centuries, indigenous tattooists working across Asia have marked human skin with powerful designs and symbols in their quest to signal ethnic identity and render the body sacred. Carried through life and onwards into death, these marks of humanity testify to an ancestral legacy that is in danger of gradually fading away.
The Marks of the Warrior It’s early April on the India-myanmar border and the Konyak Aoling festival is in full swing. Here in the village of Longwa, volleys of musket fire explode – pop, pop, pop – and clouds of heavy smoke interrupt the blue sky. Throngs of plumed, tattooed, and traditionallygarbed Konyak warriors jump, chant, and re-enact their former exploits on the battlefield in a concerted attempt to honour and attract the attention of Wangwan, their divine spirit of blessing.
Aoling is a new year celebration of sorts, marking the end of winter and the coming of the new agricultural year. All
Men who had participated in combat and who had taken a human life were entitled to unique tattoos
of the fields have been planted by now and the Konyak eagerly await the arrival of the rejuvenating rains. Through elaborate feasting they give thanks to all of those friends and relatives who provided them with assistance in the previous year, including the spirits of the ancestors. But above all, they celebrate and give praise to Wangwan until the six-day festival ends.
In bygone days, Aoling was also the time for tattooing boys and girls who reached adulthood. These ethnic markers were applied to various parts of the body by skilled female tattooists. Men who had participated in combat and who had taken a human life were entitled to unique tattoos, usually on the neck or face, which proclaimed their status in Naga society.
One of these men is Lalang, a striking Konyak elder who is now blind. He is uncertain of how old he is, but puts himself at around 90 years old. Despite his great age, he springs into combat mode with ease: crouching, tracking, circling, then thrusting his spear into the chest of his make-believe enemy. Once injured, his imagined victim is beheaded with a swift blow of his razor-sharp, machete-like sword or dao – a tool he has used to this purpose three times before the Naga stopped headhunting in the early 1960s.
Across the Naga region, April was a month for war. Able-bodied men were compelled to take human heads because they believed them to be a source of future prosperity. For the Naga, these macabre tokens were like containers of seed that, upon germination, could increase the fertility of the crops and of the men and women in the village community. In order to receive this life-giving power, village shamans performed rituals throughout the year to ‘please’ the heads, which eventually came to rest in men’s houses ( morungs), caves, logdrums, or in sacred banyan tree groves that can sometimes still be seen in these remote villages.
The last Kalinga tattoo master Whang-od Oggay (left) and a human skull shrine in a remote Naga village (right)
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mountain orange and other varieties of local citrus thorns. They are expertly hand-tapped into the skin.
Female Kalinga tattoo patterns are inspired by everyday objects and nature: rice bundles, rice terrace steps, bamboo shelves, woven grass mats, ferns, rattan fruit, a star or moon, and snake or centipede scales are used. The latter two designs are dominant in both men’s and women’s tattooing because of their significance in Kalinga myth. Whang-od reported they were “friends of the warriors” ( bulan ti mangayaw) because of the powerful omens they once delivered on the warpath.
Although missionaries compelled many tattooists to cease their work decades ago, Whang-od and her much younger apprentices continue to tattoo traditional Kalinga patterns. But today, her clientele is largely non-kalinga in origin and includes flocks of domestic and foreign tourists who visit her village nearly every day throughout the year to be tattooed by a living legend.
She says, “If Kalinga tattooing stops, we will lose an important part of our culture that has been handed down from generation to generation. Whether it is shared among us or with outsiders, to us, it is our ancestors’ legacy, and it defines who we are as a people, so we must continue.”
Inked into the afterlife Unlike Whang-od, most of the indigenous tattoo artists living on the island of Borneo have not practiced in decades; missionaries compelled them to discard these cultural traditions in the 1950s. Nevertheless, several tattooed female elders recounted their experiences and described the elaborate ceremonial practice once attached to this ancient tradition.
Before Kayan tribal tattooing was eliminated, women believed that tattoo designs acted as torches after death, leading them through the darkness of the afterlife to the longhouses of their beloved ancestors.
Kayan tattooing was largely femalecentric, although male warriors were tattooed, too. The process was a long and painful one, sometimes lasting as long as four years. Several elders explained the implications of flowing blood released during the rite. “It attracted evil spirits,” said former Kayan tattooist Ping Saram. “So there were prohibitions to regulate this.” For instance, girls could not be tattooed during menstruation or when a corpse was present in the village.
“Kayan tattooists worked under the tutelage and protection of two spirits,” said Hunyang Lisang, a female Kayan priest, or dayong. “They were invoked
Opened in 2016, Godna Gram, a state-of-the-art tattoo studio and research centre, was founded by one of India’s most talented tattoo artists, Moranngam Khaling (known as Mo
Taku Oshima from Tribal Tattoo Apocaript has been machine tattooing for nearly 20 years and is widely considered to be among one of the very best tattooists working in Asia today. Renowned for his strikingly bold blackwork styles, his influences include Indian Mehndi (henna), Polynesian, and indigenous Borneo and Japanese designs. Oshima firmly believes tattooing is a spiritual act and strives to bring out one’s inner soul though his award-winning designs. AGP