Tattoo Culture: From Ritual to Revolution

tattoo cover - streettrotter

Tattoos have been marks of our uniqueness since 3300 B.C. Humans have turned to altering their physical appearances and ways of body modifications ever since the dawn of civilization. Within the realms of body piercings, esoteric branding and scarification – tattooing became a common practice amongst various cultures and tribes as tangible signs of identity. From prehistoric rituals, to carefully carved subcultures and today an important art form in our popular culture – the evolution of tattooing as a practice is intriguing. Surbhi Sonway, a Fashion communication student explores its journey for StreetTrotter. 


Tattooing as an ancient tradition 


Tattoos are believed to have originated over 10,000 years ago. The oldest documented tattoo belongs to Otzi the Iceman who died in 3300 B.C, whose body was found in 1991. Tattoos illustrating animals and legendary creatures have also been found on the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptian people.


Widespread in native communities all around the world dating thousands of years, ‘Tattooing Traditions’ culturally were handed down for generations. They marked important milestones, such as coming-of-age, membership to a clan, and adherence to a particular religious cult. 


Tattoo designs in the ancient world were simple geometric patterns, owing to the simplicity of the first tools invented to ingrain the patterns, which were essentially thorns or pieces of bone. Going back to the Neolithic times, symbols were inspired from the surroundings, hence, plants and animals, waves and mountains, the sun and stars were common patterns. The idea of symbolization was so profound in our human history, that it was used as a means to mark people of a certain clan within their geographical regions.

A visual history of ancient tattoos. The evidence starts from decoding tattoo locations on the excavated body of Ötzi the Iceman. How the Egyptians tattooed their bodies for adornment and figures of tattoos inspired from flora and fauna throughout history.

These traditions were handed down by cult heroes, which marked their origins. The tattooing rituals were and still are ceremoniously celebrated in some parts of the world, as an act to pay homage to ancestors and to deepen the ties of a particular cult.


In India, tattoos have been adopted to symbolize cultural roots and is widely used as a practice amongst various tribal communities. They are named differently in different parts of the country – Godna, Tarazwa and Ungkala are some prevailing nuances.

Cultural representations of tattooing as a ritual in the Maori tribe and ancient Japan.


Tracing Indian sub-cultures and ethnicities


Away from the hustle of the city life, in the midst of wilderness is a small village – Kumangao in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. A pristine, serene land with lots of peace and quiet, the village is home to the Baiga community. With houses made of baked-earthen tiles, the residents of the Baiga tribe have been the forest protectors for generations. Sharing the available space and resources of the forest with wild species, the communities’ skills traditionally lie in an intimate knowledge of plants and animals.


Tattooing is an integral part of the Baiga lifestyle. There is a specific tattoo for every part of the body and the tattooing is done by people of the Badi community. This art form instills a sense of pride amongst the women, who otherwise feel incomplete without their GodnaThe Baigas believe that the pain the Baigin (woman) endures during tattooing prepares her for the pain of labour during childbirth, and eventually the tattoo becomes a mark of her identity.


Ahilya Bai is a woman in her late 50s from the Baiga tribe residing in Kumangao and works in the fields. On asking her about the Badnins (women tattooists), she describes their way of life,  “They are available during the Mandi (monthly local market) and roam around the village. Instead of cash, they exchange their tattoo service for grain.”

The tattoos are inked using kajal, which is a powder obtained from crushing Ramtilla (niger seeds). The tattoo patterns most commonly signify simple elements like – fire, crops, grains, peacocks (amba), a pair of hens, chariot, flowers, trees, eyes etc. The initial patterns are drawn using small bamboo sticks, after which needles are used to etch them into the skin, which allows the ink to permeate beneath the skin. The area is washed with lukewarm water and cow dung once the etching is complete. The skin takes around a week to heal and extracts from the Raijal herb are applied to help the healing process.


This was a process that every Baiga woman had to go through in her lifetime, however nowadays it is far less prevalent amongst the younger generation. Peer pressure, pain, teasing by other communities are the main reasons why the traditional skill is slowly fading away. Unaware of the loss of culture their community is faced with, some of them have either moved away or abandoned such traditions defining their ethnic roots.  


From global Subculture to Pop Culture


Apart from tribal identities in the Indian sub-culture, around the globe tattoos have had different cultural contexts. For example, in Japan, Tattoos are largely associated with people who have committed crimes, and with time the art form has lost its social acceptability. Hearts and banners are classic American tattoos, but historically the only people who had them were American sailors.


  • In 1891, machine tattooing was introduced and the style of tattooing spread beyond the sailors because it could be done a lot faster and in a less painful way. So, the electric tattoo artists doubled up – as sailors and circus performers became their canvases. Circus had an incredible impact on spreading the art with its widespread movement across the length and breadth of the countryside.

    First tattoo machine - streettrotter
    Tattooist Samuel O’Reilly modified Edison’s design over the course of fifteen years to create an electric tattoo machine which he patented in 1891.
  • Much later in the 1900s, Tattoos started appearing in glossy magazine spreads in popular American magazines, like LIFE, which in 1972, was the first to announce the re-appearance of the ancient art transformed in the form of fashion. From thereon, there has been no looking back! Tattoos visibility exploded in 1981 once MTV startled the whole pop culture dialogue amongst the youth. People started collecting and mixing global tattoo traditions in exciting new and unique ways.
  • Ever since, every breakthrough tattoo design had a rippling effect and more so with the introduction of Instagram. Truly a game changer for industry artists, where shows like Miami Ink gained extreme amounts of traction with millions following, setting a new standard of body art innovation. 
  • With all said and done, the everchanging desire for creating a statement or marking a memory will never allow the tattoo culture to simply fade away. The cultural connotations of being inked have changed – from being a tradition to a fashion statement which has largely formed a part of pop culture. 
  • Tattoos are no longer just about marking your identity or territory, it has become an inherent method of creative self-expression. A local Tattoo Shop owner, Amit Sethi explains, “Earlier people used to ask for whatever is trending. But nowadays they are specific about the design they want inked.”    


But as the number of people getting tattoos has seen a rise, alternatively there has also been a new downfall. Tattoo removal is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry and countries like India, Japan, and the United States are leading the pack.

Author: Surbhi Sonway, is a Fashion communication student and an ecstatic amateur passionate about exploring raw places. She loves to capture emotions through a monochrome lens. | Cover Artwork by: Sarthak Grover | Edited by: Gneev Nagi and Shraddha Gupta 


StreetTrotter is a Travel, Culture & Lifestyle blog, inspiring people everyday with real stories to look good and travel even better. Founded in 2012 by Shraddha Gupta, Founder & COO, this space is all about experiencing new things in life, be it a daring mountain trek, a frugal backpacking trip, a runway look made local, or simply anything that scares you enough to live a little more deeper.

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