Today ( June 21st 2020) is National Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous people have a rich history of body modification, including tattooing, which is still being practiced today.
Before colonialism ravaged North America, tattooing and other traditional body modifications such as piercings were practiced widely by different people throughout what is now Canada and The United States.
These tattoos were meant to represent family, clan crests, social rank within a clan, their relationship to a specific territory, and even hunting and fishing rights.
Tattooing and piercing are just two ceremonial practices that were forbidden by colonists in an attempt to stamp out Indigenous culture, and today, many artists are bringing it back.
North American Indigenous designs are similar to those of the Maori people of New Zealand. Geometric patterns using black ink, produced generally by tapping or threading the ink into the skin using a natural rod or thread, also called “hand poked” or “skin stitched” tattoos.
Placement is also similar between the cultures, often placing important tattoos on faces and hands, among other body parts.
Indigenous tattoos traditionally take inspiration from nature, such as animals, plants, and the elements. But of course Indigenous tattooers can and do work in other styles.
Rob Kelly is the owner of BLACKOUT Tattoo in Hong Kong. Rob has been tattooing since 2005, and has lived in Hong Kong since 1994. BLACKOUT Tattoo was founded in 2010 and features brilliant permanent artists as well as travelling guest artists.
Rob tattoos in many styles including American traditional, Neo traditional, black work, Japanese, Chinese, black and grey, line work, realism, tribal, and more.
Rob has a book of flash you can choose from, or you can book a consultation with him and collaborate on something completely original for yourself.
The shop abides by all health regulations, including using new ink and needles, so no need to worry about infections.
Rob has incredible attention to detail and will make sure you leave the shop happy and with a badass tattoo! Check out his website and set up a consultation http://www.blackout-tattoo.com
A bodysuit is the ultimate way for a tattoo collector to show their dedication to the craft. A bodysuit is most often done as one cohesive piece, usually in one style. But some people do start getting tattooed without the intention of having a bodysuit, then end up growing into it.
Japanese is the most well known style for creating bodysuits. Done by one artist, tied together with background work such waves, clouds, and other nature themes.
More recently black work is becoming more popular for full bodysuits. Either heavy black work or smaller pieces.
Similarly people get bodysuits of American traditional pieces. Hundreds of small pieces filling up a body to make it look more or less like one huge suit.
Black and grey, neo traditional, and realism styles are also being used for bodysuits now, making for eye popping artwork.
The word bodysuit may make you think of really a full body covered in tattoos, but it also refers to torso pieces that lead onto the arms, and/or legs.
There are 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar. One of them is called Chin, after the Chin state that they live in. Each of these groups has rich cultural traditions. The Chin people are known for their remarkable face tattoos. The women of Chin state have been getting face tattoos since the eleventh century according to legend.
The tradition of tattooing the faces of girls started when a Burmese king visited the area. Becoming enthralled with the young women he kidnapped one young girl to be his bride. The elders then decided to tattoo their young girls faces to dissuade other men from stealing them. It is also said to make them more beautiful, and to be able to tell them apart from the women in other tribes. The third legend of the beginning of face tattooing is that local pastors told them only those with face tattoos would get into heaven. This being after the area was colonized by British missionaries.
There are different tattoo patterns for different groups within the Chin state. For example, the M’uun women have more sloping, curved shapes, the Yin Du have long vertical lines that cross the entire face, and the Uppriu have their entire face tattooed full of dots.
As with most of these ancient tattoo traditions, it is extremely painful to get them done. The tattoos are made using leaves, grass, and soot. The leaves are used to make colour, the soot is sued as a disinfectant and binding agent, and the grass shoots are later used to wrap the tattoo, giving a natural bandage. The tattoo is given using long, sharp cane thorns. The face would stay swollen for 5-7 days, but it was all worth it for the beauty and tradition!
The government banned getting these tattoos in the 60’s, but some women still practise this ancient tradition since they are so far from the capital.
The women who still have their face tattoos love them and see them as a beautiful addition to their bodies. The younger generations don’t seem to like how they look for the most part, but the older women stick together and still admire each others art.
Samuel is a German artist who has been tattooing since 2008. He has tattooed in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Thailand. New Zealand was where he cemented his interest in Maori/Polynesian tattooing, which is what he mainly does now.
Samuel is drawn to the thick bold lines and black work of Polynesian tattoos, and the possibility of creating full bodysuits in this style. Along with Polynesian work, Samuel also does dotwork and blackwork pieces, including lots of mandalas and henna inspired pieces.
Most of Samuel’s work is large, half or full sleeves, back pieces, and even full bodysuits. Though he will do some smaller designs, mainly mandalas.
Samuel works out of his studio in Ravensburg, Germany.
Gakkin is a (mainly) blackwork and freehand artist working out of Amsterdam after first working in Kyoto.
His pieces are all large scale. Full sleeves, large torso pieces, back pieces, and bodysuits.
He collaborates often now with another Japanese blackwork artist, Nissaco. The two work well together, and their pieces flow seamlessly into each other.
His work is largely inspired by nature. Everything from wind, water, flowers, mountains, the sun, and the moon, and animals.
Gakkin also takes direct inspiration from ancient Japanese painters, adding his own interpretations.
Though he mainly works with black, he does also add splashes of red to draw the eye. In an interview with Tattoo Life, he said about working with black “I believe that black is the most important color in tattooing. Every ancient tattooing culture – Maori, Japanese, and Polynesian – considers it as such. It just works better than any other color on the skin.” (www.tattoolife.com)
The Li people live in Hainan Province, China’s most southern point. Tattoos in Hainan can be traced as far back as 3000 years ago. Hainan is often referred to as “The Tail of the Dragon”, as it is the most southern point of China, though also used to be called one of the eyeballs of China (along with Taiwan when it was a part of China) as it is an island province.
According to one German ethnologist (branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the characteristics of different peoples and the relationship between them), Hans Stübel, the origin of their tattooing came from a story about a descendant of the original Li. This descendant of Li had a daughter whose mother died early in the child’s life. When this happened, a colourful native bird called the hoopoe fed the child with grains to keep her alive. In remembrance of this, the Li women tattoo themselves to look more like the birds, both in their colour and the patterns of their wings.
Others still believe that the women tattooed themselves in order to be recognized in the afterlife.
A more practical reason that these women tattooed themselves, particularly on their faces, is the fact that their villages would be attacked often by many of their neighbors. In order to appear unattractive to the invading men, the Li women tattooed quite intricate designs on their faces and down their necks. Making themselves appear less attractive protected them from violence and rape.
Later on in history though, these women saw the tattoos as an enhancement to their beauty. When a girl turned 13 or 14, an older woman would tattoo her, first on the nape of her neck, then her face and throat over the course of 5-7 days. Then, over the next 3 years, she would continue to be tattooed along her arms and legs. The only thing that interrupted this would be the death of a family member. Once a woman married, her hand would also be tattooed, marking her as a married woman.
Like many ancient cultures, the Li used a bamboo rod, with rattan needles to hand tap the designs into the skin. The patterns used did vary from tribe to tribe, but all used motifs taken from nature, such as plants, animals, and totemic symbols passed down through generations.
Information taken from:
-Carrie E. Reed. “Tattoo in Early China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 120, no. 3, 2000, pp. 360–376.Liu, H. (1939).
-“Hainan: The Island and the People.” The China Journal 29(5-6): 236-246; 302-314.
-McCabe, M. [and Q.Y. Wang] (2008). “Tattooed Women of Yunnan, China.” Skin and Ink Magazine (11): 64-74.
-Stϋbel, H. (1937). Die Li Stämme der Insel Hainan: Ein Betrag zur Volkskunde Sϋdchinas. Berlin: Klinkhardt & Bierman.
Tattoos were an important part of the sideshow in circuses and carnivals from the end of the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Though tattoos didn’t become an integral part of the circus until this later time, tattoos in the circus originated around 1804 (approximately) when Jean Baptiste Cabri (also seen as Kabri) who had been tattooed by the Marquesas in the Pacifics joined a carnival. Jean was a French deserter who fled to the Pacific Islands and lived there with his wife whom he met and married there. He acquired a large number of tattoos while there, all of which had a specific meaning. His tattoos were a mark of entering manhood, and meant that he had been fully accepted as one of the islanders. Jean was discovered on the island by Russian explorers, and after some convincing, went back with them to Europe to tour in a carnival as a heavily tattooed man.
The first tattooed man to be apart of the circus in America was named James F. O’Connell. James was an important part of Barnum’s circus in 1842, specifically in the “freak show”. James was tattooed head to toe in tribal Polynesian style during his time as a prisoner on the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific. James became shipwrecked on the islands and lived apparently by dancing Irish jigs to entertain the local islanders. He was then forcibly tattooed over a period of eight days, and even forced to marry one of the women who tattooed him. After about 5 years on the island another ship finally landed and brought him back to America where he started life in the circus as the first tattooed man in America to be part of the show.
After O’Connell, a Greek man nicknamed Prince Constantine, and also Captain Constentenus quickly became immensely popular in 1873 due to his extremely heavily tattooed body which at this time was rarely seen. His tattoos covered his hands, neck and face.He reportedly had 388 tattoos. He may have been the most popular and wealthy tattooed circus member of this time, bringing in around one hundred dollar US a week, which was a lot of money for this time. His tattoos included hundreds of animals and small filler pieces all over his body, tattooed over a period of three months with three hours of tattooing being done every morning.
Women also had their place in the circus world of tattoos. Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first tattooed woman to earn a living based on her ink. Nora had an elaborate (but untrue) story of how she got her tattoos. To attract more attention, she claimed that her tattoos were forcibly done on her by “savage Lakota Indians” when in reality she was born in London, and tattooed by her common law husband Martin Hildebrandt. Some thought Martin was her father or her actual husband, but according to numerous sources it looks as though Nora was not actually related to Martin. Martin was one of the first (if not the first) permanent tattoo artist in America, tattooing in New York after tattooing soldiers in the civil war and travelling with the Navy. At just 25 years old Nora was able to make a career for herself in the circus business starting in 1882. Nora is most famous for being in the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in New York.
Women quickly became the more popular option of viewing when it came to seeing tattooed people, as seeing a woman showing skin at this time was scandalous and unheard of. Naturally this alone drew crowds. In the 1920’s one of the more head-turning women in the circus was a woman called Lady Viola. Lady Viola was very popular in part due to her often being known as “The most beautiful tattooed woman in the world” as well as her unique tattoos, some of which were early portrait work of well known people such as Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and presidents Wilson, Washington, and Lincoln across her chest.
For around 70 years or so, every big circus employed tattooed people as part of the act, showcasing them as freaks or acts just because of their ink, and as part of other acts such as juggling, feats of strength, sword swallowing, fire breathing, and more. Tattooed people made good money travelling with a circus as different circuses had rivalries with each other, so these people could get the best pay from those who wanted them badly enough. Tattoo artists could also make a good living by either travelling with a circus or setting up shop in a location where lots of circuses stopped.
While tattoos in the circus remained a popular staple in this form of entertainment (even today), they did lose some of their mystery and novelty around the early 1900’s with the invention of the modern electric tattoo machine. Thanks to this machine more and more people were getting tattooed. In order to keep people interested circuses had to step it up a notch. This was done by presenting whole families of tattooed people, tattooed dwarves, motorcycle riders, and even tattooed animals.
Popular circus tattoo artists include Stoney St. Claire, who along with being a tattoo artist, was also a sword swallower.
Another artist was Jack Dracula, an artist most famous for working out of Coney Island. Jack was also heavily tattooed himself, and is famous for his facial tattoos, some of which he at least partially did on himself before he realized tattooing his own face would prove a too daunting task.
Charles Wagner was another famous artist responsible for tattooing over 50 people who were, or went on to be tattoo attractions. Charles worked out of New York and is also famous for patenting a tattoo machine, improving upon the new design Samuel O’Reilly had created to make tattooing faster and less painful, as well as more sterile.
Samuel O’Reilly patented the first “modern” tattoo machine, and also fully tattooed up to 12 ladies in the late 1800’s.
Many of the tattooed people were also at least part time artists themselves, giving them a chance to earn more money.
Tattooing was an extremely important part of the circus world (and still is), and is also in part responsible for how quickly tattooing became popular in North America and some parts of Europe.
Information taken from books:
-Circus Age : Culture and Society under the American Big Top
by Janet M. Davis
– The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connell, the Tattooed Man by James F. O’Connell
-Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva : Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific
by Elena Govor
-Tattooed : The Sociogenesis of a Body Art
by Michael M. Atkinson
-The Greatest Shows on Earth : A History of the Circus
by Linda Simon