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Career Day

Getting inked is just part of his job

An anthropologist studies indigenous body art — and has the tattoos to show for it.

By Julia Beck

Lars Krutak, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the author of Tattoo Traditions of Native North America and Magical Tattoos and Scarification.

How did you discover tattoo anthropology?
The field of study did not exist when I started. I attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1996. They had one of the country’s top indigenous and Arctic studies programs. Within two weeks, I was walking across campus and I saw a woman with chin tattoos. She had tattooed herself in honor of her grandmother and aunties. I found it fascinating.

What did you learn about those tattoos?
I learned that nearly every indigenous group in the Arctic practiced tattooing. But the missionaries who proselytized them were committed to erasing tribal rituals like tattooing. By the 1920s, [the missionaries’] hold over remote Arctic communities was nearly complete. The last generation of women were tattooed around this time. The women with traditional tattoos that I met were from the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island — and in their 80s and 90s. The last tattoo artist alive was 97.

You lecture on a regular basis. What is the most requested topic?
The cultural heritage of indigenous tattooing. I explore the technology, spiritual, medicinal, and magical meanings of tattoos via video content and images.

What’s a weird tool you use for work?
Having tattoos! This is a gesture of authenticity, an icebreaker, and something that I share with the people I work with. It says, “I have some knowledge of your personal experiences.” It gives us shared ground.

I’ve been hand-tapped in Borneo, Indonesia, Hawaii, and the Philippines, pricked with pigmented tree thorns in the Amazon, and received scar tattoos in Mozambique.

Describe some of your tattoos.
One of the Thai tattoos I possess is a Five Buddhas yantra. It offers protection. Another is a circular design that represents the face of the Buddha, with several other elements — a crown, a lotus. It’s sometimes called “bullet stopper.”

Do you ever get tattooed by the people you study?
I’ve been hand-tapped in Borneo, Indonesia, Hawaii, and the Philippines, pricked with pigmented tree thorns in the Amazon, and received scar tattoos in Mozambique. I’ve also been hand-poked by Buddhist monks and holy men in Thailand. All of these designs are based on traditional iconography. But they were modified by the artists so they would not display family, clan, or spiritual motifs which would be unsuitable for me.

What’s one of the most eye-opening places you’ve visited?
Northwestern Myanmar. You must obtain a restricted area permit from the government to travel there. In some remote villages, the inhabitants had never seen a foreigner in their life. Until a few decades ago, some of the Naga people were still actively involved in headhunting. The Naga were formerly known for keeping the heads of human enemies as trophies. They also curated the skulls of revered ancestors and leaders for use in agricultural and other community rituals. The Naga are a fiercely independent people. For decades, some groups have been fighting a guerilla war with the Indian and Myanmar governments in their attempts to create a Naga homeland, Nagalim. The region feels like a time capsule.  

You’re a father. How old will your daughter need to be to have her first tattoo?
Right now, she is not interested. If she shows interest, I would be fine after the age of 18. Or, maybe if we get one together, she can be under 18. But if she decides to never get a tattoo, that is fine by me! 

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Julia Beck is a writer based in Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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