Anthropology of Tattoos

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The Body as a Canvas

Scarred across her back are raised bumps forming intricate designs of lines and angles, a reminder of who she is and where she is from. She thinks back on the ceremony in which she was marked with the painful scarification. She remembered feeling a sense of calm as the village artist pierced her back with a small arrowhead, stretching the skin away from the body and swiftly but skillfully cutting a slit in her back. He repeated this several times as a ceremonial pot was filled with gathering soot from the burning fire. After the artist finished his tedious design, he rubbed soot from the pot bottom deep into the slits, planting the bacteria that would infect the skin, raising the scars into their meaningful design. She felt accomplished that she withstood the agonizing pain while other members of her clan could not. Her newly inherited body art signified the birth of her first son, and left her with a renewed sense of beauty. This is the way of life common to people indigenous to the motherland of Africa. Scarification, however, is not the only form of body art that is used. Body painting, tattooing, and branding are all similar forms of body art, which can be found in Africa and other cultures throughout the world.

The word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “tattau”, which means “to mark”. Tattoos have evolved from being symbols of punishment that were given to identify criminals and slaves in the early ninth-century Chinese culture, into a pop-culture trend of using he skin as “a way of describing the exotic uncivilized other” within ourselves (Schildkrout 2004:324). For centuries, the body has been used as a “visible way of defining individual identity and cultural difference” (Schildkrout 2004:319). This cultural difference becomes apparent when studying the evolution of body art over time, especially when focusing on the differences between the Western and Non-Western cultures. People have been adorning their body with tattoos and piercing for centuries, but until recently, the thought of tattoos in ancient Egypt had been pushed aside. It has now been discovered that, without a doubt, tattoos did exist in that time period. Although miniscule, a group of enormously important tattooed mummies serve to help prove this point (Bianchi 1988:21). The first mummy to be discovered was one of a woman named Amunet, whose mummy was found in an excellent state of preservation, “most likely due to the fact that she served as a priestess of the goddess Harthor at Thebes during Dynasty XI”(Bianchi 1988:22). The tattoos on her body were comprised of a pattern of dots and dashes in an elliptical shape on her lower abdomen. The thighs and arms adorned the identical parallel lines of the aforementioned pattern. Two more women mummies, who were discovered and believed to be from the same time period, also had similar tattoos on their lower abdomen (Bianchi 1988:22). This group of woman represents an exclusive group of Egyptians who received tattoos in that time period, because there is no other evidence that shows tattoos to be a part of the Egyptian culture until the time of the Middle Kingdom. These abstract patterns associated with ritualistic tattooing survived into the New Kingdom.

The Egyptians, more then likely, borrowed a form of tattooing from the Nubian civilization. Unlike the Nubians, whose purpose for tattooing is unknown, “the Egyptians appear to have regarded the tattoo as one of several vehicles by which the procreative powers of the deceased could be revived” (Bianchi 1988:27). Substantiation proposes that only women were associated with the decorating of their bodies and the ritualistic activities that went along with it. The art of tattooing began with the grouping of bluish or black dots and/or dashes forming abstract geometric patterns; that system of body art lasted for over two thousand years in ancient Egypt. Just like other ideas and goods, the idea of tattooing began...
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