Tattoos and piercings outlined by decades of cultural, religious and social practice offer a fascinating way to examine ancient human history. Despite the absence of today’s advanced communication technologies, these body modification methods have managed to spread across countries and continents, crossing oceans and amassing artistic ability, technique and influence. While thousands of years have passed, many features that originated from ancient tattoos and piercings are still present in modern-day designs. Here, we round up five of them that you may find familiar, that you never knew harbored such rich and enduring histories.
Sak Yant (Thailand)
Hailing from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and mainly Thailand, Sak Yant is a traditional Thai tattoo also known as the “bamboo tattoo”. Traditionally applied by Buddhist monks, the process of getting the tattoo is considered sacred, hand-tapped into the skin carving inscriptions and symbols that bless and offer protection. This mythical yet primitive art form is constructed on two design elements – the yantra (the magical geometric design that the tattoo centers around) and the sacred text (written in Khom script or Pali language).
Today, many people are drawn to Sak Yant tattoos for their seemingly exotic appearance, sporting multiple symbols, deities and animal figures. However, it is important to remember that the beauty of Sak Yant transcends aesthetics, and that underlying these talismans are strong spiritual intentions and personal significance. With benefits ranging from protection to power, and guidance to confidence, these yantra designs are a physical manifestation of the bearer’s deepest desires, bestowed upon and ritualistically energized by monks at Buddhist temples. It is a meaningful, spiritual and culturally enriching experience that makes Sak Yant tattoos more than inked skin – but rather, a ceremony and journey to your goals and wishes.
Piercings (East Africa)
On the Eastern side of the African continent are Kenyan communities who are known for their traditional and ethnic practices of piercing. Differing in piercing sizes, placement, materials used and gender preferences, the body modification method remains a time-honored and valuable act across communities. Most times, these piercings are diverse in meaning and motivation, offering much social value as indicators of social standing, age and even bravery, especially in warriors.
Both males and females pierce their ears in Kenya as part of their customs and traditions. For many girls, these earlobe piercings are inserted with jewelry containing intricate beadwork at a young age, before being substituted with bigger and heavier ones as they mature. Even within these beads, choice of colors and patterns vary for their significance in message, identity and social status. The final result is a symbol of beauty and grace, growing with age alongside the custom of ear-stretching, a courageous and uniquely complex tradition in itself that is still being practiced in ethnic groups such as the Maasai and Ethiopian Surma people today. These tribes also engage in lip piercings, wherein the lower lip is pierced and inserted with a lip plate, a clay or wooden disc that increases in size over time until the lip is fully stretched.
The reputation surrounding Irezumi, or Japanese tattoos, was once damaged from the government’s criminalization of the art form. However, wearers of Irezumi had been spread across various classes from the poor to the rich, and the entrepreneurial to the heroic over years of evolving perspectives. At one point, tattoos were commonly seen on firefighters of Japan, who wore them in hopes of having the elements in their favor as well as spiritual support. These traditional tattoos wrapped around bodies like a suit (horimono), covering the shoulders down to the legs, coloring bodies in full. The imagery of these ink designs span from flora to foliage, and mythical creatures from folklore and legends to carp, samurai and more. They are typically embedded with sumi ink, a naturally-derived black ink that used to be hand-poked into the skin but progressed to incorporate the use of machines in recent days.
Tattoos have since been legalized in 1945, and the attitude towards body modifications is rapidly shifting, but Japan still sees some leftover stigmatization presently. While the body art has become more widely accepted by the general public, hot springs, swimming pools and fitness centers may still disallow those who have been inked to enter.
The Indian nose ring is a classic and timeless adornment for women in India, originating centuries ago with a past that can be traced back to Hindu heritage and other Southeast Asian cultures. A sign of femininity, beauty and cultural devotion, these nose piercings hold much significance in also revealing a woman’s marital status in addition to offering health benefits, such as ease in childbirth, reduction in menstrual pain and boosting fertility. Typically pierced on the left nostril, jewelry options often range between a small stud, hoop or chains, each bringing unique decorative features that may be angled to the occasion.
In present time, Nathni still stands as a prevalent body modification choice in Indian women. Piercing procedures are frequently carried out as part of coming-of-age ceremonies, and worn by brides during traditional weddings to honor the goddess of marriage, Goddess Parvati. As such, Nathni remains an essential and treasured aspect of Indian culture, developing only with more stunning ornamental pieces varying in shapes, sizes and complexity for women to accessorize and creatively represent themselves with.
Tā Moko (New Zealand)
Tā moko is deeply rooted in the indigenous culture of New Zealand, traditionally practiced by the Māori in a visual display of symmetrical, fluid and detailed tattoo designs. With a history that dates back hundreds of years ago, tā moko is believed to have had influences from communities in Eastern Polynesia alongside their own rich and distinct cultural heritage. This was a discovery made by Captain James Cook, a British explorer, who then later shared his observations of this symbolic tattooing custom with the rest of Europe.
Often applied to the face, which is considered the most sacred part of the human body, tā moko is a spiritually deep act of divine significance, connecting the wearer to their ancestors with the help of a revered artist known as the tohunga tā moko. Knives and chisels are employed, and ink would be precisely tapped into the skin by knocking with a mallet. In many cases, these hand tools, called uhi, are constructed of shark teeth or sharpened bone or stone.
The art of tā moko experienced a downturn between the 19th to 20th century as a result of colonization. Despite that, Māori culture continues to survive in view of revitalization efforts by the indigenous people in New Zealand, who are actively embracing and adopting traditions not meant to be forgotten. They work hand in hand with modern artists to preserve the craft of tā moko and its ancestral importance in portraying genealogy, knowledge and status, in the forms of flowing spirals and curves infused with cultural and personalized meaning.
Tattoos and piercings can offer an insightful and eye-opening glimpse into the past, with countless numbers of styles and traditions across the world that feature their own beautiful, idiosyncratic flair. If there is a specific look you would like to incorporate into tattoo or piercing, contact us at Ink by Finch, and we would be glad to assist you with a remarkable, respectable and revolutionary body modification that immortalizes your deepest beliefs, memories or wishes.