Tribal Facial Tattoos from Around the World

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Image: Geof Wilson

A Maori warrior at the Akaroa Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tattoos have a long tradition – not only in certain cultures but in almost all, all over the world, supporting the hypothesis that tattoos did not originate in one place but developed independently in various locations. That explains why Oetzi the Iceman, said to have walked the Alps anywhere from the fourth to the fifth millennium, was covered in tattoos, as were mummies found from northern Chile to Egypt and Russia. Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other northern tribes wore tattoos, and tattooing in Japan goes back some ten thousand years.


Image: Valter Campanato

Brazilian Indian chiefs of the Kaiapos tribe during an interview.

Somewhere in the middle, the tradition of tattooing was forgotten in certain parts of the world but brought back with increased navigation of the earth, especially via sea routes. No wonder then that in our times, tattoos have often been associated with sailors who copied what they saw in other countries and then developed a tattoo subculture of their own.

There were, and still are, many reasons to wear tattoos – both among tribals and those copying them. They can be a sign of belonging to a certain group or tribe but also of exclusivity or being different. Tattoos are worn as sacred symbols, as talismans or to ward off evil, for religious reasons or to show spiritual devotion.

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Image: Ferdinand Reus

Girl of the Peul tribe applying a henna mouth tattoo with a needle.

Tattoos can designate status and rank but also mark bravery. Often, they are applied to mark a rite of passage like that from childhood into adulthood. In a related way, they are seen in many cultures as sexual lures or signs of fertility and beauty. In recent times, they have been worn as signs of protest or as political statements but also as negative marks for societal outcasts, slaves or convicts.

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