Pitt Rivers Museum - Body Arts - Tattooing

Body Arts - Tattooing

Nagaland, India

Map IndiaTattoo tools, Nagaland

Tattooing tools, Nagaland;

1936.4.14 - .17

These tattooing tools are from Nagaland, a region in north-east India. Naga people used tattoos to indicate status just as other people might use ornaments or textiles. For example, Konyak Naga girls wore a tattoo on the back of the knee if they were married; in Western cultures a finger-ring usually makes this statement.



Photo of Hamwang, Nagaland

Photograph of Hamwang, an elder

of the Ang clan of Konyak Naga, M

on village, Nagaland. August 1991.

By Vibha Joshi.
This photograph is a portrait of Hamwang, a Deputy Chief with the facial tattoos of a successfulheadhunter and warrior. War and headhunting formed an essential part of Naga ritual life in the past. Aman was able to gain the rightto wear certain ornaments, clothing,and tattoos only after he had killed an enemy in war and brought the head back to the village. The full facial tattoo could be worn only by an established warrior. Headhunting was practised until the 1960s in remote areas of Nagaland.


Tattoo designs, Japan

Tattoo designs, Japan

This image (left) is from a booklet of Japanese tattoo designs. Before the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese people from all walks of life had their bodies tattooed. Then the Emperor banned tattooing. He was worried that Western visitors would see tattoos as barbaric. The ban did not apply to foreigners and many sailors were tattooed there. The designs in this booklet were drawn during the ban on tattooing. They were probably made to appeal to Western rather than Japanese tastes, so there are many naval motifs. Tattooing became legal again in Japan in 1948.

The following is an extract from The Japanese Tattoo by Donald Richie and Ian Buruma.

Asia mapThe process begins with a visit by the client to the tattoo master. Usually he comes with an introduction either from another client or from someone who already knows the master. Customers do not drop in off the street, and there is no equivalent of the Western tattoo parlour. The master may or may not agree to tattoo the applicant. Refusals are common. If it appears that the client wants the tattoo for the wrong reason ­ to show off, for example ­ or is otherwise frivolous in his attitude, he will be refused. … The client must be on time for each visit, there is much bowing, the most respectful language is used, and in the case of disagreement the tattoo master is always right.

Borneo, Malaysia

MalaysiaTattooing has also been a common custom on the island of Borneo. The wooden pattern blocks, pictured below, were smeared with black ink and then pressed upon the skin to provide the tattooist with a template to follow. Such pattern blocks were always carved by men. However, it was the women who were considered experts on the significance and quality of the tattoo designs. Tattooing was only ever performed by them.

The designs pictured below are based on the image of a dog. The dog was highly regarded by the Kayan people and featured prominently in Kayan art. These patterns were tattooed on the forearm and thigh.

Block, Borneo

Block, Borneo, 1923.86.422

Block, Borneo

Block, Borneo, 1923.86.402

Block, Borneo,

Block, Borneo, 1923.86.402

The small pattern to the left was tattooed on the wrist. The tattoo block represents an antique bead that was once worn by Kayan people as a protective charm. When a Kayan person was ill it was thought that his soul left his body and only returned when he was well again. After illness, to prevent their soul escaping for a second time, people tied a special bead called a lukut to one of their wrists. However, the string could break and the bead be lost so people began to tattoo this representation of the bead on their wrists instead. After some time the bead and the tattoo also came to be regarded as a charm to ward off disease.

Further Resources

Body Art Collections at the Pitt Rivers: A website exploring the Body Art collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here you can find out more about the objects on display in the Museum, about the themes of the displays, and about the people who made and used the objects.

Further Reading

BURUMA, IAN, and DONALD RICHIE, The Japanese Tattoo, New York: Weatherhill (1980).

Detailed information about each of the objects on display is provided in the files at the far right of the Body Arts display.


HOSE, CHARLES, and WILLIAM MCDOUGALL, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo Vol I, London: Macmillan (1912).

Introductory guide compiled by: Jennifer Peck, Project Assistant, DCF Redisplay Project, 2002

revised by: Bryony Reid, Senior Project Assistant (Interpretation), DCF What’s Upstairs?, October 2005

Edited 2010 Tattoo introductory guide


Download print version of the Tattooing introductory guide

(to view pdf files Acrobat Reader is required)