattoos. Despite this criminalization the practice of tattooing has continued in some of the more remote locations. A tribe called the Singhpo of Assam and Arunachai practiced tattooing with strict rules. These rules mostly applied to gender, especially women. Typically married women would be tattooed on both legs, from their ankles to their knees. While men, whether married or not, would typically wear tattoos on their hands. Unmarried women, however were forbidden from having tattoos done. wouldn’t be allowed to have tattoo work done. Many of these tribes would use tattoos to represent the count of enemies they have killed. It would also be beneficial for tribes to identify ones tribe, as well as recognize fallen warriors from battles or accidents.
The various regions of India are all known for having their own distinct types and styles of tattoos. The Kollam is a style of tattoos known as an elaborate labyrinthine design that’s purpose is to capture evil spirits. This type of tattoo protects its wearer, keeping safe in order to be reunited with ancestors. Central India also has a long and barbaric tradition of tattooing on wome. The Dhanuks in Bihar have the belief that tattoos deglamorize women. It is thought that tattoos protect women from the threat of sexual predators. Due to the prevalence of purdah, women from lower castes are expected to have visible body parts tattooed to signal their inferior status. However women of the Santhal region are often tattooed with floral patterns on various areas of their bodies, including their faces. The purpose of these floral pieces is to prepare young women for motherhood by enduring such pain they gain the strength to face their future challenges. Another traditional tattooing practice for women in India is the Chati Godai which requires women to receive a chest tattoo when puberty or marriage is reached. Continuing their strong role of tattooing in India, the women of Kutch, known as the Rabari, have practised tattooing for decorative, religious, and therapeutic purposes for hundreds of years. Rabari tattoo kits made them have a simple composition of a single needle and gourd bowl to hold the liquid pigment. The liquid pigment is typically made by mixing lamp soot with tannin from the bark of local trees and may even contain small quantity of turmeric powder, to brighten the colour and to prevent swelling. While body art has been practiced for centuries in many Indian communities, it’s only over the past few decades that tattoos have become a fashion statement among urban Indian youth. Tribal adaptation of popular designs like the dragon and tiger and abstract art are gaining popularity among the youth.
The first reportings of a tattooing culture in China go way back to 200 BCE, describing the Yue people who decorated themselves with mythical figures to protect themselves from dragons and sea monsters when fishing. Much like in Japan, China’s Tattoo culture is rich with traditions, and we can see many Tattoo subcultures within different Chinese tribes, such as the Wa people and Ainu people.
For centuries, tattooing in China was mostly associated with lower classes and the underworld. In ancient China, Confucius preached that civilized people should honor and respect their parents and ancestors, any mutilation of the body (which is a gift from your parents and ancestors) is brought shame upon the family and the community. It became associated with barbarouild, uncivilized tribes, living beyond the borders of the Chinese empire. The practise of punitive tattooing to criminals was used as a method of public humiliation. It was a form of punishment that acted as a permanent to a life in the margins of society, and thus tattoo culture developed from it.
In 18th century, tattooing turned around - it became fashionable and started gaining attention from the West, and many artists became interested in tattooing. As in Japan, tattooing also gained popularity because people liked the novel Suikoden and wanted to get their favourite characters tattooed on them!
“Sak Yant”, the traditional tattooing of Thailand, dates back 3,000 years ago. Associated with both Buddhist and Animist beliefs, Sak Yant script is a mix of ancient Khmer script and Buddhist Pali script. Buddhist monks were tattooed religious texts by grand master monks with bamboo. In order for a monk to begin tattooing, they had to go through training to find the mystical place within them so they won’t be distracted. Monks chant during the whole duration of the tattoo process, with tattoos measuring nearly a metre long. Soldiers would also visit temples to get tattooed by monks and receive spells for protect, strength, and invisibility. It is a belief that Thailand has never been occupied because Thai soldiers are immortal because their protective tattoos. Bamboo tattooing is extremely painful but considered the better to make oneself invincible. Thai traditionalists believe that ordinary decorative tattoos lack magic and power to protect them.
Hindu Sanskrit tattoo has similar functions as Thai tattooing as it is based on Hindu gods and deities. These also act as protection, in this case against evil spirits.
Placement is sacred among traditional Thai tattooing. The closer the tattoo is to the head, the greater the power it provides. It is said that that the soul resides in the head, alongside one’s store of good luck and future success. Tattoos placed on the top of the head are intended to flood your head with blessing and protect your soul. This is called the “Yuan Shen Guan Ding” tattoo. The tattoo of a tiger represents a tiger’s spirit, and a favored placement is the lower back, which allows the tiger spirit to be in control of your life. A special Thai tattoo is the Golden-Tongued Bird which helps with confidence in speaking, as it is normally applied to the tongue.
Polynesians which includes Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Māori, are genetically linked to indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia. It’s a sub-region of Oceania, comprising of a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island as its corners. People who live in these islands are regarded as Polynesians for their similar traits in language, customs, society and culture. Each of these places do variations of Polynesian tattoos and each branch has its own subtle features.
Polynesian culture is noted for having one of the most elaborate and complex tattooing styles in the ancient world. It was believed that an individual’s spiritual force or power, which they called a “mana”, should be displayed through one’s tattoos. Ancient Polynesian people would adorn themselves with intricate geometric designs which they would continuously embellish and add to throughout their lives. Often one would add to their body art until being completely covered, telling the story of their life. Depending on the title and rank of the individual, tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs would take place. These significant events would establish a young man’s journey into their role of leadership.
The ancient people of Hawaii had traditional tattoo art as well, known as “kakau”. The purpose of kakau was to guard their health and wellbeing, in addition personal decoration and expression. Typical artwork seen in Hawaiian tattoos was representative of natural forms in intricate designs. Men were typically adorned with such designs on their arms, legs, torso and faces, while women would typically be tattooed on their hands, fingers, wrists and occasionally their tongues.
Although many years passed, tools and techniques of Polynesian tattooing have changed little. For a strictly traditional design, the skill gets handed from father to son, or master to disciple. Each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learned the craft over many years of serving as his master’s apprentice. They vertically passed their knowledge and rarely spread it widely because of its sacred nature. Traditional Polynesian tattooing existed for at least 2000 years, but in the 18th century tattooing in Polynesian culture drastically decreased. This can be attributed the spread of Christianity, as tattooing was forbidden in the old testament and as a result most churches discouraged and banned tattoos on their premises.
The Maori people of New Zealand are one of the most noteworthy tattoo cultures within Polynesia. The Maori’s distinct style of tattooing is considered a refined form of artistry, incorporating aspects of their skills used for wood carving - this tattoo style is called “moko”. Like other Polynesian tattoos, these tattoos told the story of one’s life journey, and were often earned. To the Maori people, the higher members of the community were tattooed and those of lower social status were not. Tattooing one’s body typically began at puberty when individuals would go through customary rituals celebrating their progression to adulthood.
For some tattoos different traditions were followed, such as prohibiting all sex or no eating of solid foods. Some, like full face tattoos, were very time consuming, and a good tattoo craftsman would carefully study a person’s bone structure before commencing his art. The tattoo instrument used was a bone chisel, either with a serrated or an extremely sharp straight edge. The first stage of the tattoo commenced with the engraving of deep cuts into the skin. Next, a chisel was dipped into a sooty type pigment such as burnt Kauri gum or burnt vegetable caterpillars, and then tapped into the skin. It was an extremely painful and long process, and often leaves from the native Karaka tree were placed over the swollen tattoo cuts to hasten the healing process.
Wars were frequent, and the warriors had little time for recuperation. During the tattooing process, flute music and chant poems were performed to help soothe the pain. Although the tattoos were mainly facial, the North Auckland warriors included swirling double spirals on both buttocks, often leading down their legs until the knee. Women wouldn’t be as extensively tattooed at the men; typical tattoos for females would be an outlining of the lips. As with Polynesian tattoos, the moko tattoo represented one’s status, ferocity and/or virility. Tattoos on the face are considered the most revered, and different locations on the face had different meanings and significance. Ancestry is represented on each side of the individuals face, and depending on the tribe, the paternal side would usually be represented on the left side and the maternal ancestry would be shown on the right side of the face.Someone who was not of high ranking ancestry would not be granted a moko on their face.
Many regions in Africa are known to have practiced a method of tattooing called Scarification. This form of body-modification is common in areas of the world where the inhabitants typically have higher melanin in their skin. This makes the common method of tattooing more difficult and makes it difficult to see as they heal another method to modify and decorate one’s skin was adopted. Although some may not consider this actually tattooing, but very closely related.
Scarifications are made by lifting the skin a little, and making a cut with a knife or some other sharp thing special sands or ashes were rubbed in to make raised scars in patterns on the body, it can be felt like braille lettering. European explorers recorded that when in Sub Saharan Africa, they encountered a cultural practice of scarring the skin. This region, known as the Sahel, is the region in Africa that stretches from the country of Senegal to the Red sea. The largest tribal group inhabiting the Sahel region is called Fulani. It is known to be one of the most heavily tattooed tribes of the region.
These cuts and scarring purposely placed in the skin were meant to represent status as well as rites of passage within the community. The methodology for placing these tattoos is to penetrate the skin, and then rub the wound with ash. The ash is used to help inflame the skin and causes it to heal as a raised scar. Some tribes will reopen wounds and place a pebble or pearl in, which helps create a greater raised effect. This is one of many types of body modifications that exists in African tribes. Many tribes have their own artistic styles of scarification, however most of these modifications have the intention of exaggerating one’s features.