The Anthropology of Tattoos: Interview with Lars Krutak

The Anthropology of Tattoos: Interview with Lars Krutak

In this interview with tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak, he speaks about the diverse cultures and history of tattooing.

Well known for his literary works, and his research for films in conjunction with National Geographic, among others, Lars Krutak is a Research Associate for the Museum of International Folk Art who has spent most of his life researching the cultural and historical significance of tattooing. In this interview Lars talks more about his background, experiences, and upcoming projects. 

Can you describe your personal background, and how you came to be one of the top tattoo historians in the world?

I was exposed to other cultures at an early age as a first-grader living in Mexico City. In the summer, my father, a university professor, took the family to numerous pre-Columbian ruins across the country, and from that point forward I knew I would eventually study archaeology and anthropology as well as art history in college. As an undergrad I did just that, and in graduate school I found Indigenous tattooing in Alaska.

When did you first notice that the anthropological study of tattooing was something you wanted to devote your life to? Why is it important to you?

Before I attended the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for grad studies in anthropology, I worked in the art world in San Francisco. The gallery I worked for was just around the corner from Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City in North Beach, so I would peek in on occasion and this served as my introduction to tattoos. Fast forward to January 1996. I arrived in Fairbanks for grad school and one morning I was walking across campus and saw a woman with chin tattoos. I gradually learned that most Native Alaskan cultures formerly practiced many forms of tattooing, but due to missionization and other colonial regimes the practice had stopped decades ago. At that time, just a few female elders carried these ancient marks in Alaska, male tattooing was largely extinct. After conducting more research, I learned that perhaps the largest group of female tattoo bearers lived on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. So I asked the village councils for permission to study these local traditions for my Master’s thesis, and I was granted access. After working with these incredible Yupik women, they were between 85-95 years of age, the last living tattoo artist, 97 year old Alice Yaavgaghsiq, and giving voice to their life experiences, I soon realized there must be many other incredible tattoo stories that were not being recorded around the world. So this is when I decided to devote my research to documenting the cultural heritage of Indigenous tattooing.

What drew you to native cultures, and their tattooing/body mods in particular?

When I started this research 20+ years ago, tattooing was stigmatized in many social and professional circles, and it seemed to me that no one in academia was pursuing any research in this area. I couldn’t understand why, since tattooing is one of humanity’s oldest forms of cultural expression and is typically linked to just about every other facet of Indigenous culture: identity and rites of passage, religious beliefs and connectivity to spirits and the ancestors, as well as medicinal therapy and the afterlife. While it is true that UNESCO and other international heritage organizations were busying themselves with documenting vanishing aspects of cultural heritage like dance, weaving, sculpture, monuments, languages, etc., they were, and still are, doing little to preserve global tattoo heritage. So this was another compelling factor to pursue this research.

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Beyond technological advantages, how has contemporary tattooing changed from its traditional origins? Has the philosophical or sociological importance stayed the same throughout history?

No matter the culture or time period, I believe tattooing expresses what it means to be human. I feel that tattoos make the people who wear them, because they transmit information about where a person comes from, their beliefs, desires, and fears, and who they aspire to be throughout life and into old age.

What do you think is the root of the human fascination with body modification? Why do you think it has always been a part of history and culture?

Humans have marked themselves since the dawn of civilization. We have this natural impulse to mark significant life changing events on our bodies. Body modification is a kind of social media of memories, thoughts, and feelings that enable us to not only interact with one another and manage the cultural demands of the worlds we live in, but to make our own personal histories visible.

Can you talk about some of your publications and why each one was an important project for you?

When I started my tattoo studies, there was a widely held myth across Indigenous cultures that the profession of tattoo artist was male-centered. But this was simply not true, and as I began compiling research and conducting fieldwork it was apparent that women performed this role more often than not. With this in mind I wanted to set the record straight, so in 2007 I wrote my first book The Tattooing Arts of the Tribal Women. My second book Kalinga Tattoo, published in 2010, is the first to focus on the tattooing culture of the Kalinga people of the northern Philippines. I brought together the work of several photographers who visited the region in different decades, because I wanted to document several generations of tattoo bearers. I first traveled to Kalinga in 2007 to film a Discovery Channel series Tattoo Hunter, and we worked with this amazing then 85+ year-old tattoo artist Whang-Od Oggay, who lives in the village of Buscalan. Her life story was remarkable, and she had been tattooing since she was a teenager. She had never married and dedicated her life to tattooing. At that time, she was the only practicing Kalinga tattoo artist, with the exception of her much younger great niece, 12 years old, whom she was apprenticing. But very few outsiders knew her story or the story of the Kalinga tattoo, and Buscalan was seldom visited because of its remote location. But this all changed after our program introduced Whang-Od to a global audience in 2009-2010. Today Buscalan is a tourist mecca for tattoo pilgrims and other intrepid travelers. Whang-Od continues to tattoo, and has been nominated for the prestigious National Living Treasures Award for her cultural preservation work.

Most of your projects focus on tribal body modifications that are slowly
disappearing. Can you describe some of these practices? How do you think we can preserve them?

For more than a decade I have been conducting fieldwork in Asia documenting vanishing forms of tattooing among several Indigenous groups. Missionaries, colonial agents, and governments have all been responsible for the demise of tattooing traditions there, which were intimately linked to tribal identity, rites of passage and attendant ceremonies, accomplishments in warfare, concepts of the afterlife, and medicinal therapies. The best way to preserve this amazing cultural heritage is to document it with the assistance of local elders and other gatekeepers of traditional knowledge. The key is to preserve as much information as possible for present and future generations, because revival efforts rest in their hands.

You’ve studied tattooing and culture for years...what are some significant moments for you out in the field?

When I am able to locate an elder who is the gatekeeper of a large body of previously unrecorded tattoo knowledge or I am working with the last-living individual to bear a specific kind of tattoo. And when I document a tattoo that has never been recorded before, that’s also a pretty amazing experience. 

Are there any projects coming up in 2019 that you’d like to share or promote?

I have two book chapters that will be published in 2019, including one on the Naga tattoo revival in Northeast India, for Routledge, and new research on the therapeutic history of Indigenous tattooing in relation to the Iceman, for Springer, who is the oldest known tattooed person in the world. I am also curating a few museum exhibitions on tattooing, including one at the LINQ Promenade in Las Vegas called "Tattooed America" that opens in late January-early February. Despite the title, it is a celebration of global tattooing and it is more of a tattoo experience than museum show. Another project I am curating will be at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa on Scandinavian tattooing traditions that opens in June. Finally, I am curating a third exhibition in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the Museo de la Filatelia Oaxaca which opens in May. I am also developing two tattoo documentary series for mainstream media companies. 

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