Tattoos have been used for millennia as a way of signifying a person’s connection to a group of people or marking important events and milestones. Many Indigenous cultures around the world have had their practices outlawed by colonization and are now reviving the tradition. In this post, we’ll take a look at the significance of Indigenous tattoos and the reasons why they are used today.
For many Indigenous people, tattoos are more than body fashion and an aesthetic choice. They can be that, but they often also hold significant meaning and connect to a family group or particular worldview.
Many cultures use tattoos to show a connection to a group and family lineage. In the Anishinaabe Clan system, there are seven original clans, Bear, Eagle, Wolf, Turtle, that denote family connections and show how a person belongs in the group. Each clan contributes an essential element to society, and individual members contribute to a clan’s knowledge through experience. Many individuals choose to get a full back tattoo, arm tattoo or leg tattoo of the clan they belong to.
Traditional Maori tattoos or moko are worn by men and women to symbolize Maori culture and identity. They are worn on the face and buttocks of men and the lips, chin, and shoulders of women. Each tattoo is a symbol of family heritage or whakapapa. Each line and symbol signifies the clan and life achievements of the person who bears them. To get a moko, the person must first ask permission from the elders, and the design is specially chosen by the expert tribal tattooist.
In southern Sudan, men of the Nuer tribe use gaar lines or six lines carved on either side of their foreheads to symbolize maturity. This scarification in intricate raised patterns also shows their affiliation with a tribe. This can sometimes cause problems between groups who are in conflict.
For many cultures, tattoos including back tattoos are also tied to an individual’s accomplishments or have a spiritual connection. Some symbols date back to their original ancestors or are given in a dream. According to Inuit tattoo artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, some traditional tattooed amulets are meant for protection and show a person’s skills as a hunter. “They also describe a world view,” she says. “Our patterns are deeply rooted in our spiritual belief system, and we use them today to rebuild identity after 300 years of colonization.”
If you are considering a traditional Indigenous tattoo and have no cultural connection to that group, it is essential to do your research and understand the significance of the symbols involved and their meaning to particular cultures. Not all symbols are off-limits, but it is vital to ensure you are not appropriating images and symbols that do not belong to you. Many tattoos have a deep meaning and are not appropriate for everyone.
If your wish is to honour the Indigenous culture through a tattoo, perhaps consider a more holistic design that is not specific to a group. You could also donate to a fund to help the fight against land consumption and pollution or stand with Indigenous groups and support their cultural practices and ceremonies.
For more ideas on tattoo designs, make an appointment with the talented tattoo artists at Sage Tattoo and Gallery. We can create a full-back tattoo or give you some long-term back tattoo ideas the help you create your next piece of body art. We’ll also talk you through the process and discuss tattoo aftercare instructions, time for the tattooed area to completely heal, and to ensure everything heals properly. Contact us today to set up an appointment.