Ancient and Modern Tattoos Celebrated in Photography Book

Chelsea Lane-Miller
National Geographic News
December 10, 2004
For those who view tattoos as an expression of juvenile rebellion,
photographer Chris Rainier's new book Ancient Marks may come as a
direct challenge to that perception.

Capturing images of tattoos, body markings, and scarifications from modern and traditional cultures in more than 30 countries, Rainier brings a seven-year labor of love to fruition in this collection of black and white images. (See pictures from the book.)

National Geographic News spoke with Rainier about his inspiration for the book, and the impacts he hopes the book will have.

Tattoos and other markings on the body can be very personal. Why were your subjects willing to share their markings?

This project was a seven-year project, and indicative of seven years is really taking one's time. I really try to spend enough time with a community, with a culture, with a tribe, with a person to really build up a relationship.

For me, the quality of the portrait, the quality of the photograph, is in direct proportion to the relationship that I create. Take for example the people I photographed in the Japanese mafia, called the Ikuza [also spelled Yakuza], that have amazing full-body tattoos. It took me several years to build up their trust, gain permission, and ultimately pick out several people that I wanted to create a relationship with enough that they trusted me to photograph.

It's all about trust, it's about letting them know that I'm not doing a book on a bunch of "freaks" but rather this is a serious ethnographic, personal project and I will deal with the subject at the highest level of quality.

Body markings are particularly fascinating. How did you conceive of the idea to photograph body markings?

As I was doing [a project on the last remaining tribes in New Guinea] in the early 1990s/late 1980s, I was photographing tattooing, body marking, and scarification, in New Guinea. Getting on the plane coming back to the U.S., I really began to see the incredible explosion of tattooing and body marking taking place in modern culture. I thought: You know, there's a correlation here. What is it, what am I going to discover, and why am I fascinated by it?

I decided the next book would be a mission to discover that correlation, and essentially for the last seven years I've documented both contemporary cultures in North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Asia, as well as traditional cultures in all six of the continents, specifically in the South Pacific, drawing the comparison between the two. I think there's a strong, strong correlation there.

You have juxtaposed body markings from cultures like the Samoans in Polynesia with more modern markings from tattoo artists in the U.S. How do these images relate? How can you include them in the same book?

As we enter and tumble into the 21st century, we're at a point in human evolution where traditional cultures pushed by the rough edge of modernity are really stepping back into their own traditions … Many traditional cultures are stepping back into their traditions, embracing their belief systems, and one of the manifestations of that is body marking—Maoris in New Zealand doing the full facial mokos, tribes of West Africa doing scarification. It's exciting to see.

At the same time, I think there is a whole sector of modern society—not just youth, but across all sorts of generations, genders, ethnic backgrounds—people in search of identity, people in search of meaning, people in search of ritual. Hence, a huge explosion of tribal tattooing, body marking—what's called the "modern primitive" movement within tattooing. I think there's a correlation because if you step back and look at it, it's the larger picture of mankind wanting identity, wanting a sense of place, a sense of ritual, and a sense of culture within their community. And there, in an ethnographic sense, I believe is the correlation between ancient and modern.

Body markings can be vibrant and colorful. Why have you decided to photograph in black and white?

I was [Ansel Adam's last] photographic assistant in the early 1980s, so I have a little bit of a bias to black and white. But above and beyond that, for me, color can sometimes get very seductive. You look at the color as content, it becomes the message.

For me, I wanted to go beyond that, beyond cultural stereotypes and go into a sociological, spiritual level, where you're dealing with a sense of being there, a sense of cultural spiritualism.

A very well known photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, once said he was looking for the equivalences. In other words, I'm trying to have you look at the image and hopefully have an equivalent emotional response that I did to that experience. So when you look at these images, hopefully you get that sense of place, that sense of culture, but also that sense of cultural spiritualism. I think that's best done in black and white.

They say a picture is worth one thousand words. In less than one thousand words, what do your pictures say?

For me, what I'm really trying to do, like I often say, is document a part of our primordial past, in the present, for future generations.

One of the main things I'm doing is documenting culture at the beginning of the 21st century. We live at this amazing crossroads of human evolution where literally beyond the frayed edge of maps in New Guinea there are tribes that still have not seen white people. And yet, we have the latest technology with monks using cell phones in Tibet. There's a cybercafé in Timbuktu.

We live in a spectrum of possibilities, and I think it's an exciting time to document ancient cultures dealing with modernity and modern cultures dealing with their ancient roots. I wanted to do a book that visually spoke to this, and I thought what more visible, visual way than the way we mark our bodies.

I think across the spectrum from mummies that they have found that pop out of Tyrolean glaciers in Europe, or the ice mummy in Peru, to the pharaohs, to contemporary culture, man has marked his body as a form of initiation and ritual. I really wanted to honor that, and to state that that's one of the most visible manifestations of who we are and what we believe in.

Editors Note: Chris Rainier is a National Geographic Society photographer and co-director of the Society's Ethnosphere Project, a series of expeditions over the next five years to study the web of cultural diversity around the Earth. Rainier and anthropologist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, also co-head the National Geographic Cultures Initiative.

See more of Chris Rainier's photographs on West African Voodoo Dancing Masks, Voodoo Ceremonies, and Timbuktu.

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