Tattoos as a means of communication

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Nineteen years ago, the well-preserved body of a young woman who died at the age of 25 around 2,500 years ago was recovered from the permafrost of a kurgan (burial mound) of the Pazyryk Culture high on the Ukok Plateau of the Altai Republic, a part of the Russian Federation.  Nearby were the bodies of two warriors who guarded her in death.

Earlier archeological excavations in the same area had recovered the frozen remains or other individuals belonging to the Pazyryk Culture, including one who is referred to as a chief.  All of these ice mummies bore elaborate tattoos on their bodies, and these were the subject of a recent, spectacularly illustrated article in the Daily Mail (August 14, 2012) that was occasioned by the transfer of the remains of the "princess" to a permanent glass sarcophagus in the National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic.

The culture of the Pazyryk people in the Altai Mountains was similar to that of the nomadic Scythians of the Ukraine and elsewhere who roamed across the Eurasian steppe.  The Scythians, too, sported tattoos on their bodies, and Herodotus tells us that they were a sign of nobility.  A Scythian without tattoos was of low social status.

In light of this renewed interest in the tattoos of the Pazyryk princess and her compatriots, I am prompted to consider this type of body art as a form of inscribed communication.  Lars Krutak has several excellent articles on tattoo among the Iroquois and in Siberia and Arctic regions that provide insight for the functions of tattoos in other parts of the world.  One observation that may be made about some of the tattoos Krutak has documented is that they serve as a sort of signature, albeit a highly complex and artistic one.

Now I come to the nub of this post.  Note that the earliest (around 1200 BC) Chinese character for writing, wén 文, originally depicted and referred to tattoo.  A few centuries later, when wén 文 acquired the meanings of "culture, civilization, writing", a new character based upon it (by adding the silk radical to the left) was created to stand for the original meaning, wén 纹 ("lines, design").  It is remarkable that this character is still used in the Mandarin word for "tattoo", viz., wénshēn 纹身 (lit., "lines / design-body").  Thus, there is a direct and unmistakable connection between tattoo and the development of writing in China.  This is not surprising in light of the fact that the burial practices of the elite in the East Asian Heartland (EAH, subsequently to become the core of a sequence of dynasties now retrospectively referred to as "Chinese") during the second half of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BC displayed clear affinities with steppe cultures.  See my "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China," in Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke, ed., Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe (Dynamics in the History of Religion, 1 [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]) (Leiden:  Brill, 2011), pp. 85-110.

It is ironic that, toward the latter part of the first millennium BC, tattoos had become a form of punishment in China and were used to stigmatize criminals.

Incidentally, I wonder whether body tattoos might have influenced the designs on early bronzes in China.  Many of them have a very tattoo-like look.  We now know that the deer stones (concentrated mainly in Mongolia and Siberia, but also in Eastern Central Asia and elsewhere) are vaguely anthropomorphic and depict the same sorts of designs as appear on the tattooed bodies of steppe warriors.  Hence it would not be unusual to see body tattoo being transferred to cultural artifacts.

As Mark Bender said to me in a personal communication:


It is really amazing that the ephemeral human body is the vehicle for inscription in these cultures in so many places…, but it makes sense.  Tattoo is portable in the most practical way.  Genealogy was also a major feature in many cultures, and lineages are reflected in traditional tattoo designs belonging to particular clans.  Thus tattoo is not just a matter of self identity.  I suspect that tattoo also has links to cave paintings, rock inscriptions, weaving, etc.   Furthermore, I’m fascinated by possible connections with the steppe bronzes of deer, tigers, and so forth.


We have now come full circle, with Chinese characters being inscribed on the bodies of our coevals, though the results have in many cases been badly skewed.  The misuse of characters in contemporary tattoo has been extensively documented on Hanzi Smatter.  See also "Queen of the World" for one particularly intriguing case.

For those who would like to pursue this subject in greater depth, here are some works and sites that I've found useful (the books were purchased at a wonderful exhibition held at the American Museum of Natural History in 2000):


Caplan, Jane, ed., Written on the Body:  The Tattoo in European and American History (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2000).  My emphasis added to the first word of the title.

Gilbert, Steve, ed. and intro.  Tattoo history:  a source book (New York:  Juno Books, 2000.  An anthology of historical records of tattooing throughout the world.

Hesselt van Dinter, Maarten, Tribal Tattoo Designs (Amsterdam:  The Pepin Press, 2000).  This is a beautiful little book of drawings and paintings (many of historical vintage).  See also the author's The World of Tattoo (

Mayor, Adrienne, "People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity," Archaeology (March-April 1999), 54-57.

Phoenix & Arabeth

Reed, Carrie E., "Early Chinese Tattoo," Sino-Platonic Papers, 103 (June, 2000), 52 pages.


I'm sure that readers would welcome other suggestions of resources for the study of the history and significance of tattoo.

Finally, I would like to point out that tattooing has been going on for a long time, since we find it already on the body of Ötzi the Iceman (ca. 5300 BP) who had many tattoos on his body.  I suspect that Ötzi's tattoos had something to do with the development of acupuncture, inasmuch as they were concentrated on the surface of parts of his body beneath which there was bone deformation or deterioration, particularly at joints (ankles and knees) and in the lumbar area of the spine.  The Tarim mummies (2nd and 1st millennia BC) also sported tattoos, some of which may have been therapeutic (around the wrist and other joints), but others appear to have been primarily decorative and symbolic.  The Thracians (as well as the Illyrians and Dacians) of antiquity (i.e., Paleo-Balkan peoples) were especially known for their tattoos, a feature which was remarked upon by Greek and Roman historians.

[A tip of the hat to all those who called the Daily Mail article to my attention, which stimulated me to write this post]


  1. Daniel Tse said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    I have always wondered why I have never seen a Hanzi tattoo done in beautiful 篆體 (or seal script), that elegant, undulating style whose linear forms are surely as much at home inscribed on the skin as inscribed on bronze.

  2. цarьchitect said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    About the connection of tattoos to other forms of material culture, readers might find the 19th-Century discussion of tattoos as relevant to art and architecture. I'm clueless over whether anything said is considered accurate now, but this article is a good place to start.

  3. Charles said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    I too have wondered about if there were a relationship between tattoos and the decorations on Chinese bronzes (particularly those from the Shang dynasty). I used to spend a lot of time in the National Palace Museum and before you entered the bronze galleries (at least in the days before the renovation) there was a model tomb and various items. One of which was a marble statue of a kneeling woman covered in designs very similar to those found on bronzes. I remember thinking then that they could have been tattoos and not just "decoration" for the sculpture.

    My curiosity was further piqued when (in the early 1990s) I attended an exhibit at the National Museum of Korea of an ancient woman whose body had been found frozen in what is today called Siberia. She was tattooed and these tattoos also reminded me of Chinese bronzework.

    I hadn't thought of this in years. Thanks for recalling it to mind.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    It is somewhat difficult to imagine Westerners getting tattoos consisting of Mandarin words written in hanyu pinyin. Presumably the international appeal of hanzi/kanji tattoos (not sure what the chinoiserie/japonisme ratio is) is precisely because of widespread beliefs about the characters that Prof. Mair otherwise spends so much time inveighing against. Alternatively, maybe in the specialized context of tattooing they really do function as "idiograms," regardless of whether or not that's true in other contexts.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    1. I've seen Hanyu Pinyin tattoos, t-shirts, etc.

    2. "inveighing"



    To give vent to angry disapproval; protest vehemently"

    (intr; foll by against) to speak with violent or invective language; rail
    [from Latin invehī, literally: to be carried in, hence, assail physically or verbally,


    What are the "widespread beliefs about the characters" that I am supposed to be "inveighing" against?

    3. "idiogram"



    A drawing or photograph of the chromosomes of a particular cell.

    A diagrammatic representation of chromosome morphology characteristic of a species or a population.


    I suppose you meant "ideogram". For why that term doesn't work for Chinese characters, see J. Marshall Unger's book of the same name (University of Hawaii Press, 2004).

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    I should perhaps have been clearer that I was referring to the subset of hanzi/kanji tattoos acquired by Westerners who neither speak nor read the relevant language(s) but who think the characters are cool or exotic. My thesis is that people who get such tattoos are likely to have a romanticized folk-myth sense of what the characters "mean" and how that meaning is conveyed that would be at odds with the positions advanced by yourself and Prof. Unger but would be broadly consistent with the ideogram notion critiqued by Prof. Unger. On the other hand, I suppose there are also people with tattoos in non-Latin scripts they can't read such as Hebrew or Devanagari who think those tattoos are cool or exotic because of some perhaps inchoate belief about the numinosity inherent in particular glyphs that would not be considered valid from a scientific standpoint by an expert in comparative writing systems. But perhaps I was puzzled by your own comparison of the ancient Siberian tattoos to early hanzi and whether you were meaning to suggest that the tattoos were really a form of "writing" (visually representing a word of a spoken language) as opposed to "drawing" (visually representing, whether in abstracted or naturalistic form, the sort of thing in the real world which also might be the referent of a word of a spoken language). Or perhaps some third thing.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

    I have to admit that, in this connection, I do actually like Square Word Calligraphy, a means of rendering Western text in a style resembling Chinese characters beyond mere pseudo-Chinese styling of letters.

  8. David Morris said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    Getting a tattoo of the Chinese word for 'tattoo' would be nicely self-referential, wouldn't it?!

  9. Chris Thornton said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 2:32 am

    Victor's thesis makes me think of the Pillow Book, the novel and the movie with Ewan MacGregor et al., where writing and tattooing fuse into body art designed to send a message. Not sure if there's a nuance to that story that I never realized before.

  10. Michael said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 3:05 am

    @J.W. Brewer: "inchoate belief about the numinosity inherent in particular glyphs"? How about "I've no idea about what I'm doing, but I think it's cool"?
    I was once asked to write her boyfriend's Arabic name by a young woman, so she could ink it…

  11. Glen Gordon said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    Everybody and their dog gets Chinese/Japanese tattoos. Have people ever thought of branching out into Mayan or cuneiform tattoos?

  12. mary said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

    I understand some pimps tatoo their girls with UPC codes.

  13. mary said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

    And there's this:

  14. Matt said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

    In the 6th-century Book of Wei from the Records of Three Kingdoms, the residents of the Japanese archipelago are described as having a tattooing culture which they claim to have imported from China:


    That last part is particularly interesting in the context of this post: the tattooing used to be (understood as) functional, but later it became "decoration". Nevertheless, there are regional variations, and also differences between the tattoos of the rich and those of the poor.

  15. Helena Constantine said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    I can well believe that Otzi's tatoos might have been some sort of medical magic, but what does that have to with acupuncture? You're postulating that he was tattooed at the site of joint and other pains as a charm against the pain. Acupuncture was originally a form of blood letting where symptoms were purposefully treated away form the affected areas. And evidently the whole practice is quite recent.

  16. Cy said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    @Helena C
    Acupuncture as well as many other early western and eastern systems of knowledge were very likely shared among the eurasian cultures along the trade routes that would later popularly be known as the silk road. Early acupuncture meridians were essentially the traces of blood vessels, and bleeding them (which is what early acupuncture was, as you state) was likely spread among practitioners running in both directions.

    Modern acupuncture is a modern invention, begun by a … I want to say pediatrician, too late to look up…, who 'recalibrated' the old meridians to coincide a little better with the nerves that modern medicine had discovered, and using the long, pointy needles and just barely breaking the skin. This was embraced by Maoist health practitioners – but the ancient form, which was essentially bleeding of blood vessels, is ancient, and actually fell out of favor quite some time before the modern era, as it did in Europe.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    from Wolfgang Behr:

    On the semantic field of 文, I still find Lothar von Falkenhausens's "The Concept of wen in the Ancient Chinese Ancestral Cult." (CLEAR 18 (1996): 1-22) quite useful.

    A connection between tatooing an bronze decor was also proposed by Carl Hentze in the 1940ies, who had a lot of strange/inspiring ideas about circumpacific and tran-Eurasian cultural exchanges….

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Concerning Oetzi's tattoos:

  19. Lesli Scaman said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    Korea is believed to be the second country that acupuncture spread to outside of China. Within Korea there is a legend that acupuncture was developed by the legendary emperor Dangun though it is more likely to have been brought into Korea from a Chinese colonial prefecture.

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