Tattoos of Asia: A treasure trove of ancient cultural traditions

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Tattooing is an ancient art form. Though no one place can be identified as having originated this form of body art, tattoos have been discovered on mummies and in art from ancient cultures across the world, including China and India.

Tribal Tattooing Across the World

Ancient forms of tribal tattooing have evolved into very distinct styles and over the last few centuries and have become popular across the world. Tribal tattoos from Polynesia and Japan were the original inspiration for the old-school American (OSA) style of tattooing, which very clearly uses the bold, black lining and filling from tribal tattoos and the bright colours of Japanese Irezumi tattoos. OSA itself went on to inspire many modern tattoo styles.

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson displaying his traditional Polynesian tattoo Modern blackwork tattoo inspired by Polynesian tribal tattooing
A traditional Japanese Irezumi tattoo of a dragon in a full body suit using illustrative colourful designs
Traditional Japanese tattoo that is illustrative and extremely colourful
An old-school American tattoo that uses bold black lines from Polynesian tribal tattoos and vibrant colours and illustrative elements from traditional Japanese Irezumi tattoos
Old-school American tattoo that uses bold lines and vibrant colours

While much is written about the Polynesian tribal styles, Asian tribal tattooing has received lesser attention, often because these styles are still practised as part of local traditions and cultures and have not been as exposed to the external world. While Polynesian styles became a big hit with the sailors that voyaged onto their shores, Asian tattoos – with the exception of Japanese tattoos which became a favourite among the British aristocracy – have remained contained within their respective cultures.

In recent decades, however, these styles have garnered some attention, both because of the skill of the master tattooists that ink them as well as their unique and rather meaningful designs.

Ancient Egypt: The origins of tribal tattooing

The earliest tattoos from Egypt were worn by high priestesses for ritualistic purposes, but by the golden age of Egyptian history, which was over 3000 years ago, tattooing had become commonplace. Due to the extensive trading that the Ancient Egyptians engaged in, including with Persia and Arabia, tattooing spread out of the African continent to other parts of the world.

A figurine of an Egyptian woman with extensive traditional tattoos
Ancient Egyptian figurine of a woman with extensive body tattoos

These ancient tattoos were created using wooden tools with sharp metal and bronze points. The inks were actually dyes made from natural pigments of dark black, blue, or green. The colours each had their own symbolism – black for life and resurrection, blue for fertility and birth, and green as a symbol of life. Tattoos were inked almost exclusively on women by female tattoo artists who were ‘wide-women’ or seers. Thus, these tattoos were most likely inked for magical as well as medicinal purposes.

A drawing of the tattoos found on Hathor priestess Amunet's mummified remains
A drawing of priestess Amunet’s abdomen and pelvic tattoos, most likely meant to treat pelvic conditions

A little over the border, Middle Eastern tribes had been tattooing for a long time as well. It was, however, less commonplace for people from these regions to be seen wearing ink as these tattoos were restricted to certain groups such as nomads who wore tattoos both for decorative purposes as well as spiritual ones, particularly to ward off evil. Women wore tattoos as a form of beautification, but in some tribes, it was as a way to make them undesirable to men from other tribes. Sternum and stomach tattoos on women were thought to enhance their sex appeal. On men, tattoos were a symbol of masculinity, and designs included various symbols of strength and verses from poems.

A woman from Tunisia with tribal face tattoos
Tunisian woman with facial tattoos
A bedouin woman from Jordan with tribal face tattoos
Jordanian bedouin woman with facial tattoos
A bedouin woman from Syria with tribal face tattoos
Syrian bedouin woman with facial tattoos

Tattooing was also practised in ancient Persia, both as a form of adornment and as a brand used to mark criminals and prisoners of war alike. The practice of ‘branding’ using tattoos spread from Persia into ancient Greece and continued to be used until very recently in Germany under Hitler’s rule.

Read: A Story of Ink: Where the art of tattooing began

Tribal Tattooing in Asia

The similarity of Asian styles to the tribal styles in other parts of the world indicates that these styles may all have some common ancestors. With Asian tattooing, it is said the art form can be traced back to a group of West Asian nomads called the ‘Ainu’, who brought it from Egypt into Asia and onward into Japan. While the evidence is not conclusive on this, it is the popular theory!

An Ainu woman with traditional tribal facial tattoo
Ainu woman with a tribal face tattoo

East Asian Tattoos

Of Asian tattoos, East Asian styles from Japan, China, and Thailand are some of the most popular. The tribal tattoos from these regions have developed over time into very distinct styles that are easily recognizable and extremely popular internationally. East Asian styles usually draw from religion, spirituality, mythology, and nature for their designs.

Tribal tattoos from Southeast Asia
A group of men display their traditional Filipino tattoos featuring symbolism inspired by nature

Chinese Tattoos

The Chinese art of ‘Chi Shen’ or ‘puncturing the body’ is an ancient one. The oldest Asian tattoos have been discovered on the Tarim mummies from Xinjian, Western China and Pazyryk mummies from the Ukok Plateau in Siberia. These early tattoos appear to be a symbol of social status in most instances, but some tattoos were also spiritual and magical in nature with designs drawing inspiration from nature and mythology. These are some of the earliest tattoos that were worn for decorative purposes as opposed to religious or ritualistic ones.

Tribal tattoos using Pazyryk tattoo designs
Modern tribal tattoos still use designs seen in ancient Pazyryk tattoos

Some tribes, such as the Dai and Dulong, used to tattoo their women’s faces to make them less desirable to attackers from outside. Nowadays, the women of these tribes continue to wear their tattoos as a symbol of beauty and strength. The symbols used in Dulong tribal tattoos are closely guarded by the locals, as many of them have special meanings and functions and are often accompanied by incantations, indicating these tattoos are also for magical purposes.

A woman of the Dulong tribe of China with facial tattoos
Dulong woman with tribal tattoos

Among the Dai, tattoos are used for a wide range of reasons and are quite visible all over the body. These tattoos are considered a rite of passage, so the people of these tribes get their tattoos quite young, usually in their teens.

Chinese tribal tattoos done on the face of a Dulong woman
One of only 28 remaining woman of the Dulong tribe with facial tattoos

Even though there is evidence of early Chinese tattoos being for decorative purposes, tattooing in China has not been very common and usually, Chinese tattooing is done for religious purposes. There is a stigma around tattooing in China, as it is seen as ‘defacing the body’. Tattoos were also used as ‘brands’ at some points in Chinese history, with tattoos used to mark criminals for life being called ‘Ci Pei’, a term that translates to both ‘tattoo’ and ‘exile’. Tattoos, thus, came to be associated with criminal activity, a perception that persists even in modern China.

Nonetheless, Chi Shen has still persisted and modern tattooing in China even began to take cues from Japanese styles which use colour and story-telling in their art. Unfortunately, the most common tattoos associated with China are script tattoos using Chinese characters, which are not actually a Chinese style of tattooing and more often than not end up using incorrect characters. This does, however, make use of another style of Chinese art – calligraphy.

Chinese calligraphy inked on old paper
Chinese calligraphy is an inspiration for Chinese script tattoos
The Chinese characters for 'warrior' and 'love' tattooed on the ribs and waist of Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton
F1 driver Lewis Hamilton has the characters for ‘warrior’ and ‘love’ tattooed on his side

Needless to say – if you’re getting a Chinese character inked, do your research well so you don’t end up with the symbol for ‘chicken soup’ tattooed across your chest!

Japanese Tattoos

Japanese tattooing is considered one of the oldest in the world. Clay figurines from over 4000 years ago have been discovered sporting tattoo designs on their faces. While it isn’t certain if people were getting tattoos in Japan at the time, these ‘tattooed’ clay figurines were thought to bring spiritual protection to departed loved ones and were thus placed with them in their tomb.

Chinese history from nearly two millennia ago talks about the Japanese master tattooists, or Horis, whose style was distinct due to being extremely colourful and intricate. These tattoos were usually larger pieces, often full-body suits, and would usually tell a whole story through the art. These tattoos eventually came to be associated with the Yakuza, or Japanese gangs and were outlawed for some time.

A tiger tattoo done in the traditional Japanese tattooing style by master tattooist Kintaro Horiyoshi III
An Irezumi tiger tattoo by master tattooist Kintaro Horiyoshi III

Irezumi, the Japanese art of tattooing, developed out of a love for the ‘colorful and pictorial woodblock print’. This style became extremely popular among the lower, working-class population. This included gangs, called the Yakuza, and the association with criminal activity led to Irezumi being banned for some time in Japan.

Tattoos of Asia: A treasure trove of ancient cultural traditions 4

A Japanese man with a full body-suit Irezumi tattoo
Irezumi body-suits came to be associated with gangs after yakuza men were seen sporting them
A group of Japanese men with full body-suit Irezumi tattoos
It was not uncommon to see large gangs of men covered in tattoos

Even while the stigma around tattooing in Japan was growing, the British aristocracy took a liking to the style and would often get inked from Japanese tattooists in the Irezumi style as far back as the 1800s. American sailors were also enamoured with the style and would get Japanese tattoos inked while on their travels.

A drawing of a traditional tattooing session depicting a rich British man smoking as he gets tattooed by a Japanese tattooist
A British elite gets inked at a traditional Irezumi parlor

Japanese tattoos often use imagery that is quite terrifying, such as roaring tigers and dragons, as they are also meant to provide the wearer with protection. These tattoos also, however, feature a backdrop made out of waves, smoke, or similarly fluid designs, and will also incorporate floral patterns into the design which adds a delicate look to these tattoos. When tied together, the patterns in an Irezumi are truly a sight to behold!

An Irezumi-style tattoo of a Japanese dragon as a sleeve
A Japanese dragon in an Irezumi tattoo

Irezumi tattoos have gone on to inspire various other styles of tattooing. In the modern age, colourful, illustrative, and detailed tattoos come in all styles and all shapes and sizes, and many of these can be quite easily traced back to early influences from East Asian tattooing.

Southeast Asian Tattoos

The tribal tattooing of Southeast Asia was heavily inspired by nature. Many of the tattoo designs featured plants and animals and it was believed the tattoos had magical and spiritual properties, including protection for the wearer.

Sak Yant Tattoos: A fusion of Buddhist and Cambodian traditions

‘Yantra tattooing’ is a traditional style of tattooing that originated among the Khmer people of the Khmer Empire (modern day Cambodia).

The word ‘sak’ means ‘to tap’ or ‘to tattoo’ in Khmer and Thai, while ‘yant’ derives from the Sanskrit ‘yantra’, which is a mystic diagram originating in the Tantric religions of India and is used in worship, for meditation, and as adornment on temple floors. Sak yant are, therefore, magical talismans that provide various benefits to their wearers.

A man with various sak yant tattoos covering his back
Traditional sak yant tattoos

Traditionally, sak yant are inked by ‘ruesi’ (Thai for rishi or ‘sage’), ‘wicha’ (wiccans), or Buddhist monks, using a sharp metal rod called ‘khem sak’. While originally part of the local Thai culture, the tradition was incorporated into Thai Buddhist culture due to the very spiritual nature of the art and it soon came to be a form of tattooing performed by Buddhist monks as well. Sak yant now feature imagery inspired by nature, such as tigers, script from local Thai languages, and patterns such as those found in yantras. Some also combine Hindu symbols with traditional sak yant designs.

A traditional sak yant tattoo featuring the Hindu deity Ganesha, beneath other traditional script sak yants
Sak yant tattoo featuring Lord Ganesha

These tattoos were not widely known to the outside world until more recently. One reason for the increasing interest in them is the number of Hollywood celebrities that are choosing to get sak yants inked. There was a boom in tourists travelling to Thailand to get these tattoos after Angelina Jolie got her first sak yant in Bangkok. As per tradition, each sak yant design must be done separately, so Jolie got each of her subsequent sak yant tattoos done on separate occasions, all from the same Ajarn (Thai for ‘professor’ or ‘teacher’ deriving from the Pali ‘ācariya’).

Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie displays 4 of her 5 sak yant back tattoos
Traditional sak yant tattoos

The sak yant tattoos are an important part of the muay thai culture as well. Fighters get these tattoos from Buddhist monks using traditional bamboo tools. These tattoos are considered sacred as they are thought to bestow protection, strength, and luck to the wearer. Getting a sak yant muay thai tattoo from anyone other than a Buddhist monk using traditional tools is thought to be unlucky.

Daniel Lazarov displays his many sak yant muay thai tattoos
Sak yant muay thai tattoo

Though most sak yants are elaborate and done on the back, one could get more minimalist designs done on other parts of the body as well.

A minimalist sak yant tattoo done on the arm
Minimalist sak yant on the arm

Whatever design and placement you choose, remember that these tattoos are extremely sacred. It would be most respectful to get a sak yant directly from an Ajarn, especially because each sak yant is uniquely designed for the person who will wear it by the Ajarn themselves. If you plan to travel and get one of these tattoos, make sure to research companies that offer the full experience of a sak yant session, including time with your Ajarn to discuss your tattoo design.

A young novice monk displays his chest tattoo of Hanuman with sak yant symbolism and script surrounding it
A novice monk with a Hanuman sak yant tattoo

South Asian Tattoos

Though not as widely known, tattooing in South Asia has been practised for quite some time. Early tattoos looked very similar to the tribal tattoos found in Polynesia and Native America. These tattoos were made using the tapping and hammering method, and were worn for a variety of purposes.

Indian Tribal Tattoos

Indian tribal tattoos predominantly use geometric patterns in their designs. These patterns will usually also be visible in their traditional embroidery and art. Tattooing among women in Indian tribes was very common, while tattoos for men were usually earned through some accomplishment, such as hunting.

Tattoos of Asia: A treasure trove of ancient cultural traditions 5

While in many parts of India tribal tattoos have various purposes including spiritual and decorative, in some tribes such as the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh it was a way to protect women from being abducted or raped by the men from rival tribes, much like early tribal tattoos from the Middle East and China.

Women's facial tattoos were used to make them 'less desirable' to potential attackers
Women from the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh with facial tattoos and piercings

The women of the Khond tribe of Orissa, referred to as ‘the people of the spirit world‘, wear geometric tribal tattoos on their face as they believe this will allow them to recognize each other in the spirit world.

Khond woman with ear, septum and nostril piercings
A woman from the Khond tribe in India sporting her traditional tattoos and piercings

The women of the Rabari group, an ethnic group of India and Pakistan, wear tattoos on their necks, breasts, and arms to symbolize their faith in magic.

A woman of the Rabari group from India and Pakistan wearing traditional clothing with her arm tattoos visible
A Rabari woman with arm tattoos

Northeast India: The last of the headhunters

In the North East, tribal tattoos were worn to symbolize a person’s accomplishments. In Nagaland, for instance, tribal tattoos were worn by women to mark the various phases of their lives and by men after they completed a rite of passage – hunting an animal and returning with its head, which was believed to hold the creature’s soul. Some tattoos were decorative as well, while others were believed to grant the wearer a safe passage into the afterlife.

A headhunter from Nagaland displays the tribal tattoos he earned after hunting an animal and returning with its head
One of the last remaining headhunters from Nagaland displays his tribal tattoos earned after a hunt

Traditional tattooing in Nagaland was performed by female master tattooists who passed the tradition down to their daughters, and was performed using hand-tapping and hammering method using traditional tools, such as ‘a comb made by bunching together sharp rattan needles using plant fibres‘ and ‘ink extracted from the resin of the red cedar‘. Though these traditions are no longer practised, some of the older headhunters of Nagaland can still be seen sporting their tattoos.

A headhunter from the Konyak tribe of Nagaland, Northeast India displays his tribal tattoos and earrings
A Konyak man displays his facial tattoos

Modern Tattooing in India

Modern tattooing in India takes a lot of inspiration from the earlier tribal styles and often combines it with tribal styles from other parts of the world, especially the blackwork seen in Maori tattoos.

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Modern tribal tattoos
Tattooing in Goa uses designs inspired by ‘Batek’, the traditional style of the Kalinga from North Philippines

Temporary tattooing, such as henna, is also widely practised in India and other parts of South Asia and the even Middle East. These patterns have become so popular that they are now used in permanent tattoo designs.

A woman displays her neck and back ornamental tattoo which uses henna designs as its inspiration
Henna pattern as a neck and back tattoo design

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