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?

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