Friday, June 11, 2010

primitive tattoo

as part of this skills course students were asked to develop a term project consisting of researching, learning and putting to use a primitive skill or technique not covered in the curriculum

of course i picked tattooing. but credit is due to my friend mark for suggesting the idea. as obvious an idea as it may be i consistently failed to come up with it on my own even after many hours wracking my brain trying to think of a good idea for a project.
i fake it good but im really not very smart.

here is my presentation of the process followed by a copy of my formal paper. since the focus of the earthwalk primitive skills program most directly concerns the skills and technology of the pacific northwest my focus would be the tattoo practice of the dominant indigenous cultures of the region, the haida and tlingit peoples.

this is a replication of a traditional haida tattoo baton. my materials are very close if not exact to the archeological record. it is constructed of a carved cedar stick with steel needles lashed to a carved cedar stick. the lashing is deer sinew and it is bonded with pine resin glue. the earliest known tattoo implements of the haida found in the smithsonian museum of natural history show use of steel needles but this of course would have only happened after contact with european traders. prior to this the implements where probably of bone but no record of this is found.

 mark also volunteered to be the guinea pig for this experiment.

aside from the needle baton all my other methods were more modern than not. i chose to do it this way for the sake of the outcome of the tattoo. having never done anything like this before i wanted to be able to have as many familiar resources available to me as possible. i used modern pigments and here i am applying a stencil of the design to be tattooed.

the design itself is not found in the archeological record but i think it is very a very appropriate motif for capturing the spirit of the northwest on a person not descended from a native culture.

Just for fun, ryan the apprentice at artcore decided he wanted to have a primtive tattoo done as well. as part of the term project i had carved a bone needle from a deer leg loosely interpreting an ancient implement described in the essay to follow. i had not intended to use it in practice but hey, why not. its just skin.

i was very surprised to find that the bone needle performed the job faster, cleaner and with less pain than a modern tattoo machine.

Just kidding. it was actually a huge pain in the ass and we stopped the attempt half way through and i finished the tattoo with a modern machine. yet, as i type this i am realizing the design of the modern tattoo machine has not really changed much in the history of its existence which dates back to roughly the same time as the cedar batons used by the northwest peoples. So, how "primitive" do you want?

here is the formal paper for anyone interested in reading:

In this essay i will walk through a quick overview of the history of tattooing from ancient pre-history until the modern era were my focus will turn to the peoples of the North American arctic region and finally the early peoples of my own region, the Pacific North West.

It is hard to say exactly when humans started tattooing their own skin. The archeological record is greatly lacking in evidence of tattoos from pre-history. The earliest known evidence, found by archeologists in a cave in the Pyrenees of France dates to about 12,000 years and indicate use for the practice of tattooing. In a bundle was a lump of ochre, a crushing implement polished from being ground against something hard, a socket bone stained in black and red, a spatula like piece of bone stained with ochre. Also found were thin bone needles with a groove on one side down to the point. The groove is thought to be a channel for ink to flow down the needle into the punctures. Lastly there was an ochre paste that had been mixed with clay and some sort of binder to make it pliable. Theoretically small amounts of the paste would be removed with the needle and applied to the skin.

There were other tools found in the cave which were firmly decided to be used for hide painting, wall painting and other decorative jobs increasing the likelihood that the above listed items were used for tattooing.

The next big step in the history of tattooing was found in the Alps between Austria and Italy. A body of a man found in the ice which dates to be around 5300 years old. Named Otzi after the region where the body was found, he is the oldest known mummy as well as the oldest known tattooed human. Otzi has 59 tattoos mostly lines and dots ranging down his spine, on the back of his knee and in areas around his left ankle. Interestingly 83% of Otzis tattoos are located in spots which correspond to classical acupuncture points, associated with the treatment of back and leg pain. After a thorough autopsy it was discovered that Otzi had been suffering from arthritis in his lower back and knees.

Next on the time line is a mummy from Thebes in Egypt. This is the earliest evidence of tattooing in Egypt but tattooing is known to be prevalent among the Egyptians and it is likely they had practiced tattooing for many generations prior to when the Thebes mummy had lived. considering the far ranging influence of Egypt and the potential for tattooing to reach far back into Egyptian history it is likely that the Egyptians were one of the main influences spreading tattoo practice to the rest of the world.

This may have been the means for tattooing to find its way across the continents to the indigenous peoples of the New World although it may be just as likely that the ancestors of New World inhabitants brought tattooing with them when they crossed the land bridge during the most recent ice age.

in the arctic of region of North America a 3500 year old mask was found depicting tattoo marks. This artifact is the oldest known portrait of a human from the arctic and was probably carved by ancestors of the peoples that would become the Ovik, Punuk Yupiget and the Inuit

For these people tattooing was most common amongst women, being performed by highly respected elder women, usually on the face and using a process by which a needle was passed under the skin and followed by an ink carrier of some sort such as a pine needle, sinew or natural fiber. These tattoos were seen as protective and as having the power to transform the wearer. The protective powers of these tattoos were mirrored in the materials used for making pigment. materials such as lampblack, graphite and urine were all highly regarded as having powers of protection against evil and used to mix the tattoo pigments. Tattooing was also used in funeral ceremonies to protect pall bearers. Tattoos were placed at locations on or near joints since these were thought to be points were the soul could escape or for the body to be invaded by an evil spirit.

Tattoos were also used to depict the connection to the spirit world and the animal world. The belief that man and animal are interchangeable and that the borders of the two worlds are permeable is a common thread through many indigenous tribes of the Americas and the people of the arctic thought tattoos had the power to facilitate travel and communication between these two worlds. Tattoos where applied to aid in the hunt, connecting the hunter to the prey and playing the role as protective aids. Hunters would tattoo themselves to honor the animal they were hunting or as signs of prestige for taking animals. One of the most important hunting related tattoo was the "First Kill" tattoo. This served as honor to the hunter and as protection from spiritual invasion by appeasing the spirits of the taken animal.

As a spiritual practice early arctic peoples used tattooing as a shamanic practice to connect themselves to the spiritual world, travel to higher levels of consciousness and to commune with ancestral spirits or other spirit beings in an effort to gain knowledge and protection.

For the women of these cultures tattoos served many cultural functions. A woman would receive tattoos when she had reached child bearing age and was marriage ready. The tattoos indicated strength, the ability to endure suffering and would also be applied to ease the strain of child birth. During enemy raids tattoos on the faces of women could save their lives if the raid occurred during dim early morning hours when poor lighting, heavy clothing and appearance would make it hard to distinguish between men and women.

There was also a high medicinal value for tattoos as a preventative and curative. Early arctic peoples shared with the Chinese a knowledge of specific points on or just below the skin surface which were used to treat various ailments. Many areas of the body that arctic peoples would tattoo match closely the locations of classical acupuncture points. This use of tattoos as acupuncture tool may even pre-date the Chinese when the location of tattoos on Otzi the 5300 year old ice man are considered.

Evidence of tattooing in the rest of North America is practically non-existent save for a few implements used by the Haida and Tlingit of the North West coast. These tools where found at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History early in this decade and were brought there near the beginning of the 20th century by J.G. Swan an ethnologist studying the people of the North West region in the late 1800's.

The set of tools include steel needles lashed to carved cedar sticks, cedar brushes and some small stone bowls used for mixing pigments made of magnetite for black and hematite for red. the Haida where once one of the most heavily tattooed peoples in the world and along with regional Indians in South America are the only indigenous peoples known to create tribal tattoos with any pigment other than black. The steel needles where used only after contact with European traders. Prior to this there is almost no evidence of what tools where used though the Tlingit oral traditions support the view that the Tlingit "sewed" in their tattoos with needle and thread. A method similar to their relatives in the arctic regions.

The art with which the Haida are synonymous today, the totem poles, carvings and prints are largely derived from ancient tattoo designs that the Haida used to depict Clan Crests. for the Haida tattooing was most strongly tied to the family crest and to the potlatch.

The Crest and its possession was derived from events within the Haida oral tradition which account for their identity as a group. Stories related to these events were told and retold, in turn setting the specific family or clan apart from others while defining their social position among Haida society. Crests explain the reasons for Haida existence creating a real and inseparable link to creatures, objects and spirits in the natural world. Crests intertwined the Haida clans while simultaneously distinguishing the identity of a specific family and its members as unique and individual. This made crests and the right to use them as an identifying emblem more valuable than any physical object.

The two major Haida Clans were Raven and Eagle, with numerous sub-septs, symbolized by Bear, Frog, Hummingbird, Beaver, Otter, Wolf and many others. The powerful animal totems and spirits that surrounded the Haida were also well represented, Orca (Killer Whale), Salmon, Thunderbird and many, many more. Over 70 in total.

Each occupant of a family house would would have some part of their body tattooed with a representation or part of one of the families crests. The chief or head of the house would have all the images of all family crests tattooed.

The potlatch was a large gathering, celebration and feast often performed in conjunction with the completion of a cedar plank dwelling. The potlatch served as a platform for a wide range of cultural events. During a potlatch the dead would be honored, the living celebrated and ceremonial tattoos performed. A potlatch was usually the function of a large, powerful and very wealthy family. The cost of such a gathering would be very great whereas thousands of people would attend and the host of the gathering would serve to increase their standing and prestige in the community by distributing their wealth and possessions amongst all people in attendance. This was also a time for poorer families to settle debts and contracts by contributing whatever small amounts of goods as they could spare to the bounty provided.

One of the most important ceremonies to take place during a potlatch where the tattoos. Most often it was the children of wealthy chiefs who were to be tattooed and the chiefs of opposite clans in attendance who would do the tattooing. One of the last Haida potlatches that featured tattooing occurred in the winter of 1900 in the village of Skidegate. it was witnessed and described by anthropologist J.R. Swanton as fallows:

"On the second day they called them to put the tattoo-marks on. at once they painted their faces. Those in the house shouted to the people to come in and look on. When the spectators were all in, they began dancing and sang party songs. Those who were to be tattooed began dancoing. The wife (of the house chief) stood at the end of the line, wearing a crest painted hat. When they had sung four songs, They put eagle feathers on the dancers (for purification). The house was filled with eagle feathers. Then they stopped. Those who put feathers in them where given cotton cloth. When that was over, they had those who where to be tattooed sit down in front of the chiefs. Sometimes two took a fancy to be tattooed by the same artist. Now they beat the ground with a baton, mentioned the cheifs name and said, "so and so sits in front of you to be tattooed." Then they began to put the tattoo-marks...all that day they spent in tattooing, and finished it...the nose, lower lip and ears were also pierced by member sof the opposite clan. They were paid a blanket apiece for it."

Haida tattooing now is all but dead however there has been a resurgence in traditional Haida arts which may lead to new life for the tattooing traditions. Arrangements are now being made by Haida artists for a temporary loan of the Haida tattoo kit from the Smithsonian National Museum to the Haida people. Duplicates could be made by interested artists, leading to a reconnection to an integral part of the Haida peoples' indelible past.

The following are drawings of traditional Haida tattoos made in the early 1900's by the anthropologist J.G. Swan


  1. Glad I could help out!

    I just wish we did # 15 ( squid octopus ) tho..

    oh well, next time

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