All of the major forms of body art known today appear in the ancient world, and there is no evidence indicating a single place of origin for particular techniques. Like people today, ancient peoples used body art to express identification with certain people and distinction from others. Through body art, members of a group could define the ideal person and highlight differences between individuals and groups. In the past, as today, body art may have been a way of communicating ideas about the afterlife and about the place of the individual in the universe.
A variety of objects demonstrate the use of body art in ancient times including an Egyptian fish-shaped make-up palette from 3650 BC to 3300 BC; a painted Greek vase from the fifth century BC depicting tattooed Thracian women; a ceramic spout bottle depicting the pierced face of a Moche warrior of Peru from AD 100-700; and ceramics of painted Nayarit women from 300 BC to 300 AD.
As people from one culture encounter people from another, the diversity of body art can be a source of inspiration, admiration, and imitation. Yet since body art can so clearly signal cultural differences, it can also be a way for people from one culture to ostracize others.
Body art links the individual to a social group as an insider, by asserting a shared body art language. Or it distinguishes outsiders, by proclaiming a separate identity. This concept is explored in Identities, which includes exhibits on tattooing in Japan, New Zealand, the Marquesan Islands, and the...