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University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the

Tattooing is probably the most popular form of body adornment in America today. The designs can be small and discreet or large and obvious. Many people prefer discreet designs that can be concealed for certain occasions.

Tattooing has actually been practiced since the time of the ancient Egyptians and is common throughout the world.

The Museum's Polynesian gallery contains several examples of tattooing, including this drawing (right) of an 19th century Marquesan chief, with tattoos on his face, torso, and limbs. Incidentally, the word "tattoo" is of Polynesian origin, related to the Tahitian word tatau and the Marquesan word ta-tu.

tattooed chief at Taiohae, Nukuhivadrawing, 18th century
tattooed chief at Taiohae, Nukuhiva
drawing, 19th century

tiger tat

“In all ages, far back into prehistory, we find human beings have painted and adorned themselves...”
--H.G. Wells

In the Samoan Islands men were traditionally tattooed from waist to knees. A drawing (right) in the Museum's Polynesia gallery shows an example of a Samoan tattooing pattern for men. Women were also tattooed on their thighs and knees, but with delicate, repeated individual motifs. Samoan boys were tattooed at the age of 16-18 years, in a group puberty ceremony that served to reinforce societal authority. In battle, tattos were thought to confer magical protection. Execution of a design like the one shown in the sketched example typically took a month to six weeks. A special tattooing shed was built and was burned when the process was completed.

Sketched example of a Samoan tattooing pattern
(Above) Sketched example of a Samoan tattooing pattern on the back of a man's body
Tattooing comb, 'o le 'au, from the Samoan islands

Samoan tattoo artists used combs like the one in the Museum's Polynesian gallery (left) to apply the design. They would dip the comb in a mixture of water and candlenut soot and then tap the comb with a stick, causing the pointed teeth to puncture the skin.

Tattooing comb, au songi aso tetele.
The plate of the comb is made of bone and turtle shell.
Samoan Islands, 19th century

While Samoan men covered their lower bodies with tattoos, Maori men of New Zealand covered their buttocks, thighs, and faces. Maori men had their faces tattooed by an artist of "moko," a technique unique to the Maori. The pattern was literally carved into the skin with a chisel, much the way designs are carved into wood. Ink would be placed in the cuts to create the tattoo. The process, which was extremely painful, was typically done in stages, starting in early adulthood. Maori facial tattoos were indications of power and prestige, designed to impress and intimidate, especially in battle. Since no two patterns were alike, men's facial tattoos were also markers of individual identity.

As you may imagine, this procedure was incredibly painful, and it caused a lot of swelling in the face. In fact, so much swelling occurred that the man could not eat normally. Funnel-like feeding tubes were made to allow the man to be nourished with liquid food. While this may seem like a lot to go through for a tattoo, it isn't a far stretch from what some American teenagers have to endure. Tongue piercing is increasing in popularity, but the procedure causes the tongue to swell. Solid food can't be eaten for several days after a tongue piercing, and a popular alternative is to eat baby food instead.

Tattooing of Maori women was limited to the lips and chin. Unlike the facial tattoos of Maori men, facial tattoos of Maori women were executed with a toothed comb.

the only alternative after facial tattooing is to eat baby food
Sometimes the only alternative after facial tattooing or tongue piercing is to eat baby food...

“And who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?” --Michelangelo

Native Americans in Alaska also tattooed their chins. This mask of the "Blueberry Woman" hanging in the Museum's Native Alaskan gallery is a good example of tattooing on the chin of a woman. Women throughout Africa have also occasionally tattooed their faces. Even more prevalent throughout Africa than tattooing is the tradition of scarification. Scarification is similar to tattooing because dye is sometimes used. When dye is used in the scarification process, it appears as if the woman has a raised tattoo because scarification creates a raised pattern on the skin.

Wooden mask of the "Blueberry Woman"
Wooden mask of the "Blueberry Woman" (note tattooed chin),
Alaska, 1917

African carving of a female figure with scarification patterns on face and neck, Zaire, 19th century

This figure (left) from the Museum's African gallery shows scarification patterns on its face and neck. To receive scarification is a long and painful process that African girls go through when they reach puberty. Once a girl reaches puberty, she is also ready to be married. Scarification patterns can assist her by making her more attractive to men, who consider the patterns beautiful to look at and to touch. The patterns are also regarded as testimony that the woman will be able to endure the pains of childbirth.

African carving of a female figure with
scarification patterns on face and neck,
Zaire, 19th century

At a tattoo parlor in America, the application of a simple design usually takes at least an hour, but of course this can vary, depending on the size and intricacy of the design. People's relationships with their tattoos vary, and they attach different meanings to tattooing. For some people, one design on one spot of their body is meaningful. For others, tattooing can be a process that takes years, and the tattoos, which cover most of their body, become a kind of living "work in progress" or record of their life. Still others opt for temporary tattoos like these (right), available in the Museum Pyramid Shop.

Temporary tattoos--for the more faint of heart!
Temporary tattoos--for the more faint of heart! Applied and removed with water, they're popular among children and young adults.

"One must be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
--Oscar Wilde

Body piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn Museum

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