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The Art of Tribal Tattoos And Their Influence On Contemporary Designs

Jane Hudson 7th May 2019

Young people in India are increasingly recognising tattooing as an art form, and using ancient spiritual designs as their inspiration. Although there is no denying that tattooing, like any artistic medium, involves imagination and a high level of artistic skill, its origins in India were less creative. Starting with with a form of cultural classification, and identification, it evolved into more elaborate designs with deeper significance. Today’s designs tend to be purely for decorative purposes, such as the helix tattoos that mimic ancient jewelry-like markings with beautiful floral patterns and tribal lines. Tribal body art in India is starting to fade, but tattooing as an art form is flourishing, and is now viewed as a way to express individuality through personal choice.

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Fusing Historical Symbols with Abstract Art
Around the globe, more than a third of people have a tattoo and popular designs often include simple geometric markings reminiscent of ancient tribal markings, or directly copied from them. Moving away from a form of simple branding and identification, Thom deVita was the first American artist to use tribal tattoos, which he then blended with abstract graphic drawings to create unique works of art. These substantial compositions may be rising in popularity around the world, but, in India, simple tattooed markings have a long and varied cultural history, and were widely used by tribal and Hindu communities.
Indelible Markings and Memories
Before tattooing became its own art form using the skin as canvas, embellishing the body with gudna served as a simple identification of caste, gender and ethnicity. Each tribe would use its own methods and ingredients to create their individual markings. These would be used to mark women to prevent them from being taken by rival tribes or as an easy way to identify bodies after war. From these basic labels, tribes such as the Mundha in Jharkhand went on to use body art to convey greater abstract meaning. Using more elaborate markings to record events in history, such as incidents of particular bravery or courage, their bodies told a story. In contrast, the Gonds from Central India used patterns simply as a way to cover their flesh.

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Elaborate Designs to Adorn the Body
As well as beautifying the body, more elaborate markings resembling jewellery served to protect it in the afterlife, and help members of different tribes recognise each other. In Southern India, the kollam, an elaborate tattoo designed to ensnare evil beings, kept bodies safe until they were reunited with their ancestors after death. These days, tattoos that mimic real jewellery may give a nod to these ancient practices, but are now worn as purely decorative embellishments.
From their early origins as simple identification and records of bravery, tribal tattoos have been revived and the markings merged with modern decorative designs. As the ancient practice is now fading in tribal areas, inspiration from ancient markings create stand alone designs, copied from the past as art forms in themselves.  

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