Body Art: Mexican Tattoos

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Many tourists in Mexico shop for art in tattoo parlors rather than in galleries. Instead of buying a Frida Kahlo poster, or a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or a clay reproduction of an Aztec or Mayan museum piece, they have sketches of these art works indelibly inked into their skin on various parts of their anatomy. Flowers, fish and aphorisms in Spanish are etched into shoulders, backs, hands, breasts and derrieres. Those with a penchant for the Gothic, after more than a few margaritas, may opt for an inking that turns their face into a permanent day-of-the-dead mask. Given the ubiquitous tattoo artists in Mexico and their creativity, the possibilities for transforming human hide into artistic canvasses are virtually endless.

Some Mexican tattoo artists proclaim that they are carrying forward the traditional forms of art practiced by their Aztec, Mayan or other indigenous ancestors. To incise the skin and insert dyes, they use natural materials such as sharpened bones or plant spines. Many of their designs are images of artifacts readily visible in the National Museum of Anthropology. The assertion that there has been an unbroken chain of generations of indigenous tattoo artists seems to be as much a romantic story as an archeological fact.

The study of tattoos by archeologists has long been a rather neglected and, at times, disparaged approach. Recently however, as the art of tattooing has become more accepted, the study of tattoos has gained wider respectability. The firmest archeological evidence of the use of tattoos is the appearance of colored incisions on the skin of mummies. The earliest tattooed mummy found so far dates back over 5000 years and was unearthed, or perhaps the better term is un-iced, from under a glacier in the Italian-Austrian Alps. This “iceman” had over 60 tattoos colored with charcoal. However, based on the positions of the incisions, archeologists hypothesize that the tattoos were applied to alleviate pain, much as acupuncture is used, rather than for artistic reasons.

Mummified bodies bearing tattoos have been discovered on virtually every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. In Mexico, a mummy bearing tattoos on her arms was discovered in the state of Oaxaca in 1889, and scientific analysis has found that she lived sometime around 250 AD. Although the tattoos on the earliest dated mummies can be quite complex, anthropologists have postulated that the primary purposes of the tattoos were other than simply artistic decorations. Some appear to denote tribal affiliation, others were used to ward off demonic or other evil powers, and many appear to be symbols of owners who claimed slaves as their property. Seagoing communities seem to have used tattoos, much as relatively more modern sailors, as individually distinctive marks that could be used to identify bodies lost overboard that washed up on near or distant shores.

Another method of studying the use of and regional differences in tattooing is based on the examination of prehistoric or pre-Columbian figurines painted with tattoo-like marks. Anthropomorphic statutes or pots bearing such designs are considered to provide representations of similar designs incised into the skin of people who lived in the communities where the artifacts were produced. Hollow ceramic figurines with extensive tattoo designs have been found in tombs in Mexico that date from 100 BC to 400 AD; the figurines are hypothesized to represent the people with tattoos who were buried in the tombs. These tattoos are thought to be marks portraying status and ideology rather than simply artistic decorations.

During the period of the early European geographic expeditions and colonization, the writings of the explorers paid detailed attention to the tattoos of the indigenous people they encountered. The English word “tattoo” and the Spanish word “tatuaje” are derived from Cook’s descriptions of patterns borne by the South Pacific Islanders he encountered and the Samoan term for how the patterns were created: “tatau,” or “hit” or “strike.” Europeans who first explored Mexico were quite taken by the tattoos used by different cultures and communities. Some were literally impressed with the designs and returned home with tattoos. But indigenous tattooing was almost obliterated in Mexico and around the world by the European usurpers who repressed all native forms of customs and practices as being barbaric and heathen. The repression of tattoos lasted for centuries.

When we were children, tattoos were still rare and exotic. Circus sideshows sometimes had a “tattooed lady” on display; and for 25 cents we could gawk at her inked designs until it was time to move on to the “bearded lady.” Sailors started to return after War World II with anchors or stars tattooed on their biceps. But whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, we were told that tattoos were body mutilation, and therefore, forbidden. It took courage or imprisonment to reject this strong norm and become inked.

Today, tattooing has once again become ubiquitous. There are virtually countless places in Mexico to be tattooed. In the large cities of Mexico there are tattoo conventions and tattoo competitions. But once again the use of tattoos is not always merely decorative. Among drug cartels and other organized criminal subcultures, tattoos are often used to display group affiliation – and the wrong tattoo in the wrong setting can be fatal.

Many people who have opened parlors with the latest technology for producing tattoos consider themselves artists with the creative license to provide a wide spectrum of designs. And their clients are delighted to work with them to find the perfect design for almost every part of their anatomy. But before you head out to find your perfect design you might consider the following.

Tattooing is painful … think about a paper cut and then multiply that sensation for every incision. Tattoos are permanent – the cute little rosebud on a perky young butt often turns into a wilted, wrinkled flower in middle age. In the wrong hands, tattoos can be dangerous; our granddaughter’s unauthorized butterfly tattoo turned into a staph infection. There is still a prejudice against tattoos in some circles and that may be a circle possibly important to you in future years.

If you want to try a tattoo on for size, you might consider the temporary type – also widely available in Mexico. Henna tattoos are offered on many beaches in Mexico and gradually fade away; just be sure you don’t have a henna allergy. And inked paper in many designs can be safely applied and easily washed away. They look so real that we suspected our daughter was having some form of crisis after seeing multicolored flowers circling her wrist, until we realized that, rather than a crisis, she had had an interesting vacation.

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