by Imelda V. Abaño
Body tattooing is one of the world's oldest art forms having been widely practiced for thousands ofyears in many cultures. By puncture, with a sharp tool or needle, dye is introduced under the top layer of the skin. Tattoos have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating back as far as 2000 B.C. Since then, the art had spread across the world. But as tattooing has become more mainstream, many traditional cultures are desperately seeking ways to hang on to the age-old art.
In many cultures, tattoos were not just drawings on the skin - they were elaborately decorated testaments to the life of the culture. They often depicted men’s and women's status as warriors in society. They served as profound depictions of their cultural identity, emblems that embodied the story of their life experiences. And for some cultures, tattoos were simply a convenient way to identify and brand criminals.
But as tattooing has become less about tradition and more about fashion, people of all walks of life, especially young adults, are joining the ranks of the “inked”. Tattooing is no longer the exclusive tradition of indigenous peoples and many fear that this once unique practice is dying out.
Anthropologist Ikin Salvador from the University of the Philippines says that with the advent of technology, the traditional method of tattooing has been replaced.
"There is a global tattooing practice happening now, unmindful of boundaries in whatever medium…the so-called technoscapes have brought the local, traditional practice into the global scene. But the traditional tattoos inscribed the deepest intentionality of the people's tradition and culture in the past --- in a way the tattoos order their lives in connection to unknown divinities and ancestors," Salvador explained.
" A globalized tattoo is now different in context --- the new generation (of) tattoo is highly individualistic, a personal statement, an ideology or a fancy for trends," Salvador said.
While some may think that tattooing has a male dominated history, many women in Asia have for ages been marked to show their places in society. "Tattoos were an equalizing factor for both sexes, as a puberty rite to acknowledge membership in the community. Today, there are more surviving women who are tattooed than men. The tattoos in the past were the surface stigma," Anthropologist Salvador said. In the Philippines, women display tattoos as body decoration, particularly on the arms and shoulders.
Lagya Aturba, an elder from a tribe in the Cordillera region in the Northern Philippines, lamented that indigenous tattooing has already vanished in their village. But she remembers clearly how her mother's body bore countless tattoo designs marking her status as a warrior.
" My mother was a gallant warrior. She was recognized in warfare in the early years - that's why she has those intricate tattoos," said Aturba, who herself had her traditional tattoo designs inked onto her arms and face at the age of16 both to attract men and protect against evil spirits.
Salvador says that although the tradition has mainly died out, tattoos were executed for complex rites of passage, tribal identity, prestige, power, healing, protection, beauty and reason. But with the advent of technology, she explains that tattooing has now become more accessible, painless and cheap. - hence, the fascination of today's generation with the modern way of tattooing.
"Today, many people are getting more of it (tattoos) because they don't have to undergo rituals and endure long pain," says Salvador. She admits to getting her own tattoo the modern way in the US, but she picked traditional designs from groups she had studied saying, "this is my way of respecting and honoring the elders."
In a study on tribal tattooing conducted by Filipino researchers Narciso Addamo and Arthur Allad-iw, they found that traditional tattoo practices are disappearing in one of the tribes in the Cordillera region.
" We found that there is no longer a single living tattoo practitioner within the tribe. Tribal elders who were expert tattoo artists are long gone, and their skills were not passed on to anyone among the next generation," the researchers said.
Their study also showed that modern education and concepts of decoration contributed to the fading out of the practice. Even the elders say that tattooing has slowly vanished as nobody among the villagers, including the tattooed warriors, has learned the indigenous craft. With the advent of technology, globalization, education and concepts of decoration, these factors contribute to the fading out of the practice of traditional tattooing.
As the researchers explain, "The only proof now that the tattooing practice was once pervasive is the few remaining living elders who have various bodily tattoos. When they are gone, this ancient practice will be finally lost, unless it is shared with the youth."
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children's issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.