This essay has been re-blogged from the tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak‘s website.
The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.
Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.
Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.
Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.
Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.
At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.
Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.’” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”
The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).
Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren“, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.
While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonials because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent her spiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.
According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”
Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.
After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.
The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.
Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.
As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.
Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.
Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.
However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsor girdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.
But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest
Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.
Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.
Batchelor, John. (1901). The Ainu and Their Folk-Lore. London: The Religious Tract Society.
(1907). Ainu Life and Lore: Echoes of a Departing Race. Tokyo: Kyobunkan.
Fitzhugh, William W. and Chisato O. Dubreuil (eds.). (1999). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hitchcock, Romyn. (1891). “The Ainos of Yezo, Japan.” Pp. 428-502 in Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1889-1890. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Munro, Neil Gordon. (1963). Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: Columbia University Press.
Article taken from The Vanishing Tattoo by Lars Krutak
Christo Geoghegan is a documentary photographer and writer who has made time to tell Sang Bleu about his time in the remote Northeast India and the fascinating culture of body modification practiced in the particular areas that he visited.
The art of tattooing and body modification has always been an intrinsic part of tribal culture. Cultural identity and heritage is the beating heart of any tribe and as such body art has been used as an external expression of internal values. It became a form of visual ID to indicate which tribe you were from and where your loyalties lied. And in the remote northeastern states of India, whose populations are predominantly tribal, this was important.
Northeast India is a collection of seven states connected to mainland India by a 21km wide stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor. Though administratively Indian, much of the culture and people share almost no similarities with their Indian neighbours and as such the ‘Seven Sisters States’ are disparate siblings of their mainland brothers. Northeast Indian culture is far more influenced by the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Tibet and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh. And it’s because of this isolation away from mainland governance and the inexorable modernisation that goes with it, that the region has remained one of the last bastions of tribal culture.
Back in 2009, I was incredibly fortunate to obtain the necessary permits required to enter the geographically secluded states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in order to meet and photograph two of its most famous tribal inhabitants: the Konyak Headhunters of Mon and the Apatani women of Ziro Valley. Both of these tribes are famous for their distinctive tattoos and body modifications, but the significance and origins of each are entirely different.
The Konyaks are a hill tribe separated across three different geographical locations. Some reside in the southernmost region of Arunachal Pradesh, some live in the hills of neighbouring Myanmar, and some, like the ones I spent time with, live in the state of Nagaland. The Konyaks have a rich history of being fierce and highly feared warriors and the tattoos that were adopted by the tribe were created to show this. The Konyaks became notorious across the region as headhunters, who believed that when they collected the skull of an enemy they could in turn harness the life force and soul that once dwelled inside of its original ‘owner’. Successful and prolific headhunters were then given the honour of being able to wear the mark, having their faces and chest covered in tattoos. The Konyak women however, would receive decorative tattoo designs (primarily on their legs) to signify various advancements in life. These tattooing practices would continue up until the late 1960s when Nagaland began to experience a cultural shift that would affect Konyak tattooing forever: Christianisation.
From the beginning of the 1940s Christian missionaries from America, Wales and New Zealand set out to the remote northeastern states to spread the gospel and attempt to convert non-believers. However, some of these envoys were of the opinion that many of the activities and beliefs that these tribes held were primitive or barbaric and preached to the tribesmen with a heavy hand. And as such, as Christianity began to spread across the region, many tribes began to lose sight of some of the ancestral heritage and original animistic beliefs that were once at the forefront of their very being.
This isn’t to say that Christianity did not bring some aspects of social prosperity to the region, in fact it was one of the main reasons that practices such as the violent art of headhunting were outlawed. But what is undeniable is that this shift in thinking began to have an impact on many forms of tribal art and expression, particularly tattooing culture. With the end of headhunting and a conversion to Christianity widespread, the Konyaks ceased all tattooing activities and with the number of tattooed Konyaks dwindling as their ages increase, the marks of the headhunter look set to be erased forever.
The women of the Apatani tribe however, had very different reasons for body art and modification. Believed to be the most beautiful in the region, the Apatani women were prone to being kidnapped and raped by the surrounding Nishi tribesmen. To stop this from occurring and protect the tribeswomen, the Apatanis agreed to begin a practice known as ‘imposed ugliness’. By ‘destroying’ the beauty that was so desired by these invading tribesmen, it was believed that they would no longer be at risk from attack. This practice was forced upon all Apatani women when they reached a certain age and began with facial tattooing: one single vertical line from the forehead to base of the nose and then five vertical lines beneath the lip to the base of the chin. Small incisions were then made into the sides of each nostril, and a plug, known locally as Yapping Hullo, were inserted into them. Over time, these plugs were replaced with larger ones in order to stretch the original incision until it was at an acceptable size.
However, it wasn’t Christianity that ended this bizarre form of rape prevention, but peace with the Nishi in the 1960s. Many Apatani women, distraught from having the practice carried out on them, chose to have elective plastic surgery to remove their imposed ugliness. But many embraced their modifications and a popular belief is held amongst many in the tribe that the larger the Yaping Hullo, the more beautiful the woman, inverting the original intention of the process.
There are still many other tribes in the region such as the Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh who still tattoo tribesmen, but as external influences begin to creep in at an increasing rate and globalisation begins to grip the region like an ever tightening vice, the art of tribal tattooing in Northeast India is beginning to slowly, but surely fade.
All images and text has been created by Christo, to find out more visit his website here: http://christogeoghegan.com
Universal Music Japan, Lady Gaga’s Japanese record label last week uploaded a 30 second teaser video. What this film is actually advertising is quite unclear; we are shown what seems to be a bleak factory with moulds of Lady Gaga’s face and body being compressed, moulded and bolted and eventually made into a robot.
The teaser ends with the statement that: “GAGADOLL COMING SOON”. Is Gaga’s new concept that she will now become a consumable entity more than she already is? Exactly how reactive will these robots be if they can be bought by individuals? This is of course another aspect of her expansive marketing strategy but what is it exactly about Robots that is so fitting towards Gaga? What is it about advanced technology that she wants to intertwine herself with so much? How many robots will be made? What will their function be? Will these robots be made in mass or will a one off robot be made as a piece of art? The video seems to show a whole army of silicone bodies hanging in a room.
Lady Gaga is yet to make an announcement about where this footage will lead however Japan is forever associated with robot creation so it almost seems a little too obvious for Gaga to promote her music within that particular country in this manner. As Lady Gaga’s career becomes more and more extreme within pop culture the notion of her creating robots of herself hardly seems surprising especially within the context to ‘ARTPOP’. Fans have speculated that the TechHausdesign branch who recently designed her flying dress are behind this concept. TechHaus is the technical division of the Haus of Gaga founded in 2012 to create the ARTPOP app.
The video succeeds in exactly what its aimed to complete, its left us with questions about her ever growing estate. For a woman who likes to play with extremes and is fully aware of wanting to conquer various aspects of popular culture recreating a mechanical version of herself seems fitting to her progressive nature within her field as a pop musician.
You can watch the video here:
Oiran were high-ranking courtesans of the feudal period in Japan who wore tall lacquered footwear or Koma-geta (or mitsu-ashi – three legs). Unlike geisha and maiko, who only entertained by conversation, singing and dancing, oiran and tayuu were the highest rank in the hierarchy of prostitution in the pleasure quarters. Whereas geisha and maiko wear tabi socks, the oiran and tayuu preferred not to do so (even in the winter) and their toes can be seen poking out under many layers of kimono while wearing these tall geta. A tiny hint of bare flesh must have been very appealing in the Edo period! These shoes were most likely worn to ensure there was no confusion between geisha, maiko and oiran / tayuu. However, an amazing skill of balance must have been required to walk with these geta with their 10″ platforms. One sometimes sees maiko hobbling along in Okobo, but the pace must have been even more arduous in these tall geta. This particular pair is most likely Taisho period (1912-1926) or early 20th century.
Tomorrow in the Thai island of Phuket the Chinese community who make up a third of the population of the island will start their nine day celebration to show abstince from meat, alcohol, sex and other stimulants to help them obtain good health and peace of mind during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar.
The origins of this festival are unclear but it is thought that it began after a group of Chinese opera singers visiting Phuket fell ill during the late 19th century with malaria. To cure themselves of the deadly illness they went on a strict vegetarian diet and prayed to the Nine Emperor Gods to ensure purification of the mind and body. Suprisingly everyone survived which was very unusual of the time, to celebrate this and honour the gods the festival supposedly started.
However the festival may celebrate the controlled diet that many ensure but it is better known for the extreme body modifications that take place every year. Thousands of visitors from all over Asia come to see the ceremonies which have been becoming more grumesome and extreme year by year.
Fire walking, climbing ladders made of blades, submerging the body in baths of hot oil and most famously; body and facial piercing publicly happen by men and women who use aggressive objects to do so. They hope that their suffering will draw evil out of the community around them and, in doing so, brings positive luck to their friends and village. Celebrants first attain a trance-like state before the self mutilation believing it will give them supernatural powers and the ability to endure these excruciating tortures for the common good.
The use of domestic objects to perforate the cheeks and split the tongue is hazily understood but seems to be a way of exaggerating the notion of competition; who can fit the most painful object through the face? Who is the most dedicated? Images of car wheels, mechanical tools, guns and collections of knives all rip open the faces of these devotees of which many have to go onto have facial reconstruction.
The festival starts tomorrow and finishes on the 14th of October. You can find out more about it here.
After moving to Tokyo in 1961 to become a photographic assistant, Osaka-born Daido Moriyama began churning out his distinctive lo-fi and deeply dark and unnerving images of the city’s underbelly. As cities in Japan were rapidly urbanizing, Moriyama deliberately eschewed the crisp, saturated “guidebook” aesthetic in favor of a hi-contrast, grainy photographs of things “that urbanism had left behind.” Armed with just a small point-and-shoot camera, Moriyama still traverses Tokyo, especially in the lesser-traveled Shinjuku area, discreetly capturing the people, scenes, and artifacts of urban life. To me, his photographs, especially those of tights, evoke the Surrealist descriptions of Georges Bataille’s l’informe (formlessness), abstracting bodies and blurring the line between people and their form.
To learn more about Moriyama, definitely check out the Tate’s text and videos regarding his 2012 show with William Klein.
With palm-reading still being immensely popular in various parts of East Asia especially in Japan and South Korea, a new trend within plastic surgery has been emerging which alters the lines of the palm of the hand. The process of being able to undergo surgery in the hope of changing your destiny is certainly a strange and possibly futile procedure but it is growing in demand. What can only be imagined as an incredibly painful operation, the new lines are created with an electric scalpel and the skin is cut with a shaky hand so it will look more authentic. A clear decision to not use an electric laser was made early on in this new practice as ‘burns heal’ and the scars fade.
What seems immediately strange about this form of body modification is that it is not practiced for the purpose of adornment but through the hope to alter possibilities for the future (which in many ways seems to go against its very essense). Costing up to $1,000 the surgeon practicing this surgery already should have a knowledge of palmistry to help you extend your money, romance, luck, family or marriage lines. There is another strange aspect to creating a scar on the body with the aim of it trying to imitate a line as they are two different things. How this type of surgery will evolve (if it can) will be interesting as its very existence seems completely bizarre.
Images via the Shonan Beauty Clinic