Centuries before rockstars and celebrities, tattoos were used by tribal men and women across the world, whether it was the Maoris of New Zealand or the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, to mark out identity and territory ...
On his Orkut profile, Michi Laling, a 20-year-old Delhi University student, describes himself as a "free soul with strategically placed tattoos and body piercing". Ink, in fact, runs in Michi's blood. Back in his village in Arunachal Pradesh's Ziro valley, his 80-year-old grandmother also wears a tattoo, though for entirely different reasons. While body art is a fashion statement for Michi, his grandmother was forced to get her face tattooed when she was barely eight.
The Apatanis are not the only tattooed tribe in northeastern India.The headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland used to tattoo their faces like headhunters from the Philippines, Taiwan and other Pacific islands. Facial tattoos were marks of the head-taker, the various designs indicating the person's prowess in battle and his head-count, write Aditya Arya and Vibha Joshi in their book Land of the Nagas. Researchers also say that tattoos helped establish tribal identity besides enabling recognition after death in a war or a fatal accident. Facial tattooing was prevalent among Noctes and Wanchos of Arunachal as well.
The married women of the Singpho tribe, found both in Assam and Arunachal, were tattooed on both legs from the ankle to the knee, while the men tattooed their limbs, while unmarried Singpho girls were barred from wearing a tattoo.
With the modernisation and urbanisation of northeast India over the decades, the tattoo culture has shifted significantly. The traditional patterns may have been replaced by modern motifs, but the meaning behind the pain-inducing practice hasn't changed much - just like today's city bred youth, Nagas regarded tattoos as a sign of strength, courage, and virility because of the pain associated with it.
Indian tribes are not the only ones that tattooed themselves. The Ainu of Japan traditionally wore facial tattoos. Today, one can find Berbers of Tamazgha (North Africa),Maoris of New Zealand, Arabic people in east Turkey and the Atayal of Taiwan with facial tattoos. The practice was widespread among Polynesian peoples and among tribes in the Philippines, Borneo, Samoaa, and Cambodia.
Despite some taboos surrounding tattooing, the art continues to be popular in many parts of the world.
Tribal adaptation of popular designs like the dragon and tiger and abstract art is gaining popularity among the youth. Done in black ink - which shows up very nicely on Indian skin complexion - 'tribal tattoos' accounts for a third of all tattoo design searches on the internet, according to recent statistics provided by Google.