Lars Krutak: Tattoo Industry needs to do more to revive its indigenous history & culture

Lars Krutak is an anthropologist, writer and photographer, known for his work on indigenous tattooing communities around the world. Krutak began tattoo research in 1996 as a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Trained as an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist, he spent three years exploring the complex symbolism and practice of tattooing throughout the Arctic. In 2002, Krutak embarked on a world tour devoted to recording the lives, stories, and experiences of tattooed people around the globe. He has worked as an Anthropological Consultant for three National Geographic television documentaries, and is the Technical Advisor for one of the world’s largest and most popular tattoo websites, He was also the host for the hugely popular show, Tattoo Hunter on the Discovery Channel. He has several books published on various tattooing tribes and is now researching for a book on focusing on certain South East Asian tribes, spread in the North East of India and in Myanmar.

Krutak stopped over in Delhi on his way back home from a research trip to Nagaland. Tattoo Cultr had a quick chat with him about the importance of indigenous tattooing traditions and the need to preserve them.

Shatabdi (S): Lets begin with the cliché- How did your journey begin in this field?

Lars (L): So in 1996, I was a first year graduate student at the university of Alaska and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anything about tattoos at that point, I didn’t have any tattoos and I had no idea there was an indigenous practice of tattooing in Alaska. I was walking across campus a week or two after I arrived and I noticed a woman with chin tattoos. And she was an indigenous woman from an interior tribe in Alaska. I found out later that there is a group of women living on this remote island called St. Lawrence, populated by Siberian people that have been living there off and on for over 2500 years. Ultimately, my focus and research study went into their life stories, their ink, their tattooing which was all applied through skin stitching. In all those women, there was a tattoo artist who was still alive. She was 97 years old and her younger sister Anna was 94, who was the most completely tattooed woman there. We are talking about facial tattoo patterns which were stitched in, hand and arm patterns and so on. But ultimately they made me realize that no one in their village was really interested in their tattooing tradition and they were in the last age group of women who still had tattoos. They were happy that someone was recording these traditions and you could see the glimmer in their eyes as it brought back all these memories of when they were young girls and tattooing used to be extremely important. It also made me realize that how many places are there around the indigenous world these tattooing traditions are vanishing. No one was doing anything about it and there wasn’t much information about it. So I just started traveling and recording these tattoo stories.

One of the last fully tattooed women of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, Anna Oktokiyuk by Lars Krutak

S: Tattooing is one of the most ancient art forms. Why is it that it is so common in all indigenous people globally throughout time and history?

L: I think it’s quite widespread because the technology to create a tattoo is pretty basic. You just need some pigment, and a tool to pierce the skin and make a lasting design that commemorates many different things cross culturally. Tattoos have had a lot to do with tribal identity, social achievements, initiation markings. Like in a warrior culture, it symbolizes achievements on the battle field, feats of bravery, rite of passage. Tattooing was also very important in marking different life stages, so it could be you know, when a girl arrives at puberty, when she gets married, after her first child- so all of these events are typically marked permanently on the body for all to see. There are also forms of many medicinal tattoos. The most ancient evidence of tattooing is worn by the Iceman who was discovered in 1991. 85 % of his tattoos line up with classic acupuncture points. The other thing is vegetable carbon or any soot carbon worldwide is the most common tattooing pigment, because it has a really dark colour and also because it has natural healing properties. It is an anti-inflammatory and through the process of absorption, it attracts bacterial particles out to the surface of the skin, broken down by the body and released. Ultimately, I think tattooing is a visual language of the skin, you can tell a lot about the person if you know how to read that language.

S: Why is there an overlap of motifs and designs of indigenous tattoos between cultures which are not connected in any way?

L: Almost all tattoo symbols from indigenous cultures are derived from natural sources. Celestial objects, mountains, streams, water, animals, geometric forms etc. I think the way people move in their environments, they process these elements and see them in very similar ways and they are translated into symbols which are very similar cross culturally, even if there is no diffusion and it’s an independent invention. For instance, the symbol that Mo (Naga) has in his T-shirt with the Naga tattooing revival, that was used by the Native Americans as a tattoo symbol, even though not in the same ways as the Nagas. Like solar symbols are usually circular and they may have rays coming out.  You find them as tattoo symbols in Bosnia, across regions of North Africa, in India, in the Philippines. So, obviously people see the sun and they have translated that into a symbol that is extremely similar, just being enmeshed in those environments. It is fascinating. We are wired in the same ways to see certain patterns and derive them from certain natural objects and things.

Tiger Men of India, by Lars Krutak

S: Most of these cultures were animistic or pagan in nature. Then you have Christianity coming in which from what I have understood, has had a lot to do with the reason why such indigenous practices have been lost. Is that the case?

L: There are many factors for it. I would say missionization is at the heart of it. Tattooing typically was ritualized in those indigenous cultures and it was connected to just about every other element in their religious culture. When some of the early missionaries arrived in the South of Pacific in the 1700s, they quickly came to realize that tattooing was related to their religious cultures. In the Old Testament, it is basically prohibited or banned to imprint the body with permanent marks. So in order to wipe out these traditions and religions and to convert them into Christianity, tattooing had to move out of the way. In a lot of places, the governments also had a lot to do with the eradication of tattooing culture. They created boarding school systems where the children were taken away from their home communities and in school their native languages were forbidden and other traditional practices dismissed. The whole reason was to assimilate them into western culture and to make them good Christians as well as good law abiding citizens. So, if you have tattoos on your face, that’s no way to homogenize or assimilate an ethnic group as they need to look like everybody else.

S: What about the warrior tribes where tattooing was one of the most important aspects and something that the bearers would be proud of?

L: For example, in the warrior cultures, head hunting was prohibited by colonial forces for law and order. Like in many Southeast Asian cultures, a man had to earn the right to be tattooed through his exploits on the battlefield. So there are certain degrees of tattooing depending on the culture, like a heavily marked man had a very successful combat but as head hunting fell by the way side, so did tattooing because these achievements could no longer be permanently marked. And, if you did so, you would likely end up in jail. So that also led to the demise of, at least, the warrior tattooing. The missionaries had no power to ban the tradition, but they made people feel ashamed. They would question why would you mark yourself, when you’re given the perfect body in the eyes of God, you’re defiling it, which is you know, sacrilegious and also connecting it to hedonism and animism, which was what they were trying to wipe out. There was no other way to control the population without stripping everything away from them and assimilating them.

S: Over the past few years, there is a revival happening in the traditional tattooing spaces, although selectively. Is there a future when these tattoos would be able to make a comeback, especially in the popular masses?

L: That’s hard to say. There are a lot of revivals going on right now and some are in their infancy, like the Neo Naga Tattoo revival. Polynesia is one of the long standing ones. In Alaska, where I was working 21 years ago, at that time, the younger generation was not ready, and weren’t necessarily interested in bringing back tattooing. It took another generation to ultimately push it forward, move it forward. Now there is a widespread tattoo revival across Alaska, the Arctic, and people are proud to wear their tattoos on their face… Even people who are working professionals, they are teachers, doctors, professors, lawyers, they are nurses- everybody, everywhere. In some places, I know tattoo revivals have started and then they have been stalled. It just depends on the cultural context, the local political situation, and also again the missionary activity in the region. Like if it’s a heavily missionized area, with radical Christians, maybe some of these revivals will face more difficulties in taking off. But I would say most of these revivals, especially the ones that have happened in Native North America in the last decade or so, they are gaining tons of momentum as more indigenous people are becoming tattoo artists, reclaiming the tradition and the technical ability to create tattoos with traditional techniques. But I will definitely say that tattooing is here to stay in these communities and will continue to expand and grow as more people become trained to be tattooists.

S: How does one understand and deal with culture appropriation?

L: I think we need to be extremely careful in what we are trying to do with tattoos, especially as cultural outsiders. You need to be informed about what these tattoos mean and their cultural context, before you start giving them to anybody that comes into your shop. So the larger responsibility I think falls on the tattoo artists themselves. I think we all need to be students of history and culture, especially if you are in this profession, because giving a tattoo is something that shouldn’t be done lightly. It’s permanent, and for the rest of your life, but there are many cultural implications by putting other people’s symbols and culture on someone’s body.

Lars with 102-year-old Atayal elder Iwan Kaynu Photo copyright: Lars Krutak

S: Apart from creating research work, how else can communicating with these cultures help in keeping the tradition alive in some form or at least letting their stories out as it’s a very niche area at the end of the day?

L: I have always been driven to basically record these stories and put them in some permanent form, like a book or article, which typically can be shared with the community when the project is over and then it will remain in the community. So for instance, when I first started in Alaska, on my Master’s thesis, I made sure to put copies in local libraries and regional institutions, as well as provide certain families with copies in the hope that people will go back to these sources and the tattoo patterns. In most places, the baseline knowledge of tattooing culture continues to exist, and there is still more knowledge within home communities that could be recorded. But once you lose the knowledge base and the tattooed elders, then things start getting difficult to bring back. So it’s extremely important to share your research. I give back whenever I can, sending back books to villages and schools, or regional universities, or people that work in the communities, so that these products go back to the community. Obviously, not everyone will bring back tattooing. There are many reasons why they wouldn’t or why they can’t, but again there is always the hope that in the future, one or two generations later, that maybe they will.

S: What can the tattoo industry do in reviving traditional tattooing history, culture and techniques?

L: The tattoo industry could obviously give back more. At the end of the day, indigenous people were the ones who invented tattooing. And tattooing is a multi-billion dollar industry. But I don’t see the industry giving back to these communities. Magazines don’t really publish stories on them, it’s all about boobs and women and naked chicks and this kind of stuff. Tattoo suppliers- I don’t see them doing really much to help preserve the history, apart from maybe the western history like mechanized tattooing, but not traditional tattooing. In some sense, we have to remember the roots of tattooing, where it came from and I think a lot more can be done by the industry to at least assist on some of these research efforts. Or give people more of a voice to talk about why these tattooing traditions are important. What can be gained by preserving it and what can be lost.

S: How can revival, or at least some kind of an exposure, help the community?

L: For example, I published the first book on tattooing of the Kalinga in the Philippines, where I first arrived in 2007. There was also an episode on them on the show I hosted for the Discovery channel. There was no revival happening there at that time. Now, due to the media exposure and notoriety and the prestige, that place has become an international destination for tourism and tattooing. It has had a huge impact. Roads are being built to it, schools being rebuilt, its jumpstarting some crafts that were facing the danger of disappearing. Other people are learning to tattoo because they can see how much interest there is. There are homestays and queues every day to be tattooed by the village tattoo artists, people have small stores now, every group that visits, has to pay a local guide so there is revenue coming into the community. These people are essentially farmers and would go to the cities to earn more. When I was there last time, just about a year ago, several women told me that because of the exposure, and the money coming in, they are now able to move their families back to the village where they want to be anyway. They had to leave for economic reasons, but now they can stay. That makes me feel that I have had some impact on people’s lives through my research, I mean not directly, but through the media exposure with the Discovery show. So obviously, impacts can be made if you are doing this type of research and I would like to see that happen in other communities too. To be proud of these incredible traditions, to reclaim them, and to move them into the future.

S: How much are you involved with the Indian indigenous tattooed tribes?

L: So for 10 years now, I have made 4 research trips to the north east, especially the Naga region – Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and also I have worked with 8-9 tribes in Myanmar. I have possibly every published record that there ever was in any language on Naga tattooing. I always wanted to come and work in the Naga region. So I have always been collecting materials and I have been visiting a lot of archival sources around the globe as well. I am extremely thorough in my research but ultimately down the line I would like to create a book on Naga tattooing itself and I feel I have the material to do so now. But I think I will still have to make another trip, especially to the Myanmar side.

Khiamniungan Naga warrior Khon with ‘tiger chest’ tattoo. His collar tattoos relate to the way a tiger hunts its prey: circling, then moving in for the kill. Khon took five trophy heads during his prime. Photo copyright: Lars Krutak

S: Why is it important to preserve these indigenous practices, to reclaim them, even if we can’t revive or jumpstart them completely?

L: In many places where I am working, these practices are disappearing before my very eyes. I have had many of my collaborators pass away and I am sure there are many other elders that no one is working with – documenting or recording their stories. There is a lot that’s being lost.

We are at the cusp of history because if we don’t do this work now, in many places it will be gone in a matter of just a few years. So, we are kind of like at the end of the road here and if we don’t do this work now, we will never be able to reclaim these tattooing traditions in some sense. We are witnessing the passing of many of these extremely important traditions that speak volumes of what it means to be human. So I don’t understand why there aren’t larger projects that are funded by governments or large foundations or international organizations to preserve this rich cultural heritage.


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