Connecting to Ancestors by Tattooing
By Ya Han Hsu
Tattoos were found on five-hundred-year-old mummies in the northwest of Greenland in the 1970s. Today tattoo artists are working with archeologists to find the lost paths connecting them to their ancestors.
Tattoos have different meanings all over the world. It’s representation also changes from time to time. For example in ancient China or Japan, people were considered criminals if there was a tattoo on the body. There was a punishment forcing the criminals to get tattooed on their faces, so that others could stay away from them.
However, in Austronesian or Inuit culture, tattoos have a completely different significance. It means honor, belongings, associated with the gods… etc. Tattoos mean a lot to the people, but it was put to a stop by colonialism starting around the seventeenth century. Finding back the significance of tattooing was a long way. Until recently, the implication of tattooing wasn't the main interest of western archeologists, the utensils for tattoos were taken as sewing needles. Tattooed mummies “were regarded more as objects of fascination than scientific specimens,” said Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and a leading researcher in the archaeology of tattooing.
Now, artists and scientists are working together to find the lost culture. Ms. Sialuk Jacobsen, after she found out that her Inuit ancestors tattooed just like herself, she started to study the ancient tattoos. She now hand pokes or stitches the traditional tattoo designs for Iniut women or men. She believes that this helps them reclaim a part of the Inuit culture and connect with their ancestors. “I take great pride in tattooing a woman,” she said. “When she meets her foremothers in the next world, it will be like looking in a mirror.”
On the path to bringing lost traditions back alive, tattoos are a very important clue. Not only do they have beautiful designs, but also tattoos signify the connection of ancestors and the bind of nationality.