Almost a quarter of Australian women now have tattoos - a trend some attribute to the influence of feminism. What I find interesting is that the mainstreaming of female tattooing in the west has finally caught up with a practice that is thousands of years old.
Ancient Egyptian female mummies have been found with tattoos. Thracian women were depicted with “sleeve” tattoos on their arms in Greek vases from the 5th century BCE. In traditional Maori culture, the eldest daughter in elite families was tattooed as part of a sacred ceremony.
I have also been researching abstract painted motifs on nude female Cycladic sculptures, which I argue are evidence that women were tattooed in the Cycladic islands in Greece in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BCE).Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons
My interest in tattooing stems from my upbringing. Living in Aotearoa, from roughly the ages of eight to 28, meant that I was exposed to Maori and Pacific Islands tattooing attitudes. In Pacific cultures, where the tattooist has traditionally been (and usually continues to be) male, ancient stories say that the ancestral gods originally wanted women to safeguard the practice and be the primary recipients of tattoos. Nevertheless, both men and women were tattooed in Maori society prior to British colonisation in the 19th century.
But the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 criminalised tattooing as one of the teachings and practices of Tohunga (Maori experts or priests). In 1962, the Maori Welfare Act was introduced in Aotearoa, repealing this act. Since then, there has been a resurgence in tattooing among both men and women there.
My first seven tattoos
I grew up with friends who appreciated the significance of tattoos. As soon I turned 18, in 2000, I was off to a local parlour to embrace legal adulthood and get a small tattoo. I had drawn it myself, using elements of my zodiac sign.
My second tattoo was my first mermaid design. The motif was a larger version of a charm my father had given me. I wanted to be like that mermaid - able to live in different environments (above the sea and below it). I had moved out of home and was making my own way in a new city and attending university.Author provided
My next five designs (“Are You Experienced”; “Electric Lady”; and “Axis Bold as Love”, and two large mermaids on each side of my back) were done by a Maori tattooist, Manu Edwin. I listened to a lot of Hendrix when I was dealing with depression as an undergraduate student, especially the three albums recorded by The Experience.
Edwin shared my philosophy that tattooing is a transformative process. He would play each album loudly in the studio as he was tattooing me - just as music and singing were traditionally used to drown out the “tap-tap” of tattoos being carved into the skin with hand held tools in the Pacific region.
I find that the physical pain of being tattooed puts emotional and mental pain into perspective. I love that the raw tattoo must be cared for gently in the following weeks after the procedure, and that the result is permanent. My tattoos turn something ugly from my past into something beautiful for my present and future.
Before I describe my eighth and most recent tattoo, let’s look at four ancient cultures that tattooed their women.
Maori (ca.1250 CE)Internet Book archive/Flickr
Elsdon Best was an ethnographer who gathered detailed information from the Tuhoe tribe (from the North Island of Aotearoa) in the very early 1900s. He recounts in his book, The Uhi-Maori (1904), that elite families tattooed the younger sisters prior to the tattooing of the eldest one, who was the most tapu (sacred).
The tattooing of the lips and chin of the first-born daughter of a chief was extremely tapu, and the rite was called ahi ta ngutu (sacred fire). During the tattooing, others from the tribe would surround the patient and sing specific whakatangitangi (repetitive songs) to ease the painful and highly sacred process, the song for women being the whakawai taanga ngutu.
The motifs of the tattoo would be determined by an individual’s genealogy, and the placement of tattoos on the body was significant. People without tattoos were papatea (unmarked, and thus of lower status), and to be tattooed was a sign of attractiveness and high status in the community.
Thracian (ca.500 BCE)
Thrace of the Greco-Roman world existed in what we now call east Macedonia, southeast Bulgaria and parts of Turkey. Pictorial representations of Thracian women with tattoos appear on Greek red-figure vases such as the one pictured here, with a Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.
Date: Classical, 475–425 BCE. Dimensions: Unknown. Provenance: South Italy. Current collection: Munich. Antikensammlung inv. number 2330 Luc Renaut, an art historian, suggests that in Thrace, tattooing added beauty, and therefore value, to women in a society where they were bought for marriage (that is, they incurred a bride price). This was in contrast to the Classical Greek and Roman systems in which the bride’s family gave payments (a dowry) to the groom’s family.
Depictions of women on Classical vases (ca. 500 BCE), show Thracian women with geometric and figurative tattoos. The tattoos reinforce the Thracian-ness of the woman in the scene. And indicate that she is not your run-of-the-mill Athenian lass who can’t stand the lyre.
Greek vase painting gives a visual account of the geometric and figurative motifs on Thracian women: zigzags, dots, lines, meanders, checkerboard patterns, spirals, ladder patterns, “stick-figure” animals, half-moons, rayed suns, and rosettes.
Tattoos were placed on the arms, legs, ankles, chest, neck, and chin. Sometimes entire arms or legs were covered with bands of designs, row upon row.
Egyptian (Eleventh Dynasty: 2040-1991 BCE)
Much older artistic (and direct) evidence of female tattooing comes from Egypt. Egyptian tattoos from the late third to early second millennium survive on female mummies and were replicated on female figurines.
A pair of Eleventh Dynasty female Egyptian mummies excavated at Deir el-Bahari is the strongest evidence that in the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian women were tattooed.
Authors: Emily Poelina-Hunter, Lecturer in the Indigenous Studies Unit, RMIT University