Using Tattoos as Rites of Passage

The most popular tattooing genre in the world today, is that of the tribal tattoo. Modern tribal tattoos are largely inspired by the traditional tattoos of the indigenous peoples of Borneo and Indonesia, the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest of North America. Many of these bold graphic designs first inspired the fascination of Captain James Cook and his men in the eighteenth century and sparked a revival of tattooing in Western Europe and they are no less influential today among modern tattoo artists.

Tribal tattoos once marked individuals, both male and female, as members of a greater community and they were traditionally done as part of a larger, more elaborate rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood. The tattoo designs themselves were symbols that had important meaning within each community, tribal group and culture. These tattoo designs were powerful symbols of recognition that identified member’s inclusion within the larger group.

Tribal tattoos often used symbols of animal and spirit totems and they are just as popular with Western individuals as they were with the original Haida, Iban headhunters, and Polynesian peoples of their day. The Haida people used tattoos as a means of passing ownership of Clan insignia and crests down within family groups from generation to generation.

As a rite of passage, there are clear distinctions and differences between the genders when it comes to body art. The tattoos of girls and women are often marks that a culture identifies as beauty marks and that celebrate fertility. The tattoos themselves are frequently focused on the erogenous zones, the thighs, buttocks, abdomen and breasts as in the case of Egyptian courtesans whose mummified remains have been preserved for over two thousand years.

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