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Chapter 50: The Art of Body Painting

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The art of body painting has been practiced throughout the world by various cultures and tribes for their ritual body painting events. In fact, evidence of tattoos has been discovered in Eurasian dating back to Neolithic era. Among the ancient tattoos are those "Ötzi the Iceman", dated at 3300 BC, several tattooed mummies in Tarim Basin, some of them dated at about the second millennium BC, a tattooed Mummy from the permafrost of Altaï, dated 300 BC and the Man of Pazyryk, discovered during the 1940s. Natives of Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands and some parts of Africa are still painting their bodies as their ancient ancestors did before them. Many of the cultural traditions and customs from this area are fast disappearing as the modern world takes hold.

 A tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian chieftain whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Russia. The so-called Man of Pazyryk, is tattooed with an extensive and detailed range of fish, monsters and a series of dots that lined up along the spinal column (lumbar region) and around the right ankle

A Global Perspective: From the Andamanese of India to Xingu native tribes of Brazil

The Andamanese people are the various aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, which is the northern district of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands union territory of India, located in the southeastern part of the Bay of Bengal.

The Jarawa people of the Andaman Islands chose to resist contact with all outsiders until 1998. Now, they are under serious threat. The Andaman trunk road was built in the 1970s, cutting through thousands of acres of forestry reserve in which the Jarawas live and leading to tourists and settlers encroaching onto their habitat.

Experts estimate that the Jarawas - essentially hunter-gatherers - came to the Andamans 60,000 years ago. They are just one of several indigenous tribal groups living in the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal. Short, with dark skin and curly hair, they resemble African bushmen in appearance. Today, however, the tribe is on the verge of extinction

Body painting is still widely practiced among all Andamanese groups. It has deep (if unclear) spiritual significance but also was (and in some groups still is) the Andamanese way of dressing up.


Among Andamanese the rare white clay was used only in one strictly traditional pattern, the so called snake-pattern, lines zig-zagging in a particular way across the body, which in some ways corresponds to western gala or formal dress. This clay and its associated pattern was applied across the entire body for large gatherings and dances involving two or more local groups. It was also used at the dance that marked the end of the mourning period and after a wedding ceremony when the bride and groom were painted in this way.

Jarawa girl with facial body paint. Bodypaint is not very often seen among Jarawa. This girl may have put it on for the special outing.

In 1863 the superintendent of the convict settlement forbade the Greater Andamanese at Port Blair body painting on the grounds that it was "degrading and barbarous." Others protested against this, feeling that the Andamanese (who were not convicts, after all) should not be interfered with and claiming body paint as a substitute for clothes without which the natives would be exposed to chills and the ridiculous order was never enforced.

The Kaiapó are a powerful and well-known Brazilian tribe who live in an area that is almost the size of Austria, with villages along the Xingu River, in Mato Grosso, across the Central Brazilian Plateau. The Kaiapó territory is formed mostly by tropical forests. They call themselves "Mebengokré," meaning 'the men from the water place'. The name kaiapó was given by the neighboring native tribes, which means "resembling apes" and it was probably given because the men used to dance with monkey masks.In 2003 the Kayapo population stood at an estimated 7,096. Within their vast area, there are many subgroups and some of these smaller communities are known to exist in virtual isolation, having little direct contact with other Kaiapó.

The Kaiapó have a long history of contact with others. Since the initial arrival of Europeans around 500 years ago, the Kaiapó have experienced forced migration further west into the rainforests as a result of invasions, they have lost land and habitat and they have also suffered from the introduction of diseases that accompanied the arrival of outsiders.

The indigenous Amazonian Indians inhabiting the Xingu River basin in Brazil are not a single tribe. Although commonly referred to as "Xingu Indians" as if they were a single tribe, in reality they are composed of many different ethnic groups. Indigenous body painting is highly developed among the Xingu native tribes. Note how his hair is colored red with a paste made from seeds of the annatto (urucum) tree. A black dye is made from fruit of the genipap (genipapo) tree. The butterfly design is a common theme in the Xingu and abstract swallowtail butterfly designs can be seen on both his face and chest. Female body painting is also ubiquitous in the Xingu region with both women and girls commonly decorating their bodies with various natural pigments and dyes.

Amazonian chief of the Rikbaktsa tribe. The Rikbaktsa, who are also called "Orelhas de Pau" (Wooden Ears) and "Canoeiros" (Canoe People) have a reputation as being fearless warriors .

The Kaiapó natives live along the Xingu River, in Mato Grosso. Their vast territory is formed mostly by tropical forests.Their body painting is very symbolic and signifies status and social behavior. The design is geometric with intricate lines, mainly in red and black.

Kaiapó culture is characteristically rich and complex. Their appearance is highly decorative and colourful, using face and body paint, beads and feathers. The Kaiapó believe their ancestors learnt how to live communally from social insects such as bees, which is why mothers and children paint each other's bodies with patterns that look like animal or insect markings, including those of bees. Women shave the distinctive V shape into the scalp and men ceremonially wear the flamboyant Kayapo headdress with outwardly radiating feathers, which represents the universe. The rope of the headdress is a symbol for the cotton rope by which the first Kaiapó is believed to have descended from the sky. Traditional ceremonies may last many months and mark the beginning and end of seasons as well as rites of passage. Their beliefs are linked to their environment, which they rely on for sustenance and material resources.

Body painting ritual for funeral in Kuraup. Amazonian Indians in Kuikuro village, in Brazil's Amazon High Xingu park hold a two-day festival to mourn and celebrate the lives of dead heroes.

The Kuarup funeral festival is the one of the most important indigenous ritual that is being happening annually in July or August for centuries. It is an occasion for getting together of many different tribes to reflect, celebrate and honor the dead. The Kuarup festival is a celebration of life through dance, music, rituals , games and food. At times outsiders are allowed to participate, but not always, as it depends on the approval of the tribal elders.

The Yawalapiti, is one of the 14 tribes living inside the Xingu National Park. Their quarup, a funeral ritual is also a celebration of life.Their culture is immersed in decorative art, and it has many shamanic symbols. Like the ancient Greeks, Yawalapiti are also a sport loving tribe with swimming, gymnastic, and wrestling matches in which both young men and women participate in their elegant body painting.

Yawalapiti-Girls wrestling. Like the ancient Greeks, Yawalapitis are also a sport loving tribe with swimming, gymnastic, and wrestling matches in which both young men and women participate in their elegant body painting.

The Yawalapiti colorful rituals are rooted in their rich mythology that is informed by the upper Xingu cosmological repertoire. According to the myth the demiurge Kwamuty, while smoking tobacco over wooden logs in his secluded area of the forest, brought the primordial first women, one of whom was the mother of the twins Sun and Moon, who became the parents of humans. It was to honor this mother that the first itsatí (or kwarup, in kamaiurá) was celebrated.

A Yawalapiti-man paints his body in the image of the mythical sun. It was a time of chaos, when the first mother gave birth to the twins Sun and Moon. The everlasting darkness overcast the world. The fireflies were the only light, and the birds defecated from the sky making everything go rotten and disgusting. There were no fire on this vast wasteland. The twins then get into a trade negotiation with the invisible two-headed vulture,añu wikiti , the owner of the sky, offering him a rotten bait in exchange for light, and thus successfully created the day. The light is symbolized by adornments made of red macaw feathers, to represent the mythical sun who uses a headdress and armbands made of its feathers.

Many of the Yawalapiti rituals represent the human encounter with other creatures and phenomena belonging to three elemental spheres; earth, water and sky. The earth is divided between ukú, the forest, the abode of animals and spirits, and putaka, the village, the society of mankind. In uiña the rivers, and iuiá,lakes, live the fish, and the aqua-spirits. In añu naku, the sky that is ruled by the birds and their king, the two-headed vulture, reside the souls of the dead. The owner of the earth, Wipiti itsitsu a fat spirit-woman with only one breast; lives in the "belly of the earth", below the ground, where she breastfeeds the female dead and copulates with the male dead.

The Indigenous Park of the Xingu can be divided in three segments: the Lower Xingu to the north, the central region of Morená in the Middle Xingu , where the rivers; Ronuro, Batovi and Kuluene converge, and the Upper Xingu to the south, where the feeder rivers of the Xingu; which make up a basin comprised of the Von den Steinen (the principal feeder river of the Xingu, where it meets with the Batovi-Ronuro), Jatobá, Ronuro, Batovi, Kurisevo and Kuluene rivers flow. According to the Upper Xingu legends Morená is the place of creation of the world.

The Yawalapiti-Women help each other to paint their bodies for partaking in a festival. The administrative demarcation of the Indigenous Park of the Xingu (PIX) was ratified in 1961.The idea of creating the Park took shape during a roundtable discussion organized by the Brazilian Vice-President in 1952. The intended project was much larger than what finally was created in 1961, and signed by President Jânio Quadros, its area corresponded to only a quarter of the surface area initially proposed.

The two expeditions of the German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen, in 1884 and 1887, made the whites aware of the existence of the indigenous peoples of this region. In the 1980s, the first invasions by white hunters and fishermen took place in the territory of the Park. The forest fires, ignited by cattle ranches at the northeast of the Park, at the end of the 1990s were exacerbating the advance of lumbermen to the west. Moreover, the occupants of the surrounding areas began to pollute the headwaters of the rivers. The indigenous inhabitants of the Park felt threatened in their “enclvae” of forests, amidst of ever-expanding pastures and intensive agricultural land use. During the 1990s, the Indians’ started a significant number of new territorial lawsuits, and won two of those, which resulted in inclusion of the Indigenous Lands of the Wawi and Batovi to the park in 1998. The fight is still ongoing, such as the Wauja's campaign, who are negotiating for the region called Kamukuaká, which is considered sacred and is located on a ranch next to the Park.

Peru aboriginal with snake pattern (rhombus) on the forehead.

Maori Face Tattos

Maori are the native people of "Aotearoa" New Zealand, and their particular story is both long and interesting. According to verbal records, archaeological discoveries and genetic explanations, historical treatise place the arrival of Maori in New Zealand in the 13th century AD. According to archaeological evidence, tattooing came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesian culture. The bone chisels used for tattooing can be found in archaeological sites of various ages in New Zealand, as well as in some early Eastern Polynesian sites. These Moko facial tattoos, each unique and culturally important, served as the person's unique identity.

The use of full facial Moko tattoos died out among the Maori by the end of the 1800s, although the native people continued tattooing other parts of the body. During the last three decades tattooing has experienced a cultural renaissance throughout New Zealand society. Artistically, the country's tattooing is so influenced by the patterns and traditions of the Maori moko past that it constitutes its own genre.

According to Māori mythology, tattooing commenced with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora, "Face of Vitality", and Niwareka, a young princess of the underworld. However, when Mataora beat Niwareka, she left him for "Uetonga", her father's realm. Mataora, filled with guilt and heartbreak followed after Niwareka, and after many trials, and after overcoming numerous obstacles, eventually arrived reached "Uetonga", but with his face paint dirtied and messed up  after his long voyage. Niwareka's family taunted and mocked Mataora for his bedraggled appearance. In his very humbled state, Mataora begged Niwareka for forgiveness, which she eventually accepted. Niwareka's father then offered to teach Mataora the art of tattooing, and at the same time Mataora also leant the art of Taniko - the plaiting of cloak borders in many colours. Mataora and Niwareka thus returned together to the human world, bringing with them the arts of ta moko and taniko.

The journals of Europeans who settled New Zealand in the 1800s record that the intricate facial tattoos of the native Maoris served not only as decoration but as the individual's legal identity as well. In effect, the Maoris were their tattoos. For instance, whenever Te Pehi Kupe, a tribal chief, was required to sign his name to a European document, he painstakingly drew his entire facial design, and when he visited England in 1826, he is quoted to say: "Europee man write with pen his name — Te Pehi's is here," pointing to his tattooed face.

The lower back through the buttocks and down to the knees were frequently tattooed as well in what is called Puhoro. The shape of the tattoo on the buttocks was invariably a swirling pattern.

African Body painting and Lip Discs

Ethiopians tribes of Suri, Mursi and Me'en that inhabit the southwestern part of the country are known as Surma. Here Surma children are displaying their body paints.

Surma women perform scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. These women run their households in the Suri village and own their own fields and are allowed to use their profits however they wish.

Body painting of Mbwela people of Angola in Southern Africa

‘Lip disk’, is a decoration used by some tribes across Africa, the Kayapo of Brazil -- where senior men wear a saucer-like disc, some six centimetres across, in the lower lip; as well as by Inuit tribes in northern Canada. The practice is gradually becoming extinct and today,the Mursi, Chai and Tirma are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery or wooden discs or ‘plates’ in their lower lips.

The lip-plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the Mursi, who are the cattle herders and cultivators in the Omo National Park home. They Mursi live in the lower stretch of the Omo Valley, 1,840 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. It’s estimated that there are less than 10,000 people in the Mursi tribe today.

Clay plates, referred to as ‘dhebinya’ by the Mursi tribe, are made by the individual wearer, each of whom decorates their art with ornate patterns. Finished plates may be white if left natural; red if coloured with gongui bark; or black if rubbed with grass or burned plants. In the Mursi tribe, it’s traditional for the men to make the older-style wooden plates (kiyo), which tend to be worn by unmarried girls.

Omo Valley Tribes

The tribal people of  Lower Omo Valley and around Lake Turkana are one of the most ancient in the world. They have become renowned because of their unique and stunning sense of aesthetics. The largest of these tribes are the Ari people inhabiting the northern part of the Mago National Park in Ethiopia. Their various plantations of grains and coffee, on fertile lands and large herds of livestock make them relatively self-sustained.

The Ari painting and modification of their bodies are expressions of their individual tastes  and their women design and wear a wide array of colorful jewelry and have many piercings in their ears. They wrap beads and bracelets around their arms and waist for decoration. In the southwest region of the Omo Valley lives the Arbore tribe, who  have ancestral and cultural links to the Konso people and perform many ritual dances while singing. The Tsemay people are their neighboring tribe. The Arbore women cover their heads with a black cloth and are known to wear very colorful necklaces and earrings. Young children will wear a shell type hat that protects their heads from the sun. Body painting is done by the Arbore using natural colors made from soild and stone.

The Bodi or Me'en people live close to the Omo River in southern Ethiopia. South of the Bodi are the Mursi tribe.   Men  wear a headband with a feather attached to it during rituals and  wear a strip of cotton around their waist or walk around naked.The women in the tribe wear goatskin skirts and have a plug inserted into their chin. The Bumi or Bume people  (known as the Nyangatom) live south of the Omo National Park and known to be fierce fighters, they are often at war with Hamer and Karo tribes. Both sexes wear a lot of multi colored necklaces and may also have a lower lip plug.

The Girls of Dassanech Tribe

The Galeb or Geleb, tribe lives in north of Kenya's Lake Turkana neighboring   the Turkana people. The Daasanech are the poorest of the tribes raising herds. They are the Elele, Inkabelo, Inkoria, Koro, Naritch, Oro, Randal and the Ri'ele. Each clan is defined by its territory with the Inkabelo being the wealthiest. Both men and women wear fur capes while they feast and dance.

The Dorze tribe are famous for their cotton woven cloths and beehive huts. They live in large communities north of Addis Abada and wear colourful toga robes called shammas.

The hamar or hammer, are one of the most known tribes in Soutern Ethiopia, who inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in Turmi and Dimeka. They wear colorful bracelets and beads are worn in their hair and around their waists and arms. The practice of body modification is used by cutting themselves and packing the wound with ash and charcoal. Some of the women wear circular wedge necklaces indicating that they are married. Men paint themselves with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. Hair ornaments worn by the men indicate a previous kill of an enemy or animal.

The Karo or Kara is a small tribe, who are closely related to the Kwegu tribe. They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia. Like many of the tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charoal to make its color. Face masks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns with feathers in them. Red clay mixed with butter is put into their hair and clothing is made from animal skin. The women design their chest with scars. The men's scars represent an enemy or dangerous animal killed. They also wear clay hair buns which symbol a kill.

The Konso live in an isolated region of the basalt hills. The area is made up of hard rocky slopes. The erection of stones and poles is part of the Konso tradition. A generation pole is raised every 18 years, marking the start of a new generation. The age of a village can be determined by how many poles are standing. Carved wooden statues are also used to mark the grave of a famous Konso tribal member. The marker, called a Waga is placed above the grave and smaller statues are then placed around the larger one representing his wives and conquered enemies.

The Mursi or Mursu people are the most popular in Ethiopia's Omo Valley. They are well known for their unique lip plates. They are settled around the Omo River and in the Mago National Park. Due to the climate, they move twice a year between the winter and summer months. They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River.

The Mursi women paint their bodies and face in white. They also are the ones who wear the lip plates. Women of the Mursi tribe may have their lips cut at the age of 15 or 16. A small clay plate is then inserted into the lip. Through the years, larger plates are inserted into the lip causing it to stretch. The larger the clay plate, the more the woman is worth before she gets married. It is said that the clay plates were originally used to prevent capture by slave traders. Although very unique and part of their tradition, the Mursi women only wear the plates for a short time because they are so heavy and uncomfortable. Men of the Mursi also use white paint for their bodies and faces.

Suri, also known as the Surma people live in the southwestern plains of Ethiopia. They raise cattle and farm when the land is fertile. The Suri are very much like the Muris tribe and practice the same traditions. The women wear lip plates that are made out of clay. The men in the tribe fight with sticks called Dongas. Both the men and women scar their bodies. If you see a Suri man with a scar, it ususally means that he has killed a member of a rival tribe.

Tsamai, they are found living in the semi-arid region of the Omo Valley. Like the Hamer tribe, the Tsemay boys have to successfully complete a bull jumping event. This is a ceremony where the boy runs across multiple bulls. If the boy can make it across four times without falling, he becomes a man. To prove a boy has accomplished a bull jumping, he is outfitted with a band that has feathers on it. It is worn on his head and it shows that he is now looking for a wife. Unlike any other tribe in Ethiopia, the Tsemay have arranged weddings. The parents of the woman pick who she will marry with or without her consent. Even if the marriage is arranged, the man must still be able to afford to pay for his future wife. Payment of cattle, honey, grain and coffee beans are accepted. Women of the tribe who are not married, wear a short leather skirt with a v-shaped apron attached. Married women wear long leather dresses with an apron that have an apron covering their front and back side. The men in the tribe are found carrying small wooden seats to sit with..

The second largest pasotral tribe in Kenya, the Turkana are nomadic (move from place to place). They live in northern Kenya around Lake Turkana. In 1975 the lake was named after the them. Their land is mostly dry desert regions and they depend on the rainy seasons for survival. Because water is so scarce in the area, they often fight with other tribes over territory. They are known to be very aggressive and dangerous. Traditional beliefs of the Turkana have hardly been affected by western civilization. The Turkana pray to Akuj for rain during the dry season. Akuj is their god and they will make animal sacrifices hoping to please it.

Like most indigenous people, the Turkana value their cattle. The cows provide them with food and a higher status. Other animals such as, camels, donkeys, goats and sheep are kept by them. Being nomadic people, they are constantly searching for better land and more water.

Very colorful people, they dress themselves up with necklaces and bracelets. Decorations are made with brown, red and yellow colors. Men cover their heads with mud and paint it blue with feathers. They tattoo their bodies to show that they have killed an enemy. In the Turkana tribe, a married woman will wear different type of jewelry then a single woman.

Tattoo Rituals of Khmer Empire

The Wai Kru ceremony at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chai Si, Nakhon Pathom province, performed also in Buddhist based schools in Thailand, a festival that honours Buddhist monks and tattoo masters who ink sacred Sanskrit scripts on the bodies of the devout believers, is different from Wai Kru in classical music institutes, and also for a ritual performed with Muay Thai kick boxers before a match.

Traditionally only monks from the region of the ancient Khmer Empire (now Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) can perform the tattoo ritual, and give the mark it’s ‘power’. It’s said that many monks will insist on choosing the design for each individual they tattoo by first ‘reading’ the aura of the person and deciding what kind of magic they need to best protect them.

Starting the evening before Wai Kru, with many tattoo masters present, a crowd come to get a new Thai bamboo tattoo. These sacred bamboo tattoos are locally known as a Sak Yant is applied on all through the night, until the festivities commence early the following morning. A stage is set up at the front of the crowd where Thai Buddhist monks will sit and perform their rituals. Sak Yant history goes back to ancient times. The meaning of Yantra comes from the Sanskrit word Yant that relates to a mystical diagram. It's a shamanistic practice from ancient days that has nothing to do with Buddhism. In a way Buddhism was incorporated into this art form of tattooing the body by shamans who later was indoctrinated with the Dhamma teachings.

One of the most popular tattoo design is Tiger Yantra, which appears in most Sak Yant cult is the Tiger that provides Maha Amnaj to the wearer. Believed to instill strength and fearlessness, tiger Yant is frequently chosen by those who are facing fierce competitive challenge.

As the pleasant dawn turns into a very hot morning, tattooed devotees start working themselves into a trance. At some point, one by one, they jump-up from the praying position and start making their way toward the statue of the Big Master. Some of them run maniacally, others crawl, but all mimic the creatures that are tattooed on their bodies.

A young monk 

The Kalinga of Northern Philippine

The Kalinga, with their 31 sub-groups, have practiced the art of batok or tattoo design for the last thousand years. Saved for the fiercest men and women warriors, tattoos are honed with a siit (an orange thorn) and a bamboo stick. Today one can see elderly women and men with these ferocious tattoos on their chests and arms. Many of their tattoo artists have passed away. 

The last woman mambabatok (tattoo artist), Whang Od, lives in Buscalan, an isolated mountainous village under the jurisdiction of the town of TINGLAYAN in the province of KALINGA. She is considered to be the last tribal tattoo artist of the Philippine Cordilleras, a region occupied by different tribes with substantially similar culture and traditions although they are divided into subgroups based on their dialects, distinct beliefs and location.

Noble and dignified – such is the appearance of the Kalinga women portrayed by Jake Verzosa.

Japanese Body Tattoos

The practice of full body tattoos is associated with the Japanese Yakuza, one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in the world. It is Japan's version of the Mafia, with 85,000 members who trace their roots back to 17th century Samurai warriors.The history of Yakuza can be traced back to the Tokugawa era, when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified  the shogunates of Japan. The era of the shogunate, was a prolonged period of civil war, and the new tentative era of peace left as many as half a million of samuraies unemployed. Many of these warriors having no other means to support their family turned to banditry for survival, forcing the merchant class to give-in to their extortion activities.

It is in defense against these wandering samurai that the Machi-yokku, or servants of the town, originated. These folk heroes were regular townsfolk who challenged the violent activities of Yakuza to protect the well being of their families and town. Like gangs of today, they were tightly knit and spent their free time gambling. Yakuza have always prided themselves upon the code of Bushido, or way of the samurai. Violent death was traditionally seen as a poetic, tragic, and honorable fate, and the concepts of Giri and Ninjo are central to the relationships among members. Giri, or obligation, refers to the strong sense of duty that is felt between members, and in a sense is the "social fabric" that binds much of Japan together. Ninjo is roughly translatable to emotion, or human compassion, and denotes "generosity or sympathy to toward the weak and disadvantaged, and sympathy towards others." This tie to chivalry and patriotism gave the Yakuza a sort of Robin Hood type of romantic image when viewed in the public eye.

The Shinto festival is a popular convention held in the Asukusa district of Japan each year. The show provides a platform to display full body tattoo designs for members of the yakuza living in the area. The more conservative section of society considers the practice of full body tattooing to be a barbaric tradition. Indeed the very first tribes to settle in Japan such as the Ainu and Wa people were known for this practice. The practice is rapidly declining today and the number of people learning the art has also declined which is contributing towards the extinction of this art form.

Native Americans Art of Body Painting

Native Americans are known for their body paintings and it is said that the first white settlers in North America called them “Red Indians” because of the way they painted themselves with ochre. The paint acted as a shield against evil and also protected them against vicious insects. Face painting is considered to be an important tradition among them as a sacred social act of distinction and a cultural heritage. On special occasions faces of the tribe members are painted to augment one’s appearance and power.

Watercolor drawing of an American "Indian in Body Paint" by John White circa 1585-1586

Each tribe of the Indians has its own and unique way of face painting. For Native Americans Indians, roots, berries and tree barks are most commonly used to make the dyes for face painting. These natural raw materials are ground and made to a pasteto make the dye. Clay of different hues is also used in Native Indian face painting. The process involved a strict ritualistic order, that was maintained during the application of these colors. The colors were first applied around the nose and only the index finger and middle finger was used for the application. The rest of the face i.e. the forehead, chin and eye areas were then carefully covered with paint. For some face paintings they would cover their face and then plaster it down with mud leaving the holes for the eyes and mouth. Generally the warriors would paint their faces with colored clay. They would then do the design of their tribe. Each tribe has its own designs for war and ceremonies.

Like the Aboriginals in Australia and most indigenous cultures, American natives considered ochre sacred and infused it into their everyday objects like clothing, tools, pottery, rawhide, etc. Trade for pigments among tribes and later with European traders expanded their palette of colors.

Indian Ritual Body Painting

Of more than 1 billion population of India about 8 per cent, or roughly 82 millions, are Adivasi, or the indigenous people, whose ancestors started to inhabit Indian subcontinent about 10 to 20 thousand years ago. The term Adivasi in Sanskrit literally means "original dwellers", or indigenous population. While Adivasi are only a minority in the country, in Arunachal Pradesh they constitute an overwhelming majority of about 90 per cent. Since ancient times, Adivasi people have been squeezed out of their traditionally inhabited territories and away from fertile lands, making them to retreat into remote mountain areas. Therefore, Adivasi have lived in a relative isolation for a very long time. The tribal communities have been referred to as "primitive", "uncivilized", "exotic", "savage" and "barbarian". Only during the recent years, the attitude has started to change, and we can witness more recognition and appreciation towards the rich cultural heritage and peculiar lifestyle of these people.

The Apatani, or Tani, are a tribal group of about 60,000 members, often praised for their extremely efficient agriculture, performed without animals or machinery. They have no written record of their history, and traditions are passed down orally, from generation to generation. Women of the Apatani decorate their faces with the traditional Apatani nose plugs, however since the middle of the 20th century, the custom began to die.

In the southern Indian city of Kochi a Theyyam dancer waits to perform during festivities marking the start of the annual harvest festival of "Onam" . The 10-day long festival is celebrated annually in India's southern coastal state of Kerala to symbolise the return of King Mahabali to meet his beloved subjects.

A living cult with several thousand-year-old traditions, Theyyam or Theyyattam is a popular Hindu ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala state, India. The performers of Theyyam belong to the indigenous tribal community, and have an important position in Theyyam.

Mehndi, a traditional art of drawing with henna, is part of the Indian and North African wedding ritual. Even today, some body painting is used before the wedding, involving the bride's hands and feet.

The mehndi is an important part of Indian marriages and Indian brides are usually very excited about their elaborate mehndi designs on their hands and feet.

Modern Body Painting

In South America, some natives still use huito, annatoo, or wet charcoal as a body and face decoration. In some cases,the design will last several weeks, and is usually referred to as henna tattoos. Body paint made with a combination of clay and other paint mixed together. If the painting was limited to the face, it was then known as face painting. There are body painting events that are held worldwide for all artists both amateur and professional. The largest event held for body painting artists is the World Bodypainting Festival held in both Seeboden and Austria. In the United States there are shows held in upstate New York, American Body Arts Festival, and then the US Bodypainting Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Heather Aguilera

Heather Aguilera, is an expressive and passionate body artist from the U.S. whose work is blooming with vibrant color, texture and movement. Growing up on the beautiful beaches of southern California, has had a huge impact on the artistic content and bright organic nature of her work

Agnieska Glinska- Poland

Agnieszka Glińska is a choreographer and artist from Kraków, Poland, who has founded Art Color Ballet, a dance theater company in 1998. She has integrated contemporary dance with body painting, collaborating with various artists; including photographers, stage designers, musicians and others to create multidimensional and unique artistic performances for which the company is regularly awarded at various international body painting festivals. Glińska's creative deployment of stage decoration, music, dance movement and body painting creates a truly stunning aesthetic experience.

Natalia Stahl

Natalia Stahl’s ‘Chinese Mood’ is an example of beautiful body painting that transcends time. Stahl has painted her model with traditional China cultural symbols, like Chinese characters and gorgeous sprawling vines and flowers, and outfitted her in gloves and a cap that would look right at home during the Roaring Twenties.

Emma Hack

Emma Hack, an Australian artist, started her career as a children's face painter, qualified hairdresser and make-up artist. She gradually moved to body painting of world acclaim. In March 2001, Hack won the coveted first prize at the CIDESCO World Congress Professional World Body Painting Championship in Hong Kong. In 2004, The Adelaide Cabaret Festival utilised Emma's exhibition skills to feature a collection of celebrities painted as their cabaret persona as an exhibition during the festival. 

In 2005 she collaborated with Deborah Paauwe in her Dark Fables collection, featuring Emma's illustration on the faces of Paauwe's subjects. Her Wallpaper series in 2005, 2007 and 2008 collections featuring Florence Broadhurst wallpaper designs combined with her body illustration has exhibited during the Adelaide Fringe Festival, along with nude landscapes and a continued collection of Florence Broadhurst wallpapers. It was during this collection that she began photographing the installations herself, evolving her art further. Emma's photographic images were exhibited at Art Sydney 08.

Craig Tracy

Craig Tracy is hands-down one of the best body painters in the world. At first glance, this piece looks like a simple painting of a tiger. Look a little closer, and you'll notice that the tiger's face is actually painted on the back of three separate women. Entitled “The Last South China Tiger” this particular project is part of Save China’s Tigers‘ efforts to protect the remaining striped felines in China.

The artist creating the image of a Bengal tiger

Born and Raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Craig Tracy decides what to paint when he sees the model's body, then applying water-based paint to his volunteers' bodies before photographing them.

Modern Body Painting

Rico aka “Zombie Boy”

  Rick Genest from La Salle, Quebec, and grew up in Chateauguay. As a teenager, Rick Genest was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At the age of 15, he underwent a complicated, high-risk surgery with an extremely low chance of survival. Because of the tumor’s position, his options were bleak. He was faced with the choices of possibly dying, blindness, or life on a respirator as a vegetable for the rest of his life. Rick beat the odds and survived surgery unscathed, alive, and ready to begin his new life . . . and tell the tale!

Over 80 percent of his body is covered in tattoos, including his face. Rick’s tattoos are what he calls his “project.” So, what does one do when one nearly escapes death, obsesses over horror films, and lives for fashion? He covers nearly every inch of his body with tattooed images of bones, rotting flesh, death symbols, and bugs. And this unusual supermodel has been busy appearing in films, recording music, and walking the runways from Paris to Prague.

Art of Johannes Stötter

Tattoo and Body Painting in China

In ancient China, Tattoo has often been associated with criminals and bandits since at least Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC). Tattooing Chinese character "Prisoner" (囚) or other characters on convicted's or slave's face was a practice until the last dynasty Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). Tattoos, however, has also often been referenced in popular culture. Tattooing has been featured in one of the Four Great Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least three of the main characters, Lu Zhishen (鲁智深), Shi Jin (史進) and Yan Ching (燕青) are described as having tattoos covering nearly the whole of their bodies. 

Wu Song (武松) tattooed his face after killing Xi Menqing (西门庆) with vengeance. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei (岳飛), a famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words "Jing Zhong Bao Gu"o (精忠報國) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to "repay his country with pure loyalty". Marco Polo wrote of Quanzhou "Many come hither from Upper India to have their bodies painted with the needle in the way we have elsewhere described, there being many adepts at this craft in the city."

Today, many ethnic groups have the tradition of tattooing. The tattoos of different ethnic groups possess their distinctive regional characteristics and have their own folk legends. The ancient Chinese regarded dragon as the god in charge of water, so people in Wuyue area (present Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) who made a living by fishing liked to have dragon, snake or fish scale patterns tattooed on their body, so as to make them similar to the dragon, and hence get safety while fishing.

Tattoo is a symbol indicating muscularity and beauty of the Dai ethnic group, and they especially like to tattoo fish scale on their legs, which is also related to the situation that they live beside water. In addition, tattoo has the functions of clan identification and marriage restriction. Various tattoo patterns by people of Li ethnic group, for example, indicates that these people belong to different clans; and tattoo of a woman can indicate her marriage status.

Chinese Landscape: Tattoo #2. Huang Yan, 1999

Liu Bolin

Liu Bolin, from Shandong, China, manages to camouflage himself in any surroundings, no matter how difficult they might be. Liu works on a single photo for up to 10 hours at a time, to make sure he gets it just right, but he achieves the right effect: sometimes passers-by don’t even realize he is there until he moves. The talented Liu Bolin says his art is a protest against the actions of the Government, who shut down his art studio in 2005 and persecutes artists. It’s about not fitting into modern society. Despite problems with Chinese authorities, Liu’s works are appreciated at an international level.

A model in the 17th annual world bodypainting festival of Pörtschach, Austria. July 2014

The 17th annual world bodypainting festival of Pörtschach, Austria. July 2014

The 17th annual world bodypainting festival of Pörtschach, Austria. July 2014

Equatorial Guinea Bodypainting Festival


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  1. Amazing, I am from Tanzania i love your creations..


  2. wonderful collection of images and good written discription of the endagered Original dwellers on earth !
    i'm john from Kerala, south india.

  3. Dear Author,
    I'm a year 11 student at Southern Vales Christian School and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions regarding your article, as I am researching the effects of the media cross-culturally on the body identity of female adolescents. How have women, in particular tribal women changed their body identity as a result of the western media? And how does this effect their body identity? How does the media play a role in this? Feel free to answer as many questions as you want. If you could email me at I would be very grateful.

    Thankyou very much for your time,
    Yours Sincerely,
    Rosie Johnsom

  4. very nice, thank you

  5. So many of these are beautiful, beyond words.

  6. very good coiiecton