Whether it’s a cultural rite of passage, a reward of bravery, evidence of merit, a sentimental piece, or just a really cool design, people have been getting their bodies modified for many reasons since prehistory.
If life is the greatest art form of all, then it’s only reasonable for people to use the physical body as a medium of expression. In many cultures, the human body serves as an actor, medium, performance, and communicative canvas that showcases cogent information about the societal socio-cultural belief system. Body art is a rich display of visual artistry that connotes beauty, social status, occupation, puberty, religion and so on, in an artistically and aesthetically pleasing manner. Traditions, beliefs, values and lifestyle all shine forth through what is produced as art, whether it is known or not.
Body art has always been intriguing, as have its origin, significance, and acquisition
Although tattoos and body piercing have become the most popular forms of body art they are not the only forms of body art. Tattoos, body painting, body piercing, branding, scarification, dermal anchors and three-dimensional art or body modifications such as beading, are all classed as body art.
What’s most interesting about the origination of body art is that numerous cultures independently began body modification, prior to any communication with other cultures. In other words, body art cannot be traced to a single culture or people.
Body art is not a new phenomenon. There are existing shreds of evidence in both old and new civilizations from Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia that clearly shows several body modifications heritage. It is generally accepted by many historians that body art is an essential part of various cultures, often showcasing their inner qualities, wishes for the future, images of gods, and many natural or war themes.
Tattoos are an art form that involves the insertion of pigment skin deep to change its colour permanently. This practice is actually very ancient and might just be the very embodiment of self-expression.
According to historical records and archaeological sites, tattooing is one of the earliest types of body art that has been practised by humans for a very long time. Instruments that seem to have been fashioned explicitly for crafting tattoos have been found in prehistoric sites around France, Portugal, and Scandinavia. These items, it turns out, are no less than 12,000 years old! The oldest physical proof of tattoos has been found on an ancient mummy from the Alps, called Ötzi. This prehistoric human has been dated to around the 5th to 4th millennium BC.
It is also widely known that ancient Norsemen and Celtic tribes commonly practised tattooing as a culture. Various ancient Egyptian mummies have also been found to have tattoos on them. It is also believed that many ancient cultures, like Egypt and India, used tattoos as a form of healing and religious worship. Amongst the Dayak people on the island of Borneo, tattooing is performed as part of a sacred ritual that is accompanied by the sacrifice of fowl and the donning of special clothes made from the bark of the mulberry tree, a cloth normally reserved for widows and the dead.
In diverse cultures, tattooing is used for coming-of-age ceremonies and initiations, symbolising both death and birth – the passing of the old and the start of the new. Among the Fulani people in sub-Saharan Africa, tattoos are used to mark a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, and in some cases can be a sexual lure, a sign of fertility or a sign of beauty. At puberty, Fulani girls tattoo the bottom part of their lips as a sign of beauty and courage. Similarly, Kayan women of Thailand are tattooed at puberty to show that they have become adults, while Iban women also of the island of Borneo are marked in recognition of their accomplishments in singing, dancing and weaving while the men were recognized for triumphs in hunting and warfare.
Scarification is most widely practised in Africa and among Australian Aboriginal groups not incidentally because the other way of permanently marking the skin – tattooing – isn’t as effective on dark skin. Maori men of New Zealand etched deep tattoos over their entire faces. Patterns were chiselled into the skin to create parallel ridges and grooves, much like designs cut into wood. This painful process created raised tattoos that made Maori men look fierce in battle and attractive to women. Since no two patterns were alike, the raised facial tattoos also marked identity.
Elsewhere in Africa, scarification is done for other reasons. The Ekoi (Ejagham) of southeast Nigeria believe that the scars on their bodies will serve them as money on their way to the place of the dead. Suri men of Ethiopia scar their bodies to show they’ve killed someone from an enemy tribe, one group for example cutting a horseshoe shape on their right arm to indicate they’ve killed a man, and on their left for female victim. In contrast, neighbours of the Suri, in Ethiopia’s Omo valley, the Mursi, practise scarification for largely aesthetic reasons. Both men and women create swirling dotted patterns on their bodies that may not necessarily mean anything but which attract the opposite sex and enhance the tactile experience of sexual relations. Also, among the Yoruba people in Western Nigeria, deep cuts are usually carved on both cheeks and the forehead of children born into the community as a mark of identity. These tribal marks also held stories of pain, reincarnation and beauty.
Tattoos, epidermal alterations or scarification in many cultures go further than just skin deep but from way back, they’re signifiers for tribal affiliation and markings of progress within one’s own society & culture. They are methods of curing disease, wards against spirits and reflections of one’s own personality.
Unlike tattooing, body painting is a more temporary art form used by many indigenous and modern cultures for a variety of reasons. These include among others health (protection, cleansing and skin toning), religious and spiritual rituals, military camouflage, rite of passage and face decoration. The nature of a particular painting depends mainly on the purpose of the ritual or ceremony. Most tribal cultures exhibited some form of body painting either with earth, plant, or animal-based pigments.
Henna body painting is plant-based and synonymous with so many indigenous groups in Asia. Although not an exclusive practice to just Asia, the art of henna – also known as mehndi or mehendi– is a traditional activity used on predominantly women’s bodies to celebrate special occasions, such as tribal ceremonies and weddings. Traditionally, the henna plants’ leaves were crushed, dried and cooled to create the ink to stain the skin with beautiful designs.
Along with wet charcoal for black marks, two plants have been traditionally used by the Cherokees and some other Native American groups for face and body painting — achiote (Bixa orellana) and huito, genipa, or jagua (Genipa americana). They painted soldier’s faces red, as the colour was associated with violence. Reportedly some tribes recognized black as the colour of the ‘living’ and fighters wore it on their face in preparation for war. After a battle, successful warriors were painted with symbols to reflect their battleground achievements. This idea is not too dissimilar from that experienced by today’s soldiers, who receive badges and medals to celebrate their acts of bravery during a war.
There are fewer examples of pigment obtained from animals for body painting than those retrieved from plants and earth. However, many colours were extracted from insects throughout history. Some Aztec women stained their teeth red with the crushed bodies of cochineal insects, a native bug, to make themselves more sexually appealing. For certain religious rituals, Aztecs were also known to paint their faces red with their own blood.
Piercing a hole through the skin and inserting metal, bone, shells, ivory, or glass is another type of body art. Among many Aboriginal tribes, it served as a rite of passage, a sign of adulthood, and of full membership in a tribe. Roman centurions pierced their nipples to advertise their courage and virility. In ancient Egypt, a pierced navel was a sign of royalty. In ninth-century Iraq, men pierced their ears. Women in Iran had multiple ear piercings over 4000 years ago. In modern times, piercing various parts of the body is commonplace and accepted generally by society.
Ear spools and earplugs are making a comeback in fringe elements of present-day society. These large holes (up to 3cm in diameter) in the ears bear a remarkable resemblance to those worn by the ancient Maya and other ancient South American peoples. Stretching the earlobes up to a dozen centimetres by wearing heavy earrings was thought beautiful in sixteenth-century China as well as in present-day Borneo. Lip piercing defined the social status of Inuit groups in Alaska up until the late nineteenth century. Both men and women wear lip plugs called labrets. Likewise in Africa, the Surma and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia use lip plates, these are large discs (usually circular, and made from clay or wood) which are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both, thereby stretching it. Nose rings, located through the side or through the septum of the nose could be found in ancient Mexico and India. Nose rings remain popular in India and Pakistan and are gaining popularity in North America and Europe.
In many ways, body art like any other process has evolved. It has developed within many societies and advanced with them — sometimes organically, and sometimes through collision with another culture. The practice grew, changed and took on new meanings. Towards the end of the 21st century, we experienced the development of non-normative body modifications such as tattooing, piercing, stretching, branding, scarification, and genital modifications, which allowed individuals to step outside of the bounds of the normal social order, and mark membership in alternative subcultures, such as bikers, punks, convicts, gang members, or among those who practice alternative sexualities.
These days, it is fascinating how body art has seemingly become an immensely popular fashion statement among youth. People today regard body art as a way of asserting one’s personality and a marker of their identity. Exposure to Western culture has transformed youth immensely as love for various body art has taken hold. Body art has been greatly influenced by international music stars and sports heroes who often display elaborate body art like tattoos, body piercing, dermal anchors and three-dimensional art. In the past, many cultures were influenced by some Western religions like Islam and Christianity. Many people began to frown on body art and viewed them as unholy and sacrilegious. Today, cultural attitudes are shifting back more in the direction of our ancient ancestors.
The human body has always been used as a means of expression and self-construction, it is not surprising that people are once again embracing their bodies as a means to express their identity, beliefs, and personal style. It is great to see young people showcasing their individuality through body art; setting themselves apart from others in ways that make them feel unique and confident.
Change is cyclical by nature. Almost all rejected or obsolete trends will make their way back into the cycle at some point. There are very few “new” trends that hit the scenes nowadays. Rather, lifestyles are in a constant state of repetition and resurrection, renewing old approaches in modernized ways. In so many ways, we are subconsciously influenced by our ancestral past.