AnthroNotes: Museum of Natural History Publication for EducatorsSmithsonian Institution

VOLUME 22 NO. 2 Winter 2001 

Inside this issue:
Body Art as Visual Language Teacher's Corner:
Body Art
Tattooed Beauty:
A Pacific Case Study
North American Indians:
Resources on the Internet

by Enid Schildkrout

[Editor's Note: Enid Schildkrout curated an exhibition titled "Body Art: Marks of Identity" that was on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from November 29, 1999 through May 29, 2000. Exhibition texts, illustrations, and the floorplan can be viewed at]

Body art is not just the latest fashion. In fact, if the impulse to create art is one of the defining signs of humanity, the body may well have been the first canvas. Alongside paintings on cave walls created by early humans over 30,000 years ago, we find handprints and ochre deposits suggesting body painting. Some of the earliest mummies known-like the "Ice Man" from the Italian-Austrian Alps, known as Otzi, and others from central Asia, the Andes, Egypt and Europe-date back to 5000 years. People were buried with ornaments that would have been worn through body piercings, and remains of others show intentionally elongated or flattened skulls. Head shaping was practiced 5000 years ago in Chile and until the 18th century in France. Stone and ceramic figurines found in ancient graves depict people with every kind of body art known today. People have always marked their bodies with signs of individuality, social status, and cultural identity.


There is no culture in which people do not, or did not paint, pierce, tattoo, reshape, or simply adorn their bodies. Fashions change and forms of body art come and go, but people everywhere do something or other to "package" their appearance. No sane or civilized person goes out in the raw; everyone grooms, dresses, or adorns some part of their body to present to the world. Body art communicates a person's status in society; displays accomplishments; and encodes memories, desires, and life histories.

Figure 1 (Japan)
[Click on picture for a larger image]

Body art is a visual language. To understand it one needs to know the vocabulary, including the shared symbols, myths, and social values that are written on the body. From tattoos to top hats, body art makes a statement about the person who wears it. But body art is often misunderstood and misinterpreted because its messages do not necessarily translate across cultures. Elaborately pictorial Japanese tattooing (figure 1) started among men in certain occupational groups and depicts the exploits of a gangster hero drawn from a Chinese epic. The tattoos have more meaning to those who know the stories underlying the images than they do to people unfamiliar with the tales. Traditional Polynesian tattooing is mainly geometric and denotes rank and political status but more recently has been used to define ethnic identity within Pacific island societies.

Figure 2 (Mexico)
In an increasingly global world, designs, motifs, even techniques of body modification move across cultural boundaries, but in the process their original meanings are often lost. An animal crest worn as a tattoo, carved into a totem pole, or woven into a blanket may signify membership in a particular clan among Indians on the Northwest Coast of North America, but when worn by people outside these cultures, the designs may simply refer to the wearer's identification with an alternative way of life. Polynesian or Indonesian tattoo designs worn by Westerners are admired for the beauty of their graphic qualities, but their original cultural meanings are rarely understood. A tattoo from Borneo was once worn to light the path of a person's soul after death, but in New York or Berlin it becomes a sign of rebellion from "coat and tie" culture.

Because body art is such an obvious way of signaling cultural differences, people often use it to identify, exoticize, and ostracize others. Tattoos, scarification, or head shaping may be a sign of high status in one culture and low status in another, but to a total outsider these practices may appear to be simply "mutilation." From the earliest voyages of discovery to contemporary tourism, travelers of all sorts-explorers and missionaries, soldiers and sailors, traders and tourists-have brought back images of the people they meet. These depictions sometimes reveal as much about the people looking at the body art as about the people making and wearing it. Some early images of Europeans and Americans by non-Westerners emphasized elaborate clothing and facial hair. Alternatively, Western images of Africans, Polynesians and Native Americans focused on the absence of clothes and the presence of tattoos, body paint and patterns of scars. Representations of body art in engravings, paintings, photographs and film are powerful visual metaphors that have been used both to record cultural differences and to proclaim one group's supposed superiority over another.


Most people think that permanent modification of the skin, muscles, and bones is what body art is all about. But if one looks at body art as a form of communication, there is no logical reason to separate permanent forms of body art, like tattoos, scarification, piercing, or plastic surgery, from temporary forms, such as makeup, clothing, or hairstyles. Punks and sideshow artists may have what appears to be extreme body art, but everyone does it in one way or another. All of these modifications convey information about a person's identity.

Nonetheless, some forms of body art are undeniably more permanent than others. The decision to display a tattoo is obviously different from the decision to change the color of one's lipstick or dye one's hair. Tattooing, piercing, and scarification are more likely to be ways of signaling one's place in society, or an irreversible life passage like the change from childhood to adulthood. Temporary forms of body art, like clothing, ornaments and painting, more often mark a moment or simply follow a fashion. But these dichotomies don't stand up to close scrutiny across cultures: tattoos and scarification marks are often done to celebrate an event and dying or cutting one's hair, while temporary, may signal a life-changing event, such as a wedding or a funeral.

Figure 3 (U.S.A.)


Ideas of beauty vary from one culture to another. Some anthropologists and psychologists believe that babies in all cultures respond positively to certain kinds of faces. The beautiful body is often associated with the healthy body and non-threatening facial expressions and gestures. But this does not mean that beauty is defined the same way in all cultures. People's ideas about the way a healthy person should look are not the same in all cultures: some see fat as an indication of health and wealth while others feel quite the opposite. People in some cultures admire and respect signs of aging, while others do all they can to hide gray hair and wrinkles.

Notwithstanding the fact that parents often make decisions for their children, like whether or not to pierce the ears of infants, in general I would maintain that to be considered art and not just a marking, body art has to have some measure of freedom and intentionality in its creation. The brands put on enslaved people, or the numbers tattooed on concentration camp victims, or the scars left from an unwanted injury are body markings not body art.


Body art takes on specific meanings in different cultures. It can serve as a link with ancestors, deities, or spirits. Besides being decorative, tattoos, paint, and scars can mediate the relationships between people and the supernatural world. The decorated body can serve as a shield to repel evil or as a means of attracting good fortune. Tattoos in central Borneo had the same designs as objects of

Figure 4 (New York)
everyday use and shielded people from dangerous spirits. Selk'nam men in Tierra del Fuego painted their bodies to transform themselves into spirits for initiation ceremonies. Australian Aborigines painted similar designs on cave walls and their bodies to indicate the location of sacred places revealed in dreams.

Transitions in status and identity, for example the transition between childhood and adulthood, are often seen as times of danger. Body art protects a vulnerable person, whether an initiate, a bride, or a deceased person, in this transitional phase. To ensure her good fortune, an Indian bride's hands and feet are covered in henna designs (figure 5) that also emphasize her beauty. For protection during initiation, a central African Chokwe girl's body is covered in white kaolin. In many societies, both the dead and those who mourn them are covered with paints and powders for decoration and protection.

Figure 5 (India)

Worldwide travel, large-scale migrations, and increasing access to global networks of communication mean that body art today is a kaleidoscopic mix of traditional practices and new inventions. Materials, designs, and practices move from one cultural context to another. Traditional body art practices are given new meanings as they move across cultural and social boundaries.

Body art is always changing, and in some form or another always engaging: it allows people to reinvent themselves-to rebel, to follow fashion, or to play and experiment with new identities. Like performance artists and actors, people in everyday life use body art to cross boundaries of gender, national identity, and cultural stereotypes.

Body art can be an expression of individuality, but it can also be an expression of group identity. Body art is about conformity and rebellion, freedom and authority. Its messages and meanings only make sense in the context of culture, but because it is such a personal art form, it continually challenges cultural assumptions about the ideal, the desirable, and the appropriately presented body.

Body art is an ancient and almost universal custom and can be seen today in cultures around the world, including our own in the United States.

After reading about the various techniques of body art described below, ask students to find examples of each technique in magazines, newspapers, books, and on the Internet.

With these examples, ask students to describe the body art and explain to the class, or in writing, what they think is its significance for the people with the body art. How does each example reflect the notions of power, individuality or group identity, life transitions, or beauty as explained in the previous lead article. How does each example help illustrate a general point made in the lead article, and how does each example illustrate one or more of the techniques described below?

You might ask students to discuss their thoughts, ideas, and feelings about body art prior to conducting their research for this assignment. After their reports, ask them to share with their classmates if their ideas changed and, if so, how, as a result of their research. For example, did they become aware of any personal negative or positive feelings about specific kinds of body art as a result of their research or from listening to their classmates' ideas? Which methods or techniques for creating body art do they find most appealing, and which do they find most troubling and why? As a culminating activity, students might enjoy making a bulletin board display of various techniques and uses of body art, creating topical "headlines" for various sections of the display drawn from this issue of AnthroNotes. They could then illustrate these topics with photographs and pictures brought to class as a result of their research.


Body Painting

Body painting, the most ephemeral and flexible of all body art, has the greatest potential for transforming a person into something else-a spirit, a work of art, another gender, even a map to a sacred place including the afterlife. It can be simply a way of emphasizing a person's visual appeal, a serious statement of allegiance, or a protective and empowering coating.

Natural clays and pigments made from a great variety of plants and minerals are often mixed with vegetable oils and animal fat to make body paint. These include red and yellow ochre (iron rich clay), red cam wood, cinnabar, gold dust, many roots, fruits and flowers, cedar bark, white kaolin, chalk, and temporary skin dyes made from indigo and henna leaves. People all over the world adorn the living and also treat the dead with body paint.

The colors of body paint often have symbolic significance, varying from culture to culture. Some clays and body paints are felt to have protective and auspicious properties, making them ideal for use in initiation rituals, for weddings, and for funerals ­ all occasions of transition from one life stage to another.

Historically, body paints and dyes have been important trade items. Indians of North America exchanged many valuable items for vermilion, which is mercuric sulphide (an artificial equivalent of the natural dye made from cinnabar). Mixed with red lead by European traders, it could cause or sometimes caused mercury poisoning in the wearer.


Makeup consists of removable substances-paint, powders, and dyes-applied to enhance or transform appearance. Commonly part of regular grooming, makeup varies according to changing definitions of beauty. For vanity and social acceptance, or for medicinal or ritual purposes, people regularly transform every visible part of their body. They have tanned or whitened skin; changed the color of their lips, eyes, teeth, and hair; and added or removed "beauty" spots.

From the 10th to the 19th century, Japanese married women and courtesans blackened their teeth with a paste made from a mixture of tea and sake soaked in iron scraps; black teeth were considered beautiful and sexually appealing.

Makeup can accentuate the contrast between men and women, camouflage perceived imperfections or signify a special occasion or ritual state. Makeup, like clothing and hairstyles, allows people to reinvent themselves in everyday life.

Rituals and ceremonies often require people to wear certain kinds of makeup, clothing, or hairstyles to indicate that a person is taking on a new identity (representing an ancestor or a spirit in a masquerade, for example) or transforming his or her social identity as in an initiation ceremony, wedding, graduation or naming ceremony. Male Japanese actors in Kabuki theater represent women by using strictly codified paints and motifs, and the designs and motifs of Chinese theatrical makeup indicate the identity of a character.


Hair is one the easiest and most obvious parts of the body subject to change, and combing and washing hair is part of everyday grooming in most cultures. Styles of combing, braiding, parting, and wrapping hair can signify status and gender, age and ritual status, or membership in a certain group.

Hair often has powerful symbolic significance. Covering the head can be a sign of piety and respect, whether in a place of worship or all the time. Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads but also cover them with wigs or scarves. Muslim women in many parts of the world cover their heads, and sometimes cover their faces too, with scarves or veils. Sikh men in India never cut their hair and cover their heads with turbans. And the Queen of England is rarely seen without a hat.

Cutting hair is a ritual act in some cultures and heads are often shaved during rituals that signify the passage from one life stage to another. Hair itself, once cut, can be used as a symbolic substance. Being part, and yet not part, of a person, living or dead, hair can take on the symbolic power of the person. Some Native Americans formerly attached hair from enemies to war shirts, while warriors in Borneo formerly attached hair from captured enemies to war shields.

Reversing the normal treatment of hair, whatever that is in a particular culture, can be a sign of rebellion or of special status. Adopting the uncombed hair of the Rastafarians can be a sign of rebellion among some people, while for Rastafarians it is a sign of membership in a particular religious group. In many cultures people in mourning deliberately do not comb or wash their hair for a period of time, thereby showing that they are temporarily not part of normal everyday life.

What we do with our hair is a way of expressing our identity, and it is easy to look around and see how hair color, cut, style, and its very presence or absence, tells others much about how we want to be seen.

Body Shaping

The shape of the human body changes throughout life, but in many cultures people have found ways to permanently or temporarily sculpt the body. To conform to culturally defined ideals of male and female beauty, people have bound the soft bones of babies' skulls or children's feet, stretched their necks with rings, removed ribs to achieve tiny waists, and most commonly today, sculpted the body through plastic surgery.

Becoming fat is a sign of health, wealth and fertility in some societies, and fattening is sometimes part of a girl's coming of age ceremony. Tiny waists, small feet, and large or small breasts and buttocks have been prized or scorned as ideals of female beauty. Less common are ways of shaping men's bodies but developing muscles, shaping the head, or gaining weight are ways in which cultural ideals of male beauty and power have been expressed.

Head shaping is still done in parts of South America. For the Inka of South America and the Maya of Central America and Mexico, a specially shaped head once signified nobility. Because the skull bones of infants and children are not completely fused, the application of pressure with pads, boards, bindings, or massage results in a gently shaped head that can be a mark of high status or local identity.

While Western plastic surgery developed first as a way of correcting the injuries of war, particularly after WW II, today people use plastic surgery to smooth their skin, remove unwanted fat, and reshape parts of their bodies.


Figure 6
(Papua New Guinea)

Permanent patterns of scars on the skin, inscribed onto the body through scarification, can be signs of beauty and indicators of status. In some cultures, a smooth, unmarked skin represents an ideal of beauty, but people in many other cultures see smooth skin as a naked, unattractive surface. Scarification, also called cicatrisation, alters skin texture by cutting the skin and controlling the body's healing process. The cuts are treated to prevent infection and to enhance the scars' visibility. Deep cuts leave visible incisions after the skin heals, while inserting substances like clay or ash in the cuts results in permanently raised wheals or bumps, known as keloids. Substances inserted into the wounds may result in changes in skin color, creating marks similar to tattoos. Cutting elaborate and extensive decorative patterns into the skin usually indicates a permanent change in a person's status. Because scarification is painful, the richly scarred person is often honored for endurance and courage. Branding is a form of scarification that creates a scar after the surface of the skin has been burned. Branding was done in some societies as a part of a rite of passage, but in western Europe and elsewhere branding, as well as some forms of tattoo, were widely used to mark captives, enslaved peoples, and criminals. Recently, some individuals and members of fraternities on U. S. college campuses have adopted branding as a radical form of decoration and self-identification.


Tattoo is the insertion of ink or some other pigment through the outer covering of the body, the epidermis, into the dermis, the second layer of skin. Tattooists use a sharp implement to puncture the skin and thus make an indelible mark, design, or picture on the body. The resulting patterns or figures vary according to the purpose of the tattoo and the materials available for its coloration.

Figure 7 (London)

Different groups and cultures have used a variety of techniques in this process. Traditional Polynesian tattooists punctured the skin by tapping a needle with a small hammer. The Japanese work by hand but with bundles of needles set in wooden handles. Since the late 19th century, the electric tattoo machine and related technological advances in equipment have revolutionized tattoo in the West, expanding the range of possible designs, the colors available, and the ease with which a tattoo can be applied to the body. Prisoners have used materials as disparate as guitar strings and reconstructed electric shavers to create tattoos. Tattoos are usually intended as permanent markings, and it is only recently through the use of expensive laser techniques that they can be removed.

While often decorative, tattoos send important cultural messages. The "text" on the skin can be read as a commitment to some group, an emblem of a rite of passage, a personal or a fashion statement. In fact, cosmetic tattooing of eyebrows and eyeliner is one of the fastest growing of all tattoo enterprises. Tattoos can also signify bravery and commitment to a long, painful process-as is the case with Japanese full body tattooing or Mori body and facial patterns. Though there have been numerous religious and social injunctions against tattooing, marking the body in this way has been one of the most persistent and universal forms of body art.


Figure 8 (Ecuador)

Body piercing, which allows ornaments to be worn in the body, has been a widespread practice since ancient times. Piercing involves long-term insertion of an object through the skin in a way that permits healing around the opening. Most commonly pierced are the soft tissues of the face, but many peoples, past and present, have also pierced the genitals and the chest. Ear, nose and lip ornaments, as well as pierced figurines, have been found in ancient burials of the Inka and Moche of Peru, the Aztecs and Maya of ancient Mexico, and in graves of central Asian, European and Mediterranean peoples.

The act of piercing is often part of a ritual change of status. Bleeding that occurs during piercing is sometimes thought of as an offering to gods, spirits or ancestors. Particular ornaments may be restricted to certain groups-men or women, rulers or priests-or may be inserted as part of a ceremony marking a change in status. Because ornaments can be made of precious and rare materials, they may signal privilege and wealth.

Enid Schildkrout is chair and curator in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and founding editor of Faces magazine.

Photo Captions

Permission was granted to publish the following photographs:

Figure 1. Horiyoshi III holding his as yet untattooed son. Photo credit: Sandi Fellman. Large-format Polaroid. Japan 1984. A renowned tattoo artist, Horiyoshi III here displays both his infant son and his own full-body tattoo. The Japanese art of irezumi, literally "insertion of ink," typically involves the pictorial decoration of the entire body, from the neck to the wrists and ankles. Horiyoshi III's tattoos depict traditional imagery including waves, whirlpools and carp. His tattoos were done by hand, using bundles of needles, by Horiyoshi II, the master who passed down his professional name to his disciple.

Figure 2. Narayit from Mexico. Seated male figure. Ceramic, 300 B.C.­A.D. 300. American Museum of Natural History 30.3/2457. Photo credit: D. Finnin. The ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America created magnificent ceramic statues and sculptures that portray men and women with various forms of body art, including painting, scarification, sculpted hair, tattooing and piercing. This male figure from the Mexican state of Nayarit is shown with lines of scarification that outline zones of painting on his face, as well as painting on his neck, arms, torso and waist. He has sculpted hair and wears multiple rings that were attached by piercing the nose and ears. Such adornments seem to have indicated relatively high status.

Figure 3. Neely. Woman with carp back tattoos. Photo by William DeMichele, 1994. Tattoo artist: Jesse Tuesday. This woman's tattooed back shows an image of a koi, or carp, reflecting the influence of Japanese tattoo on the West.

Figure 4. Jon from the series "Hybrid Identities" (1997-1998), photographed in New York and San Francisco by Bettina Witteveen.

Figure 5. IVB: Henna. American Museum of Natural History.

Figure 6. Ceremonial "debating" stool with male figure. Wood, paint, feathers. Iatmul (Papua New Guinea). Collected by Margaret Mead, 1930s. American Museum of Natural History, 80.0/8131. The figure on this stool from the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea wears scars as well as face paint. Raised scars on the chests and backs of Iatmul men, resulting from scarification during initiation ceremonies, express male identity and represent the tooth marks of the crocodile spirit, said to have devoured the initiates as boys and expelled them as men. The stool was displayed in a ceremonial house and beaten as an accompaniment to speeches given by men.

Figure 7. Edith. Oil on canvas by George Burchett. Collection of Lyle Tuttle. Edith Burchett was tattooed by her husband, the "King of Tattooists," in 1913. Her designs featured serpents, a geisha, an Indian, a crucifixion scene, copies of old Master paintings, and on her breast, a set of Allied flags, added during World War I. For George, Edith's body became the individual "canvas" on which he honed his technique, using the "modern" electric tattoo machine to implant pigments under the skin. Clients of his London shop included King Alfonso of Spain, King Frederick of Denmark, and King George V of England.

Figure 8. Ceramic Vessel with male figure. Jama-Coaque (Ecuador) 500 B.C.-A.D. 500. Museo de Antropologia, Banco Central del Ecuador, Guayaquil GA-1-2896-86. Jama-Coaque men displayed their social importance with elaborate piercing. This warrior figure wears large earrings, a nose ring that encircles his mouth and bean-shaped nipple ornaments. Figurines like this one and ornaments of gold, silver, platinum, shell and emeralds suggest that in ancient Ecuador some men pierced the nose, ears, forehead, lips, chin and torso. They sometimes wore metal breast ornaments attached to chest piercings, and their teeth were shaped and embedded with semiprecious stones.


Caplan, Jane, ed. 1999. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton Univ. Press.

DeMello, Margo. 2000. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tatoo Community. Duke Univ. Press.

Faces 12(4), December 1995. Issue on "Ornaments."

Faces 10(9), May 1994. Issue on "Hair."

Mayor, Adrienne. "People Illustrated: In Antiquity Tattoos Could Beautify, Shock, or Humiliate." Archaeology (March/April 1999):54-57.

Rubin, Arnold, ed. 1988. Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body. Museum of Cultural History, Univ. of California.

Back to Top

by Adrienne L. Kaeppler

Recent feature articles in the "Style" section of prominent newspapers (e.g. Washington Post, February 7, 2000) and in other popular media such as television suggest that tattoo has become high fashion. Entire novels are built around tattoo, such as Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case. The back cover reads: "The human canvas for a famous tattoo is destroyed, the tattoo stolen, along with the torso."

When Westerners first came into contact with Pacific Islanders, they were amazed at the widespread use and complexity of tattoo. In the novel Moby Dick, Melville describes Ishmael's initial meeting in a New Bedford Inn with Queequeg, the harpooner, "a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South, where he was the son of a King" (Melville 1851: 150).

Meanwhile he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face, his back, too, was all over the the same dark squares.....Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. (Ibid:115).

In the West, tattoo became the domain of sailors, adventurers, and prison inmates. In Japan, it carried an association with the criminal element known as "Yakuza" (McCallum 1988:128-129). Today, not only have the wearers of tattoo changed, but tattooers, once considered craftsmen, are now considered artists.

One of the seminal events that helped make tattoo "respectable" in the academic world was a symposium in 1983 held at UCLA on "Art of the Body." Arnold Rubin's edited book, Marks of Civilization, based on this symposium, included papers on topics ranging from tattoo in ancient Egypt to historic and contemporary tattoo in Asia, North America, the Pacific Islands, as well as the tattoo renaissance in the USA. This volume remains the best academic book for serious study of the history and social significance of tattoo cross-culturally.

To the wearer, tattoo not only enhances the beauty of the human body, but marks social status, conveys symbolic hidden meanings, and proclaims its maker's artistic ability. Contemporary tattoo in western culture is often an individualized statement of revolution or modernity, but this was not the background for traditional tattoo in Polynesia and Micronesia, where tattoo signified group identity and conformity with the norms of a widely-accepted or even high-status group.

The Polynesian term, tatu, is the origin of the English word tattoo. It was carried to its high points among the New Zealand Maori, and in the Marquesas, where high-status men were completely tattooed. Considerable portions of the body were also tattooed in Smoa, Tahiti, Hawai`i, Easter Island, and elsewhere. Many Polynesian tattoo designs are derived from designs found on Lapita pottery found in Polynesian archaeological sites dating at least 2000 years ago (Green 1979). The antiquity of tattoo in Polynesia is unquestioned.


Figure 1
[Click on picture for a larger image]

Polynesian tattoo was done by dipping a prepared tattooing implement-made of bone, turtleshell, or seashell hafted to a handle-into a black dye. The tattoo artist placed the instrument on the skin, striking it with a mallet or other hammer-like implement. This broke the skin and implanted the dye. It also caused the blood to flow, causing considerable pain.

Marquesas Tattooing

In the Marquesas, tattoo seems to have been intimately associated with gender, wealth, and status, but not necessarily chiefly rank. It marked one's association with a particular group of warriors, graded associations, "chief's banqueting societies," or groups of entertainers called ka`ioi, as well as the ability to pay the tattooer's fees and capacity to endure pain. Acquisition of tattoo in honor of special events such as chiefly rites of passage, victories in battle, or participation in feasts, commemorated the event and symbolically represented it.

Figure 2
In organizing the tattoo designs, the body was divided into zones which were then divided into smaller spaces (figure 1). Patterns, often named, were fitted into these spaces. There was an overall symmetry in the zoned composition on each side of the body, but within the zones the designs were often asymmetrical. Women were tattooed on the hands, arms, wrists, feet, ears and lips.

Although it is possible that design models were used, such as the decorated wooden legs and arms found today in museum collections, there is no first-hand evidence that these objects were tattooing models (figure 2). Marquesan tattoo-related designs also appear on barkcloth skull wrappers and on wooden plaques covered with barkcloth. A scholar of tattoo, Carol Ivory (1990), relates the fish designs on the barkcloth skull wrappers to fish designs worked into tattoo and with warriors-fishers of men.

Figure 3

Maori Tattooing

Maori tattoo (moko) has fascinated outsiders since the voyages of Captain James Cook, when Cook's artists depicted several tattooed individuals (figure 3). Maori facial designs were carved into the skin with adze-like implements, much like wood carving to which it can be related both in design and technique. The technique used for female tattoo and men's body tattoo was similar to tattoo techniques elsewhere in Polynesia. Women's tattoo was limited to the lips and the chin (figure 4), while men's body tattoo was between the waist and the knees (figure 5). Facial tattoo was especially important for high-born men of chiefly rank. These individuals were tabu (sacred) during the operation and thus could not eat in the normal way. They were fed with carved feeding funnels decorated with tattoo designs.

Figure 4

Rather than designs that associated men together in groups, as in the Marquesas, Maori designs were individualized. Maori chiefs drew their facial tattoos as signatures to sign documents during the 19th century. As in Marquesan tattoo, Maori designs were divided into zones and these further divided, giving an overall symmetry. Jackson (1972:70) and Gathercole (1988:175) see this symmetry as the pairing of life with death, or of tapu (sacred) with noa (not sacred), elements of Maori culture that together expressed the unity of nature and culture. The design elements and their organization withinthe zones, however, were often asymmetrical, giving it the autographic quality noted above. Tattooing styles varied from tribe to tribe and region to region, as well as over time. Although the classical curvilinear style of tattoo predominated during the nineteenth century, both vertical and horizontal parallel lines were also found, sometimes overlaid with curvilinear designs (such as on figure 3).

Figure 5

The association of Maori tattoo with carved figures is also seen in the carved houseposts of meeting houses, where the buttocks of the ancestral figures have tattoo designs, echoing the tattooed buttocks of important men. The tattoo of this area of men's bodies is also found in Smoa, where tattoo generally extends from above the waist to the thighs. Tattoo is publicly exhibited when a man accompanies a high-ranking female dancer. He tucks up his wrap-around skirt to show his waist tattoo and the thigh tattoo below. In Tahiti, tattoo was applied to the buttocks of both men and women, sometimes blackening the buttocks completely. This emphasized the underarching crescent shape of the lower buttocks; other crescent designs were placed above the blackened areas. In both Smoa and Tahiti tattooing was associated with puberty; it was universal in Tahiti, but in Smoa apparently only men of certain status required it.

Hawaiian Tattooing

In Hawai`i, in contrast to most other Polynesian areas, tattooing was decidedly asymmetrical (figure 6). The term for the technique was kakau i ka uhi, literally, "to strike on the black," but the organization of the designs had

Figure 6
Figure 7
names. For example, a tattoo that made the right side of the body solid black was pahupahu. The Maui chief Kahekili, descendant of he thunder god Kanehekili, had this tattoo as did his warrior chiefs and household companions. In addition, Kahekili's head was shaved on both sides of the central hair crest and tattooed with hoaka, crescent designs. Overarching and underarching crescents are tattooed asymmetrically on the left shoulder of the Hawaiian man depicted by John Webber on Cook's third voyage. Elaborate tattoos were applied to one arm or one leg (figure 7). Women were tattooed on the back of the hands, sometimes on an arm or leg, and occasionally the chest. Tattooing the most tender parts of the body, for example the tongue, was practiced to commemorate the death of an important chief. It is likely that Hawaiian tattooing was a protective device, applied in conjunction with chanted prayers, capturing the prayer in the tattoo, thus offering permanent protection. The right arm especially needed sacred protection and help, as it was this bare arm-raised in a crescent-that threw the spear. Likewise, tattooing a row of dots around an ankle was a "charm" against sharks. In pre-European times, tattoos were protective genealogical devices, usually applied asymmetrically. In post-European times, at least some of them became decorative and symmetrical, and included exotic motifs of European origin-hunting horns, goats, and lettering.


In the Marshall Islands in Micronesia, people believed that the gods of tattoo gave tattoo art to the Marshall Islanders especially to make them beautiful, and gave them the following message:

You should be tattooed so that you become beautiful and so your skin does not shrink with age. The fishes in the water are striped and have lines; therefore, also human beings should have stripes and lines. Everything disappears after death, only the tattoo continues to exist; it will surpass you. The human being leaves everything behind on earth, all his possessions, only the tattooing he takes with him into the grave.

A tattooer's inspiration was regarded as a gift from the gods and he required complete silence while he drew the preliminary design. Offerings of food and mats were presented a week before the tattooing took place. The gods were called upon the night before and if an audible sound in agreement was not heard, the operation was not undertaken; if the gods were not heeded, the ocean would flood the island and the land would disappear. The Marshallese noted that "tattoo did not change or disfigure forms, it harmonized with the form in decorative designs and brought out beauty."

Tattoo enhanced the body as an object to be admired and evaluated apart from its temporary ornaments and clothing. Besides being a decorative device urged and sanctioned by the gods, tattooing was embedded in social and economic life. Marking a boy's elevation to manhood, the beauty of his tattoo attracted women to his manliness, demonstrated by his ability to endure pain. Parts of the tattoo are usually covered by clothing and can only be seen at intimate times. The great chiefs had the finest ornamentation, and face tattooing to cover the wrinkles of age was a prerogative of the chiefs. Chiefs' wives had the fingers and backs of their hands tattooed. Wealth was also necessary and the extent and beauty of the designs were dependent on offerings to the gods and the necessary payments to the tattooer in food, mats, and a feast.

Figure 8

Tattooing began with a great chief and then moved on to the commoners. A drawing implement made of the tail feather of a tropic bird or the midrib of a coconut leaf was used for the preliminary drawing. The tattooing chisels, made of fish or bird bones, were of two sizes (depending on the desired fineness of the lines), dipped in dye made of burned coconut sheaths mixed with water, placed on the skin, and struck with a mallet of the mid-stem of a coconut leaf or other piece of wood. The blackness of the sea swallow (noddy tern) was emulated for color, and the lines of a butterfly fish were the model for the design. The Marshallese word for tattoo (ao) means to draw lines; and straight and zigzag lines were the basic elements. As described and illustrated

by Krämer (1906), a breast and back tattoo took about one month and was very painful (figure 8). The body swelled and the tattoo was rubbed with coconut juice medicine and covered with healing leaves. When the preliminary drawing of the design was finished, songs accompanied by drumming and hand clapping were performed to overcome pain, and the face of a tattooed man was covered with a special mat. A man's tattooing ornamented the chest, back, arms, shoulders, neck, face, thighs, and genitals, depending on preference, rank, and wealth, while a woman's tattoo ornamented her shoulders, arms, and hands.

Figure 9


In the past, tattoo in the Pacific Islands located a major aesthetic form in the body itself, one that revealed the importance of an individual's social status. In contemporary global society, tattoo is more likely to indicate a person's individuality while drawing on traditions from around the world.

As tattoo has become more accepted in Western culture, it has been used in remarkable ways. After the adoption of Christianity by the New Zealand Maori, a Maori artist enlivened a sculpture of the Madonna and Child with the most beautiful decoration, that is, with tattoo. And on April 29, 2000, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London held "Tattoo: A Day of Record." The advertisement depicting Maori tattoo invited the public to "come to the V & A and have your tattoos photographed for inclusion in the Museum archive. You will be granted free entry by showing your tattoos at the Exhibition Road entrance" (figure 9). The twentieth century in the West has witnessed an evolution of tattoo from its use as identifying marks by prison inmates to adornment for film stars as well as a revolution from declassé to high art. Who knows where the 21st century will lead?

Adrienne Kaeppler is curator of Oceanic ethnology in the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology.

I would like to thank the following for permission to publish the photographs in the print edition of AnthroNotes and on the internet (

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, figure 2; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, figure 9; Anonymous private collection, figure 6; and from Mark Blackburn's Tattoos from Figures 1, 3, 4, 5, 7.

Photo Captions:

figure 1. Design organization for a Marquesan male tattoo. Originally published in Karl von den Steinen's Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst.

figure 2. Wooden arm from the Marquesas Islands decorated with tattoo designs. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

figure 3. Tattooed Maori, drawn by Sydney Parkinson during the first voyage of Captain James Cook.

figure 4. Watercolor of a Maori woman by General Horatio Gordon Robley.

figure 5. Watercolor of tattooed Maori men by Joseph Jenner Merrett.

figure 6. Colored engraving of a Hawaiian chief from Beechey's Voyage Autour du Monde.

figure 7. Drawing of Hawaiian tattoo motifs by Augustin Krämer, 1897.

figure 8. Drawing of breast and back tattoos from the Marshall Islands by Augustin Krämer. From, Archiv für Anthropologie, Vol. 30, 1904.

figure 9, Postcard illustrating Maori tattooed arms. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Blackburn, Mark. 1999. Tattoos From Paradise: Traditional Polynesian Patterns. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd.

Cook, James and James King. 1784. A Voyage Round the World....1776-1780. London.

Gathercole, Peter. 1988. "Contexts of Maori Moko." In Rubin, pp.171-177.

Green, Roger C. 1979. "Early Lapita Art from Polynesia and Island Melanesia: Continuities in Ceramic, Barkcloth, and Tattoo Decorations." In Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania, ed. Sidney M. Mead. Honolulu.

Ivory, Carol Susan. 1990. Marquesan Art in the Early Contact Period 1774-1821. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Washington, Seattle.

Jackson, Michael. 1972. "Aspects of Symbolism and Composition in Maori Art." Bijdragen tot de taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde 128:33-80.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. 1988. "Hawaiian Tattoo: A Conjunction of Genealogy and Aesthetics." In Rubin, pp.157-170.

Krämer, Augustin. 1906. Hawaii, Ostmikronesien, und Samoa. Stuttgart.

McCallum, Donald. 1988. "Historical and Cultural Dimensions of the Tattoo in Japan." In Rubin , 128-129.

Melville, Herman. 1851. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1986. Edited and with an Introduction and Commentary by Harold Beaver. London: Penguin Classics.

Robley, Major-General. 1896. Moko, or Maori Tattooing. London.

Rubin, Arnold, ed. 1988. Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body. Museum of Cultural History, Univ. of California.

Takagi, Akimitsu. 1998. The Tattoo Murder Case. Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Soho Press.

Back to Top

by Margaret R. Dittemore

The growing body of information on the web by and related to American Indians certainly challenges the myth that Indian people no longer exist. Below are some recommended examples of the kinds of materials available for teachers and students alike. These sites offer a glimpse of the wealth of information on historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of Native North American peoples. As the Smithsonian has a long and rich legacy of research on this subject, a sampling of its online resources is provided first.

The Smithsonian Institution ( has unparalleled resources for the study and teaching of American Indian culture, art, and history. Its newest museum, the National Museum of the American Indian (, offers a wide range of programs and ervices, including a guide for teachers. Some of the Smithsonian's oldest American Indian collections are held by the Anthropology Department ( from whose home page one can visit the Anthropology Outreach Office for its wealth of teaching aids and information; the Arctic Studies Center for information about northern Native populations; the Office of Repatriation to learn about its collaborative process of determining disposition of human remains and cultural objects; the National Anthropological Archives for its wealth of primary source material; and the Handbook of North American Indians for the latest publication in its authoritative series. Also, don't miss the Center for Folklife Programs and Studies' ( many documentary recordings of music and verbal arts; the Smithsonian's art museums' (e.g., paintings, watercolors, photographs, drawings, and other images of Natives and Native life; the rich Native American collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (; and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies' ( vast array of teaching and professional development resources.


Subject directories on the web are important and useful tools for researching particular topics like this one. For the best results, choose a site that uses knowledgeable evaluators or subject selectors in building its indexes. Below are a few examples:

*First Peoples on SchoolNet( is part of Canada's SchoolNet , the primary point of access to online resources for students and teachers across that country. It features original content from throughout Canada, plus hundreds of links to other North American sites. First Peoples on SchoolNet includes curriculum and educational resources, an educator's circle, projects, teaching, and an Internet subject guide to resources on Native life and history in Canada. A "must" for educators and students alike.

*WWW Virtual Library: American Indians. The WWW Virtual Library is one of the oldest subject directories on the web with many of its guides maintained by specialist selectors. This one is a gateway to a very wide range of topics concerning Native Americans. From its starting page, click on "education" and review curriculum materials and other teacher resources. Directory listings of Native American K-12 schools, colleges and related programs, and resources for Indian students are also included. (

*About.Com: Native American Culture includes over 30 different topics on this subject. Click on "education." A great selection of resources is listed under "homework help" for those researching term papers or answering homework questions. See also resources under such topics as "history," "leaders/warriors," and "legends." (

*Native Web was conceived to represent and foster communication among indigenous people worldwide. At present this site is predominately about the Americas with selections indexed by broad subject, such as art, education and history, geographic region or by nation. See "education" for K-12 resources. (

* includes information on tribes and nations, arts and expression, and learning/teaching as well as a search engine specially-tailored to yield results on American Indians only (e.g., a search on Cherokee will not bring up car dealers). One may also review a calendar of powwow and Native events, read and post messages on a bulletin board, join a real-time chat, participate in video-conferencing, shop, send an electronic postcard, or simply relax and listen to music. (

American Indian man speaking in Res Cyber Café: "All this talk about nets and webs makes me miss the good old hunting and gathering days."


Although literature about American Indians is growing, it is not always easy to select sensitive, historically accurate sources for classroom use. The web now offers good evaluative bibliographies as well as a growing body of full-text material, ranging from stories to read aloud to young children to reference works for older students writing research papers. Examples are:

*A Critical Bibliography on North American Indians, For K-12 was compiled by the Smithsonian's Anthropology Outreach Office in response to concerns about choosing appropriate literature for this age group. Critical annotations and evaluations of each title reviewed are included. (

*Oyate is a Native American organization focused on evaluating, recommending and producing quality, non-biased resources-primarily books-about Native America for students and teachers. In addition to distributing children's, young adults' and teachers' books and materials, Oyate issues reviews of "books to avoid," conducts teacher workshops on how to evaluate this literature, and administers a small resource center and library. (

*Native Americans: Recommended Books and Resources, a page in the ERIC/EECE Resource List, lists nonfiction and fiction, including folktales from a contemporary perspective, books about the boarding school experience, and a short list of professional resources. Debbie Reese, the selector, is a Pueblo Indian interested in early childhood education.

*American Indian Library Association web site links to other good resources, such as "Children's Books with Native North American History, Themes & Characters" and a "Selective Bibliography and Guide for "I" is Not for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People." (

*WWW Virtual Library - American Indians: Index of Native American Electronic Text Resources on the Internet ( includes a long list of links to full-text historical and contemporary books, articles, document archives, speeches, and the like. Noted among them is the "Early Canadiana Online" resource. Indexes to the site's poetry and short stories and access to the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center are also available.


The web has a wealth of teaching strategies and materials from a great variety of sources-such as educational institutions, American Indian organizations, governments, museums, and independent groups. Among them are:

*Cradleboard Teaching Project was born out of the experiences of American Indian singer, songwriter, and one-time teacher, Buffy Sainte-Marie. It provides curriculum and cross-cultural connectivity to children and teachers across the country. It offers a core curriculum from a Native perspective, a tribe-specific curriculum developed in Native American communities, and an interactive curriculum or online cultural exchange. The latter partners Indian and non-Indian classes (grades 5-12) to exchange information about themselves and their communities via written letters, email, Live Chat, and gifts of local goodies, etc. (

*CanTeach is a non-commercial, Canadian-focused site created to assist teachers in finding and using online resources. Divided into two categories-elementary resources and links-it offers lesson plans and other resources under both "First Nations" and "Nunavut" headings. (

*Teaching Young Children about Native Americans, ERIC Digest, suggests positive strategies focusing on this age group. Discusses stereotypes children see and practices to avoid. References included.

*Reservation Controversies: Then and Now is a classroom-tested lesson using problem-based learning and the primary sources of the Library of Congress (LC). Grades 7 through 12 are introduced to issues dealing with the late 1800s as well as with today. This lesson is part of the larger Learning Page (, a web site designed to help teachers and students use the LC's American Memory digital collections. (


A wealth of information about and for contemporary Indian groups and people is available on the web. The first two sites will lead you to many others:

*Native American Sites includes access to home pages of individual Native nations and links to Native media, languages, music and art, powwows and festivals, etc. Teachers and students alike may find nearby reservations or cultural centers to contact or powwows and festivals to visit. Created by a Mohawk librarian and editor, this site is regularly updated and among the most widely cited. (

*First Peoples is a web site featuring the First Nations and the Inuit of Quebec with information about their communities, culture, economy, educational systems, environment, art and handicrafts, and more. ( Also visit Kids' Stop, a site by Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada, which features places, people, history, language, schools online, and a special section for teachers. Downloadable copies of information sheets (ages 8-11) and The Learning Circle with classroom activities (ages 4 to 14) are available.

*Indian Country Today bills itself as the U.S.'s leading Indian news source. Although the online version does not include the full content, it does provide information about current events and issues from across the nation. (

*Code Talk is a federal inter-agency web site that provides information for Native American communities. It includes current discussion topics in Indian country; information on housing, health, the arts, the environment, and children; a calendar of important events; a list of resources and tools for Native communities; and links to other useful web sites. (


Resources describing a region or particular past event offer teachers and students alike good material for teaching, research papers or projects, and field trip opportunities. Below are a few of the different types of sites available.

*Cherokee Trail of Tears, 1838-1839 is a collection of links to sites relating to this historic event. Included are the home page of the Trail of Tears State Park, the historic trail, a time line, and statistics regarding those who left under their own supervision as well as articles and stories about the event. (

*American Indians in the Pacific Northwest is a digital collection of over 2,3000 photographs and 7,700 pages of text relating to American Indians on the Northwest Coast and the Plateau. Many aspects of life are illustrated, including housing, clothing, crafts, transportation, education and employment. The materials are drawn from university, historical society and museum collections in that area. ( or (

*Research in the National Parks, part of the National Park Service's Links to the Past, offers state-by-state access to archaeological and ethnographic sites-many of which relate to American Indians. From Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park to Tennessee's prehistoric mounds, a wide scope of American Indian history is represented. (

*Canadian Museum of Civilization has a wealth of material for the real and the virtual visitors of all ages. Explore its First Peoples Hall and parts of its Archaeology Hall. Don't miss its exhibition on the "Inuit and Englishmen: The Nunavut Voyages of Martin Frobisher." See the Canadian Children's Museum for a host of intercultural activities. (


Lectures, workshops, seminars and the like for educators can be found on the web. In addition to the types of places listed below, local museums with American Indian collections and some American Indian organizations themselves are often good sources as well.

*Educators' Programs listed on the Library of Congress' (LC) Learning Page show teachers, librarians, media specialists and other educators how to use primary resources-specifically American Memory sources-to enrich pre-college curriculum. Offered are hands-on professional development workshops in Washington, D.C.; facilitated and do-it-yourself workshops online; and year-long fellowships to work at LC. (

*D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History, part of the Newberry Library, offers short-term fellowships and summer institutes for teachers of Native American history and literature; and conferences, seminars, and workshops for those seeking more effective classroom integration of Native American and American history. Librarians and teachers of advanced courses in secondary school are invited to join the Newberry Library's link to schools, the Newberry Teachers'Consortium, which unites academic scholars and secondary school personnel. (

*Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center offers age appropriate tours and classroom programs for groups and a professional development workshop for teachers. The museum is a state-of-the art, tribally owned and operated complex, a major resource for the tribe's history as well as that of other tribes in the region. (

*Smithsonian Institution offers a wide variety of opportunities. Explore them through the sites already listed for the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, and the Anthropology Outreach Office.

Margaret R. Dittemore is head of the John Wesley Powell Library of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Back to Top


One of our readers has offered to be a resource for further information on family folklore (see AnthroNotes article "Family Folklore in the Classroom," winter/spring 2000:13-19). Contact Paddy Bowman, Coordinator, National Task Force on Folk Arts in Education, 609 Johnston Place, Alexandria, VA 22301; (703) 836-7499;;

ANTHRONOTES offers in-depth articles on current anthropological research, teaching activities, reviews of new resources, and summer fieldwork opportunities. AnthroNotes was originally part of the George Washington University /Smithsonian Institution Anthropology for Teachers Program funded by the National Science Foundation. It is published free-of-charge in the fall and spring.

ANTHRONOTES has a three part mission:
  1. to more widely disseminate original, recent research in anthropology in order to help readers stay current in the field;
  2. to help those teaching anthropology utilize new materials, approaches, and community resources, as well as integrate anthropology into a wide variety of curriculum subjects; and
  3. to create a national network of anthropologists, archaeologists, teachers, museum and other professionals interested in the wider dissemination of anthropology, particularly in schools.

AnthroNotes Staff: P. Ann Kaupp, managing editor; Ruth O. Selig, Alison S. Brooks, JoAnne Lanouette, editors; Robert L. Humphrey, artist. Illustrations, Robert L. Humphrey, copyright 2000. Kathleen Sims, designer.

To be added to the mailing list, write: Anthropology Outreach Office, NHB 363 MRC 112, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560-0112; email:

This newsletter with its cartoons may be reproduced and distributed free-of-charge by classroom teachers for educational purposes.


backReturn to the page listing AnthroNotes Back Issues.