Facial Tattoos in Ancient Times

Maori artisans also engraved moko patterns on their wooden statues.
... Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Although the modern word "tattoo" is derived from the Samoan "tatau," this form of body art dates back to the Neolithic era and was practiced by a number of ancient civilizations. Tattoo artists utilized different methods to create tattoos, ranging from scarification to the deliberate injection of ink into the epidermis. Despite the near-ubiquity of this ancient art form, only a few cultural groups utilized facial tattoos to signify qualities like rank, genealogy and marital status.

1 The Maori Moku

Ancient Maori would signify their heritage and pride with individualized facial tattoos that they call "moko." Typically, men would tattoo their entire faces in intricate, curving designs, particularly "koru," or "spirals," while women tend to limit their facial tattoos to their chins. Traditionally, tattoo artists would make incisions into the skin and apply a pigment to the cuts. The resulting tattoo indicated a higher status because, in addition to signifying rank, skills and ancestry the tattoo showed that its wearer had endured a painful process, displaying fortitude and courage.

2 Inuit Marks of Beauty

In ancient Inuit society, women received more complex facial tattoos, though both genders sought tattoos to augment their beauty and spiritual potential. Elderly Inuit women generally applied the designs freehand by penetrating the skin with needles, then filling the holes with an oil-based soot dye. Once healed, the resulting tattoos were pale-blue in color, though some artists used yellow pigment. Women often bore a large, V-shaped tattoo between the hairline and the nose, an oblong shape along the cheeks and radiating lines from the lower lip toward the jawline. Men and women alike would tattoo human forms resembling stick figures along their foreheads to symbolize their ancestors. Other tattoos included labret-like markings on either side of their lips, which may have served to protect them from walruses, orcas and other dangerous polar creatures.

3 Southwestern Rites of Passage

Young indigenous women from Southwestern tribes like the Luiseño and Diegueño endured tattoos as a rite of passage into spiritual and physical womanhood. During a ceremony called "Roasting," the teenagers were restricted in their movements, food and social contact. Men and women would join in celebratory songs. On the second day of the rite, an elderly woman would design individual tattoos for the young women, applying unique designs with a cactus spine and pigment made from charcoal. Tattoos consisted of stripes radiating from their lips and other designs, depending on their tribe.

4 The Nomlaki Secret Society

Among the Nomlaki tribes, who lived in the region of northern California, tattoo artists belong to a secret society called the Huta, an exclusively male group that allowed younger men to build their skills. Membership was strict; any member who divulged information exclusive to the brotherhood risked assassination. Despite the exclusive nature of the Huta, tattoo artists would apply tattoos to both male and female tribe members, using a flint knife to make cuts called "dopna" or "topa." Lines descending from the lips were common, as were other shapes such as chevrons and curved lines. Females received their first marks during puberty and both genders could receive therapeutic or status-based tattoos at any stage in life.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.