Tattoos And Their Significance In Cultures Around The World


Considered a taboo in certain parts of the world, tattoos have been an important tradition in several cultures around the globe. Nowadays, tattoo is a form of self-expression, an art that is getting more and more popular each day. But ancient tattoo cultures that have existed in tribes and communities often tell stories of valor, families, success and have a much deeper meaning behind them. Let’s take a look at some of the oldest tattoo cultures around the world. 

Samoa Tatau

The English word tattoo is believed to have originated from the Samoan word ‘tatau’. Tatau originates from the sound of the tapping of the wooden tattoo tools, traditionally made of bone or boar husk, sharpened into a comb style shape with serrated teeth like needles, which was attached to a small piece of sea turtle shell that was connected to a wooden handle. Different sizes of these tools were used for different sizes of thick or thin lines. The tattoo designs of the Samoan community represent power, community, status, honor and respect; and consist of intricate lines, curves, geometric shapes and patterns.

Tattoos And Their Significance In Cultures Around The World
Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Andrew

Pe’a is the traditional male tattoo in the Samoa community, also called malofie, and often covers the body from waist down. Each section of the tattoo would represent an aspect of the person’s character, family and culture. Since the whole process of Pe’a was so painful, only master tattooists or tufuga ta tatau would do the whole process, with help from their assistants. The black color of the traditional ink was obtained by burning the oily kernel of the husked candlenut, the soot creating the base of the ink. 

The women of Samoan community would get malu, which spanned from the upper thighs to below the knees and consisted of simple and delicate designs than that of the pe’a.

Irezumi

Irezumi is the Japanese word for tattoo, meaning ‘to insert ink’, a tradition that extends back to approximately 10,000 BC. The designs draw inspiration from Japanese folklore and mythology, often consisting of dragons, koi fish, tigers, lotus, bamboo, religious imagery and others. The tools used are just a simple bamboo stick with a sharp needle attached to it.

Tattoos And Their Significance In Cultures Around The World
Wikimedia Commons/Baron Raimund von Stillfried

Japan has a complicated history with tattoos. During the 1600s tattoos were a kind of punishment for the lawless and criminals would have to get tattooed – a process known as bokkei. In the1940s, tattooing was legalized yet retained its image of criminal association, after which the Yakuza, Japanese mafia, gave rise to the tattoo culture as a way of protest against bokkei. Although, today young people of Japan are embracing tattoos, yet there is an aversion seen among the general population towards them. One would often find bath houses and other public places discouraging people to enter without covering their tattoos.

Apart from the Yakuza, Japanese tattoos also hold value as spiritual and status symbols.

Sak Yant

Sak Yant, also called Yantra Tattooing, are a form of hand tapped Thai tattoos that consist of sacred geometrical, animal and deity design, which are accompanied by Pali phrases that offer power, fortune and protection to the bearer. These tattoos were engraved by Buddhist Monks, masters and Ruesi ascetics into warriors who sought strength, good luck and protection in battle. 

Tattoos And Their Significance In Cultures Around The World
Wikimedia Commons/Sorasak2008

Today, if someone wants a Sak Yant, they have to travel to certain temples and get these tattoos by qualified monks. The tattoos are often done using a mai sak, a long steel or bamboo rod with a sharp tip. These tattoos are believed to be magical and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck, depending on how a monk creates it, using different designs.

Ta Moko

Ta Moko is the traditional Māori tattoo, worn by the indigenous tribes of New Zealand, often telling their story, social standing, ancestry and family or tribe affiliations. Although the art had declined previously, it is now being revived by people as an expression of cultural pride and integrity.

Tattoos And Their Significance In Cultures Around The World
Wikimedia Commons/Unknown author

Receiving a moko was often seen as a milestone between childhood and adulthood and the tattoos for men was usually done on their face, back, buttocks and thighs; and for women, it was usually done on their lips and chin, although other regions included forehead, thighs and neck. 

The tattoo was done by carving the skin using chisels or uhi, made from ‘albatross bone which were hafted onto a handle, and struck with a mallet’. But now they use the normal tattoo machines.

Find cultures interesting? You’ll like to read about Tribal India’s facial tattoos


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