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Summary Article: Tattoo
From The Brill Dictionary of Religion

1. ‘Tattoo,’ from the East Polynesian tatau, to ‘strike correctly,’ denotes a pattern, image, or ornament, scratched, pricked, or struck through the human epidermis. With scar tattooing, used especially with darker skin, the skin is seared or scratched with an instrument (fragment of stone, bamboo or bone knife, razor-blade). Healing is delayed (rubbing in of ashes, clay), in order that a pattern of swelling may emerge. With color or pricking tattooing (used especially with fair skin), dyed material is brought in contact with, and introduced under, the epidermis through the use of toothed wooden hammers (today usually an electric tattooing needle). Unlike body-painting, tattooing leaves an enduring mark on the body, changing it in a lasting way. The word tatau was imported to Europe from Tahiti by English seafarer James Cook. The connection between nudity and ornament on the body among the inhabitants of the South Sea told Europeans of ‘wildness,’ and awakened a certain longing (erotic, to some extent), but also provoked a revulsion before the naked cannibal. Meanwhile, the tattoo has spread worldwide since the Paleolithic Age.

Even in Western industrial societies, tattoos can be for more than just aesthetic and decorative purposes. In youth subcultures, tattooing confers identity (in the sense of a demarcation), and denotes initiation into a ‘tribal alliance.’ The blood that flows during the imposition of the tattoo emphasizes the transmutation. Thus, the body image of Jesus's Crucifixion attached by skinheads to their bodies is fraught with religious conceptions of Christian sacrificial ideology—the skinhead as misunderstood ‘sacrifice,’ as ‘scapegoat’ of a society against whose values he rebels—and he wears his tattoo in protest.

Occasions and Functions

2. The occasions in life for the tattoo are as varied as the signs themselves. In the South Sea, persons have their tongues tattooed out of grief and pain over the departed. Then there is the ‘revenge tattoo,’ which threatens repayment after the murder of a relative. The facial tattoos of the Maori (New Zealand), again, document the bearer's social rank, origin, and descendancy, so that they constitute a ‘visible visiting card.’ Further, the tattoo can serve for protection against misfortune and disease. Unlike the art of tattooing in the West, frequently performed for the purpose of aesthetic decoration alone, tattooing in traditional societies interweaves this purpose with socio-religious connections. Western tattoos express individuality, or → protest against prevailing social norms. In tribal societies, by way of an aesthetic code of skin ornamentation, tattooing expresses a society's central values, and conceptualizations of belief.

Tribal Religions

3. In a mythic and cultic connection, tattooing is used primarily with → initiation. Thus, the searing of pubertal men by the Iatmul of New Guinea, is referred to the story of creation. The scar sign, sensible image of reception into the society of adult men, produces an equivalency with the mythical crocodile of primordial times, from which the tribe draws its descendancy. In a framework of culturally specific conceptualizations concerning death and rebirth, scar patterns can be interpreted as wounds received from the bites and blows of the mythical ‘greedy one’ (Straube 1964). A further purpose of scar tattooing among the Iatmul consists in the spilling of the impure blood of his mother by the male initiand: novices' bodies are transformed from that of a child to that of an adult male. Ritual tattooing can permanently etch cosmological conceptualizations and powers in the body: thus, at the climax of their sun ritual, the Omaha (North America) tattoo marriageable girls with a dish (sensible image of the cosmic deity of the sun) and a star (feminine cosmic power of the night). The signs instill the girl with fertility and life energy. Initiands bear the pain in silence—a test not only of their courage, endurance, and physical strength, but also of their silent agreement to their society's social charter, that brooks no dialogue, nor any contradiction. Thus the individual body becomes the social body—the ‘cultural linen’ on which this society enduringly inscribes its social and religious concepts: the “body is memorial” (P. Clastres). The tattoo has a memory-bolstering function: it ‘inscribes’ the individual with the laws and privileges of society.

In private rituals as well, tattoos can refer to religious conceptualizations. Thus, in the view of the Sarawak Kaya (Borneo), disease appears through loss of the soul. After the ritual expert has recalled the soul into the patient's body, he tattoos it with signs, to prevent the soul from being lost in perspiration once more.

Book Religions

4. The three book religions, Judaism (Lev 19:28; Deut 14:1), Christianity (2 Nicaea 787 CE), and Islam (e.g., according to a Hadith of the Prophet's companion Abd Allah ibn Umar)1 forbid tattooing. Concepts of the integrity of the human body as the ‘image of God,’ or the intent to distinguish one's own cultic practice from that of pagans, may have been the basis for this prohibition. Still, Christians and Muslims alike wore tattoos as visible documents, for example, of their participation in pilgrimages (crusades, pilgrimages to Mecca). In other societies with an aversion to tattoo, it was sometimes performed with marginal groups and outsiders, such as criminals (Japanese, yakuza), or homosexual persons, for identification and retribution. Only in marginalrecent years has tattoo become the fashion in the West: subcultures have adopted it across broad classes of the population, usually in a secular context. (In the countercultures, tattoos with a religious reference are common; see illus.). Indeed the Western trend has occasioned the revival of forgotten traditions of the South Sea. Consequently upon the Western mission, South Sea Islanders had frequently given up the tattoo. Now, however, it has been revived, partly as a symbol of a distance taken from Western modernity. It also, of course, emphasizes cultural independence and ethnic membership.

Body, Initiation, Symbol/Sign/Gesture

  • Clastres, Pierre, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology, New York 1989.
  • DeMello, Margo, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Durham 2000.
  • Jaguer, Jeff, The Tattoo: A Pictorial History, Horndean 1990.
  • Miller, Jean-Chris, The Body Art Book: A Complete, Illustrated Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Other Body Modifications, New York 2004.
  • Sanders, Clinton R., Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, Philadelphia 1989.
  • Straube, Helmut, “Beiträge zur Sinndeutung der wichtigsten künstlichen Körperverstümmelungen in Afrika,” in: Festschrift Jensen, vol. II, Munich 1964, 671-722.
  • Thomas, Nicholas et al. (eds.), Tattoo: Bodies, Art, and Exchange in the Pacific and Europe, London 2004.
  • Turner, Victor, “Bodily Marks,” in: Encyclopedia of Religion 2 (1987), 269-275.
  • Josef Drexler

    Transmitted in the Sahib collection of the Buhari.


    Subcultural Tattooing

    © 2006 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands

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